The Call of Christ

 

 

A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 16, 2017

TEXTS:
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Call of Christ
The word from the Gospel is often co-opted by preacher’s to describe their work.  While we may do so by analogy the problem I have with such a comparison is that it circumvents the Christ.  He is the sower of the seed (cf. 13:37).  Jesus is and must be central to the exegesis of both Testaments.  We cannot go around him.  Because he is the sower of the seed, any preaching of the gospel must be an encounter with the living Christ, not an abstract idea which we label “Jesus.”  This changes the way that we read the words of Jesus, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer well knew.  He writes,

“Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship.  An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.”1

If our only encounter with Jesus is as a static idea then we may easily find our way “out of it.” We may say,

“‘It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.’ Jesus may have said: ‘Sell thy goods,’ but he meant: ‘Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.’–We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience ‘in faith.'”

This is how it might look if we related to Jesus as a mere idea. This is how it might look if we treated Christianity as if it were adherence to a system of doctrine instead of obedience to a person. But that option was not available to those who met Christ by the way, as he went about sowing the seed.

“The difference between ourselves and the rich man is that he was not allowed to solace his regrets by saying: ‘Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.’ But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe … But we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks. If Jesus said to someone: ‘Leave all else behind and follow me; resign your profession, quit your family, your people, and the home of your fathers,’ then he knew that to this call there was only one answer–the answer of single-minded obedience, and that it is only to this obedience that the promise of fellowship with Jesus is given. But we should probably argue thus: ‘Of course we are meant to take the call of Jesus with ‘absolute seriousness,’ but after all the true way of obedience would be to continue all the more in our present occupations, to stay with our families, and serve him there in a spirit of inward detachment.’ If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment.'”2

No, we do not follow Christ as if he were an idea. We do not adhere to Christianity as if it were a body of doctrine. We do not preach the gospel as if it were a creed to be merely recited. The Christ which met men in the dusty deserts of Galilee is the living Christ who meets each of us today and calls us to follow him. And so we must face his call because he faces us.

“With an abstract idea it is possible to enter into a relation of formal knowledge, to become enthusiastic about it, and perhaps even to put it into practice; but it can never be followed in personal obedience. Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.”3

And so we find a living and resurrected Savior, not a dead and dying god. He is no idea. He is a man, just as you and I are men. As such, his call comes as definite and clear as my voice is to yours.

“When he was challenged by Jesus to accept a life of voluntary poverty, the rich young man knew he was faced with the simple alternative of obedience or disobedience. When Levi was called from the receipt of custom and Peter from his nets, there was no doubt that Jesus meant business. Both of them were to leave everything and follow. Again, when Peter was called to walk on the rolling sea, he had to get up and risk his life. Only one thing was required in each case–to rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities in the world. The forces which tried to interpose themselves between the word of Jesus and the response of obedience were as formidable then as they are to-day [sic]. Reason and conscience, responsibility and piety all stood in the way, and even the law and ‘scriptural authority’ itself were obstacles which pretended to defend them from going to the extremes of antinomianism and ‘enthusiasms.’ But the call of Jesus made short work of all these barriers, and created obedience. That call was the Word of God himself, and all that it required was single-minded obedience.”4

What then do I mean? Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your job as he called Matthew, Peter, James, and John? Maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to sell all that you have and give to the poor? Yes, maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your family and to follow him wherever he bids you go? Yes, maybe. That is something that neither you nor I can determine. That is determined by Christ alone.

If we believe that the same Christ that met Peter and his brothers by the sea is the same Christ we worship, why should we think that he calls no one in similar fashion today? If we believe that the same Christ which met the rich young man is the same Christ which is alive today, why should we think that he calls no one to a similar destiny? Is there no one which needs to hear that call? If we believe that the same Christ which called men to leave father and mother is the same Christ which calls us today, why should we not believe that he issues the same call to some today?

No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave his occupation. No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave their families behind. And yes, it is possible to have riches and faith in Christ. But often this is only made possible by first giving them up, as Abraham received Isaac again only after he had sacrificed him to the LORD.

“[I]t is possible to have wealth and the possession of this world’s goods and to believe in Christ–so that a man may have these goods as one who has them not. But this is an ultimate possibility of the Christian life … It is by no means the first and the simplest possibility. The paradoxical understanding of the commandments has its Christian justification, but it must never lead to the abandoning of the single-minded understanding of the commandments. This is only possible and right for somebody who has already at some point or other in his life put into action his single-minded understanding, somebody who thus lives with Christ as his disciple and in anticipation of the end.”5

When we read the call of Matthew or the call of the rich young man, we should not assume that ours is the same call, but neither should we exclude it from possibility.

“Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself. The step into the situation where faith is possible is not an offer which we can make to Jesus, but always his gracious offer to us.”6

The point is simply this: each time the gospel is preached it is not a mere exchange of information, it is a meeting with the risen and living Lord.

“Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and speaking to us to-day [sic] through the testimony of the Scriptures.  He comes to us to-day [sic], and is present with us in bodily form and in his word.  If we would hear his call to follow, we must listen where he is to be found, that is, in the Church through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present.  If you would hear the call of Jesus you need no personal revelation: all you have to do is to hear the sermon and receive the sacrament, that is, to hear the gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  Here he is, the same Christ whom the disciples encountered, the same Christ whole and entire.  Yes, here he is already, the glorified, victorious and living Lord.”7

It is that sort of encounter which Jesus is describing in the Parable of the Sower. The previous chapters of Matthew describe various responses to people’s encounters with Jesus; This parable is an explanation of those various responses. And so, this parable invites us to ask ourselves how we have responded and how we will respond when we meet him again.

The Seed Eaten by Birds
The first response to Christ is describe as that seed which fell along the path (13:4).  “Hear then the parable of the sower.  When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path” (13:18, 19).

The first response to Christ is pictured as puzzlement and confusion.  It is not because Christ is enigmatic or his call unclear.  Understanding is not only a matter of the intellect; It is a matter of the heart.  It takes moral training in order to understand holiness.  Even his own disciples often misunderstood what he said.  They did so because they still treasured in their hearts visions of power and conquest.  When victory means killing your enemies one cannot help but misunderstand when the conqueror predicts his own death (cf. Mark 9:9-10, 30-32; also Mat. 16:13-23).  And so it is that Satan is often at work in our hearts to make Jesus message unintelligible.  “The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.”

The Seed on Rocky Ground
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away” (13:20-21).

To “be rooted” is to be attached to Jesus for Jesus’ sake.  Those who have “no root” are those who have not attached themselves to a person but an idea, the very abstraction which I described at the beginning of this sermon.  An idea is completely within our control.  We may take it, leave it, or alter it whensoever we wish.  We may construct a Christ of our own liking.  If that abstraction brings with it any difficulty then we may discard it without harm and so we “immediately fall away.”  Only when we “root” ourselves in Jesus, in his living person, do we find root in anything of substance.  It is the strength of the living Christ which offers us the strength to endure persecution.

“Jesus hath many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His Cross.  He hath many seekers of comfort, but few of tribulation.  He findeth many companions of His table, but few of His fasting.  All desire to rejoice with Him, few are willing to undergo anything for His sake.  Many follow Jesus that they may eat of His loaves, but few that they may drink of the cup of His passion.  Many are astonished at His miracles, few follow after the shame of His Cross.  Many love Jesus so long as no adversities happen to them.  Many praise Him and bless Him, so long as they receive any comforts from Him.  But if Jesus hide Himself and withdraw from them a little while, they fall either into complaining or into too great dejection of mind.  But they who love Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and not for any consolation of their own, bless Him in all tribulation and anguish of heart as in the highest consolation.  And if He should never give them consolation, nevertheless they would always praise Him and always give Him thanks.  Oh what power hath the pure love of Jesus, unmixed with any gain or love of self!  Should not all they be called mercenary who are always seeking consolations?  Do they not prove themselves lovers of self more than of Christ who are always seeking their own gain and advantage?  Where shall be found one who is willing to serve God altogether for nought?”8

We may not idealize Christ or Christianity because it is not ideals that we love. It is not ideals that we worship. We follow of a living Lord. But we must not forget the resurrected Lord is the crucified Christ, and “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (Mat. 10:25). To be rooted in Christ is to be destined for suffering but we “rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities of the world.”9 Nothing else can sustain in time of trial.

The Seed Among Thorns
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (13:22).  Just as the ground cannot sustain both the wheat and the thorns, so no man can serve two masters (cf. Mat. 6:19-24).  The call of Christ is to leave everything behind and follow him.  As goes the proverb, “If Christ is not Lord of all he is not Lord at all.”  Unless my money is under the sovereignty of Christ, it is a danger to me.  Unless I do my work as unto the Lord with faith in his provision, it is harmful to my spirit.  Unless I enjoy my pleasures as a grace from God, they erode my soul.  Unless I receive each meal as a gift from him who gives all good things, I eat to my own damnation.  My heart has room for only one master and Christ lays claim to its throne.  In order to place another upon his seat I must insist that Jesus move over.  And if I do I am assured that I will “yield nothing” (13:22).

The Seed on Good Ground
“But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (13:23).  Christ calls us all individually.  Just as the decision whether to sell our possessions, or leave our occupation, or leave behind our family is dependent upon the call of Christ, so is our own productivity.  God gives the increase.  It is not for everyone to lead myriads to Christ and we should not pridefully insist upon being greater than our call.  If we have answered the call at all we have answered the call which Christ has given to us and that is our satisfaction.  “In other words, disciples do not come in only one size or type, and there is room in the kingdom of God for the ordinary as well as for the spectacular.”10

Tilling the Soil
Jesus tell us what makes the difference in the soils. When he describes those whom we are understand as bad soil he says of them,

“With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them.'” (13:14, 15).

Adopting the language of the psalms to describe idol worshipers, Jesus describes those who become like the idols they worship. Those who reject Christ do so because they are idolators. When a man meets Jesus he receives the call to come follow him. That call constitutes the call to forfeit his idols and worship Jesus as the one and only true God. It is a man’s unwillingness to part with his idols which results in the rejection of Christ.

This is informative because by contrast it also indicates to us the way in which we may prepare our hearts to receive Christ and hear his call–we worship him.

“To the question–where to-day [sic] do we hear the call of Jesus to discipleship, there is no other answer than this: Hear the Word, receive the Sacrament; in it hear him himself, and you will hear his call.”11

This is why the liturgy of so many Christian traditions all lead up to the Lord’s Supper, as I could wish we did here. There we meet Christ. There we hear his call, over and over again. At the celebration of the Eucharist in The Book of Common Prayer the celebrant offers you the Supper and then commissions you to enter the world on behalf of Christ. They may say, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ” or “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”12 In the Catholic tradition it is so called “Mass” from the Latin “Missa” because it is the past participle of the verb “to send.”13 We come to be sent. We come to hear the call. Having heard the Word and received the Supper, you have been called by Jesus himself.  Will you answer the call of Christ?

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 59.
2. Ibid, 80-81.
3. Ibid, 59.
4. Ibid, 79.
5. Ibid, 82.
6. Ibid, 84-85.
7. Ibid, 225-226.
8. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Trans. Rev. William Benham, (Einstein Books), “Of the Fewness of Those Who Love the Cross of Jesus”, II.11.1-3, pp. 42-43.
9. Bonhoeffer, 79.
10. R.T France, New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Ed. Wenham, Motyer, Carson, and France, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 921.
11. Bonhoeffer, 228.
12. The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church, (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007), “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One”, 339-340.
13. “Mass”, Dictionary.com. Available at: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mass?s=t ; Accessed 15 July, 2017.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 3)

 

The purpose of this series has been to say something about hermeneutics.  The concern is with allowing scriptures to say what they mean without inserting something into the text which the authors themselves did not intend, which is a prolix way of saying that I’m concerned with keeping scriptures within their context.1 More precisely, my concern has been with whether or not it is possible for a text to have a meaning which the human author did not intend, that is, a meaning outside of its authorial context. If it can, then that meaning is, by definition, context-less. If context-less meanings exist it would spell trouble for meaningful discourse/disagreement, as well as efforts towards unity and unanimity which depend upon intellectual agreement.

In part one I took the position that the human authors did not unknowingly describe modern science. Rather, they sometimes couched theological statements about God (which was their illocution)2 within the Old World Science of their day. This means that there is no context-less science embedded in the OT.  In part two I took the position that many of the NT’s quotations of the OT do not indicate sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the people.3 The OT authors did not intend to prophecy about Christ. It was the NT authors who, in light of the revelation of the Christ event, “read backwards” and were able to notice certain figural patterns in the narrative of history in general and Israel’s history in particular. They then interpreted, retrospectively, the events of history (which were not prophecy per se) as foreshadowing the Christ who would come (cf. John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44). If that is true, and I believe that it is, “it would be a mistake to read the Law and the Prophets as though their authors were deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. Rather, in light of the unfolding story of Jesus we’re enabled to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story.”4 “Foreshadowing”, then, not “prophecy” is perhaps a better term to describe the sensus plenior as used in the NT.  In this way it is the Christ event which provides the context for the reinterpretation of the OT.  These sensus plenior are, therefore, not examples of context-less interpretations as some make them out to be.  On both accounts then, in regard to science in the Bible as well as the NT use of the OT, we find that neither supports the existence of context-less interpretations.

The significance of the figural interpretation of the OT by the NT is this: it makes such interpretations accessible to our reason, as it was to the writers of the NT. This is different from sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the “folk.” The folk conception of the NT use of the OT is that there were hidden meanings in the text only known to those which have a special illumination of the Holy Spirit. And this is, I think, the crux of the matter. It is at least the matter I intend to address in this final article. Either the (fuller)meaning of the text is accessible to our reason in light of the larger Story as interpreted through the Christ event, or we have no grounds to affirm supposed fuller meanings.

I mentioned in Part One about Old World Science that the term sensus plenior is not applied to the supposed pre-scientific statements (as far as I know).  I have labeled it a sort of fuller meaning, however, because they share the same character.  They both claim that there is embedded information which is not evident to the original reader and perhaps even the author.  In a similar way the sort of thing I will describe below is not sensus plenior as the term is commonly used.  Still, it shares the character of fuller meaning because it claims more meaning for certain passages than is apparent from the context or authorial intent.  The problems with such context-less interpretations will be discussed below.  But first, how does this interpretative method express itself in my tradition?

A Dangerous Assumption
Perhaps the most perilous assumption of my tradition5 is the assumption that the Bible must answer every question we raise about religious life.6 A scripture sometimes called in as evidence in this regard is 2 Peter 1:3.  “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”  This is usually considered prima facie evidence that the Bible answers all of our questions about Christian living.  But does it?  Saying that God has told us all that we need to know is different than saying that we need to know everything, and that is precisely how this verse is often treated.  Many with whom I come into contact, some of them ministers, seem to think that if they have a question about worship or ethics then the Bible must address it.  This often results in attributing more meaning to a particular text than was intended by the author.

When considering this it is important to remember that we are never allowed, with the Bible or any other book, to insist that it answer our questions.  We must allow the book to ask us its own questions.  Numerous writers recognize the importance of asking–not any question–but the right ones when reading a text.  Mortimer Adler speaks of reading in general and says, “Ask questions while you read–questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.  Any questions?  No.  The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order” (emphasis original).7 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in specific regard to the Bible comment, “The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text” (emphasis original).8  And finally, Krister Stendahl puts it beautifully when he writes, “Even the divinely right answer is not heard aright if it is applied to the wrong question.”9 There is a sense in which the Bible has a limited number of answers and we cannot take its finite number of answers and apply them to an infinite number of questions. That would be something akin to asking a Magic 8 Ball any question, knowing that it only has 20 answers on the icosahedral die. We may ask the Bible whether this practice or that one is authorized and we get either a yes, no, or a non-committal answer, just like the 8 Ball. We get answers like, “Yes, definitely”, “Most likely,” or “Very doubtful.” Whereas the Magic 8-Ball’s answers may be useful for party games, they are not intended to be a guide for deciding who to marry, which house to buy, or which religion to follow.  It was not designed to answer those questions.  In the same way we must stop to ask which questions the Bible is intended to answer.  If we make it answer questions it was not intended to answer we find the right answers to all the wrong questions.  We’ll take as examples three questions that have been asked within my tradition and upon examining the passages ask whether or not those passages are intended to answer the questions that we put to them.

 

How Many Cups Should We Use on the Lord’s Table?
If we were certain that the Bible was intended to answer this question then finding the answer would be fairly simple.  We need only to scour the Bible and collect all scriptures which reference the Lord’s Supper and decide whether or not one cup was used or many.  Many have assumed that the Bible is intended to answer this question and have done precisely that.  They then conclude that we are only authorized to use one cup for the Lord’s Supper.10 But this comes to the text with a question in mind, like one does with an 8-Ball, and does not stop to ask whether the text is intended to answer that question. Certainly the text is trying to tell us something, but what? What to eat? What to drink? What time to eat? Where to eat? How many cups to use? How many plates? In what direction we should pass the Supper? Is Jesus suggesting a healthy diet? Is he concerned with the frequency of the Supper? We could ask any of these questions, but we would be wrong to do so unless these are the questions the Bible intends to answer.

Without entering the complex discussions about whether the Supper which Jesus shared with his apostles was a Passover meal11 it does seem clear the Passover, at the very least, supplied the imaginative background for the Supper. The Bible writers certainly draw upon Passover language and readily apply it to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Cor. 5:7, 8). Jesus, then, takes the Passover and reinterprets it around himself. Insofar as the Passover commemorated the Exodus, by drawing on the images of the Exodus Jesus identifies himself as the one who is to bring about the true Exodus, the full and final Exodus which will bring an end to exile, and death, which exile prefigures. When he institutes the Supper he says, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). That’s a radical statement. Up to this point the Passover has been in remembrance of God’s redeeming the Israelites from Egypt. Without losing that significance Jesus superimposes himself upon the memorial. It is no longer a memorial of the Egypt exodus only, it is also a memorial of the exodus which Christ himself would accomplish. The bread, Jesus says, is his body and the wine his blood.

We stop now to ask, is there anything in the text to suggest that the number of cups is at all significant? Is the single cup given some symbolic significance? Would the use of multiple cups change the imagery of the Exodus in any way? Would it affect the meaning of Jesus’ exodus? Would it in any way negate or alter the significance of Jesus’ body and blood? We must conclude that the number of containers is not a concern of any of the gospel texts. But what of others?

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul reflects upon the significance of the Jesus Meal. The Corinthians, apparently, were dividing themselves by class. “I hear that there are divisions among you … one goes hungry and another becomes drunk … do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:19-22). Paul points to the theological significance of the Supper in order to combat their division and encourage unity. Now certainly if ever there was a place for the symbolism of a single cup this would be it. In a divided church the necessity of drinking from a single cup would be an effective, not to mention beautiful, image to rally around. But such a point is conspicuously absent. In fact, it is the bread, not the “cup” which receives the interpretive attention.12 Paul writes, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:29, emp. mine). Whereas Paul could have drawn attention to the cup (he mentions both eating and drinking) he gives the symbol of unity to the bread. This no doubt draws upon his previous discussion of idolatry in which he also makes use of the Lord’s Supper tradition as an antidote to the erroneous practices of the Corinthian church. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:16, 17).  Again, even when the cup is mentioned within the immediate context, the symbolism of unity is focused upon the bread, not the enumeration of cups.

This brief inspection is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the Eucharist. Space does not allow nor is it within the purview of this article. The point is simply to show that the concern of some is not at all the concern of Jesus, the apostles, or the early church. No text which depicts or comments upon the Lord’s Supper draws attention to the number of vessels during the Supper, even when it would have been an appropriate and effective symbol. There is nothing within the context of any passage to indicate it is concerned with the question, “How many cups ought we to have?” If that is not the question that the text intends to answer then we do wrong to force that question upon the text. The Bible is not the one on trial. We do not bring our questions to it. It poses its questions to us.

As far as the context shows there is no evidence that the writers were concerned with the number of cups used nor do they attribute any spiritual symbolism to a single cup, even when it would have been advantageous to do so.  Now, one may agree that the passage does not indicate a concern for one cup and yet still insist that such a meaning is within the passage. If this is so that would mean the one cup requirement is a context-less meaning.  Such a meaning, if it exists, is unavailable to our reason and thus becomes the kind of folk sensus plenior which I mentioned in the introduction.

How Many Elders Must a Congregation Have?
It is a long held position within my tradition that each local church is autonomous and has no higher earthly government than its own elders. Further, each church must have a plurality of elders or none at all. A single elder is, as we say, unauthorized.13 This is a similar question to the one above insofar as it has to do with number. As such, it makes a shocking inconsistency for many who require a plurality of elders think requiring one cup is silly.  But why?  If the mere mention of plural elders requires plural elders today, why does not the mention of one cup require only one cup?  Their reasons for each position are the same, as is the method by which they arrive at their conclusions.  They come with a question and then mine the Bible to find the answer.  Now, if we knew of a certainty that the Bible intended to answer the question of how many elders a church should have, then it would be that simple.  All we would need to do is search the Bible and discover how many elders were appointed at each church. But this comes to the Bible with a question already in hand, like some do with the cup in the Lord’s Supper, and like all do with the 8-Ball. We must first consider whether anything in the Bible suggests that it is concerned with the question.

There are many scriptures which mention elders, some in mere passing and others with more attention.14 Most of the time elders are accouterments of the scene and not the focus of the narrative. We’ll take a quick look at the passages which are most detailed and/or most appealed to by my tradition.

First, let’s make brief note of what is often pointed out, that every mention of a governing body in the church mentions elders in the plural. Indeed, I cannot count the number of times which ministers in my tradition, within my hearing, asserted that the mention of “bishops”, plural, in Philippians 1:1 was de facto evidence of the necessity of more than one elder. But, recall if you will our discussion of Speech Act Theory.15 Words do not merely communicate, they try to accomplish something. They inspire, inform, encourage, describe, commit, etc. We must ask ourselves whenever we read, “What is the writer trying to do?” In Philippians 1:1, is Paul trying to institute something by his reference to “bishops”? Is his intent to prescribe a practice? Nothing in the text suggests this. His goal is to identify the recipients of the letter. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” This is his illocution, and that is where his authority lies. If that is what he meant to accomplish then that is how it must be taken by the reader. We must ask these same questions of every verse which mentions elders. We must ask, “Does the writer intend to prescribe a practice of appointing only a plurality of elders?” We will find over and over again that that is not the goal of the writer, or at least, nothing in the text indicates this.

Second, one of the most detailed passages we have about elders/bishops is 1 Timothy 3:1ff. We notice first that he speaks of each individual bishop, not of a collective body. The next thing we notice, and the most obvious, is that Paul is not concerned with the number of bishops which are to be appointed in each church. His concern is wholly with the character of the bishops. Nothing in the text indicates a concern for the enumeration of elders.

Third, Acts 14:23 says of Paul and Barnabas, “And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” This passage is often cited to show that it was the practice of Paul and Barnabas to appointed “elders”, plural, in every church. This is taken to be definitive. A few things should be pointed out: 1. The point of Acts is not to describe church government. It’s references to early church organization are few. The book of Acts depicts for us how the first Christians believed they were to carry the Story of the world forward in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 2. The appointment of elders, much less their number, is not the focus of this section of Acts (chps. 13-14). This portion is concerned with describing Paul’s first exploits among the Gentiles and Gentile churches which will become the focus of the Acts narrative from here onward. 3. We cannot be sure that a plurality of elders was appointed in every church. Undoubtedly someone will point out that the word “elders” is presbuterous and is plural. That is not contested. But a simple insistence upon the plurality of the word does not deal with the nuance of language and so does not solve the problem.

Imagine a town building a new college. The campus is completed and they have hired their teachers. The last step is to appoint the deans of each department. Having done that the newspaper runs an article announcing the completion of this last step and the readiness of the college to open. As you read the article the reporter says, “After establishing the deans of each department the new college will open its doors for the Fall semester.” Does this require that there be multiple deans over each singular department? No. Even though the word “deans” is plural it does not require that each department has multiple deans.  We are to understand that multiple deans were appointed over multiple departments. While it is possible for a department to be presided over by multiple deans such an idea is not required by the text of the article. When we view Acts 14:23 in this way we must conclude that this text is not concerned with answering the question of the enumeration of elders and, if it were, it would not be a clear answer. The construction of the sentence leaves it ambiguous as to whether Luke describes the appointment of multiple elders over each church, or multiple elders with each one over his own church. Both interpretations are allowable.

Fourth, another passage which suffers from the same sort of ambiguity is Titus 1:5. Paul says to Titus, “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Just as above, this could be taken to mean a plurality of elders over each town, or many elders each over his own town. Further, and more curious, Paul does not say that Titus is to appoint elders over every church, rather, over every town. One might say that there was only one church in each town and so it amounts to the same thing. But this begs the question. How do we know there was only one church in each town? Moving onward, we find that Paul immediately launches into a description of the character an elder ought to have. We find again that Paul’s concern is not the enumeration of elders but the character that they are supposed to have, just as in 1 Timothy 3. Did Paul intend to establish a particular practice by mentioning elders in the plural? It does not seem so. Nothing in the context suggests it and everything in the context suggests his concern was elsewhere. When we do not come to the text with our own questions, and when we allow the Bible to pose its questions to us, we find that very often the Bible writers’ concerns are wholly different than our own.

 

What Sort of Music Should We Have?
Acappella music is perhaps the most distinctive marker of my tradition.  Countless books and articles have been written making a case for acapella music as the only authorized form of music in the worship of the church.16 The approach to this question is the same as the others. We come with our question, “What sort of music should we have?” The answer, we think, is as simple as collecting all of the verses from the New Testament which mention music in worship and noting that they are all singing without accompaniment. Hopefully by now we can see the difficulty with this. If we knew of a certainty that the New Testament was intended to answer that question then it would be a fair way of settling the question. The difficulty is that we have not allowed the Bible to tell us whether or not it is interested in the question. We have assumed that it must answer the question and we have gone in search of the answer. But what if we backed up? What if we gathered together the relevant passages and then asked, “Is the concern of these passages to limit worship music to singing only?” What if we found that the writers’ interests were different than our own? What would that mean for worship? Let’s take a look at three relevant passages.

James 5:13 is the minor key when it comes to passages called in support of acapella only. The passage reads, “Above all, my beloved, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:12-14). In regard to oaths James is concerned that people may use oaths as a form of manipulation. While they might “promise on a stack of Bibles” in order to coerce someone into agreeing to something that they might not otherwise agree to, James encourages the church to be people whose outward actions always accord with their inward character. They should not be a people whose inward character makes others hesitant to enter into agreement with them. They should not have to take an oath in order to convince others that “this time” they really mean it. Rather, they are to let their “Yes” be yes, and their “No” be no. They should not be deceptive or hypocritical people. Their outward actions are always commensurate with their inner attitudes. It is a short step from here to the next section where James tells the people that their outward actions should always reflect their inner condition, and those actions should bring their inner condition before God. If they are suffering, they should pray. No need to hide our suffering from God Almighty. Instead, we bring our suffering into his presence. If they are joyful, there is no reason to hold that in either. They should express it appropriately, and bring that expression of joy into the presence of God through singing. Are they sick? Well, have the elders pray for them. This is to bring sickness into the presence of God by bringing it to the Christian community by which God’s presence is mediated to us. Having the big picture of the flow of the text we are now in a position to ask, “Is James concerned with prescribing a particular sort of music for the church?” Not at all. His concern is that Christians be genuine and live in the presence of God no matter what the circumstance. Are we really to take singing as the only appropriate response to joy? Could we not shout? Or feast? If not, why not? And if we make singing the only appropriate response, will we then make prayer the only appropriate response to suffering? What about weeping? Or fasting? Is calling the elders to anoint with oil (a thing which we rarely do) the only appropriate response to sickness? What about taking medicine? Or going to the doctor? These are not restrictive commands but representative ones. James is describing the sort of behavior which ought to characterize the Christian, not a particular act. A Christian ought always to express himself appropriately and always in the presence of God, which shows our dependence upon him. If a restriction for acappella is here it is not indicated by the context and must by definition be context-less. If it is context-less then such a meaning is not available to our reason and it shares the character of the folk conception of sensus plenior.

We now move to the central scriptures in defense of acappella only, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. We will not insist that these scriptures answer the questions that we would pose to it. Rather, we want to come to the letters and allow them to speak to us. What is Paul’s concern when he commands singing? Is he trying to restrict the form of worship to acappella? Only an examination of the letter can tell and we cannot assume a particular question going in.

One of the most peculiar things about both texts is that neither actually contains the command to sing. The words which describe the action, “teaching”, “admonishing”, “speaking”, “making melody”, “giving thanks”, and “singing” are all verbals. None are commands. A verbal is a verb which functions as an adjective, adverb, or a noun. If police were to approach a man in a park where people were engaged in all sorts of activities, eating, exercising, kissing, singing, throwing frisbee, and ask that man, “Have you seen Mr. James Smith?” He might respond, “Yeah, he’s right over there.” “Which one?” the police ask. The man then says, “The singing man.” “Singing” here functions as an adjective describing the man. So while it is a verb in form it is an adjective in function. Verbals may also be adverbs. Whereas an adjective describes a noun an adverb describes a verb. For example, I might say, “I’ve been cleaning the house all day, sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming.”  The verbals “sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming” are not additions to “cleaning”, they are adverbs.  They describe the cleaning; they tell what it looks like.  That is how the verbals function in Ephesians and Colossians.

In Ephesians Paul discusses the change that ought to characterize the Christians in Ephesus. They are to “lead a life worthy of their calling” (4:1). They are to “put away their former life” their “old self”, “be renewed in the spirit of their minds”, and “clothe themselves with their new self, created according to the likeness of God” (4:22-24). This contrast between former sinful behavior and present holiness continues into chapter 5 where Paul writes, “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:17-20). Paul points to activities which characterized their former life, as he has since chapter 4, things like foolishness and drunkenness, and commands them to forfeit those practices in lieu of holy ones. Instead of being filled with wine he commands them to “be filled with the Spirit.” This is the command of the verse.  What follows are verbals which describe that command.  “Speaking to one another”, “singing and making melody”, and “giving thanks to God the Father” all describe what it looks like to “be filled with the Spirit.” This can be taken either to mean that these are the practices which invite the filling of the Spirit, or they can describe the results of being filled with the Spirit. Either way, there is an intimate connection between these practices and a Spirit-led life. We now ask, is Paul concerned with the sort of music in the church? Does he here intend to prescribe acappella music as the only approved sort? If that is a concern, it is not evident. Paul’s illocution, what he is trying to do by writing this, is to encourage the Ephesians to forfeit the “unfruitful works of darkness” (5:11), like drunkenness, and to “live as children of light” (5:7) by being filled with the Spirit. If that is Paul’s intent, can we conscientiously make him say something else?

Paul’s message to the Colossians is much the same. He calls the church to “put to death whatever is earthly” and to be “clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (3:5, 10). “Above all”, he writes, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything int he name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:14-17). The similarities to the Ephesian passage are striking, even down to the lack of focus upon the sort of music we are to have in the worship of the church. Paul’s concern is a changed life. He expects them to put to death those things which are “earthly” and to live a life filled with the word of Christ which subsequently produces singing and thanksgiving. Does he intend by writing this to limit the worship of the Colossian church to acappella singing? If he does, nothing in the context suggests it. If that meaning is latent then it is context-less and is unavailable to our reason. If any of these passages intend to prescribe a particular sort of music it is not obvious. If we insist that these verses require acappella singing we are assigning the passages a sort of fuller meaning which does not originate from the context of the passage.

Series Summary
We have come a long way. We began by discussing supposed pre-scientific statements. We determined that it was never the intention of the Bible writers to reveal modern science. And since it was not their intention then if such science exists it is context-less, it is hidden, and so shares the character of sensus plenior.

We then discussed the NT use of the OT. We found that even when the NT writers point to the life of Jesus as the fulfillment of an OT passage, they do not mean that it was the intention of that OT passage to prophecy about Christ. Rather, the NT writers “read backwards” and retrospectively perceive events which foreshadow the life of Christ. These figural analogies are then termed fulfillments by the NT writers. The significant thing about this definition of fuller meaning is that it makes the sensus plenior accessible to our reason.  It is not the case that NT writers were “allowed to use scripture out of context because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit”, as a friend once told me.  They did not play fast and loose with scripture.  There is a context to these figural readings, as there is to every appropriate interpretation of fuller meaning, and it is the Christ event which provides that context.

Finally, in this article we have shown that the way many approach the above topics (and others) share the character of a folk understanding of sensus plenior.  They attribute to the passage a meaning which is not apparent from the context, either immediately or in light of the Christ event.

Conclusion
So what?  Why is this a big deal?  The problems presented by such an interpretive method are these.

First, if there is meaning in the text which has no origin in the context then how do we get it?  Some who disagree with my assessment of the NT use of the OT will say that the writers did not “read backwards” and that their use of the Hebrew Bible was not available to their reason.  They will insist that the Hebrews scriptures cited were not foreshadowing but direct prophecy.  They will further insist that the Christian writers were able to discern these fuller meanings only by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.17 If that were the case then it would seem that in order to affirm a fuller meaning in the texts above, or any others, would require a similar claim to inspiration. If the fuller meaning is not available to our reason, and we insist that there is one, how do we know? If the NT writers only knew by inspiration, is this how we know? Would inspiration not be required for us as it was for them? I doubt anyone is willing to claim that sort of inspiration.

Second, I do not want to insist that the above option is the only one and so appear to create a Straw-Man argument. I admit to knowing no one who claims inspiration from the Spirit of the kind we read about in the NT, even though that would seem to be required if they insist upon a meaning not evident in the context. Still, there is another problem with claiming such a fuller meaning which has no origin in the immediate context or through the context of the Christ event, as all valid sensus plenior must. If the fuller meaning under question has no context, then how are we to verify it? Further, how are we to disagree with it? When we insist upon a meaning which is by definition context-less we have forfeit all controls upon interpretation. The moment we affirm such context-less meanings we open wide the gates for  interpretations whose only “context” is the whimsy of the interpreter. This is a danger we can all agree must be defended against. Without context, without boundaries placed upon the number of meanings which can be derived from a text, we become unable to speak of Truth, for truth is “this and not that.” Boundaries are precisely that which divides “this” from “that” and without them we have no definable Way, only a boundless sea, a quagmire of interpretation. Without boundaries we lose all possibility for intelligible discourse or disagreement.

I offer these considerations as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about hermeneutics within churches of Christ. I hope this series has benefited you as much as it has me, whether it has garnered your agreement or vehement disagreement. In all cases I appreciate all who endeavor to draw nearer to God by immersing him/herself in God’s living word. Grace be with you all.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. I do not mean to imply that others are not concerned with keeping scriptures in their context. I would not judge their motives in that way. I only mean that I differ with some on what criteria constitute something being “in context.” It has been the concern of these articles to discuss and model what sorts of things I consider proper and improper modes of interpretation, i.e. which things are, in fact, “in context” and which are “out of context” despite the best intentions of some.
2. See part 1 here for an explanation of illocution within Speech-Act-Theory and its relevance to biblical hermeneutics.
3. I confessed in part 2 that while I initially set out to “debunk” sensus plenior I found that I the more I wrote the more I established it. I maintain, however, that my comments are still valid in one regard. The sensus plenior that I have described is different than that sort which is tossed about by many lay people.  I speak here as a local minister and not as a scholar.  As a result my comments are aimed at the way that I frequently hear lay persons appeal to the text.  Whereas it seems the consensus among scholars that the Bible writers did not intend the fuller meaning, and that that fuller meaning is only understood retrospectively as an event analogous to contemporary ones, the idea amongst many Christians is that the writers knowingly intended two different things: 1. The message for their immediate context as well as 2. A prophecy for future generations. This I hold to be a misuse of the idea of sensus plenior.
4. This quote comes from a lecture by Richard Hays entitled, “Did Moses Write about Jesus? The Challenges of Figural Reading.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlRqu0anrF8&t=690s ; Accessed 14 April, 2017. This lecture masterfully illustrates the hermeneutic I suggested in part 2. At the time I was unaware of Hays’ lecture and so I claimed the view as unique to me, while admitting the possibility that others held it unbeknownst to me. My use of “reading backwards” comes from the title of Hays’ book, which I have yet to read, and my use of the term “figural” is also indebted to Hays.
5. I belong to the churches of Christ, a Protestant tradition which arose during the era often labeled “The Restoration Movement.”
6. By calling it an assumption I acknowledge that many who do this may not realize that they do it and, therefore, may even deny that they do. Still, the conclusions they wrest from the text prove otherwise.
7. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 46.
8. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2003), 26.
9. Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1976), 6.
10. One such example can be viewed here: https://www.newtestamentchurch.org/html/Cup.html ; Accessed 21 April 2017.
11. While Luke seems clear that it was, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (22:15), John’s account offers a different perspective which may suggest that Jesus’ supper anticipated the Passover (13:1; 19:14).
12. Gordon D. Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians”, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 551.
13. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: The Brownlow Corporation, 2002). I was gifted this classic of my tradition shortly after my conversion. I still own that copy in which the sweet sister inscribed Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” This book continues to be influential in my tradition. In answer to the question posed by the title, it contains a chapter entitled, “[I am a member of the Church of Christ] Because It Is Scriptural in Organization” (chapter 6, 38-44). This chapter discusses Christ as head of the church, the local congregation as autonomous, the congregation as the largest and smallest of all governing bodies within the church, and the necessity of a plurality of elders.
14. In the book of acts alone we find the following: Elders: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Overseers: Acts 20:28. Outside of Acts there are the following: Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2ff; 5:17ff; Titus 1:5ff. (Also 1 Peter 5:1ff, though it is disputed whether the referent is the office of elders, or elderly men, or both).
15. You can view the article in which I discuss it here.
16. E.g. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: Brownlow Corporation, 2002), chp. 24. M.C. Kurfees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, (Indianapolis: Faith and Facts Press). Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, (Abilene: Desert Willow Publishing, 2013). David Miller, Piloting the Strait, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2006), chp. 20. David Miller, Richland Hills & Instrumental Music: A Plea to Reconsider, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2007). Rubel Shelly, Sing His Praise! A Case for A Cappella Music as Worship Today, (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1987). Shelly, however, has changed his stance since the publication of this work.
17. Whereas I certainly agree that the NT writers wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I do not believe, as some do, that this excludes the use of the writers’ own reason. You can read a brief explanation of how I believe this works in Part Two, which can be accessed here, under the section labeled “Inspiration.”