Men of Grace or Men of Law?
Last time, a network outage zapped our audio just as we were discussing how religious Christianity has stirred us to look for outward signs of repentance before we will forgive others — you know, things like our expectations of guilt and visible signs of sorrow for sins. Now, millions of Bible believers qualify/justify these expectations based heavily upon Jesus’ words, as well as upon the book of James … among others, including Peter’s letters, the letter to the Hebrews, and even selected verses from Paul’s letters.
ADAM: Maybe something here to connect how this shift related to your story? In other words, how our conversation went from your experiences with Biblical law into how I tied it in with Peter’s situation as described by Paul in Galatians and then how that led to the similarities between the viewpoints of the others, especially James. Don’t get too specific yet, we’ll move toward that.
Lead back in with something about how that would affect numerous Biblical principles based off selected passages in the Gospels, James, Peter, etc…
Let me preface this with something I experienced in my youth, somewhere in the early-mid 60s. At the time, I lived in northern Virginia, about 10 miles west of Washington DC. As a child, I didn’t realize that I lived in what would have been called the Sticks. But things were rapidly changing with new housing development going in just a short walk from my house. At this point, the forrest was being cleared (which meant the destruction of some great trails we made, along with some forts we built). Burning piles of trees were here and there. My cousin was down visiting, so we took him to see what was going on in the neighborhood. So, it was my older brother, myself, my younger sister, and my cousin, who was my older brother’s age. It was Autumn, so we had our jackets on and thick piles of leaves were all over the ground. My brother and my cousin turned some sticks into fire brands and began to walk into the woods, starting fires in the fallen leaves. My sister and I took it upon ourselves to stomp them out while they were still small. Of course, that irritated the firestarters, and they talked us into just letting them burn a little bit longer. As you might imagine, the fire quickly got out of control, so the four of us began frantically trying to stomp it out. We took our jackets off and used them to put the fire out. By time we got it out, the burned area was probably 30 feet in diameter. I even burned a spot in my brand new jacket, and I hoped I could keep my parents from seeing it. Guess what I learned from that ordeal? Stop the firestarter and you won’t have to keep putting out all the little fires!
ADAM: Anything to relate to regarding putting out little fires before I start making my connections?
Anyhow, I see a similarity between stomping out those little fires and dealing with what were considered problem passages. Oh yeah, for that’s the approach I learned in Bible College … and it was methodical. We would confront and stomp out the little fires, those irritating discrepancies created by interpretations of Bible verses that seemed to run contrary to our point of view. The truth is that if those problem passages hadn’t seemed as if they might be legitimate, they wouldn’t have bothered me as much.
ADAM: Anything personal to add here about struggling with the sense of legitimacy regarding difficult Bible verses?
If I had only recognized why so many little fires kept cropping up, I could have saved myself an awful lot of unnecessary worry and effort — but then again, it may have been important for me to experience. Of course, at the time, I don’t remember having even considered any relationship to those futile attempts at stomping out all the fires my brother and cousin had started, but I know I felt the same kind of frustration and desperation. And just so that you know, we did in fact put the blame upon a firestarter: our adversary, the devil. Somehow though, because so many of us have used Satan as a general-purpose catch-all for such a wide variety of problems, including the stuff we keep bringing upon ourselves, that we wouldn’t recognize him if he were standing right in front of us.
Just so you know, I stood upon and defended the basic premise that salvation was offered as a free gift from God through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that it came by grace through faith, not works — for at that time I saw everything according to the eternal destiny question, especially how one’s choices could affect it. Anything that seemed to contradict this axiom, this fundamental truth, must be cleared up. Sometimes that came about by revealing the true meaning of the verse or passage that seemed to contradict, but all too often our determined approach caused us to explain why a problem passage did not mean what it might seem to mean. In other words, we weren’t as concerned with what it did mean, but rather what it didn’t mean. And somehow in the midst of it all, the fires created by Biblical discrepancies kept popping up for me to deal with.
ADAM: Maybe something here to zero in on how I was describing the viewpoints of Jesus and how it affected those disciples who followed him? You know, the similarities, the phrasings, the Jewish mindset … how it all serves to provide some real insight into why they often seem to contradict the grace that Paul described.
Basically, explain how that hit you, as well as how important you regard this distinction/insight.
Back in the early to mid 80s, I began to recognize that my emerging grace viewpoints of NT writings that didn’t come from Paul (you know, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, 1 John, James, 1st and 2nd Peter, Jude) had been explained — or often explained away — by cross-referencing them to something from Paul. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with making those connections and/or showing the similarities or differences; however, our habits too often force all other writings into Paul’s mold rather than letting them stand on their own. I’m going to tell you right now that contrary to the assumption that it will keep us true to the more complete revelation of grace as given to Paul, it skews not only our viewpoint of those other writings, it keeps us from seeing much of what Paul had to say as well.
ADAM: “Jim, why do you think it would it also affect one’s understanding of Paul’s letters?”
Because everything is connected, at least in our own thinking, by our own perceptions — whether it’s true or not. What makes us imagine that when we adjust what the other writers meant by the process of cross-referencing or explaining their writings away by what Paul wrote that we won’t also adjust what Paul wrote in one place by what he said/meant in another?
When I began to see something totally different in John’s first letter, my ideas were often dismissed simply because nobody else saw it that way, especially by those who were the leaders. One of the main teachers in the small church I hung with put things in a seeminly humble viewpoint by using a famous quote (which I didn’t know was famous at that time): “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The quote came from much earlier, but Isaac Newton made it famous by saying: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But there’s a downside to that, for you can only go where those particular giants go … and therefore only see further in the direction they’ve taken you. Somehow, I suspect we can build upon what others have built, while at the same time recognize that true knowledge and understanding comes from God, not from man. Furthermore, I think we need to realize that true knowledge cannot be measured according the number of things we understand.
ADAM: Anything to add?
When I started writing the Shovelation — which is more or less a kind of paraphrase that takes a very wide consideration of context into account — my main drive was to bring the NT writings into a more proper perspective. My intro to 1 John started off with: “Important: First John needs to be read from John’s perspective, not Paul’s. Ignore this and you may see what John was NOT saying, but you’ll miss most of what he WAS saying.” And I am just as convinced to this day that some of our biggest problems with understanding these 2,000-year-old writings comes from trying to force them into a framework to which they don’t belong. The context I’ve used for exploring 1 John comes mostly from what has been called the Gospel of John, as well as the general flow of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
ADAM: Anything to add about context or John or the difficulty of understanding ancient documents?
Later that same year (1999), after having finished the Shovelation version of James, I wrote this:
Is it possible that WE have turned James into something he was not? He may not have had the understanding of grace that God gave Paul, but he was NOT lacking, for he had the same Spirit as Paul. But what if James was NOT written to make believers squirm in guilt and shame? What if our insistence for practical Christianity has turned James into one big legalistic dissertation? What if there was a viable alternative that takes into consideration the whole context of James so that it flows from one thought to the next as a letter would? What if James was NOT legalism’s friend?
ADAM: Anything this quote stirs in you ?
You see, after years of mulling over many of the seeming contradictions with grace that fill the pages of James’ letter, I fell back upon the overall context of the letter itself, as well as upon the Gospels, to see if it gave me any clues. Truthfully, I often began to regard the epistle of James according to Martin Luther: “An epistle of straw.” Yes, that’s how he saw it. Now, my Bible College president (and head teacher) disagreed, and he found ways to reinterpret many of those problem passages that would have angered Luther. However, he approached the passages in an attempt to harmonize them with Paul’s writings. Simply stated, he explained them according to what they couldn’t mean, not according to what they did mean. For a few years, I accepted his explanations … until too many obvious conflicts came up when viewed in context. For me, it was either throw it out, as demanded by Luther, or see if the context revealed if James was in fact a man of grace rather than a man of Law.