Splashing around in theology.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Matter of Emphasis

In all of my four years of Bible College training, one phrase stays with me, and capsulizes what ought to be in the forefront of any serious approach to theology. It was spoken [repeatedly] by one of my professors, and I am hesitant to reveal his name here, for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I do not know if the phrase originates with him.
It goes like this:

All theology is a matter of emphasis.
Oh, how often Professor J.S. mentioned it, as he strode about the room in his brown, chalk-stained, corduroy jacket. And I think that the importance of the phrase cannot be…. overemphasized.
I have used it often, since. And more and more frequently during these past couple of years of my own spiritual renaissance.
As such, many people have asked me what it means, ie., what I am meaning when I use the phrase.
So I want to talk about that for a bit, today.

What it means, or rather, what I mean, when I use it… is simply that if we begin from a perspective of topical intention, we can find scriptural precedence and/or scriptural justification for the defense of what are in essence mutually divergent ideas.
“Dude… you have just made the whole thing even more confusing.”

OK, hang on. Let me give you an example.
If we take a topical intention of say, for instance, capital punishment, we can appeal to scriptures such as Exodus 21:12 [along with verses 23-25] to show that such an action as demanding “life for life” is sanctioned by the God of the Bible.
However, the pastor down the street may be preaching an entirely different message, choosing as his text that morning something along the lines of Matthew 5:39, where Jesus advocated the unmitigated forgiveness of those who do evil unto you.
In both of these cases, the resultant theological message becomes a matter of EMPHASIS.
In other words, what is it that you want to emphasize?
Some would argue that the forementioned example [capital punishment] is a very shallow and isolated case. Also, some would point out that any confusion over the issue is merely a result of a dispensational misunderstanding between Old Testament and New Testament principles.
Yes. Exactly. It may well be!
But this does not settle the fact that there are (I assure you) myriads of people who advocate (and preach) the Exodus stuff as being culturally normative practise in our day and age!

Let me back up a pace.
I am not saying that if a person wants to emphasize the value of injecting heroin into their veins they will be able to find scriptural precedence to advocate such an action.
Scripture does not specifically address that issue.
But what I am saying is that when scripture does address a specific issue, it is almost always possible to find another vantage point from which to observe that same issue, within scripture!
[Offhand, I think of issues such as divorce and remarriage, attitudes toward homosexuality, the ordination of women in ministry, God’s preference of Jew and/or Gentile, the order of events in the account of the the creation of the world, the process and result of being filled with the Holy Spirit, the governmental structure of the church, re-instatement of “fallen” ministers, etc.]
What constitutes premarital sex? What is witchcraft? Infant or adult baptism? The list could be endless. One can create wildly opposite theological conclusions involving all of these things, while citing scriptural reference to validate and support each.
In all things the matter of interpretive technique and presupposition [ie., the desire to arrive at foregone conclusions] as well as the disabling situation of an inadequate grasp of the totality of scripture... these are all very important factors to consider.
Regarding this last point, let us examine the following scriptural scenario.

Most of us who have spent time in church life will be quite familiar with the text found in Matthew 12:30.
In it, Jesus says:
“He who is not with Me is against me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.”
I have always understood this text to mean [and have heard it preached as such] that if I am not in complete agreement with Jesus, then I am [ipso facto] against him. Furthermore, there is no hope of being neutral about his cause. If I am not actively advancing the cause of Christ, I am actually thwarting it.
As you can imagine, a preacher can really have a whale of a time with such a verse.
And they do.
This text can very much be used to emphasize the fact that I have an obligation to not only evangelize and/or proselytize everyone with whom I am in contact, but also that I myself must be “with” Jesus, at all times. Else I am “against” him, and I am a scatterer.
There is no grayness here. This is black and white. You are either in the Christian corral, or out of it. And if out of it, lost!

But let us back up a pace, and observe the parallel text, as found in Mark 9:40.
In it, Jesus says:
“For he who is not against us is for us.”
Whoa, doggies!
It is readily apparent that this is something radically different than the previously mentioned text. In fact, it is its very opposite.
Is Gandhi now inside the corral?
Here, Jesus seems to be saying, “Look. Only those who actively oppose me [
us] are against me [us].”
The question I want to ask at this point is this: Which of these two texts do we want to emphasize?
Which of these do we want to select for this morning’s message?
Because, most assuredly, we are going to have quite different sermons, based upon that selection!
If it is “Missionary Sunday” and I am trying to compel people to go overseas to some, as yet, under-Christianized land…. I am probably going to turn to Matthew.
However, If I want to emphasize a sort of more inclusive brand of Christianity, I will probably choose Mark as a launch-text.
But, among other things that this very divergence of parallel texts points out, one that cannot fail to capture our attention is that what is recorded here is not a verbatim account, as transcribed after listening to a replay of the cassette recording!
[For even further evidence of this, one can turn to Luke 9:50 for yet a third way of saying the same thing!]
Which one did Jesus REALLY say?
Well, that depends.
Which topical intention do we want to emphasize?

In any decision regarding this text, we may want to pay attention to the fact that Mark is the earliest writer, so this may suggest that his version is the original one. At any rate, it is the one closest in time to the event it allegedly describes.
In other words, both Matthew and Luke have the book of Mark in front of them when they do their writing. And Matthew and Luke both felt the need to revise what Mark had originally written [Matthew moreso than Luke].
Mattthew’s intended audience was predominantly Jewish.
Luke’s intended audience was predominantly Gentile.
Could this have something to do with it, I rhetorically ask?
But this observation of timing of the actual writing raises yet another important question.
Why is it that the Matthew version is the one we hear of, 99% of the time?
[I venture to say that most readers of this blog have never even heard of these other ways of saying the same verse.]
If it is true that “all theology is a matter of emphasis,” then I suggest that what Matthew was emphasizing in his account of Jesus’s words is something that our modern-day church still wants to emphasize.

All the best to you.
Let us keep looking at things.


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3/24/2010 12:41 AM  

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