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Archive for the ‘Biblical Interpretation’ Category

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of the most popular and well loved set of children’s books. And recently there has been discussion in articles, and in a book that I read around Easter, suggesting that the subject of the portrayal of atonement in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” was discussed as being a better portrayal of atonement than that which is taught in many churches today. Given the fictional nature of the books I don’t think many people have given much thought to atonement as portrayed by C.S. Lewis in the book. In this post I want to delve in and defend the position that C.S. Lewis’ view is both compelling and biblical, and is a superior view to that of “Satisfaction” or “Penal Substitution” that many Western churches teach.

In the story itself, Edmund betrays his brother and sisters to the White Witch, but while captive in her camp is rescued by Aslan’s company and returned to the camp of Aslan. The Witch later arrives at the camp and states that Edmund’s blood belongs to her because of his act of treachery. As it is written per the deep magic on the stone stable, blood must be paid for an act so heinous. She also states that if she is denied that blood then the foundation of Narnia will crack and Narnia will perish in chaos. After a negotiation with the witch, they come to an agreement that she will renounce her claim on Edmund. As it turns out this is because Aslan offered to take the punishment himself. That night Aslan is humiliated and killed on the stone table. After the Witch and company leave, dawn comes and the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns resurrected. The sisters ask how this is possible to which Aslan replies:

“It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” -The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

This is Lewis’ portrayal and to dig into this we need to flesh out the real world implications. First off, C.S. Lewis presents the Witch (Satan) as Edmund’s accuser. Not God, not Jesus (Aslan), but Satan. This is very consistent with the Biblical portrayal of Satan in Job 1 and Zec. 1. The title Satan means “accuser” or “adversary” but the biblical accounts of Satan present him as the accuser of men, and the adversary of men before the court of God. And just like in Job or Zechariah, Satan’s power derives itself from God’s mandates. He goes around pointing out and accusing all the things humans have done to break the moral law of the universe (the deep magic written on the stone table) put forth by God, and demands that God punish the wicked. Thus, the Witch echoing the sentiment of Hebrews 9:22 calls for the necessity of a blood payment for Edmund’s treachery. However, God while respecting of the sort of eye for an eye Newtonian view of morality that He put forth during creation to bring order, still wishes to avoid punishing the repentant Edmund. So He offers Himself up instead.

Now in the Bible it is not entirely clear whether Jesus offered Himself to the devil literally in our stead. But the Bible does affirm that Jesus willingly went to death for our ransom (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28) and that the primary agent responsible for his betrayal and death was Satan (John 13:27, Luke 22:3). Both the Witch and Satan saw an opportunity for a quick win over the agent responsible for freeing men from their sins and opposing their (rebel) dominion over the land. The problem however, is that Jesus (like Aslan) was completely innocent. And so when then the Witch/Devil kill their enemy they violate the very moral system (deep magic) from which they derive their power. In Narnia the Stone Table of justice is cracked. The Witch’s (borrowed) power over Narnia is destroyed in the moment of the sacrifice of a perfectly innocent victim. But as Aslan explains, this is because the deep magic can be overruled by a deeper magic, one from before creation, one existent in the very nature of God Himself and that is self-sacrificial love. The law of love is revealed by Aslan’s willingness to die in Edmund’s stead despite being perfectly innocent, and so the laws of justice are shattered, death works backward, and the Witch’s power is revoked.

The question remains, is this what we see in the gospels as well? The answer I think is yes, in Colossians 1, Paul writes

I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,  the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.

Paul talks here about the mystery of the glory of God that was HIDDEN throughout the ages. Revealed in the perfect Word of God, Christ. This is very much like the deeper magic that C.S. Lewis refers to, it is something that was never not existent (God was always love) but it was something hidden until Christ revealed it on the cross. The New Testament authors affirm that the power of sin, death, and the devil are broken in Christ. That is because as Paul writes, we were slaves to the law. We either, like the Pharisees (and Satan), demanded it to the letter in order to gain power and superiority over others or we suffered under the fear of God because we could not attain conformity to the law. In the death of the perfectly innocent Christ, the moral fabric of the universe is unfurled, revealing the previously hidden mystery of the supreme moral of law of sacrificial love. This is what allows Paul to write in Galatians 5 that against the fruits of the Spirit (Love, Joy, Peace etc) there can be no law. This is not to say that justice is negated, but that justice is a less deep more superficial understanding of the true nature of things that has been revealed to the saints. Before Christ, we feared God (and so death) because of our sin, of our failure to live up to the perfection of moral order. But after Christ, God’s perfect love casts out all fear. Christ’s death and resurrection is the open door through which we can glimpse the deeper reality of God, and eventually pass through. In Colossians 1:19 it says that

19 For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The death of Christ paid the price of our sin because it destroyed moral system by which we previously tried to live up to. It is something that affected the entire universe and made peace with all of it. Unlike some views in churches where God’s love and justice are thrown into a schizophrenic tension, C.S. Lewis believed as I do, that one is deeper than the other and I believe the Bible teaches this as well.

And so, I believe that Narnia shows us a very robust and profound view of atonement that reveals the nature of the shift in the entire cosmos that took place during Christ’s death and resurrection, and reveals to us the true nature of God, the deeper magic, that is God’s law of love and gospel of peace.

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John 14:6

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Matthew 28:18

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’

John 1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

We often refer to the Bible as God’s Word, or as being full of God’s truth, or as being the authority for Christians. The funny thing is that we often don’t stop and think what this very document has to say about that. The Bible affirms that the truest Word of God was Christ, and also in Christ is the way and truth, and that all authority is Christ’s. On a very basic level all the things we ought to affirm about Christ we instead affirm about the Bible. And this is when we step into the treacherous territory of creating an idol.

If we say that the Bible is absolute truth from God, what are we saying except that there is something besides God (That is the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit) that is a source of absolute truth?

Now many will clarify and say that because the Bible is inspired by God, it has delegated authority from Christ, and the source of its truth is God, and therefore there is no problem. However, if we read what the Bible says it does not say that Christ is the source of all truth. He Himself is the Truth, and The Word. And so here we say why Christians have asserted that a relationship with Christ is essential to the faith. Because Christ is our way and truth and life.

The idolatry that has leaked into our understanding of the Bible lies in our thinking that for truth we can go to it and not directly to God. When we attribute absolute truth to our Bible we commit idolatry plain and simple.

“But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ ‘in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,’ not the Bible, save as leading to Him.”- George MacDonald

Of what use is the Bible if it is not God’s absolute Truth to us? To this question there are a multitude of answers. The first and simplest is that it is a witness that leads us to Christ. Secondly, the Bible is a testimony of a great many generations’ and cultures’ experience with the Living God and so it beckons us to share and be a part of the story God is unfolding in this world. Also it serves as practical instruction for living a life of righteousness.

2 Timothy 3:14-17

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

So what’s the point? The point is that the Bible exists to call and beckon us to the living God and to learn from and share others’ experiences of God. It is not here for us to use as an absolute form of truth, it is not an inerrant more or less dictation from the Holy Spirit, and it is not here to substitute (or even worse, work against) the real truth that comes from Christ Himself. The Bible’s inspiration means God has hijacked this human product for the work of His kingdom just as He has Christians. Or borrowing more from C.S. Lewis, he likened Biblical Inspiration to the Incarnation

“The main difficulty seems to me not the question whether the Bible is “inspired”, but what exactly we mean by this. Our ancestors, I take it, believed that the Holy Spirit either just replaced the minds of the authors (like the supposed “control” in automatic writing) or at least dictated them to their secretaries.

Scripture refutes these ideas. St Paul distinguishes between what “The Lord” says and what he says “of himself” – yet both are “Scripture”. Similarly the passages in which the prophets describe Theophonies and their own reactions to them would be absurd if they were not writing for themselves. Thus, without any modern scholarship, we are driven a long way from an extreme view of inspiration.

I myself think of it as analogous to the Incarnation— that, as in Christ a human soul and body are taken up and made the vehicle of Deity, so in Scripture, a mass of human legend, history, moral teaching etc are taken up and made a vehicle of God’s Word. Errors of minor fact are permitted to remain (Was our Lord Himself incapable qua Man, of such errors? Would it be real human incarnation if He was?) One must remember of course that our modern & western attention to dates, numbers, etc simply did not exist in the ancient world. No one was looking for that sort of truth… As for translations, even if one does not know Greek (and I myself know no Hebrew) we now have so many translations that by using & comparing them all one can usually see what is happening. The blessed and significant thing is that none of this has bothered your personal faith in our Lord. Do you see a clear reason why it need bother anyone else’s?” – from a letter to Lee Turner, C.S. Lewis

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Letter to Clyde Kilby on May 7th 1959

(written in answer to Kilby’s asking for his thoughts on the Wheaton College statement on the inspiration of the Bible)

To me the curious thing is that neither in my own Bible reading nor in my religious life as a whole does the question in fact ever assume that importance which it always gets in theological controversy. The difference between reading the story of Ruth and that of Antigone – both first class as literature – is to me unmistakable and even overwhelming. But the question ‘Is Ruth historical?’ (I’ve not reason to suppose it is not) doesn’t really seem to arise until afterwards. It would still act on me as the Word of God if it weren’t, so far as I can see.

All Holy Scripture is written for our learning. But learning of what? I should have thought the value of some things (eg. the Resurrection) depended on whether they really happened: but the value of others (e.g. the fate of Lot’s wife) hardly at all. And the ones whose historicity matters are, as God’s will, those where it is plain. Whatever view we hold on the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts:

Whatever view we hold of the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts:

1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Cor vii between ouk ego all’ ho kurios [not myself but the Lord] (v. 10) and ego lego oux ho kurios [I myself say, not the Lord] (v. 12).

2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matt. i and Luke ii; with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt. 27:5 and Acts 1:18-19.

3. St. Luke’s own account of how he obtained his matter (Luke 1:1-4).

4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some of the narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well also extend to Jonah and Job.

5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights, then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.

6. John 11:49-52 Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without him knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).

It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule out the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and to the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other: eg. that the numbers of O.T. armies (which, in view of the size of the country, if true, involves continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct. That the overall operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader (he also needs His inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That is also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, never even envisaged by the Ancients.

 

A Letter from C. S. Lewis to Corbin Carnell, dated April 4, 1953

Dear Mr. Carnell:

I am myself a little uneasy about the question you raise: there seems to be an almost equal objection to the position taken up in my footnote and to its alternative of attributing the same kind and degree of historicity to all books of the Bible. You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

In what sense does the Bible “present” the Jonah story “as historical”? Of course it doesn’t say, “This is fiction,” but then neither does our Lord say that the Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason). How does a denial, a doubt, of their historicity lead logically to a similar denial of New Testament miracles? Supposing (as I think is the case), that sound critical reading revealed different kinds of narrative in the Bible, surely it would be illogical to suppose that these different kinds should all be read in the same way?

This is not a “rationalistic approach” to miracles. Where I doubt the historicity of an Old Testament narrative I never do so on the ground that the miraculous as such is incredible. Nor does it deny a unique sort of inspiration: allegory, parable, romance, and lyric might be inspired as well as chronicle. I wish I could direct you to a good book on the subject, but I don’t know one.

With all good wishes, yours sincerely,

C. S. Lewis

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Many times in various forms of worship we hear or say that God is beautiful. But what does this mean. We obviously aren’t using it in the sense of physical aesthetics, which is that God is pleasing to the eye. What we really tend to mean is that God as a character and pertaining to what he has done, elicits a sense of beauty. So what God has is a moral beauty. Moral beauty is about more than simply one’s character. We sense moral beauty in our favorite stories, and the characters in them. It is not static but dynamic. We don’t think a snapshot of the story is beautiful but the value is in the narrative of the story or character development. It is the whole process of the farm boy facing trials, almost losing and overcoming it all that elicits a sense of moral beauty. Likewise, God’s moral beauty comes from not his static character but His interactions in the stories of our lives and the meta-narrative of creation.

And this is where narrative theology is born. Unlike systematic theology which uses the Bible to order and summarize God’s static character and how He functions. Narrative theology asks different questions. It strives to know what God is doing in any given story and event in the Bible. What did this mean to them? And what does this mean about His role in my story? Narrative theology doesn’t want a perfectly systematic God by examining all the stories in conjunction but allows that we understand each story on its own. And understand how all the different stories play a role in the one meta-narrative of creation. In narrative theology there is a place for disagreement, a place for God’s individuality in how He deals with various personalities, and also a place for you to analyze your own story and let it also shape how you understand the meta-narrative. Narrative theology seeks to recognize God’s moral beauty rather than trying to scientifically analyze God.

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[T]here is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.

As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.

Not true.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody.

And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.

-Rob Bell (Love Wins)

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This was a quote of mine from a forum that really resonates in my mind.

“All I can say is read the Bible forwards instead of reading Christianity backwards. Go Adam->Abraham->Moses->David->Isaiah-> Jesus
instead of Calvin->Augustine->Paul->Jesus

Then you can understand what the Bible says about God, and not what people said about what other people said about God.”

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As in a Mirror Dimly

1 Corinthians 13

As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, butwhen the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. Fornow we see in a mirror dimly, butthen face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even asI have been fully known.

This is perhaps one of my favorite passages in the Bible, in fact, if it wasn’t such a hassle to do, I would likely rename this blog “through a mirror dimly.” [which if you are reading this now, you will notice that I did] As I recently re-read this passage, I was overcome by the irony and wonder of the thought which Paul is expressing here. Paul, who is pretty much the go-to man for protestant theology, is saying that even he, an apostle, who is writing these letters which would become scripture, barely knows God. He knows Him only in part. God, who fully knows him, as He fully knows us, we know only as in a barely lit reflection. It is not even God we see dimly, but a reflection of Him. The fullness of God is such that until the perfect comes to pass, we, even as Christians, do not know God very well.

This might seem depressing or even shocking for those who think the Bible pretty much tells us everything about God. But to me it is a great encouragement. What this means is that there are always new things for God to reveal to us, we are not a “religion of the book” but the religion of an active God. It reminds me of George MacDonald’s “A Higher Faith” in which he writes

“Sad, indeed, would the whole matter be, if the Bible had told us everything God meant us to believe. But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to him. And why are we told that these treasures are hid in him who is the Revelation of God? Is it that we should despair of finding them and cease to seek them? Are they not hid in him that they may be revealed to us in due time–that is, when we are in need of them? Is not their hiding in him the mediatorial step towards their unfolding in us? Is he not the Truth?–the Truth to men? Is he not the High Priest of his brethren, to answer all the troubled questionings that arise in their dim humanity?”

“Do you count it a great faith to believe what God has said? It seems to me, I repeat, a little faith, and, if alone, worthy of reproach. To believe what he has not said is faith indeed, and blessed. For that comes of believing in HIM. Can you not believe in God himself? Or, confess,–do you not find it so hard to believe what he has said, that even that is almost more than you can do? If I ask you why, will not the true answer be–”Because we are not quite sure that he did say it”? If you believed in God you would find it easy to believe the word. You would not even need to inquire whether he had said it: you would know that he meant it.”

I think many times we all need a reminder that God is so much greater than we imagine and that we need to be open at all times for Him to reveal something new about Himself to us. And more importantly we need to be humble enough to accept that there are countless new things for God to reveal about Himself.

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