Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Nine

1.  While the whole of Acts describes the development of the early church, Peter and Paul remain its chief leaders. 

- Including the book of Luke, how would you characterize the persons and ministries of each of these pivotal men?

2.  We cannot be certain of either the authorship or dating of the book of Hebrews, yet, its Christology presents a mature understanding of the role and work of Jesus in securing our redemption.

- Why is the suffering and death of Jesus, being fully human, central to the message of atonement in Hebrews? 

3.  The Epistle of James… is very much concerned with issues of right conduct and the author famously declares that ‘faith without works is dead.’ James is emphasizing that true faith must be manifested in deeds as well as words.

- How do you interpret James’ statement, and where do you see the truth of it in one’s daily life and in the life of the church?

4.  1 & 2 Peter serve different audiences and purposes. 

- How do these themes of patience – both in suffering and awaiting the Lord’s return – speak to the trials of the church today?

5.  1 John invites readers to beware of false prophets and to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”  In the end, love and faith prevail over all worldly trials.

- How has such advice served you in your faith development?
- How do we “test the spirits” today?

6.  Revelation ends with a grand and inspiring vision of the new Jerusalem, where ‘death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,’ and where there is ‘the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.’

- How do you both envision and anticipate the new Jerusalem?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Eight

1.  The most common title assigned to Jesus in the Pauline writings is ‘Lord’, occurring well over two hundred times. Although the Greek kyrios could amount to no more than a courtesy in common conversation, much like the English use of ‘sir’, its presence in such theological contexts as Paul’s letters surely carries with it an inescapable reference to the Jewish custom of saying ‘Lord’ in place of the unutterable name of God. It is, therefore, highly significant that the earliest distinctively Christian confession appears to have been ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Despite his being a monotheistic Jew, Paul is bracketing together God and Jesus in an extraordinary way.

- What levels of acceptance and resistance might Paul have encountered in his public announcement, “Jesus is Lord?”

2.  In the New Testament, the problem of how to understand the relationship between the Lordship of Jesus and the Lordship of the one true God of Israel (Deuteronomy 6.4) remains unresolved. The issue is simply present, arising as a fact of experience, encouraged not only by belief in the Resurrection but also by the new life that the first believers found had been given to them in Christ. Paul can only describe the latter as being ‘a new creation, everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.’

- How do you experience the Lordship of Jesus and of God?
- How does this Lordship offer a “new creation” in you?

3.  The Pauline witness is absolutely clear, both about the presence of human and divine attributes in Jesus and about the reconciliation (atonement) he has effected between a righteous God and sinful humanity; but in neither case are we given, in Paul or elsewhere in the New Testament, a detailed theological theory of how these things can be. Experience was everything; theorizing could wait.
- Such “experience” must be understood “theologically.”  How do the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds assist us with this task?

4.  Another remarkable attribute of Christ that is emphasized by Paul is that, though of course the Christian community knew Jesus was a human individual, it had nevertheless experienced a corporate element in its relationship with Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians that they ‘are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’ He is not using ‘body’ simply as a simile, but for him it is a spiritual reality. Without denying the humanity of Jesus, this participatory language points to a reality in him that exceeds the simply human.

- How does this “corporate” nature of Christian faith differ from today’s cultural appeal of “individual spirituality?”

5.  It is instructive to see how Paul uses the Hebrew Bible as his scriptural resource. The most systematic of the Pauline letters is Romans, and this provides a good focus for such a study. These examples, which have parallels elsewhere in the New Testament, show that the early Church, while respectful of Scripture and wishing to make clear its belief that Jesus fulfilled the expectations and hopes of Hebrew prophecy, felt able to use that Scripture in a manner that was free from a slavish dependence on original use and meaning. It allowed itself to manipulate what had been written in order to conform what was being said to what it had learned by its actual experience of the new life that had been given to it in Christ.

- Is the Church still free today to interpret the Scriptures in light of what we are learning by our experiences of new life in Christ?

6.  I have referred to ‘the Pauline writings’ because it is not certain that everything to which Paul’s name has been attached was actually written by him. Remember that in the ancient world there was not the modern concept of authorial integrity, so that it was not considered fraudulent to present writing arising in a tradition that stemmed from an original author as if it had actually been written by that author himself.

- Given this explanation, how do we benefit from both Paul and the broader Pauline tradition that supports his extended ministry?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Seven

1.  Throughout the Roman world crucifixion was regarded with such horror that ‘cross’ (Greek stauros) was a word of sinister meaning to a degree that it is hard for us to recapture, since for us it has come to mean simply a conventional religious symbol. There is no depiction of the crucified Christ in Christian art until the centuries in which crucifixion was no longer a contemporary reality. The earliest Christians preferred to represent Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

- The cross upon which Jesus died carries multiple meanings.  What did it mean to those first Christians, and what does it mean to us today?

2.  There are stories in the Gospels of persons who were apparently dead being restored to life. However, these are resuscitations, that is to say, those so restored will undoubtedly in due course die again. They have only experienced a temporary reprieve from mortality, somewhat like people in our own day who have had near-death experiences. Jesus’ resurrection is quite different. He is given a permanent victory over death.

- Why is resurrection such a unique & difficult reality to embrace?

3.  The earliest statement of the Resurrection that we have occurs in the Pauline writings, which predate the Gospels. (Writing to the Corinthians about the year 55…).

- What was the timing and nature of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Paul?

4.  At first sight it might seem that we are simply confronted with a bunch of variously made-up tales, constructed by different Christian communities as ways of expressing their conviction that in some way Jesus continued to be their living Lord. However, there is an unexpected and persistent feature of the stories, expressed in different ways that persuades me that their historicity needs to be taken seriously.

- What was this “feature?”

5.  A second line of evidence is of course presented in the Gospels, which all tell the story of the discovery of the empty tomb (Matthew 28.1–8; Mark 16.1–8; Luke 24.1–10; John 20.1–10). There is a good deal of agreement between these gospel accounts, even if there are differences about such details as the names of the women and the exact time of morning they made their discovery.

- In what ways do the gospels address the challenges of believing in the empty tomb?  Then why isn’t everyone convinced?

6.  For the Christian believer, the Resurrection makes sense because it represents a triple vindication. It is the vindication of Jesus, for his life had a character that meant that it should not have ended in rejection and failure. It is a vindication of God, who was not found after all to have abandoned the one who had wholly committed himself to doing his Father’s will. It is a vindication of a deep-seated human intuition that in the end the last word does not lie with death and futility, but we live in a world that is a meaningful cosmos and not ultimately a meaningless chaos.

Christians see the resurrection of Christ as the sign and guarantee within history of a destiny that awaits the rest of humanity beyond history (‘for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ’, 1 Corinthians 15.22).

- What does your baptismal covenant mean to you…that you will one day, beyond this life, share in the resurrection of Jesus?

- What does Jesus’ resurrection mean for the renewal of creation itself?