Timeless Truth vs. Timely Wisdom

The goal contained in the New Testament portion of the Story that catapults Jesus followers into the future is to create apprentices of Jesus (again, the climax of all that came before in the Old Testament) through whom God’s loving, caring, transforming re-creating rule is expressed into the world so that God’s creation is finally renewed through his renewed stewards…. In the 21st century, we must listen and learn from Jesus’ siblings throughout the Church’s history and then improvise not with “timeless truths” but with “timely wisdom” that has been saturated and fully shaped by God’s Story.

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I read an article yesterday written by a proponent of the house church movement and it stirred some thoughts I wanted to express. But first I need to clarify, that although my following comments may seem critical of the house church movement, they are not. I currently participate in a house church and find great value and validity for this form of “being the church.” Many of the critiques made by proponents of the house church about the institutional forms of church are valid and need to be addressed. I have experienced them firsthand and bear some scars from those experiences.

What I want to deal with, though, are some underlying assumptions of the what I read in the article and observe in many counter-movements like the house church movement and even in some quarters of the emerging church conversation.

1. There is an over-idealized view of the first-century church. In the article I read, there seems to be the assumption that if we can just get back to the way it was in the first-century, then a lot of our problems can be easily addressed. But when I read the New Testament and some of the original church fathers, the first-century communities seem to face similar problems that we face today — sexual brokenness, racism, greed, pride, lying, gossip, heretical theology, etc.

2. There is a low view of church history. Intimately connected with a hyper-idealized view of the first-century experience is a very low view of church history. I know this is oversimplified, but many modern critiques seem to imply that life in the first-century Christian community was wonderful and that almost immediately following the writing of the New Testament, the Church began a downward plummet. Invariably, the modern church’s problems are traced back to Constantine. To me this implies a couple of things. First, Christ wasn’t acting as the head of his body during large portions of the Church’s history since he obviously didn’t prevent his people from messing things up. Second, it ignores the majority of faithful Christ-followers who lived for Jesus and his mission in the daily details of life throughout the Church’s history.

3. There is a low view of the Bible mistaken as a high regard for the Bible. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this one since this is how I used to study and teach the Bible. When you approach the Bible as a receptacle of “timeless truths” that are to be extracted and applied, you actually undermine its richness and authority. That’s because you end up treating the Bible in a way it was never meant to be treated. The Bible is a grand narrative, not a rule book, an instruction manual or a systematic theology textbook. It is a Story. And we don’t live in the Old Testament parts of the Story. Jesus climaxed and redefined that portion of the Story in a fresh and unique way. And we are living two thousand years beyond where the New Testament portion of the Story ends. So implementing the renewed creation that Jesus inaugurated must be fresh and relevant for our time, our neighborhood, and our culture.

We’re like the trapeze artist who has launched from the trapeze of the written portion of the New Testament and straining for the trapeze of the renewed creation. Carried by the forward momentum of the first trapeze, we’re suspended in the air looking forward, anticipating and moving closer to second trapeze.

Attempting to extract “timeless truths” and blindly adhering to them is a recipe for disaster. It would be like suddenly turning around in mid-air, trying to grab the first trapeze that is swinging away from us only to miss the second trapeze swinging toward us. Likewise, attempting to go back to the first-century house church or to apply first-century principles may not be the best approach in our 21st century world.

The goal contained in the New Testament portion of the Story that catapults Jesus’ followers into the future is to create apprentices of Jesus (again, the climax of all that came before in the Old Testament) through whom God’s loving, caring, transforming re-creating rule is expressed into the world so that God’s creation is finally renewed through his renewed stewards. In the first-century, Paul chose a model that worked to accomplish this greater goal of forming Christ’s apprentices. In the following centuries, others explored different models with varying levels of success. In the 21st century, we must listen and learn from Jesus’ siblings throughout the Church’s history and then improvise not with “timeless truths” but with “timely wisdom” that has been saturated and fully shaped by God’s Story.

I am not saying there are no truths. But those truths are part of the Story, not above the Story. The Story is true. The characters and movements and twists and turns are true. And we apply the truths of the Story by ourselves being immersed and shaped by the Story, fully able to improvise and act out the continuing truth of the Story as empowered by God’s Spirit in our world.

6 thoughts on “Timeless Truth vs. Timely Wisdom

  1. Hi Jason–I was preparing for a sermon on the place of Scripture in our lives and ran across your paper, God’s Story, that you wrote with Mark Feliciano. I was very impressed and inspired by the way you guys summarized the Bible and felt deeply fed by reading it. Thanks so much. I have been thinking quite a bit about the overarching story in recent years–such an important concept that can revolutionize our understanding of being in Christ.
    Warmly,
    Michael

  2. Jason, I’m a bit concerned with your claims below:

    “When you approach the Bible as a receptacle of “timeless truths” that are to be extracted and applied, you actually undermine its richness and authority. That’s because you end up treating the Bible in a way it was never meant to be treated. The Bible is a grand narrative, not a rule book, an instruction manual or a systematic theology textbook. It is a Story. And we don’t live in the Old Testament parts of the Story. Jesus climaxed and redefined that portion of the Story in a fresh and unique way. And we are living two thousand years beyond where the New Testament portion of the Story ends. So implementing the renewed creation that Jesus inaugurated must be fresh and relevant for our time, our neighborhood, and our culture.”

    It is not your critique of the formulaic approaches to the Bible that are not life giving, but your concept of “Story” and your insistence that it must be “relevant.” Was the New Testament “Story” largely historical on your view, I mean, did it happen in our world? Would a scientist from today witness spiritual healing if Jesus came today? We are called to be “all things to all people.” But does that in any way compromise our hope? Do we not, at the very minimum, hope in the truths revealed in the Bible?

  3. Hi Michael. Thanks for stopping by and your comment. I agree with you, the idea of the Bible as a story or narrative is extremely important in understanding being in Christ.

  4. Hi Sam. Thanks for the comments. They evoked a flurry of thoughts that ended up being way tooooo long for a comment, so I’m going to post them as a separate post in the next day or so.

    I need some more clarification, though. I’m not sure I understand why you feel the concept of story compromises truth or hope. What’s your concern about relevance? Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “spiritual healing.” Thanks.

  5. Hi Jason,

    I thought of something to say, but I think you need to listen to this…probably five times. I’ve listened to it twice and I’m sure I will again. This talk will give you the deepest insight in our dear friend’s commitment to truth, knowledge, the Western philosophical tradition (excluding Nietzsche and others), our Lord, Plato’s philosophy, etc:

    http://www.veritas.org/3.0_media/talks/216

    Note: Play close attention to the short debate he has with the atheist/relativist and to his very biting comment about despairing “of ever find it” or something like that. Find out what it means to be open without giving up hope that one can know (not without any doubt) that Jesus Christ is Lord. I do not know that yet….but I have that hope, unlike the rest of our culture I have not completely despaired of ever finding truth. And ask yourself honestly where you are at in relation to these questions.

    Best always,
    Sam

  6. Hi Sam. Thanks for the link to the Dallas Willard’s lecture. I really liked and agreed with most of what he said. But because I really didn’t disagree with anything he said, I’m not sure what you think you are hearing me say in my post. I’m going to email you directly to talk about this and other things.

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