Sunday, May 4, 2014

Item 07-02: "The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)" deconstructing the biblical text

The 221 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly will be voting on Item 07-02  which is chiefly focused on the document “The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) recommends that the General Assembly approve ‘The Interreligious Stance.’ Sadly,  it is filled with misunderstandings and distortions of the biblical text.  Item 07-02 includes, besides the action on the paper, ‘The Interreligious Stance,” eight other actions. One of the actions is an amendment to the Book of Order at G-5.0102. 

Although the Advisory Committee on the Constitution is not recommending the passage of action 2 of item 07-02, I will give an analysis of it below.

The action changes,”The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels seeks new opportunities for conversation and understanding with non-Christian religious entities,”
to this:
“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels will be open to opportunities for respectful dialogue and mutual relationships with religious entities and persons outside the Christian tradition. It does this in the faith that the church of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, is a sign and means of God’s intention for the wholeness of all humankind and all of creation.”

The change in G-5.0102 is problematic in the fact that it changes the idea of Christianity from a religion to a tradition.  (A tradition has more to do with custom, norms and ritual than with absolute truths about God, faith and morals.)  And the use of the broader term of “religious entities and persons outside the Christian tradition” allows the PC (U.S.A.), using the language of the “Interreligious Stance,” to be in ‘solidarity’ with any kind of spirituality.

But the most troubling part of the item is with some of the content of “The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The document takes up most of the almost nine pages of item 07-02. And absent from both the change to the Book of Order and the ‘Stance’ document is the understanding that Jesus Christ is the unique Lord and final revelation of God. While the paper is divided up into such categories as “Biblical Backgrounds and Teachings,” and even “Mission and Evangelism” there is never an actual reference to what it is the Church wants those of other faiths to know about Christianity in general or Jesus Christ in particular. The love of God is often referred to but not the real meaning of God’s love as displayed in the redemptive life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The GACEIR authors are careful to admonish Christians about providing a witness that is respectful and listens to the other; they are helpful in suggesting mutual activities such as doing justice work together and being neighborly, but they simply fail in helping the Christian to actually understand what her witness means in the face of religious pluralism. Added to this is a total deconstruction of many biblical texts.

Under the subtitle “Biblical Backgrounds and Teachings,” the authors insist that “appreciation” for interreligious activity must “arise out of interpretation of the Bible, the church’s confessional statements, Reformed theology, and the lived experiences of the church.” However the only biblical interpretation used in this section is outside of proper biblical exegesis. The idea of interreligious ‘appreciation’ is read into the text rather than the text speaking to the issue.  In the deconstruction of the text, knowledge about God comes by way of evolving events showing the love of God, but minus the redemptive life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For instance, according to the document, in the Old Testament “the Israelites found themselves dwelling with Canaanite, Moabite, Babylonian, and Persian peoples among others and influenced by their religious understandings.”  There is no mention that this was always a bad influence. The authors go on to state:

The stories of God’s gracious activities through Abraham (Genesis 12-17), Joseph (Genesis 37-50), prophets, matriarchs, and patriarchs toward other peoples of the region are part of a growing understanding of God’s love. God’s love is particularized later to cities such as Nineveh (Jonah 3) and to empires such as Assyria and Egypt (Isaiah 19:23-25).”

Yes, God’s love was involved in the stories, but it was always a love that called the people away from false gods, sinful action and to relationship with the God of Israel. In fact, in the verses preceding Isaiah 19:23-25, God speaks of a return of Egypt to himself:

“In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord near its border. It will become a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they will cry to the Lord because of oppressors, and he will send them a savior and a champion, and he will deliver them.  Thus the Lord will make himself known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day. They well even worship with sacrifice and offering, and well make a vow to the Lord and perform it.” (19-21)

This is true religion, a true turning, because as J. Alec Motyer points out it involves an altar, there is prayer and “God makes himself known,” (revelation),  there is worship and if one goes to the following verse there is discipline.[1] And as we look through the lens of the New Testament, through the revelation of Jesus Christ, we know that the promise of knowing God comes always by way of the promises of a messiah who redeems his people.

The authors of the ‘Stance’ document turn to the New Testament and a little more carefully write, “As the followers of Jesus spread to the cultures of the Roman Empire, they were challenged and influenced by Greek philosophies, Roman emperor worship, Gnostic teaching, and mystery religions of the day.” But they do not take the time to sort out and clarify what influenced and what challenged. In fact, they fail to point out that much of the New Testament was written refuting the ideas found in those issues.

And later, turning to Paul, the authors write that from him we learn a great deal about how to relate to other cultures. They refer to his Athens’ sermon as one good example. And then write, “Paul took seriously the question: What claims do people of different religions make on one another as they live in accordance with what they believe to be true? Paul’s answer was to honor both our commitments to Christian conscience and our commitments to Christian hospitality.” And you might think with this that the authors approve of Paul’s continual stand for truth. But no, they don’t!

 Picking 1 Corinthians 1:22 from the New Testament and Deuteronomy 12:2-3 from the Hebrew Bible they write:

These passages [those I have looked at above.] come to us in the context of other biblical texts. Not all references are loving. Israelites are instructed to destroy Canaanite religious shrines (Duet. 12:2-3), and Paul uses negative terms to describe religious ideas of Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:22). Some Christians use similar statements to condone disrespecting the religions of other people. Overall, however, the biblical intent is clear: God loves all people—and we are to do likewise.

1 Corinthian 1:22 is, “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom” and it is hardly an insult. Many of the Jews came to Christ because of the miracles Jesus and his disciples performed, and the Greeks did love wisdom—undoubtedly it was the Greeks love of wisdom that would lead some of them to Christ who is God’s wisdom. However Paul goes on to write, “but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to gentiles foolishness but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." In other words the crucified Jesus, when his crucifixion and resurrection is embraced, is that one who satisfies both the Jew and the Greek.

As for Deuteronomy 12:2-3, since the Canaanite religion required sexual fertility rites as well as the burning death of children it is hardly surprising that God told the Israelites to tear down their altars.

This section “Biblical Backgrounds and Teachings” of “The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” makes the practical part of the document’s advice unacceptable. Lack of a clear statement about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the twisting of Scripture to fit into the author’s understanding of what interreligious appreciation means leaves the paper open to use by those who wish to deny the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and those who wish to find additional revelation to sit beside God’s final revelation.

[1] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, General Editor, (Downers Grove Inter-Varsity Press 1999).

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