Could Theological/Ethical Reasoning Be Like Jazz?

I would like to suggest that there are multiple faithful communities of Christian understanding and practice who prioritize adherence to biblical instruction, although they emphasize varying aspects of it. All of these communities might be described as “faithful,” even though they are all also to some degree “faithless,” again in a variety of ways. Recognizing that this reality has persisted across history, I propose that the Bible may serve faith and mission best when it generates a dialogue among faithful readers from varying perspectives.

What if interpretation were understood to function in light of relational fact: all who call upon Jesus as Savior/Messiah share a single identity and primary purpose, but reflect a different utility within the over-arching Body of Christ?[1] Thus conceived, interpretation would provoke a lively interchange among interpreters who speak from the particularities of their unique gifts and experiences, and we might begin to celebrate the contribution of each distinct community. None of whom might be said to faithfully reflect the infinite image of God on their own, but all of whom may highlight a particular facet of His image, which the world is certain to be in desperate need of observing and experiencing.

Old Testament scholar, Daniel Hawk, writes:

“As in the musical work, so in interpretation. Strongly held convictions may be fervently expressed, not as a means of bending other voices to a single, agreed-upon melody, but rather as an expression of distinct voices in a complex conversation that becomes greater than the sum of its parts….

Decisions about how the Bible guides … will always have to be made and lived out by individuals and Christian communities. Contrapuntal reading would allow for conclusions to be clarified and nuanced by insights gained from an ongoing conversation with other faithful followers who respect each other….

Christian interpretation, in other words, is both determined and improvisational, not unlike jazz. Jazz integrates diverse melodies into a holistic musical experience that values the voice of each musician as a necessary component of the unified musical enterprise. Jazz requires that musicians listen carefully to the other musicians in the ensemble and follow the flow of the musical conversation. When this is done well, the result is a unified musical work, which nevertheless preserves the distinct voices in the ensemble….

Debates about the rightness and wrongness of interpretations perpetuate the antagonistic character of modern society, abet a smug assurance that one occupies the biblical high ground, and maintain divisions between Christian confessions. Conversations among disparate Christian parties, as an ongoing corporate exercise in discernment, however, underscore the relational bond that all followers of Jesus share, remind participants of the complexity of ethical decision-making in a sinful world, and may even yield new, Spirit-inspired insights. Interpretive jazz ensembles would allow all perspectives to be heard but would not demand that anyone change one’s views—only that one listens actively, with respect, and with the sense that one’s understanding of the biblical witness and its relevance for contemporary problems is enriched by the conversation.”[2]

Undoubtedly, this way of walking might be (and has been) abused and taken too far. However, it seems to me that this practice, if held in conjunction with the foundational conviction that the Word of God expressed in all of Scripture functions as the primary expression of God’s ultimate authority continuing to instruct the redeemed of every generation, will yield abundant fruit in the lives of God’s people.

While the Bible points to God’s ideals, it also describes Christlike accommodations to sinful brokenness.[3] And, indeed, as Elmer Martens has reminded us,[4] Christ empowered the Christian community to “bind” or “loose” (Matt. 18:15-20), which means that any given Christian community may be more restrictive or more permissive than the straightforward teaching of Scripture itself. Given that the Holy Spirit has been given to the entire body of Christ, not all community decisions will be universally adopted by all other communities of faith.[5] May we be a people shaped by God’s Word, and committed to relational exegesis and application in concert with other communities of God’s people across history and geography.

As we forge colonies of heaven in the midst of the surrounding cultures of despair, may God’s word guide us in the shaping of a biblical culture for our time and place. May the watching world say, “What kind of god is this, who gives these people in our midst such wisdom and joy?”[6] And may they discover that it is not a god, but the God who inhabits us and is our Wisdom.


[1] 1 Corinthians 12

[2] L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019), 201-203.

[3] Exodus. 21:1-6; Deuteronomy 15:11-18; Mark 14:7

[4] Elmer A. Martens, “Moving from Scripture to Doctrine,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 15.1 (2005): 77–103.

[5] this is one reason why reason must precede tradition in the interpretational hierarchy of scripture, reason, and tradition

[6] Cf., Deuteronomy 4:5-8

The Three-Legged Stool

Anglicanism was given a profound gift in the reflections of Richard Hooker (d. 1600), who articulated a threefold cord that must underlie all informed reflection on the Christian faith: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Finding here a hierarchical triumvirate of authority, the Anglican Way has mostly avoided identifying itself with specific theological systems and focused instead on grounding “its judgements in the authority of Scripture and reason illumined by tradition.” [1]

In so doing, the Anglican Way has preserved the primacy of Scripture as the word of God—not man—and of the necessity of semper reformanda in subjecting tradition to evaluation by Scripture-ruled reason. While it is not difficult to find broad agreement on the inclusion of all three legs of the so-called “three-legged stool,” ever since the Oxford Movement there has been a perpetual challenge to the requisite hierarchical ordo of these three authorities, despite the fact that Hooker himself was crystal clear:

“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after these, the voice of the Church succeedeth.”

– Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8.2 (London, 1597)

I’ll continue to stand with Hooker on this topic, although not primarily because he said it, but because it is congruent with reason so to hold. It is, however, significant that a voice of tradition backs up the exercise of reason, as it must always do or the tradition is to be rejected.

“[continuing from the above quote]… That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” [2]

Ultimately, I hold that reason must precede tradition in the hierarchy because of the impossibility of the contrary. The expression of the judgement of tradition is itself an exercise of reason in the application of Scripture’s authoritative voice to a specific time and place.

No voice of tradition may exert an authority prior to reason or it becomes Scripture, which alone expresses the reason of God rather than of man, and so speaks in a universal and timeless manner; to be accepted as in accordance with faith and reason, but not established by faith or human reason: the reason of God being transcendent, the reason of man being derivative. To reason otherwise is 1) to be irrational, 2) to accept the place of the Magisterium, and 3) to obliterate the possibility of the validity and necessity of the Reformation. I think you can see, therefore, why I’ll be rather inflexible on this point.

“Primary authority, that is to say, belongs to Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’; but whatever may be deduced from Scripture by the proper use of reason carries a derivative authority with it. As for ‘the voice of the Church’, which is certainly one form of tradition, that was placed by Hooker on the third level of authority, but it carries real authority when it is agreeable to Scripture and not contrary to reason.” [3]


[1] Sykes, Stephen, John E. Booty, and Jonathan Knight. The Study of Anglicanism. London: SPCK/Fortress Press, 1998. p. 11.

[2] Richard Hooker, The Works of That Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, ed. John Keble, vol. 2, book 5, 8.2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1874), 34.

[3] F. F. Bruce, “Scripture in Relation to Tradition and Reason,” in Scripture, Tradition, and Reason: A Study in the Criteria of Christian Doctrine : Essays in Honour of Richard P.C. Hanson, ed. Richard Bauckham and Benjamin Drewery (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 35–36.

Theology

Theology is first the activity of thinking and speaking about God (theologizing), and second the product of that activity…. As an activity, theology is a cat’s cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesizing what they say on the things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), defining the Christian task in the world (missiology), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality) and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology).

J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), xi–xii.

As usual, Packer is so on point and so clear, but there may be slight room for improvement here. I can accept many of these helpful definitions as written, but a few I would seek to improve slightly.

Here’s my take:

  • Theology: thinking and speaking about God
  • Exegesis: elucidating texts
  • Biblical theology: synthesizing what the Bible says about theology on its own terms, by noting its own order, identifying its own center, and distilling its own story
  • Historical theology: seeing how the faith was stated in the past
  • Systematic theology: formulating and organizing the faith for today
  • Ethics: finding the Bible’s implications for conduct
  • Apologetics: commending and defending the Bible as truth and wisdom
  • Missiology: defining the Christian task in the world
  • Spirituality: stockpiling resources for life in Christ
  • Liturgy: articulating and arranging the Bible for corporate worship
  • Practical theology: exploring ministry as a way of life

An RV Trip through Oregon

Coyote Rock MarinaHaving arrived at our rest, I sat and watched as smoke and mist curled up and past the multi-hued and verdant trees who stood guard over the deep green river.  Evergreens and birches interspersed, rose rank after rank toward the bald eagle who soared away from the mouth of the estuary and up river toward Coyote Rock.

Vespers this night was evensong with a winged choir, all wind instruments and no strings, with God showing up and showing off. An otter popped up his head in curiosity, swimming toward us till I walked closer, my hulking figure appearing behind the willowy girls.

SeagullOnPierShall I describe the smells too? No, my eyes are still preoccupied with white egrets and grey herons, with ducks whose wings whisked the placid river’s surface, and a seagull on the pier patiently waiting to see what we might leave from dinner.

This was just our destination. We left Nampa yesterday, and stayed in Burns last night where we saw crows harass a great horned owl off his perch above our RV, and toured one of three tipis with the friendly proprietor.

On the way toward Bend we saw a coyote wading in the Malheur River, pheasants approaching the road, a mohawked roadrunner, and antelope in bands of three and four, running as they played.Antelope

We stopped at a viewpoint before the landscape changed from red to green where my son caught a lizard with a brilliant azure blue under its neck and striping his belly. Six steps from the road the land fell away into a rocky gorge with gnarled trees clinging desperately to crumbling lava. My daughter commented it could have been the Grand Canyon she’s not yet seen, but I was glad for her wonder and didn’t correct her.

There’s no end of surprises on the road. We stopped to snap photos in front of a shoe-laden tree in the middle of nowhere, wondering who planned a trip to ditch their aging shoes, but glad for their spontaneity, which graced the rugged terrain to travelers’ delight. ShoeTree

The road goes ever on, sun shining in my eyes yesterday afternoon and lighting the tips of a few spindly pines ahead of me this morning as they stretched skyward beyond their brothers blanketing the Western Cascades The 2 Sisters Oregonas we left Sisters, OR in our wake. Now instead of gazing upon vast vistas our eyes peered through a tunnel of trees with beams of sunshine winking through as we whipped past. 

Soon rain misted our windshield as we wound down from 4,800 feet toward Salem. Moss blanketed the trees like green snow and some sort of brilliant yellow lilies pierced through a sea of grass as we pushed toward Tillamook county.

I’m lying in bed as I write, watching my wife blow dry her hair; thankful for the convenience of power and water amid the wild beauty around us. As she wraps up the cord, I can hear the burbling of the rivulet breaking out of the steeply angled woods across the river.

Morning Prayer on Sunday enjoyed the same choir, with choristers rarely seen except when they flitted from tree to tree. If you’ve ever been in a sanctuary with the choir above and behind you, it was kind of like that. You don’t see the choir you just experience them; one can easily be transported into the heavenly realm.

We left the Oregon Coast and headed toward McMinnville, OR where so many of my ancestors lived. There’s a park here on land donated by my Uncle Tuck. It’s been a weekend of worship and my heart is full as we head home on I-84 along the Columbia River.

Waterfall  3 Teepees White Egret  LaGrange OR lizard

This entire experience was made possible by Rent For Fun RV, and we recommend them to you as honest, friendly, reliable, and generous people. Hop on over to their site and see if you can rent an RV for your next memory creating event!

I Am Valued – a poem

Scorned and disdained,
I am chosen by the King.

Impotent and insolent,
I am humbled by the Potentate.

Dust-born and sin-soiled,
I am envisaged by the Seer.

Bedraggled and disheveled,
I am a canvas for the Artist.

Forlorn and war-torn,
I am upheld by the Comforter.

Beset and bedeviled,
I am rescued by Heaven.

Ragtag and weary,
I am sustained by the Spirit.

Pummeled and bruised,
I am sheltered by the Rock.

Confused and uncertain,
I am wielded by the Healer.

Seen by the Savior,
I find myself in His eyes,
And discover I am valued.

Another Way to Read Scripture

Recommendation: re-read Romans 7-8 out loud.

What I’m suggesting is not a replacement for studying the Scriptures, nor for any other method of reading, but an alternative I’m suggesting can bear fruit from time to time.

On this occasion, read not with an eye to understanding what on earth Paul is trying to say in Ch 7, but with an eye to what happens to Paul as he contemplates God in the process of explaining to the believers in Rome.

By the time Paul gets to the end of Ch 8 he is enraptured by the character of God: caught up in delight at the recognition of the profundity of Who God is and what He does.

By the time he gets to 8:31 the quill of his amanuensis has begun to sing, the scratches on parchment become rhythmic, and in my mind’s eye, by the end of the chapter Paul is standing, arms trembling, voice crescendoing, and then he collapses to his knees as his spirit and the Spirit commune in adoration, before he has calmed and can resume penning what would become known as chapter 9.

All true theology is doxological.

Midlife Reflection of a Mature Christian

When unchallenged and unconfronted by people who know us, one inevitably becomes uncorrected and imbalanced, and lacunae develop in one’s introspection. One’s mind becomes pre-programmed to avoid these mostly unexamined and consequently sensitive areas, and it permits oneself to sally forward “assured” of our own righteousness.

Why “sensitive”? Because to examine these lacunae forces one to acknowledge a tension between the comfort our introspection has provided and the reality of our own need for repentance and forgiveness: for reformation.

As humans we seek to live a managed life, but God seems to insist that we live a formational life, and He will orchestrate circumstances to ensure that no blind spot remains unchallenged. The solution is not to exert greater control, but to confess, repent, receive forgiveness, and embrace new learning with humility and gratitude.

“What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”

The secret to avoiding this (practically speaking) is a commitment to community: to knowing and being known. This is a determined investment in the process of becoming vulnerable to being known well and the responsibility of knowing others well. The personal character quality required is humility.