“It Ain’t that Complicated” — Applied Theological Hermeneutics VI

Do we need “authority” for what we believe and practice in the kingdom of God?

I think so. 

It seems that Jesus was concerned about that very question when he raised it with his inquisitors regarding the baptism of John.  “By what authority” seems to be a legitimate question (Matthew 23:23-27).  [Perhaps someone might quibble with my use of that text–I understand that, but I will leave the larger question to the side for the moment.  I will simply assume, for my present purposes, that disciples of Jesus need “authority” for what they believe and practice in the kingdom of God.]

Now the question is what do we mean by “authority”? What are we talking about? 

Limiting myself to the historic position among Churches of Christ on “biblical authority,” I want to discuss this point in the light of two variant approaches.

One answer might be something like this.  What disciples need for authority in the kingdom of God is positive law. In other words, to search out the rules and regulations which govern the church as if New Testament documents intended to fully set out a pattern for the church in terms of assembly, organization, etc. These rules, for example, are specific and exclude coordinates (not simply what contradicts the command, but what is coordinate to the command). The specific of bread and wine, for example, excludes any other food in addition to the bread and wine. The specific of singing excludes any addition to the singing (including humming, playing or handclapping, etc.). The specific of first day of the week Lord’s Supper excludes any other day. What is assumed is that each of these texts intend to be specific exclusionary commands. This is a process for discerning positive law, and it assumes a constitutional literary model, legal hermeneutics, isolation of texts from contexts in order to place them in a legal syllogistic frame, human inferences about “coordinates” and their nature, and the Reformed regulative principle among other things. I have critiqued this approach in my previous articles on hermeneutics, especially the series on Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics and this present series.

Another answer might be something like this.  What disciples need for authority in the kingdom of God is an organic connection or relationship with the gospel (the Christ Event). Jesus is the authority in the kingdom of God–the meaning and significance of his life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension are the authority for disciples of Jesus. Whatever we do in the kingdom of God must be rooted, connected to and organically grow out of the Christ Event. It is fundamentally the imitation of Jesus, but more broadly the imitation of God (theocentric focus) who is revealed in Jesus and through redemptive history.

The problem with positive law is that we don’t have any instruction within the New Testament that fits the genre of a legal code in the New Testament.  The Christ Event is the core message of the New Testament and the theological reality which is the hermeneutical lens for Paul (as an example).  If you have read my previous posts on hermeneutics, you can understand why I think the “Christ Event” rather than “positive law” is the root of authority in the kingdom of God. 

Authority derives climatically from the mighty act of God in Jesus whose significance has been lived out in Israel previously and the church subsequently. Authority in the kingdom of God is not about legal propositions but authentic revelation of the heart of God in Jesus.

But how does this work? Those within Churches of Christ are quite familiar with how positive law functions within a paradigm of command, example and inference that assumes a legal pattern for the church within the New Testament. But authority derived from the act of God in Jesus does not resonate well with those trained in the legal hermeneutic of positive law.  Consequently, I will briefly illustrate what I mean by this.

Those who know my writings know that I have spent quite a bit of time and used quite a bit of space talking about the sacraments or ordinances of the gospel (Baptism, Lord’s Supper and–I would add–Assembly).

The practice and meaning of these sacramental moments is derived from the Christ Event rather than a positive law. This was part of my purpose in my “sacramental triology” on Baptism, Lord’s Supper and Assembly.

Baptism. Disciples follow Jesus into the water.  They commit themselves, as Jesus did, to the ministry of the kingdom through their baptism. They are declared children of God at their baptism. They are gifted with the Holy Spirit to minister at their baptism.  Jesus is the model of baptism; his baptism is the first Christian baptism. As disciples of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the way of the cross through baptism just as he did.

Israel anticipated this purification act through their own water rituals and the early church continued the water ritual of baptism as initiation into the community, participation in the gospel, and anticipation of the eschaton.

Lord’s Supper. Disciples follow Jesus to the table. They continue the table ministry of Jesus through the breaking of bread–eating with sinners and saints, Pharisees and prostitutes. At the table, Jesus breaks the bread, communes with us, and we enjoy the fellowship of the kingdom.  But the table is characterized by kingdom etiquette–it welcomes the poor, the oppressed, the wealthy, sick, etc. At the table we sit as servants together in the kingdom of God and declare the gospel in word and deed.

Israel anticipated this table fellowship through the thanksgiving (fellowship) offerings of the Levitical system which was a daily event in Israel and part of every festival.  The early church continued breaking bread with Jesus and each other, both daily and every first day of the week. The practice of the table was declaration of the gospel, a participation in the gospel, and an anticipation of the eschaton.

Assembly. Disciples follow Jesus into the assembly of God’s people.  Jesus assembled with the people of God to declare the praise of God, and he calls us to gather together in his name to pray. He is present with us, joins in our chorus of praise to the Father, and by the presence of the Spirit transforms us into his image.

Israel anticipated the assembly of God’s people with Jesus through their own assemblies in the presence of God (Leviticus 23) as their festivals were sacred moments of encounter between God and his people.  The early church continued the practice of assembling for prayer as well as mutual encouragement, but it was not simply for encouragement but also to meet with Jesus and enter the Holy of Holies as a community. Assembling is a witness of the gospel, a participation in the gospel, and an anticipation of the eschaton.

Thus, disciples seek “authority” in the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus rather than in prescriptive rules and regulations that are embedded in a legal constitution. We seek authority in the story of God among his people so that we might participate in that story, imitate the life of God in that story, and become the image of God in the world rather than finding a pattern (which we have to construct because it is not explicitly there) in order to build our congregations like Moses built the tabernacle.

I know that there are many other hermeneutical issues to consider.  I have made a feeble, fallible and flawed attempt to think through some of the issues of hermeneutical method.  I hope it is beneficial to some and at least food for thought to all.

Now I take leave for a few days to watch the Cubs in Atlanta as the eschaton is on the horizon with the Cubs in first place!  🙂


John Mark

12 Responses to ““It Ain’t that Complicated” — Applied Theological Hermeneutics VI”

  1.   Tim Archer Says:

    I don’t have a lot to add, but I want you to know that I have found this very helpful. I have yet to read A Gathered People and am not yet in agreement on the assembly as sacrament (Bobby has been working on me), but I look forward to learning more.

    Thanks for this helpful series.

    Grace and peace,

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Perhaps it all depends on what one means by “sacrament.” 🙂 There is lots of baggage to that word.

    If one can affirm and welcome a divine act through the assembly–a means by which God transforms, encounters, confronts and engages us–then it is, at least on one sense, “sacramental.” 🙂

    Blesssings, and thanks for your encouragement.

  3.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    So you think the eschaton is approaching if the Cubs make it? But I just can’t see them doing it … another fan will be in the stands to jinx them 🙂

    Bobby V

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    “Thus, disciples seek “authority” in the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus…”

    What is our hermeneutic? Jesus is my hermeneutic!

    Now as far as those Cubs go… (and the crowd sings) “Go Cubs, go… Go Cubs, go… Hey Chicago, what do ya say, the Cubs are gonna win today.”


  5.   richard constant Says:

    THIS SEASON? 2008? CUBS??
    WAKE UP!

    Wikipedia: A delusion is commonly defined as a fixed false belief and is used in everyday language to describe a belief that is either false, fanciful or derived from deception.

    in the case of cubs …this season! 2008!!!

    In psychiatry, the definition is necessarily more precise and implies that the belief is pathological . As a pathology it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information or certain effects of perception which would more properly be termed an apperception or illusion….

    i am sorry i fear the loss of my respect is all at once crashing john mark!!!!

    AND GOOD ADVICE in cases of this nature, is extremely rare.
    People that suffer from this malady tend to surround themselves with individuals of the same predisposition to a delusional pathology.
    (Unfortunately and I’m sorry to advise you all,
    although I Find this kind of conversation and this delusional imaging absolutely absurd)the angles DO NOT LIKE THIS KIND OF ABSURDY COMEING FROM THOSE THAT THINK…. THEY DO.



  6.   Russ Says:

    John Mark,
    Stumbled across your blog and just in time! We’ve been discussing and wrestling with this very issue in our shepherd’s meeting. Thanks for the article…

  7.   Johnny Says:

    If God had intended to regulate the Christian assembly by positive law He could have provided the type of instruction that is contained in Lev. 23. Absent the NT equivalent of Leviticus, the effort to compile a list of rules and regulations for the Christian assembly requires lifting texts from their contexts.

    Additionally, even the argument about specifics eliminating coordinates doesn’t hold up in Israel’s life. In Leviticus (see esp. chapter 23) God specifies the feasts and festivals that He expects Israel to observe. These feasts and festivals are rooted in celebrating God’s Mighty Acts. Using the Law of Exclusion, Israel should have reasoned “the feasts, festivals and holy days that God specified eliminate all other feasts, festivals and holy days.” That, however, does not fit with what Israel actually did. One of the purposes of the Book of Esther is to provide background for the Feast of Purim. One unique feature of canonical Esther is that the name of God does not appear in the text. There are no “thus says the LORD” statements in Esther. Regarding the Feast of Purim, it partakes of the same kinds of elements and activities that comprise the feasts of Leviticus. Esther is clear that the origin of the feast comes from a spontaneous reaction of the people to their victory over their enemies (Esther 9:16-19) which was reinforced by instructions sent in letters from Mordecai (Esther 9:20-23). Verse 23 states explicitly, “So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.” Queen Esther added to the authority for the Feast (Esther 9:24-32). Note especially verse 27 “the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed…,” and verse 29 “Queen Esther daughter of Abihail, along with the Jew Mordecai, gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim…,” and finally verse 32 “The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing.” Rather than limiting the number of feasts in Israel, Leviticus provided a model of how to celebrate the Mighty Acts of God. The Feast of Purim became a part of Israel’s life because the people believed that they had been delivered by God’s mighty (even though silent) hand.

    The Feast of Dedication (Hannukah), likewise, was developed as a result of Israel’s desire to celebrate a Mighty Act of God. The origin of this feast does not appear in Israel’s canonical Scriptures. The background for the feast is in the Books of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha. This feast also partakes of the same kind of elements as the feasts and festivals of Leviticus.

    It appears that Israel did not understand the positive affirmation of certain feasts, festivals and holy days in Leviticus to limit them for all time to those prescribed feasts. Instead, those feasts provided a paradigm for additional feasts that might be adopted when Israel believed that there was theological warrant. That is, when Israel believed that they had experienced a Mighty Act of God that should be celebrated and remembered they did not reason that such celebration and remembrance would constitute “adding to what was written.” Instead they used what was written as a model for adding a new occasion for worship and praise.

    You write, “We seek authority in the story of God among his people so that we might participate in that story, imitate the life of God in that story, and become the image of God in the world…” I believe that was what Israel was doing with the Feasts of Purim and Hannukah and I believe that we can “go … and do likewise.”

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Your point is well-made, Johnny. Even with the “positive law” of Leviticus 23, those specifics did not rule out further coordinates. Thanks for the contribution.

  9.   Keith Brenton Says:

    In addition to your citation:

    “…because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” – Matthew 7:29

    “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins …” – Matthew 9:6 | “When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.” – Matthew 9:8

    “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” – Matthew 10:1

    “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.” – Matthew 20:25-26a

    “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” ~ Jesus, Matthew 28:18.

    Matthew’s gospel seems very interested in authority … authority to do good; forgive sins, empower disciples to go and preach and teach. And Jesus accompanies them to empower them!

    I think the Christ event is Jesus himself, and it is ongoing; more than just relating a 2000-year-old story. His authority is ongoing, irrevocable, empowering. Even when He was not with His followers, they were sent out empowered.

    The moments when we assemble, dine together, and become immersed in His death, burial and resurrection to an enriched life are connecting points to that empowering authority … not just commands we obey in order to tick them off a checklist that keeps God happy with us.

    They’re moments in which He energizes us to live His story, His life in this world.

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Keith. Appropriate words.

  11.   D. A. Braden Says:

    First let me say that I have found your words in this study very helpful. I have searched for several years for the historical background in the C of C on this subject and have not found anything as comprehensive. I think a book would be of great value.

    I think that you have made a clear case for the rejection of positive law. I also believe that you have presented a convincing argument for an alternative view of how scripture regulates worship. I have found your study here and your books informative on this subject. John Frame has presented some ideas which are similar to the ones you have presented and I have found them helpful.

    Yet I still find myself feeling that some of those churches that have moved away from the positive law concept have also moved from Campbell’s restoration plea. If positive law is at one end of pendulum’s arc, and I believe that it nearly is, then what is at the other end? I don’t think the Disciples’ church presents the best option. The Emerging Church movement seems like a counter-culture reaction to established religion (A Gathered People, p. 158) which reflects more of a world view driven theology than a scripturally based one. At what point do we reach a Jesse Ferguson point in time?

    While we are not bound to the concept of positive law, does that then free us from all specifics found in scripture by example or command. Does command and example provide only the theology we should follow? Campbell’s restorationism of doing Bible things by Bible ways and calling things by biblical names seems to me the most practical way of worship and honoring God. In the past the Cs of C have elevated certain things to essentials at the expense of some of the great principles which your study has pointed out. Do we now discount all specifics because we know they are not essential? In your book on baptism (p. 11) you say that baptism is more than just a sign and a command. While not judging the unimmersed, are not we still obligated to teach baptism in connection with salvation? Isn’t immersion better than sprinkling?

    We know that the real “strange fire” of Leviticus 10 was insolence (forgive me for using this example) and yet the object which finally revealed this disrespect was fire taken from a place not specified. If I were to bring this example to the Lord’s Supper, I would agree with you (Come to the Table, p. 176-177) that the “strange fire” of the Corinthian church was “economic divisiveness” and denial of “the gospel through their immorality and idolatry.” But might the final straw of this path reveal itself in an actual substitution for the fruit of the vine and the bread or the addition of other elements to the remembrance? If I were stranded on an island with only Dr. Pepper and Oreo cookies I think God would understand. But once I returned to civilization I think God would expect me to do better even if my heart was in the right place. I would think that the year after Hezekiah re-instituted the Passover that the people did consecrate themselves according to the written instructions.

    I certainly agree with you in principle on what you have said here in this study and your books. Yet I still find comfort in the concepts of Sola Scripture and Regulative principle as more than just theological application (2 Tim. 3:16). I also realize that my views reflect my conservative nature.

  12.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, D.A. I appreciate your reasoned and lengthy comment.

    I think we are long way from Jesse Ferguson’s spiritualism in the Emergent Movement. While I would critique it at some points, there is also much value in it. Just as there is much value in many points made traditionally among Churches of Christ.

    I would not suggest that freedom from the search for positive law frees us from the specifics of divine commands. Rather, the commands arise out of a theology that should shape us. The specifics of the commands, however, do not necessarily exclude coordinates though they do exclude what contradicts the command. For example, with Nadab and Abihu, they did not add to the command, they violated the command by doing something that contradicted the command itself. They got the fire from “X” instead of “Y” (what the Lord commanded), and yet the underlying problem was still the atittude rather than the act (I would argue).

    I would suggest additions to the fruit of the vine and bread are part of the command itself. 🙂 “Do this” (do this Passover meal?) in remembrance of Jesus. The meal is not an addition to the text; rather, it is part of the text–every example of the Lord’s Supper is in the context of a meal or is the meal itself. But I will not take the time to argue that here.

    I, too, believe our life and practice should be regulated. I would suggest it is regulated by the Christ Event. Commands are a means to discerning the meaning and significance of the Christ Event for the life of the church. To understand the specifics as exclusive of any coordinates is to read the specifics as a function of positive law, in my opinion. At the same time, I think we should obey the specifics rather than contradict them, and we obey those commands which are rooted in the meaning and significance of the Christ Event. This is partly what it means, in my opinion, to be regulated by the gospel of Jesus.

    Thanks for reading and carefully weighing my words. And I am thankful for your kind and gracious inquiry as you make your points.

Leave a Reply