They’ve decked the malls. The supermarket music is oblivious (mostly) to the Christmas songs you find in Luke. And even the “lead article” in the December Ministry, the Adventist magazine for pastors, misses the meaning of the Incarnation.
It’s harder than ever to perceive Jesus through the season’s ribbons and wrapping.
In an essay against (!) “Christ-Centered Hermeneutics,” published in Ministry in the month we associate with Christmas, a learned Adventist contends that Bible can have no single interpretive key. The “Word” is the “Written Word.” The whole of Scripture is authoritative, and Jesus takes no issue with any of it. Thus Christ cannot have hermeneutical “priority.”
But these claims manifestly depart from the Bible itself. In the New Testament the “Word” is God incarnate. In the New Testament law is altered (“You have heard it said…but I say”). In the New Testament Christ (unlike the prophets) is the “image” of the “invisible God,” the “exact imprint” of God’s “very being” (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3).
Because this writer does not even mention these passages, his argument feels willful in some unhappy sense, although I suppose it is not. He intends, no doubt, to shore up confidence in the whole Bible’s importance, and he is surely right to suggest that all scripture is inspired, and useful for “training” (2 Timothy 3:15) in the Christian life.
But consider the Christmas story. In one of its best-known parts, Joseph hears an angel say that the virgin’s son will be “Emmanuel,” or “God with us” (Matthew 1:23, a passage the writer also overlooks). If that angel told the truth, doesn’t the opposite point from the one the article author makes simply follow, just as sunrise follows night. If Christ is God with us, how could he not be the interpretive key to all of Scripture? And if some part of the Bible declares that rebellious sons or adulterous wives may be stoned to death, or that failure to complete a genocide is inexcusable, don’t his words in the Sermon on the Mount trump these earlier words? Aren’t they the better guide to Christian practice now?
The author seems not to recognize that the authority of all of Scripture actually entails a Christ-centered hermeneutic. Without it, how could you refute the person I know of who reads some verses of Revelation (and could read some in the Old Testament) as evidence that Christ, so far from being namby-pamby, wants to make his enemies “bleed.” This person explains that he could not “worship a guy I can beat up.”
It’s in such a light that I am alarmed by attempts to flatten out the authority of Scripture, alarmed by how (in effect if not intent) these attempts blunt the practical meaning of the Christmas story. Why is the point Scripture so clearly makes so persistently hard to embrace?
But here I hasten to add something. Even if, one way or another, the season too often lets us down, now and then you can see through the ribbons and wrapping to the deeper meaning. I was taken aback by the whole story of Jesus just last night. Let me tell you what happened.
Two Adventist refugees from the Republic of Congo have just shown up in Dayton. Whereas I salute generosity, my wife Becky tends to wraps her arms around it. (She’s human, of course; I’m just confessing my own sorry tendency to a discipleship more abstract than full-blooded.) So beginning last Sabbath, when these refugees attended our church, she began to connect with them, and to plan on putting some food and clothing together.
A local agency has housed these refugees in what some take to be an iffy neighborhood, so Becky was pleased yesterday to run into Isaac Nzamutuma, an Adventist who works, as she does, at the Kettering Medical Center. Isaac, himself a Rwandan, is much loved in the hospital, not least by patients. He promptly said Yes—he’s that sort of person—when Becky asked him to accompany us, later in the evening, to where the newcomers are staying. From his own experience as an immigrant, Isaac knew the neighborhood well, and his language skills would help in case a last-minute connection by cell phone was needed.
We picked Isaac up at his apartment and drove to the house we were looking for. When through some misunderstanding no one was there, his command of the pertinent African language was a godsend. Within minutes of a phone call, these Adventist refugees had hurried back from an English language class and were expressing their thanks for the food, clothing and blankets we had brought along. There was smiling all around, as genuine, it seemed, as angel song.
Isaac has a fine sense of humor to go along with his remarkable kindness; his words and eyes make people smile, then break into laughter. So we enjoyed our chat on the way back to his apartment. Then, as the car rolled to a curbside halt, Isaac suddenly blurted out: “Let’s pray.”
What I now heard was an expression of the most heartfelt gratitude for all that had happened. Isaac had not even been scheduled to work yesterday; he’d come in after an unexpected call. Even when he does come in, he does not see Becky all that often, but yesterday she had shown up just where he was working. Then he got to meet—this was something he felt immensely glad about—two people from Africa he could help, and he was going to back on Sabbath morning to give them a lift to the worship service.
All of this seemed to Isaac Nzamutuma like a sheer gift, a whole series of “miracles.” His prayer was full of words like that; it was alive with the season’s joy, like the pealing of church bells. And coming from someone so gentle and so pleased to serve, it was a touching evocation of the spirit the Christ child would come to symbolize.
Today Isaac’s joy is still as potent as medicine, and it helps me focus on some facts besides the ones I’ve so far talked about. One is that the December Ministry magazine has a large-minded article by Reinder Bruinsma on the development of doctrine: he warns against all cocksureness in the Christian exchange of ideas. Another is that Frank Hasel, the author I disagree with, is a brother in the faith, someone I would like to meet and would no doubt agree with on many, many points. Still another is that even though I try to throw off simplemindedness and resist easy invocation of the miraculous, I still feel that God’s gifts are astounding.
When Isaac expressed his gratitude for so many “miracles” piling one on top of the other in a single day, I knew it was time for the heartiest Amen I could muster. In a way, he’d been like a star, leading me straight to the insight and adoration of the old story we tend to blot out with winking lights and shiny paper, or even, sometimes, our doctrine gone awry.