Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Nancey Murphy

John 14:6 simply isn’t about other religions

I love John 14:6. I take so much encouragement from it and it challenges me deeply.

I love John 14:6 but I do not like what many today are doing with it: hiding behind it as a catch-all explanation for other religions...

Here is what I love about the passage and the three things I don’t like that people do with the passage:

What I love – this is a disciples invitation. It happens within a story, it is in dialogue that Jesus’ famous sentence “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. It comes in response to a very specific question. Here is the thing – the question is not “What about other religions?” The question was a disciples’ question about following.

Three things people do that scare me – My first concern is that people only quote John 14:6 and not John 14:1-5 or even 14:7. They have ripped this one sentence out of its narrative context and acted like it emerged in a vacuum. This is never a good sign. In fact, the only way this famous sentence of Jesus works as an answer to the question ‘What about other religions?’ is if you isolate it from the rest of the story and place it in a vacuum.

The second concern is that our inherited (non-Hebrew) concern with substance and our language’s (non-Hebrew) lack of relational emphasis really handicaps us when reading the scriptures. I have to explain to people all the time that when Jesus calls God ‘Father’ he is speaking relationally – he related to God as one relates to one’s pappa (or abba). He is not saying that god IS ontologically a Father. Language about God is not univocal, it is equivocal. Or, if you prefer, as Nancey Murphy points out, language is not representative of God, it is expressive. Language does not represent God is a 1:1 ratio – it is merely expressive of some aspect or nature of God.

The third concern is that in John 14:6 Jesus could not possibly have been talking about Muslims. He had never met a Muslim (as Islam didn’t exist yet) and therefore could not have been talking about them. In fact, once one comes to terms with this reality, one has to question whether Jesus would have even know about Buddhists or Hindus either. No, Jesus had probably never encountered them and certainly wasn’t referring to other religions in John 14:6.

(Unless of course you are retroactively ascribing attributes … at which point you are going to have to explain why you chose this one over other preferable ones.)

This sentence was uttered:

  • in conversation with his disciples
  • in response to a very specific question
  • as an invitation to his disciples
  • to relate to God as Jesus related to God

Where the problem seems to lie: When people miss the relational language (come to the Father as related to God), remove the sentence from its narrative context (as if it emerged in a vacuum) and assume that Jesus was referring to things he couldn’t possibly have known about … then irony sets in.

The ironic thing is that quoting John 14:6 as a stand alone explanation – without receiving it as a disciples invitation – one may actually be doing the exact opposite with that passage as Jesus was asking one to do: follow his way.

Having said all of that: Maybe Prophet Isa was talking about Muslims in John 14:6. Maybe he was saying that if they want to relate to God as he did – that they could only do so by walking his way and following his life.  In fact,  if you take away the univocal  calling God Father (ontologically) and see it as expressive (or equivocal) of relating to God as one relates to a loving father … you would remove the biggest obstacle Islam has to Jesus – namely that the Quran tells Muslims not to say that ‘God has children’.

You may think that I am way off here – but until we:

  1. stop quoting John 14:6 in a vacuum
  2. stop thinking that Jesus was talking about other religions
  3. stop thinking that Jesus’ Father language is univocal (instead of relational)

We won’t even be able to have the conversation and explore the possibility.


Is God a Rock?

part 2

In the last post I asked if the Bible was ‘man’ made. Now, I want to ask if God is a Rock.

If you say ‘No’, then someone will point to one of the many passages like Psalm 18:2

The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

If you say “Yes – God is a rock”… then you have some explaining to do. Are you being poetic? Symbolic? Is it analogy? Allegory? or is it exacting and univocal?

This is why it is so important to understand what Nancey Murphy is saying in Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism. It is essential to know the difference between representative language and expressive language.

Is God literally a rock? Of course not. The author was saying that God is strong and trustworthy like a rock – the immovable foundation upon which we build. This is not representative language which works in a 1:1 ratio. It is expressive language. It was expressing something that the author believed and wanted to communicate.

There is nothing more important to get right if you want to read the Bible.

The reason is so powerfully illustrated when it comes to reading the Book of Revelation – perhaps that is why it garners so much attention and causes so much confusion.

Are there literally 7 lamp-stands over a city or a monster that comes out of the sea?  Most people will acknowledge that this is symbolic language.

Are the streets of heaven literally paved with gold? I think that is coded language for ‘it will be amazing’. Will Christ reign for 1,000 years? What if that is coded language for  a long time? Would it interest you to know that both of those illustration would have made 1st century readers think about Caesar imagery?

The so called ‘literal’* reading of the Bible ignores two important things: Continue reading “Is God a Rock?”

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