The Psychology of Belief, Part 7: Discernment Redux

In Acts 15 and Galatians 2 we observed some things about how to discern spiritual truth. The main issue I reflected on yesterday is how individual religious experiences must be intermingled to create a coherent, comprehensive "story" about God's work in the world.

Today, I want to make two other observations about Acts 15 and Galatians 2.

First, how does the Bible interface with religious experience?

Notice that Scripture does make an appearance in Acts 15. Notice that James quotes Amos during the deliberations. But notice how the Scripture is deployed. It is deployed not as a trump card, but as another voice. That is, the experience of the prophet Amos, long dead, must also be heard. Amos' encounter with God, his own private mystical experience that he shared with Israel, must also intermingle with contemporary experiences. This use of Scripture, conspicuously absent from most Protestant churches, is seen in how James introduces Amos. James says that the Scripture is "in agreement." Notice, the experiences of those present are not asked to agree with Amos. Rather, it is noted that Amos agrees with the experience of the church. This is a curious reversal. However, this agreement makes the participants in Acts 15 confident that they are on the right track.

Obviously, for Christians, the experience of the Incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, is the experience you most want to agree with you. Consequently, as Christians discern their experiences, the gospel stories take pride of place.

I want to dig a little deeper here, because what is happening in Acts 15 is no facile reconciliation between Scripture and Experience. Let's look a little closer at the Biblical dispute in Acts 15.

In Acts 15 some Jewish Christians were making this claim: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." Now, why might they be making this claim? Well, in Genesis 17: 9-13 we find this:

"Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you...My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant."

Circumcision: An everlasting covenant.

So, you can see the problem in Acts 15. By quoting Genesis 17 you have a pretty unshakable Biblical argument: Circumcision is an everlasting covenant. No getting around that! But, interestingly, in Acts 15 the church doesn't agree. Huh?

Up against Genesis 17 we have all this human experience. Let's read from Acts 15 again:

"The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: 'Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.'

The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them."

Thus we see, deployed in contrast to Genesis 17, is Peter's encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10 and all the amazing things Paul had observed in his mission work with the Gentiles. That is, Peter and Paul EXPERIENCED the salvation of the Gentiles independent of circumcision. So, who is right? The Bible (i.e., Genesis 17) or the experience of the church?

But we should quickly note that the church did not eschew the Bible. That would be truly foolish. In the end, as James pointed out, the Bible was "in agreement" with experience. What happened, it seems, is that the experience of the church changed how the Bible was read.

I'd like to say more about this, but space is limited. For more on the Bible and experience see these sources: NT scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson's books "Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity" and his "Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church." I've also found chapter two of Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis" to be interesting on this topic as well.

The second and final point I want to make about Acts 15 is the tentative nature of the judgments. In Acts 15, after all that debate, the best the council could muster was "it seems good to us." Put that phrase up against what I said last week about moral convictions. If moral convictions can be dangerous then a faith characterized by "it seems good to us" is in a much better place. Such a church is humble, curious, and open. Such a church seeks God and doesn't speak for God.

And that seems good to me.

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2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 7: Discernment Redux”

  1. Pardon if I seem forward ... I think that's a mischaracterization of the council in Acts 15. Salvation never depended on circumcision even before Acts 15, and the eternal covenant with Abraham never changed even after Acts 15; the two are not the same thing and the question on the table is whether they were related. All that the council decided was whether Gentiles (not blood descendants of Abraham) were bound by an agreement (Genesis 17) that was specific to blood descendants of Abraham. What the council decided was very much in line with ancient Judaic law on the same question, that God-fearing Gentiles are not required circumcision for salvation, but are required to abide by the ancient Noahide laws (no idolatry, accountability for blood, etc.).

    Take care & God bless

  2. I believe the reference in Genesis 17 as being an everlasting covenant is a reference to the nature of the covenant once it is established. Genesis 17 intends to show that God is committing to the covenant for an "everlasting" period of time once the covenant of circumsion is made...not that the covenant of circumsion is everlasting, as in circumsion is a prerequisite for acquiring the the covenantal agreement for an "everlasting" period of time. Christ clearly shows that the covenant he brought supersedes the covenant of circumsion.

    I will however agree that through out history we read the bible differently and come up with different interpretations. The Holy Spirit works within in our minds and hearts to discover the new Biblical antecedent for an issue. But we must be careful to not call a new interpretation of scripture something it is not. We can not just revise our understanding of scripture to accomodate something in our culture to make ourselves more relevant...and unfortunate habit of the church.

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