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Johnson begins conveniently by defining terms and concepts to be used throughout the book.
Decision -- in this case, we are only concerned with group decisions, not individual decisions, except as they impact the group's 'choice undertaken...to act in one way rather than another.'
Distinction is made between task decisions and identity decisions. 'Groups have only limited tolerance for diversity. When that tolerance is overstepped, the group will either dissolve or make decisions.' The form of decision making is as important as the principles invoked in decision-making philosophy. The example given here is of a university setting, in which the faculty may have 'authority' for decision making which is in fact carried out by the bureaucracy and/or administrators.
'Practices become explicit in their structure and ideology when challenged by the possibility of change.' Johnson contends that most groups historically have not had the need to examine their practices until challenged with something which does not fit the mold. When this happens, decisions have to be made, and these are subject to interpretation.
Key to interpretation is the norm or measure: 'where is the measure for this identity?' What information is considered relevant or useful? Different organisations have different ideas, indeed, different churches have differing ideas.
Johnson defines church as by various terms throughout, including an intentional community, a living organism (juxtaposed to an organisation), but perhaps the most fundamental is this:
'The church in the strict sense is found where there is a specific group of people who assemble together to call on the name of the Lord in prayer and fellowship.'
Key to the definition and existence of the church is faith. Faith is defined as the response in trust and obedience, a deeply responsive hearing of another's word or call. Faith in God, theological faith, the faith of the church, is therefore the hearing of the call of God. And the distinctiveness of the community called 'Church'
Johnson's definition of faith is different from many theologians in that is requires a recognition that God acts now, and continues to act. Johnson's faith is 'not attachment to a body of doctrines but a process of responding in obedience and trust to God's Word,' which continues to speak to us through the interpretive prism of community and experience.
Johnson then proceeds to discuss the normative use of scripture, which he returns to in each chapter. Two quotes are essential from the text here:
'It is an expression of the church's faith to regard these writings as prophetic for every age, and therefore as speaking God's Word.'
'The theologian serves the church by allowing the text from the past and the text of the present to enter mutual interpretation.'
Johnson then proceeds to discuss the hotly debated topic of authority of the scriptures. Johnson, who is conservative in many ways personally and academically, espouses a fluid, 'dialectical relationship between text and readers.' He summarised his train of thought by the following points:
(1) The canon of Scripture is 'the church's working bibliography.'
(2) This canon is 'a faith decision for the church to make in every age and place.'
(3) 'The canon establishes discrete writings from the past as this community's Scripture.'
(4) 'It is the nature of a canon to be closed.'
(5) The canon thus has 'universal and enduring pertinence.'
(6) The distinguishing characteristic of the interpreter is in recognition of this as a canon, with some form and degree of authority.
(7) 'They have a peculiar and powerful claim on the lives of individuals and above all on the community.'
(8) 'They not only speak in the voice of their human authors but also speak for an Other.'
(9) 'Divine inspiration' best expresses the 'unique authority' given, that they are 'the real but subtle work of the Holy Spirit.'
(10) As a diverse collection, 'it resists reduction to any single unifying principle imposed from without', also from within.
(11) 'The church requires a hermeneutic appropriate to the nature of the canon.'
On this last point, Johnson argues often that churches then to apply hermeneutics appropriate to the church structure rather than to the canon.
Johnson proceeds to discuss techniques to show how diversity of voices can be recognised and accepted without any single voice being dominant or neglected. These include typology, midrashic, and allegorical techniques in reading, which each have their own pitfalls. Again, two important quotations:
'...[In the New Testament] identity is more important that ritual consistency; [and] the New Testament actually legitimates a healthy pluralism of practice within the same basic identity.'
'To be faithful to the Scripture, we cannot suppress its reading; we must be able to say why we do not live in accord with its clear directive. This means that we must find authorization for our position somewhere else in these writings....'
Johnson contends that the literary diversity of the New Testament provides a framework for a plurality of faithful responses, individual and communal, to the Word of God.
'We must also let go of any pretense of closing the New Testament within some comprehensive, all-purpose, singular reading which reduces its complexity to simplicity.'
In the second and third parts of the book, Johnson moves beyond theory to talk about issues regarding specific applications and how they inform the general principles of decision making in the church.
In talking about difficulties, Johnson concentrates on Acts 15 as a model (often neglected, as he characterises it). He states that the narrative aspects of the prophetic witness is key to the process, 'because it gives the fullest picture in the New Testament of the process by which the church reaches decisions.' Moving on to decisions, Johnson gives us examples of decisions that were made by the early church, but says that they do not provide a good model for decision-making, as they primarily concentrate on the outcomes rather than the process. However, Johnson gleans several aspects that seem crucial to proper decision-making and discernment from these: (1) Decisions are taken, or at least ratified, by community. There is room for leadership, but the actions of individuals require sanction of the community for validity. (2) Opposition, openly expressed, is necessary for proper discernment. This allows the prophetic narrative to be expressed in terms the community will understand, overcoming objections it may have. (3) Silence and prayer, and therefore the action of the Holy Spirit and the recognition of a holy aspect of the church (holiness being defined by Paul through Johnson as being more of a communal, rather than individual, aspiration and consideration) are necessary parts of the process. (4) Decision making is a theological process in three ways: (a) It is an articulation of faith seeking understanding. (b) It is the faith of the church which is articulated. (c) It is the church's faith in God which is articulated. Discernment is described by Johnson as a vague but necessary and very real part of the decision-making process, akin to (and derived from the Greek words for) testing and judging, as well as understanding. Again, Johnson (interpreting Paul) is more concerned with 'the integrity of the ekklesia, God's convocation' than with individuals, who have a responsibility in discernment (in a later chapter he discusses the mutuality of responsibility of listener and speaker in this process), but not necessarily a decisive one. The goal for discernment is holiness and edification of the entire community.
Johnson proceed under the Practice section to concentrate primarily on three topics as illustrative of his model of decision-making and discernment: the status of women (leadership), homosexuality (fellowship), and possessions and economics (stewardship). In particular relation to this course, the discussion of homosexuality, Johnson charts a course that highlights difficult choices in identity and action the church has made in the past and proposes they might be used as models, the admission of Gentiles into the body of believers being his primary example. Johnson discounts attempts toward narrow reading of the scriptures or selective highlighting, but cautions against exclusion of selected or difficult verses on either side of the argument as well. Johnson states: '...Scripture itself "authorizes" us to exercise the freedom of the children of God in our interpretation of such passages. We are freed, for example, to evaluate the relative paucity of such condemnations. Compared with the extensive and detailed condemnation of economic oppression at virtually every level of tradition, the off-handed rejection of homosexuality appears instinctive and relatively unreflective.'
In Johnson's final chapter, he discusses the need for a 'conversational model' of hermeneutics that involves leadership and fellowship in a broader and more listening mode than has existed, and that the responsibility for theological thinking and speaking needs to be carried to all members of the church.
The primary question I would ask of the book as a whole is, How do application of the principles of discernment and decision-making work for a church organisation that goes beyond the parish/local congregation level? Can the principles of listening and decision-making be applied to a macro-organisation such as regional/national/international churches in a constructive and thoughtful way in the same way they are applied at local levels? And what becomes of local discernment when it is out of line with the discernment and decision-making of the larger organisation?
Johnson gives many examples, again arising from the diversity of voices found in the scriptures, of different circumstances and applications, and looks for general principles that guide all decisions, which include a listening to narrative experience, leadership by the Holy Spirit, and discernment in community. Johnson admits that this is often a vague process, and that care has to be taken in making sure that 'the proper spirit' is being heard -- he even gives examples of how Paul seems to violate his own principles (leaving aside the possibility of later revisions/redactions of the text and such problems), which remind us of the passage read at the beginning of the course about listening to other gospels, even if taught by angels, etc. Johnson categorises the status of women as an issue of leadership and the issue of homosexuality as one of fellowship. I would argue that both could be reclassified under the other's heading. I would have liked for Johnson to expand upon the Devices section, and perhaps include more on how to reach those outside the church (if indeed the church is supposed to be evangelical -- calling out to the world to bring those outside in).
Hannah Arendt said that there are two things required of community, a past (which informs) and a future (which holds promise). I don't think Johnson would disagree in applying these to the definition of church, in that it is the past which is a primary factor in the community's identity and the promises toward the future that hold it together now.
Johnson was a professor of mine during my undergraduate days at Indiana University, and I have read almost everything he's ever written. He is very consistent; many points will be made across chapters and books using the exact same language and construction. The readings for this evening will provide a good framework for further discussion of how communities form their identities, canons and codes of action.
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Sorry to give a low rating to what is clearly a well-written opinion, but I really can't see this item as being of much help/interest/use to anyone other than an esoteric few readers.
WormThatTurned 16.09.2003 17:57
Youve ran out of whisky ops I see !!
djohan 15.09.2003 07:04
I have read several kinds of your reviews on religious books. I enjoy reading these kinds of spritual reviews. Well, have you ever read JESUS LIVED IN INDIA? What do you think of this book on your own perspectives?