Why Does Jesus Christ Give Offense?

The following editorial first appeared in the Fall 2015 Volume 43 Issue 4 of Spectrum Magazine. To obtain a copy of the journal, contact the Spectrum office, or become a member of Adventist Forum and receive the journal four times a year. -Ed.

As the 2015 General Conference session was about to end, a delegate moved that during the next five years, church leaders oversee official discussion of the theory of biblical interpretation (“hermeneutics”). The motion passed. One question now is whether this initiative will prop up the scriptural reading strategy that undergirds the church’s policy, reinforced at the same GC session, of female subordination to men.

That was in the background when religion teachers belonging to the Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) turned their attention, at the organization’s annual meeting in November, to the question of hermeneutics. ASRS officers, hoping members would express themselves early, proposed adoption of a statement entitled “The Centrality of Christ for the Interpretation of Scripture.”

It was meant as a biblical approach to resolving questions (concerning women, or violence, or whatever) that arise when biblical passages seem to conflict. Their draft statement noted how “‘selective’” mining of inspired texts may lead to dangerous conclusions (as it did when Bible-quoting pastors defended slavery in the American South), and argued that “internal evidence” from the Bible makes “the risen Christ the ultimate criterion for interpretation.”

When the statement met with objections, a small task force was asked to revise it. The next morning the task- force came back with a substitute statement that had...edited Jesus out. The thesis in the officers’ draft title, “The Centrality of Christ for the Interpretation of Scripture,” had been eliminated. As the Bible’s decisive voice, as a methodological principle for interpreting scripture, the man God had made “both Lord and Messiah” was...gone.

The taskforce’s substitute statement is printed along with these remarks. Reading it, you may scratch your head as you recall how adamant the New Testament is about the centrality of Christ. He is the “image” of the divine, in whom God’s “fullness” was “pleased to dwell.” He is, in a singular and ultimate sense, God’s human face, the Word made “flesh,” the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” What is more, he is our goal; we are to reach for “the measure of the full stature of Christ,” to grow up, with others, “into him who is the head, into Christ.”1

All this is said of no one else: not Moses, not Malachi, not anyone. Taking it seriously would simplify our journey toward hermeneutical unity, and yet the taskforce set it aside. We may be grateful, of course, that ASRS members referred the substitute statement back to the officers (where it now remains), but you still wonder how a Christ-less draft could have come to expression at all. Does this reflect some current of present Adventist thinking?

Notice that the substitute statement makes no straightforward reference to a key problem in biblical interpretation, which is, as Shakespeare put it, that “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” You just can find proof texts that undergird violence and injustice; the Bible teaches, for instance, that you may “acquire” slaves from neighboring nations and then pass them on to your children as their “property.”2 Did the task force want to sweep biblical reality out of view?

Notice, too, that the substitute’s first use of “plain reading” comes inside of quotation marks. This acknowledges that the phrase is borrowed, and recalls how some insiders use it to urge that Genesis 1 and 2 not be understood as involving metaphor. Did the taskforce want ASRS to pander to these insiders?

Whatever the task force thought, “plain reading” does not, in fact, resolve all problems. Applied to Leviticus 25 it would underwrite slavery; applied to Deuteronomy 21 it would (to take one further example) underwrite stoning of rebellious sons. Still, I hasten to add that the idea of scripture’s plain sense does have a place. If only trained scholars could get God’s point in the Bible, after all, then only scholars could be faithful, and how would we account, say, for Mother Teresa? Nevertheless, when real puzzles come to light we do need some form of supplementary discernment.

The draft statement of the ASRS officers said the decisive source of supplementary discernment is Christ. Faced with puzzles from an inspired and inspiring book,3 you weigh your options against standards suggested by the whole story, especially its culmination in Christ’s story, Christ’s teaching, Christ’s resurrection. Yet as the incident in Atlanta shows, even among (some) Adventist scholars, this appears to give offense; the task force seemed, certainly, to pay it no attention.

One response to the incident, and a good one, could be that when you overlook diversity and development in the Bible, or feel ill-at-ease confessing Jesus as God’s ultimate voice, you ignore and betray the plain sense of Scripture. Could some sources of discomfort with Christ go deeper than hermeneutical disagreement? Christian thinkers have long understood, after all, that Christ just does give offense. In 1930s Berlin, Bonhoeffer lectured on Christ as the “center,” and it was offensive. Eighty years before, in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard extolled the “god-man,” and it was offensive. And a long time before that, the New Testament pioneered the point, and it was offensive. Perhaps the Christ who challenges humanity—not only by offering forgiveness and generosity but also by requiring them—is still offensive. Still offensive to us.

So, one source of discomfort with the centrality of Christ for interpreting the Bible is likely our ambivalence about his deeply challenging presence and perspective.

It is easier, after all, to read scripture for what we want to see than for what he wants us to see. One thing, in any case, seems sure: no one will bother to refute the main point I am making here. That won’t happen because, on the basis of scripture, it can’t be done. What you can do is set Jesus Christ aside. The incident in Atlanta shows how compelling a temptation that continues to be.

Adventist Society for Religious Studies’ (Unvoted) Hermeneutics Draft

As our church community gives renewed study to how Scripture is read and interpreted in the church, the members of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies believe that it is important to participate in this process. ASRS affirms that an adequate hermeneutic asserts the full authority of Scripture in its plain and intended meaning. The “plain reading” of Scripture, however, is not to be confused with a selective or superficial reading of the text.

An adequate hermeneutic facilitates the sharing of the wonders of Scripture so God’s Word can live anew in our worship, ministry and mission. It affirms the unity of Scripture even as it acknowledges the diversity within it. It affirms the full authority of Scripture as the inspired word of God, even as we admit that we always read the Bible as broken people who need the Spirit of God and each other’s correction in order to read well.

The hermeneutic needed suggests that a true plain reading of Scripture is not a superficial reading. As scholars, we long to assist our church as it seeks to be ever more faithful to the Word.

___________________

  1. In order of appearance, the scriptural allusions are to: Acts 2:36, Colossians 1:15, John 1:14, Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 4:13, 15.
  2. Leviticus 25:44–46.
  3. 2 Timothy 3:16.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7313
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years ago the Signs carried an essay by Dr Heppenstsll entitled the Centrality of the Cross. mort recently John R. w. Stott published a major book on the Centrality of the Cross. Adventism makes . Noise over Revelation 14. The focus is on the Everlasting Gospel. the First Angel is telling the Church and the world that the Everlasting Covenant has been accomplished and is now the Everlasting Good News. Imagine taking that great Truth and coming up with a day of rest as the final test. The test has always been Christ or Barabbus. From the gates of Eden the focus of Scripture has been Christ. I learned that as table talk even before the fourth grade. At 91 I hold more firmly to that assurance. Tom Z

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As far as WO goes, to make Jesus central could mean that it should not be done since he did not ever do it, and he was not one to pass an opportunity to set things right. So, one could argue that since Christ did not do it, it should not be done. That is a pretty plain reading.

Also, Chuck, you don’t mind a bit of proof texting yourself! The text on slavery

you quote here is a single text on all of scripture on this matter.

All other slavery texts in the OT have to do with indentured servitude for debts, not the kind of slavery we had here in America. So the Bible has only this one verse on the slavery of our sort. One could even argue that since there is no longer a theocracy, that this text is on longer one that is in force, but had to do solely with the Jewish nation.

And as far as the Levitical and Deuteromic punishments, they are no longer applicable, as there is no temple, or a legitimate theocracy extant. So they are irrelevant to present discipline. Jesus set up discipline for the church in Matt 18, supplanting the Levitical punishments. No Temple, no Theocracy.

So, I have no problem with making our hermeneutic Christ centered. He didn’t ordain women, so we should not either. The SA vote was right along the lines he would have taken, don’t you think?

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Any hermeneutics that bases biblical authority on the process of inspiration which seizes, as it were each writer equally, means that no writer can exercise greater authority over another or over the biblical text as a whole. It’s as if Heb 1:1-3 is making the banal point that the activity of of God through His Son is just one more in a series of equally important revelations. A weaker Christology can hardly be imagined. Further, it neutralizes Jesus’ authority when he overthrows much that is in Moses, for example, in Matthew 5-7. When the book of Ecclesiastes is given as much importance and authority as the gospels, we will lose the Adventism with which we have been entrusted. We cannot acquire credibility with thoughtful believers while we pretend that those passages in Scripture which clearly strain against the teachings of Jesus must be given equal authority.

Thank you Chuck!!

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Incredible and astounding, but not surprising that finally, the church has put into print what has been apparent to anyone paying attention to what the church has been doing over the last few years, maybe decades - the diminishing of the cross in the life of a Seventh-day Adventist. There’s a lot of talk about Jesus but he is being left out of the way we understand the rest of the Bible. We parrot “Jesus is the reason for the season” at Christmas, but leave out the fact that without “the centrality of Christ” in the Scriptures we might as well start wearing little black beanies, and buy an extra set of kitchenware to comply with the Jewish dietary laws. Without the centrality of Christ, what exactly is the difference between the Jewish perspective on the scriptures and the Adventist one?

PS;
A distinction needs to be made, however, between reading Jesus into the OT passages, - to the cross event being central to Christian reading of the entire Bible. The OT knows nothing about Jesus, even though Jesus uses it to refer to himself. We can’t interpret the OT with the NT concepts at hand. The OT stands on its own if we want to know what was meant to be understood from it. - a fine line to be sure.

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In a statement discussing what they believe, the Disciples of Christ say: We are called to study and read scripture for ourselves. Rather than having tests of faith and creedal statements, we critically and thoughtfully study scripture, taking into account the history and background – the context – in which it was written.

If the Disciples of Christ position about the responsibility of the individual believer to study and understand scripture has merit then the work of scholars such as those discussed above may be helpful or may be distressing in their lack of helpfulness, but in either case will be of limited value. The responsibility for reading and studying and working out salvation is placed on the individual believer. If such a great theologian as St. Paul could admit that he saw through the glass darkly then there is probably room for modern readers and searchers after truth to do so with a modicum of confidence (mixed with fear and trembling.) The danger in Adventism as in other faith groups is that the creedal statement or maybe even the hermeneutic principles adopted are given so much authority. This makes me think of Dorothy Parker’s witticism which I take completely out of context but somehow, I think, applies: “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard."

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Being a Christian means that you are constrained to read the entire Bible from a Christian perspective. The Christian faith, such as it came to be, is a conversation with people on their way to their personal Emmaus, a conversation that lays out how Christ is the key to understanding all previous revelation. This is how believers are supposed to read the Bible, just like Mormons are supposed to read it the way it is refracted through the lens of Mormonism. New revelation transforms previous revelation without changing its exterior text, much as what happens to the wafer in the RCC Mass. But a scholar can’t read the Bible this way.

Scholarship springs from an unvarnished and unskewed reading of the texts, new and old. If it doesn’t, we are talking at best about a mix of apologetics and homilectics. An Old Testament Theology written from a Christian perspective might find a publisher in Grand Rapids, but no scholarly publisher would touch it. There is no such thing as Jewish or Christian scholarship as such, only scholarly works put out by Jewish and Christian scholars. Just like all scientists have to adopt methodological materialism in order to do meaningful, scholarly work, theologians of all persuasions must set aside their personal views in order to let the text speak. If not, they need to apply for a job at SAU or Moody Bible Institute or go into the ministry.

This creates problems for both conservatives and liberals within the SdA church (of which I am not a member, nor am I a person of faith). Conservatives want to make sure that the creed will prevail. They are not going to risk using “Christ” (was Christum treibt, as Luther put it) as the lens through which dogma must be validated. They want control, and neither the historical Jesus nor the creedal Christ are easily manipulated. They need proof-texts to nail issues down, and nobody ever came up short of a proof-text. The problem, however, is that once you abandon Jesus and Jesus the Christ as your scriptural and hermeneutical anchor, you will be a Jew on some issues, an Epicurean and a Neo-Platonist on others and hopefully a Christian on most…

For liberals, who would like to restore Jesus to the center of Christianity and discount as aberrant those texts that don’t support their Christian (as opposed to scholarly) view of Christ, the problem, of course, is that Jesus himself took no offense at anything written in the “law and the prophets.” As far as he was concerned, not a jot or a tittle of the Torah would ever perish (Matt 5:17-19). We would like to believe that Jesus was against slavery and the subjugation of women and the evils imputed to ancient Israel and its God, but there is no evidence he was–in fact, it would have been very surprising if he had been. He was open to other ways of reading the ancient texts, but not to changing them. And the one doctrine he would have objected to the most was making himself the key to the interpretation of the scriptures. If the synoptic gospels are to be trusted.

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How very sad to see my church drifting away from Christ. What went wrong?
May be God tried to win our pioniers back who earnestly loved him but where just as seriously wrong about his second coming and therefore about himself. And very gently he gave them Ellen White to lead them back into the family. She found Christ and many others with her, but some never found him and confused God’s work with being an exclusive christian church. Exclusivity became the center and Christ was secondary. May be we should have understood the danger of this much earlier.

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In regards to the Picture.
We have a copy of the full picture hanging in our fellowship hall. Notice that EACH eye is a little different. Perhaps the artist was depicting the two halves of the man Jesus and Christ.
Another effect seen, or I should say perceived, is that no matter where in the large room one is, Jesus is looking at you.
Thanks for using this “photo” of Paul’s Jesus Christ.

To Cassie: Exodus 3:14. Scripture4All, Hebrew-English has – “I shall become who I am becoming” for the literal Hebrew. English Bible – I Am who I am.
Exodus 3:15. Moses was to say, "I shall become, he sent me to you."
Apparently Moses did not have to explain the phrase in Hebrew “I Shall Become” to them. And apparently, Moses understood the phrase in Hebrew when before the Bush.

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Aage, to me this is the classic ideal-type, typical for the natural sciences, but a methodology that is difficult to employ in the human and social sciences. This ideal-type, as I see it is trapped in a Cartesian (and Kantian) subject/object dualism, where the ‘understanding mind’ is required to take an a-historical perspective ‘from nowhere’ in order to understand the text. This is just as unrealistic as attempting to take ‘God’s perspective’, as some religious fundamentalists would claim.

The chief problem in these sciences is the historically relative character of all knowledge. Both the text and the reader are historically situated ‘beings’. Interpretation of a text can therefore not be reduced to an ‘archeological excavation’ of the text alone, as if the meaning of a text lies solely hidden in its original world. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s basic argument in Truth and Method is that “we always come too late when we try to completely conceptualize and methodize what we understand”, because understanding is an inescapable characteristic of human beings. He therefore argues that instead of attempting the impossible task of ridding ourselves of our personal views and prejudices, we should accept them as conditions for understanding. If not, he claimed, the text will remain a “dead remnant of an alienated past”.

I agree with you that we should “let the text speak”, and that there is a big difference between apologetics and scholarly research. But I think, with Gadamer, that it is impossible to rid ourselves of our preunderstandings and prejudices. Because, there is no method that can neutralize the situatedness of human understanding, to the extent that we can claim an ‘objective’ ground for knowledge.

That’s why, as I see it, a text ‘never speaks for itself’.

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Matthew 5 has six instances of “you heard the Torah BUT I SAY UNTO YOU” clearly a rereading based on his own authority.

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The appeal for “The Centrality of Christ for the Interpretation of Scripture” is a Marcionite heresy that violates the principle of tota scriptura. God’s counsel is contained in the entirety of Scripture. There is not a canon within the Canon. It is an elementary principle of hermeneutics, as offered by Schleiermacher, that interpretation of the whole is dependent upon interpretation of the part and interpretation of the part is dependent upon interpretation of the whole. This is just one of many hermeneutical circles.

One of the first lessons to be learned about hermeneutics is that all hermeneutical thinking is circular. I do not speak of a “vicious circle” but something that more resembles a spiral. There is no such thing as an “interpretive center.” In order to be capable of hermeneutical thinking, you need to be able to identify and understand hermeneutical circles.

One of the most challenging hermeneutical circles to contemplate is that our interpretation of the biblical text is dependent upon our interpretation of extra-biblical reality and our interpretation of extra-biblical reality is dependent upon our interpretation of the biblical text. By way of example, Luke’s express reference to Hermes and multiple allusions to Hermes demands that the reader examine the extra-biblical writings about Hermes in order to fully understand what Luke is saying. It is as if Luke places a footnote in his text that states, “For more information about Hermes, see the Homeric Myth to Hermes written between the 8th and 6th centuries BC.” It is as if Luke incorporates the Homeric Myth to Hermes, with which he no doubt is familiar, into the biblical text.

This hermeneutical circle becomes even more challenging to contemplate when we consider that God’s foreknowledge of your idiosyncratic and special needs has shaped His superintendence of the writing of the biblical text. Your life has been incorporated into the biblical text. The narratives, such as David’s gazing upon Bathsheba, the sister of Lazarus expressing hurt toward Jesus, and Peter’s sudden fear standing upon the water, do not speak merely about ancient historically-situated persons but also about you and me. Gadamer’s placement of truth in a fusion of horizons becomes easy for an interpreter of Scripture to accept when the horizons of the biblical author and reader are regarded as one and the same.

But to regard Scripture as no different than Greek mythology or nothing but a mirror in which we see ourselves is to rest content on a particular dot on the hermeneutical circle. Instead of resting content on that particular dot, we should continue movement along the hermeneutical circle with the expectation of spiraling to greater understanding. As we move along the hermeneutical circle, we appreciate that the biblical text is special and that there is distance in geography, time period, worldview, language, and culture that separates us from the ancients and impedes to some extent our understanding of what they wrote. But even that appreciation requires refinement that occurs as we continue our movement along the hermeneutical circle.

To urge that the “centrality of Christ” be the “methodological principle” for interpreting the biblical text is to rest content on a dot along the hermeneutical circle. Such urging is hermeneutical error. Given that Scripture is superintended by God for humanity, one can just as easily urge that the centrality of the human being be the methodological principle for interpreting the biblical text. That God in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount offered propositional truths and commands to historically-situated peoples is not a dispositive argument that we accept and adhere to what He communicated. Law set forth in the biblical text is not necessarily a body of thought floating in the divine ether that God transmitted to humanity but also a response to the conduct of a historically-situated people. Divine law is as much a reflection of those to whom the law has been given as it is of the Lawgiver. Accordingly, what is exceedingly relevant in our decision to keep the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus is an appreciation of the commonalities we share with those to whom The Ten Commandments and the words of Jesus were offered. This hermeneutical circle–the relation between God and humanity–cannot be fully comprehended and appreciated by the proposed fallacious rule of interpretation.

Would it matter whether or not we call our methods “Christ-centered” or “Biblical”? Not that the two terms mean the same thing, but only that self centered and controlling people will still find a way to manipulate any approach to resolving questions. When we put “Christ” (the term/label) at the center, where is the guarantee that we won’t simply reinterpret who/what “Christ” is to accommodate our own intentions? When Jesus preaches “…do not resist an evil person…”, don’t we reinterpret the meaning of that whenever we feel threatened?

The term “plain reading” has a similar history of abuse. All terms eventually will be used in whatever way best serves the user’s agenda.

It seems to me that it is not the name “Jesus Christ”, specifically, that gives offense, rather it is the idea of subordinating one’s self or one’s own thought to others that is most offensive. And it will forever be offensive to those who have a personal agenda to promote.

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Why not read the collected sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount)? He clearly illustrates the relationship of Jesus Christ to the whole of scripture in this work. Take note of the phrase “ye have heard it said by them of old time” (Rabbinic interpretation) which is contrasted with the phrase “but I say unto you” (Jesus agreement with and interpretation of the Mosaic Law). Rene G.

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And yet we have only the Catholics to praise or blame since they decided what was in the bible and what didnt make the cut.
Define scripture if your post is to make sense.

Was Karl Barth committing “a Marcionite heresy” when he distinguished between the categories of witness and revelation and argued that the Bible, properly understood, is in fact not God’s revelation but rather a witness to God’s revelation which is the person of Christ, God incarnate? Whatever the difficulties of the hermeneutical circle, any statement on Christian hermeneutics that does not so much as mention the person of Christ or reflect on what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection mean for how we read Scripture in its entirety is surely a statement that in a profound sense is not Christian.

It might be worth reflecting on the ways in which the actual heresy of many if not most Adventist pioneers–not their Marcionism but their outright Arianism–continues to distort Adventist theological life in both subtle and not so subtle ways. It is striking that one can today be a “conservative” or “historic” Adventist who denies the doctrine of the Trinity without provoking or evoking sustained criticism and concerted political action from church officials, but woe be unto any theologian who openly suggests that it is doing violence to the text to read Genesis 1 in rigidly literalistic ways!

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Apparently, the NT writers thought the same way in terms of hermeneutics. Luke records the walk to Emmaus where Christ summarizes the OT narrative as referring to himself. Matthew records Jesus saying," You have heard it said, (by Moses), but I say to you," revealing Jesus as the authoritative interpreter of the Torah. John begins his gospel by revealing Jesus as the living Torah, the embodiment of all that it, and Judaism, contained in shadows, and later quotes Jesus as saying that the Scriptures testified of him. Hebrews 1 reveals Jesus as the full representation of God’s glory, to which the law, and the prophets hinted at in fragmented and shadowy ways. And, Paul, in Romans 3, speaks of the righteousness of God being revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, totally separate from the Torah, to which he said the Torah simply acts as a witness to.

All of these NT perspectives testify to the superiority of Jesus to the previous revelation of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. If this is heresy, then start with them…not Marcion. if anything, I would agree that Adventism’s latest statement on biblical hermeneutics reflects the Arian roots of this denomination. It is in the DNA of this denomination to view the bible on a flat canvas, with Christ as simply one of a series of God’s interventions into human history. Thus the comfort level with leaving Christ out of the equation in how to interpret the Bible, Adventist perspective, yes.

Christian…?

Thanks…

Frank

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The “Catholics” decided nothing vis-a-vis canonical Scripture, if you mean by “Catholics” the current Roman Catholicism of the 21st century. It was the scholars in Judaism before Christ, and it was the early church after Christ. The community of leaders in various parts of the empire came together to decide which of the documents contained the material on which the church would most rely for its guidance going forward. We know that there were arguments over some of the material, and we suspect that while there may be authentic sayings of Jesus in the non-canonical materials, those closest to the events and documents, under the guidance of the Spirit, chose as wisely as possible. For me, that process established the authority of the bible for the church then and continues to do so now. Getting into which writers were “inspired” and therefore almost inerrant is not how the canon was developed.

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Nor did Jesus ordain men.

Nor did Jesus repudiate the institution of slavery.

What Jesus did do was offer a vision of full opportunity for outsiders, those on the margins, the vulnerable. Under the Spirit’s guidance – why do so many Adventists resist the teaching function of the Holy Spirit (John 16)?–his followers began to see that spiritual leadership is for all, and slavery for none. Hebraists now suggest that God’s name (Ex. 3) is not “I am that I am” but “I will be what I will be.” God is always ahead of us, and it’s our job, guided by Jesus, to figure out where the journey is taking us.

Chuck

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Hey Charles

Well, actually Jesus did repudiate slavery, and instituted “servanthood.”

Matthew 20:25–26 (NKJV)
25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.

What Hebraists now suggest that God’s name (Ex. 3) is not “I am that I am” but “I will be what I will be?” I have only heard this from the JWs.