Agnosticism About How We Are Born Again

Scripture text: John 3:1-21

In my last blog, I argued that there is no such thing as a purely objective exegesis of a Biblical text.[1] Church tradition influences what we hear in a Bible text just as much as do the non-religious cultural assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible.

I gave several examples to illustrate my point. Most were frivolous. They do not much impact serious doctrines or the preaching of the church. However, I want to use this blog to discuss one example where church tradition does affect how we understand a crucial text in the life of the church.

The text is John 3:1-21. This is the dialogue that Jesus engages in with Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler who visits him in the night.

In the dialogue, Jesus makes the startling statement (using the King James Version wording), “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). Then in verse 5, Jesus repeats his statement in a slightly modified version. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

This text has been central to the work of Christian evangelism, especially the evangelism practiced by the Baptist churches in which I grew up. But what does it mean to be “born again”? Here, I want to contend, is where church tradition influences what we hear when Jesus speaks these words.

For example, popular usage is “born again.” That’s what we usually hear in evangelical churches and on a lot of TV evangelism. Because this usage has become so common, most Christians never stop to ask if it is the best translation of the Greek.

The word the King James translates as “again” is the Greek word anothen. Anothen can indeed mean “again,” with the emphasis on something repeated. But anothen has a double meaning.  It can also mean “from above.”

That meaning seems to be primary in the Johannine text. When Jesus repeats his statement in verse 5, he replaces anothen with the words “of water and Spirit.” Those words in verse 5 are clearly pointing to something spiritual, coming from God, rather than a repeated event. And so the New Revised Standard Version translates anothen in verse 3 “from above” rather than “again.”

Now one can argue that maybe Jesus meant both meanings when he used anothen. But why don’t we hear evangelists using the two phrasings interchangeably? Why the preference for the words “born again”? I think the wording of the King James Version (whose influence particularly in fundamentalist churches is paramount) influences the wording of the preaching and evangelism that one hears in such churches.

But that’s not my major beef with how this text is heard. Where church tradition affects the understanding of this text lies in the “how” we understand that being born again takes place.

When we hear evangelical Christians talk about being “born again,” generally what they have in mind is some kind of conversion experience. And the more dramatic the conversion, the more authentic it is understood. When one is born again (in these church circles), the change is so dramatic in a person’s life that one can truly say, “Once I was blind, but now I see.”

Usually the conversion experience is seen as something highly emotional, dramatically emotional, as one passes, for example, from a life of despair to a life of intense joy. And if one does not experience such a dramatic emotional reversal in one’s life, there is a tendency to be suspicious as to whether the conversion was real or not.

I would contend that such an understanding of conversion is highly influenced by church tradition, the tradition of conversion that comes out of the great revivals of the successive Awakenings in 18th and 19th century America. Those revivals did often produce night and day reversals in people’s spiritual lives, often accompanied by intense weeping and ecstatic joy.

And so in a lot of evangelical churches there is an assumption that such experiences are what “born again” means and looks like. We read John 3:1-21 in the light of that assumption. We read that meaning into our exegesis of the text.

But I would contend that is reading a meaning into the text that is not there. When Jesus says we must be born from above in order to enter the Kingdom of God, he is indeed speaking of the necessity of fundamental transformation of the human spirit in order to enter into life in God’s Kingdom. That transformation is fundamentally a spiritual one, as is clear in verse 6 when Jesus says that what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Jesus, however, does not flesh out how we experience being born of the Spirit. How we understand the “how” is heavily influenced by church traditions in reading Scripture.

The revivalist tradition will link the “how” to the dramatic conversion experience I mentioned earlier. The Catholic sacramental tradition will link it to the experience of baptism. And for some Christians, I believe, the “how” is not linked to any one moment in time, but to a series of small conversion moments that go on through a person’s lifetime.

That may be indeed the experience of some Christians raised in a practicing Christian family. For such Christians, they may not be able to point to any one moment when they passed for darkness to light. That has been happening for them in small increments all through their lives. But that does not mean they are not converted or born from above. The Spirit has been at work in their lives in a quiet, gentle way, not in a dramatic, convulsive way.

Now I argue this for an important pastoral reason. We do a disservice to the people in our churches or in the outside world when we assume that God only works in one way to bring people into the experience of being born from above. We need to be humble and somewhat agnostic when we are talking about “how” God effects rebirth.

We need to be humble out of love, for we can create needless spiritual distress in people when we assume God can only act in one particular way and we so preach. I have known a number of people in the Baptist churches in which I grew up who worried excessively about their salvation because they had not had the dramatic, emotional conversion experience that preachers assumed when they talked about being “born again.”

The decisive evidence for the kind of conversion that Jesus speaks of as being “born from above” is not the character of the spiritual experience, but the results of it. The Apostle Paul talks about these as the “fruits of the Spirit.” He characterizes them as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23). If these qualities are evident in a person’s life, then one is born again, however that experience came to happen.


[1] Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.

Can We Read the Bible Nude of Church Tradition?

Bible text: Various

When the Protestant Reformers looked at the medieval Church, they saw an institution full of corrupt practices and doctrines. Defenders of those practices and doctrines regularly appealed to the authority of ecclesiastical tradition.

The Reformers sought a platform where they could stand in criticizing these practices and doctrines. They believed they found it in appealing to the sole authority of Scripture—the reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

They also had confidence that responsible exegesis would illuminate the meaning of Scripture without any appeal to tradition. [Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.]

I have come to believe they were wrong in their confidence. Ecclesiastical tradition profoundly influences the way we read and interpret the Bible, whether we realize it or not. We carry those traditions and a host of other cultural traditions into every act of exegesis, thus determining what we hear in the Bible. This is true for Protestant exegesis as much as it is true for Catholic and Orthodox exegesis. [Postmodern literary theory has also established that this is true for the reading of any literary text, religious or not.]

Let me offer some examples to make my point. Let’s begin with the Christmas story, which we have so recently read in our churches and celebrated in Christmas pageants. Our traditions about Christmas are heavily influenced by tradition, not by the Biblical texts.

The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger. It does not, however, say anything about animals present that night. We assume that because of the reference to the manger. So in our Christmas crèche scenes we include sheep, cows, and maybe a kneeling donkey. Tradition adds that, not the Biblical text.

Luke also says that when the Christmas angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, an angelic host praises God. But he does not say explicitly they sang their praises. He says they said them. The angelic choirs singing on the hillside comes from tradition, not the Biblical text.

When Matthew tells the story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus, we read that as a visit by three of them. Matthew does not say that explicitly. He just says wise men (number unspecified) made the visit. Church tradition determines our reading of three wise men (probably because there are three gifts).

Likewise Matthew does not say they are kings. He says they are magi, scholarly astrologers from the East. Church tradition has changed them into kings, most likely from conflating Matthew’s story with the prophecy in Isaiah 60:1-6, which talks of kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to Jerusalem.

And when we see the hundreds of images of the Annunciation story, we invariably see the announcement to Mary coming from the archangel Gabriel, who has a stunning pair of wings growing out of his back. The Bible has many references to angels, but it never says they have wings.

Yes, the prophet Isaiah has a vision (Isaiah 6) of seraphim with six wings. But in the ancient Near Eastern context in which Isaiah lived, seraphim were not envisioned as having a humanoid form. Seraphim were regarded as composite creatures, bearing maybe a human head, but the body of a lion or other beast. Wings, like the wings of an eagle, were a part of this composite understanding.

And yes, Revelation 14:6 has a reference to an angel flying in mid-heaven, but it never says that angel is flying by means of wings.

Yet church tradition, especially as expressed in Christian art, images angels as humanoid creatures with wings. And that is just as true of the art we find in Protestant churches as well as in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Our image of angels draws more from pagan Roman and Greek iconography than it does from the Bible.

Let me give a few more examples, outside the Christmas story. It is universally assumed that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden was an apple. The Biblical text does not say that. Yet Protestants as well as Catholics joke about the apple the first sinners ate.

We assume that the creature that swallows the prophet Jonah alive is a whale. The text does not say that. It says it is a big fish. If you read Matthew 12:40 in the King James or the Revised Standard Version translations, you will hear Jesus call it a whale. But the Greek word those versions translate as whale is the word ketos. This word does not mean literally a whale, but a sea monster. Tradition has come to regard it as whale, and so most of us read the story in that way. Tradition has even influenced how we translate the Bible.

Finally, most people tend to read Revelation 21-22’s description of the new Jerusalem as a description of heaven. Our image of heaven having golden streets, for example, comes from this interpretation. But the text is not describing heaven. It is describing a city of great beauty that will descend from heaven in the new creation. It images the idea of that perfect indwelling of God with creation when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness at the end of the age. Our eternal home is not heaven, but this new transformed creation in which God fully dwells with us.

What I hope these examples suggest is how much our reading of the Bible is influenced by church tradition, and in some cases, cultural traditions outside the church. We simply cannot read and interpret a Bible nude of traditions, assumptions, and prejudices that we bring with us to our reading.

This is not to disparage the vital task of exegesis. As my examples try to do, we see how a close reading of the text can help us see how our traditions and assumptions are influencing what we are reading.

But exegesis can never be purely independent and objective. Every interpreter of the Bible has his or her blinds spots. This is why the Protestant assumption that every reader can interpret the Bible for himself or herself independently of anyone else has proved so destructive. It feeds the constant fragmentation of Protestant churches over conflicting readings of the Bible.

This places a huge premium on reading and interpreting the Bible within a climate of dialogue, among various theological traditions, social classes, races and ethnic backgrounds, and genders. What you see in the text may be something I am blind to, and vice versa. This never leads to any form of infallibility of interpretation, but it does help to sharpen our exegesis. Our eyes can be opened to see things we never saw before.

The examples I have offered in this posting have been relatively frivolous and unimportant. They will hardly damage anyone’s faith or religious practice. But tradition can also influence the way we read important Biblical texts that lie at the heart of critical doctrines or practices in our churches. In so doing, it can lead to distortions that do indeed cause great harm in the spiritual lives of ordinary people.

I want to tackle one such example in the traditions for interpreting John 3:1-16, a gospel passage that lies at the heart of much Christian evangelism. I will do so in my next blog posting. See you then.