Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sermon Starters: Building on Rock (Matthew 7:24-27)

This is the sixth and final sermon to go with my devotional book on the Sermon on the Mount: The Wisdom of Jesus. The devotional goes along with the background book, Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels.


The sermon notes for the previous five weeks of the devotional book are:

Week 1: "The Winner Isn't Who You Think" (Matthew 5:3-12)
Week 2: "Love the Whole Way" (Matt. 5:43-48)
Week 3: "Who Is Your Audience" (Matt. 6:5-14)
Week 4: "True Significance" (Matt. 6:19-24)
Week 5: "Jumping to Conclusions" (Matt. 7:1-5)

Sermon 6: Building on Rock 

Introduction
1. I would begin this final sermon in the series with a recap of the previous five Sundays, a run through the Sermon on the Mount. So the introduction might be a little longer this week than in the other weeks. Resources include Week 6 of The Wisdom of Jesus (94-110) and Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels (71-72).

For the last five Sundays, we have made our way through the Sermon on the Mount. From one perspective, it gives the essence of what Jesus taught about how we are to live in this world. The first Sunday we learned what the values of the Kingdom of God are, and we found out that they are not what we might think. It is not the assertive but the meek who inherit the kingdom. It is not the rich but the poor in spirit. It is not those who dominate but the merciful and the peacemakers.

The second Sunday, we learned that Jesus fulfilled the Law by fully orienting it around God's command to love both friend and enemy. We were to be "perfect" and go the whole way in our loving others. Jesus didn't just raise the standard by targeting our intentions. He shuffled the standard by orienting it around the love of others.

Next we were reminded that God is the one we want to honor us, not other people. And in week four, we were reminded that true significance comes from God, not from the things that preoccupy most people here on earth. Finally, last Sunday we heard Jesus' teaching on not judging others.

2. Most of us know the children's song: "The wise man built his house upon the rock." [sing it if you can] Do you know what it means to build your house on rock? This "almost parable" is part of the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. The rock is the teaching in the sermon, and the wise person is the one who builds their life on Jesus' teaching in it. This is also what it means to walk through the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13-14).

Body of Sermon
One idea for a sermon this week is for the body of the sermon to be a series of stories, each of which illustrates building on rock or building on sand. In keeping with the series, these stories might best be illustrations of the basic teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. One after another, perhaps no more than 5 minutes each, these stories might hammer home the content of the series and seal it in a way that will stay on the minds of the congregation for a long time.

The kinds of stories you might tell include:
  • A story of someone who was largely unnoticed but Christlike in the manner of the Beatitudes. This person was not considered "successful" by worldly standards, but will be a rock star in the Kingdom of God. This person built his/her house on rock, and it will stay standing when the judgment comes. 
  • A story of someone who overcame temptation to harm another or to have an affair or to divorce to get with another person or to get revenge. This person built his/her house on rock, and it will stay standing when the judgment comes.
  • A story of someone who prays much or fasts much or gives much, but you might hardly notice because he/she does not do it for show. They do it for God. This person built his/her house on rock, and it will stay standing when the judgment comes.
  • A story of someone who had good reason to worry from a human perspective but who demonstrated a calm peace in the middle of a storm of life. This person built his/her house on rock, and it will stay standing when the judgment comes.
  • A story of someone who might easily have jumped to conclusions about the motives of someone else but who chose to suspend judgment in the name of not judging others. However, the story turned out, this person built his/her house on rock, and it will stay standing when the judgment comes.
Conclusion
The main content of the Sermon on the Mount ends with the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." Jesus considered the law to love God and neighbor to sum up all of God's expectations of us (Matt. 22:34-40). If we were to love our neighbors and enemies, we would "fulfill" the Law and the Prophets, Jesus style (Matt. 5:17). Our righteousness would then go beyond the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). We would be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect (5:48). The person that lives this way is building his/her house on rock, and that rock will stand when the judgment comes.

One way to end the sermon is to challenge yourself and the congregation to do what the pastor in In His Steps challenged his congregation to do. He challenged them to ask themselves "What would Jesus do?" in every decision they made one week. Challenge your congregation this week to ask this same question with the concrete teaching of the Sermon on the Mount in view.

The challenge of WWJD is that people fill in the details with what they think Jesus would do. But the Sermon on the Mount gives us specifics. Ask yourself, "What would the Sermon on the Mount say" about each decision you face? If you make those kinds of decisions, you will be building on rock.

Monday, January 26, 2015

S5. God justifies us in response to our repentance and faith.

This is the fifth post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
________________________
God justifies us in response to our repentance and faith.

1. You may have heard the saying, "When I am justified, it is just-as-if-I'd never sinned." This childhood saying relates to the traditional sense that justification is about God declaring us legally right with him after he has forgiven our sins. In this way of defining the words, God's forgiveness precedes God's verdict that we are "not guilty" of all charges in his divine court. [1] Then after we are forgiven, God declares us to be in right standing before him. Justification is the act of God considering us in right standing before him. He declares us righteous, innocent, "not guilty" in the divine court.

In some respects, then, justification looks to our past, since "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). In our "natural state," as Wesley put it, we stand condemned before God, for "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). [2] But despite our sins, God declares us righteous in his eyes. He gives us a clean slate legally.

Martin Luther emphasized that this righteous state was a legal fiction. That is to say, God's verdict is not based on what we really are. Like adoption, where someone who is not literally the child of another by blood is declared a child by law, so a person who is justified by God is not truly innocent but is declared so by God. However, this righteousness is as real as actually righteousness, even though it is "imputed," because God is the one who decides. God is the judge.

2. The normal process of coming to this righteous status before God begins with his prevenient grace. God reaches out to us. In our moral powerlessness, he gives us just enough power to respond to his call. If we continue to respond, he will give us the power to repent of our past sins and exercise faith in him.

Repentance is a regret for past sins and a turn away from them. It is not a regret of future punishment. It is a true desire that we had not done wrong and a sincere desire to change our actions in the future. In Acts 2:38, when the the crowds of Jerusalem realize that they have put their Messiah to death, Peter tells them to "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

So also John the Baptist, in preparation for the Christ, preached a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). To the Gentiles, Paul in Acts 17:30 tells them that while God in the past has overlooked the ignorance of the nations, he was now commanding people everywhere to repent. Baptism, from this perspective symbolizes and sacramentally acts out the washing away of past sins.

If repentance is a negative action toward the past, faith is a positive action toward God in the present which continues into the future. Faith is more than mere belief or mental assent. Faith is a trust and conviction. It is a commitment that looks to the future. "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

Paul here is talking here about a righteousness that comes by faith. Our English hinders us from seeing the full nuances of this passage. In Greek, the noun faith (pisteuo) and the verb believe (pisteuo) are clearly related. To believe can thus mean "to have faith," and faith can mean "belief." Here it is important to realize that words have more than one meaning and context determines which one is used in which individual instance.

In Romans 10:9, Paul is saying that, "if you have faith in your heart" in relation to what God has accomplished through the resurrection of Jesus, you will be saved. This act of faith is more than simply believing with your head that it happened. After all, it involves a confession that Jesus is Lord, that he is Master, that he is the king. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:13), but this is a call that gives him allegiance, not a mere cry for help.

Similarly, the verb "to justify" (dikaioo) and the nouns "righteousness" (dikaiosyne) and "justification" (dikaiosis) are clearly related as well. To speak of the "righteousness that comes by faith" (Rom. 10:6) is thus to speak of justification by faith.

3. The basis of our justification is the atoning death of Jesus, "whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood" (Rom. 3:25). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the mechanism of our justification is faith: "a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law" (Rom. 3:28). Then once God has declared us righteous before him on the basis of faith (cf. Rom. 4:3), we are at peace with God (Rom. 5:1). We are reconciled to him (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:19).

4. You will notice that most of the biblical references above come from Paul's writings in the New Testament, Romans in particular. Accordingly, it is significant to remember that the language and imagery we have been discussing is not the only language of salvation in Scripture. It is only one way of looking at salvation, and it was forged in Paul's debates with certain opponents in the earliest church.

Indeed, language of justification is not even the primary language of Paul's letters. It is chiefly confined to Romans and Galatians, where Paul was dealing with opposition to the way he viewed the salvation of non-Jews. "Justification by faith" thus was not the center of Paul's theology but one set of language he used with Jews who opposed the way he conducted his mission to Gentiles. Romans is not a systematic theology but a letter written in part to defend Paul's way of including Gentiles within the people of God without requiring them to keep the Jewish Law.

There are thus a number of nuances to Paul's language that we are prone to miss because we are no longer facing the situations he was facing. This fact does not undermine the truth of the theology of justification above. What it does is suggest that this language is only one way of expressing the process of our reconciliation to God.

For example, when Paul spoke of Gentiles not being justified by "works of Law" (Rom. 3:28), he clearly had the Jewish Law in view. And what works of the Jewish Law does he primarily have in view? Surely it is primarily matters that separated Jew from Gentile. In Galatians, circumcision is primarily in view. Romans speaks in more general terms, but the point is that Paul does not have mere "good works" in mind. That is not what he is talking about. He is talking about any sense that a Gentile has to keep the Jewish Law in order to obtain a right standing before God. [3]

It thus would go well beyond anything Paul had in mind if we were deny that faith involves an act of the human will. Yes, justification is a matter of God's grace (Rom. 4:16), but as we have seen in previous articles, grace in Paul's world was a gift disproportionate to anything the recipient might do. Grace did not imply, however, that the recipient did absolutely nothing to solicit or maintain the grace. The faith of Abraham by which God considered him righteous was an act on Abraham's part. It reflected an investment in God that went beyond mere assent.

5. Another debate about Paul's original meaning focuses on the phrase, "the faith of Jesus Christ" (Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:16). Many Pauline scholars believe that this expression had to do with the faithfulness of Jesus in death rather than our exercise of faith in him. [4] This is not a denial that faith in Christ was part of Paul's equation, for these two verses also use the verb "believe" with Jesus as the object. However, it might shift the emphasis in justification even further away from our faith toward the action of Jesus and his faithfulness to death (cf. Phil. 2:8).

In our view, the bulk of Paul's references to faith in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 are surely to human faith. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that Paul's focal statements in Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 did refer to the faithfulness of Jesus as the basis of our justification. Paul would be affirming again that it is the atoning death of Jesus that is the ground of our right standing before God.

Nevertheless, this discussion does free us up to see that Paul primarily saw Gentiles and Jews as putting their faith in God the Father (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:8). We also put our faith in Jesus' death. But for Paul, almost all the mentions of human faith have God as their object (e.g., Rom. 4:3, 24).

6. A final nuance to mention about Paul's language is that the phrase, "the righteousness of God," in Romans 1:17 almost certainly referred primarily to God's righteousness rather than human righteousness or justification. Again, this nuance does not contradict the theology above but it reminds us that Paul's argument is placed against a long backdrop in history that goes back to Psalms and Isaiah. If you look at Psalm 143:1, for example, God's righteousness and his faithfulness are put in parallel to each other. In Isaiah 45:8, God's righteousness and his salvation are parallel.

In short, while Paul does speak of human justification in Romans, the idea of "the righteousness of God" had a history that suggests Paul's audience would have heard it in relation to God, in the first place, rather than something relating to humans.

God justifies us, he declares us in right standing before him, on the basis of the atoning death of Jesus Christ. He does this in response to our faith in him and in the death of Christ, which presupposes our repentance for past sins.

Next week S6. God fills us with his Holy Spirit as a seal of ownership.

[1] John Wesley's understanding of justification by faith and conversion can be explored in numerous sermons, including "Justification by Faith" and "The Spirit of Bondage and the Spirit of Adoption," With regard to justification, Wesley largely followed the lead of Martin Luther.

[2] See especially "The Spirit of Bondage and the Spirit of Adoption" above.

[3] For a discussion of "works of Law," see especially the essays in J. D. G. Dunn, A New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), esp. 8-10, 121-40.

[4] The most notable proponent of this view is Richard Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Biblical Paradigm Shifts 1

I'll probably never come up with a model for teaching hermeneutics/Bible approach that feels fully cooked. You've probably noticed that bloggers sometimes hash and rehash the same issues over and over. It's the thing that really gets under their craw or preoccupies their minds. Hopefully there is at least one pearl per obsession.

Mine is probably hermeneutics--how to read the Bible. There is a host of things that I think are obvious about the Bible, starting from things most people would immediately see when pointed out to areas where I think a lot of card carrying Bible scholars border on the incompetent because they don't see it.

I have a dream of writing a book or teaching a class that unfolds these paradigm shifts in a way that is sequential and obvious, yet that in no way undermines a solid faith. I get glimpses of what something like this might look like, but am just a few IQ points short of reaching the far off country. Yesterday again I caught a glimpse during the new MA orientation for the Seminary (by the way, over 40 new students Thursday--absolutely unbelievable... more to come).

So here are some of the early paradigm shifts I talked about yesterday. I saw a glimpse of a journey, and this was the first village on the path, Interpreter's Progress.

1. The Bible was not written in English. It was written 2000-3000 years ago over a thousand year period in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

2. We do not have any of the original copies of the books of the Bible. (They're not being stored in Jerusalem or the Vatican, for example. They're gone, disintegrated, lost to history). This is not a cause for doubt, but there is a certain gap between us and the exact original text of the Bible (indeed, some question whether it even makes sense to speak of an "original text," which may have been somewhat fluid from the start). There is a whole branch of Bible experts whose task is to try to decide what the Bible originally said on the level of detail.

3. There is no one correct translation from one language to another. Look at an interlinear. The word order is different from one language to another. The possible range of meanings for words and phrases from one language to another is different, meaning that all translation involves interpretation. You should use multiple translations to get a better sense of the possible meanings and issues of the original. Fallacies: words do not have just one meaning (one meaning fallacy) or one core meaning that plays itself out in every instance of the word (lexical fallacy).

4. And while we're at it, the meaning of a word in the past does not necessarily tell you what it means today (etymological fallacy). Similarly, what a word means today doesn't necessarily tell you what it meant in the past (fallacy of anachronism). Meaning in the end is a function of contexts, not individual words. The magical meanings you often hear from the pulpit are often the overload fallacy, where the meaning of contexts is confused with the meanings of individual words.

5. A word without a context is a range of possible meanings for a certain time and place. It is a cloud of possibilities without a specific or fixed meaning. Only in a context does the meaning of a word become specific and fixed. Such contexts go beyond mere reference to connotations and are intertwined with socio-cultural context. "If a lion could speak, would we understand him," given that the "culture" and world of a lion is vastly different from the world of a human? In the same way, depth of meaning requires us to know the cultural context of a book of the Bible.

6. The Bible is not one book but dozens of books written at different times and places. However inspiration works, it did not eliminate the personalities and vocabularies of the individual biblical authors. In fact, one potential way of fitting together parts of the Bible that do not seem to fit is to recognize that different biblical authors used the same words in different ways.

7. A dictionary is a popularity contest of meaning at a particular time and place, ranked from most popular to least. New meanings are added over time (e.g., skank) and old ones become archaic and are eventually removed. Many of those who think they understand the King James don't--the meaning of the words have changed from what they were in the 1600s and today.

8. And as a sideline, the KJV was never made with the idea that it would never be updated. NO ONE who was part of the original translation thought such a silly thing. It actually was updated several times and the version you buy in the store today is from the late 1700s. Of course, feel free to use the KJV if you don't worship it.

9. So to know what Paul meant, we would need a sense of his personal dictionary, a Tarsus AD50 Greek dictionary (which of course doesn't exist). Even that's not quite right, because as a traveling man he no doubt had a mixed Greeklish vocab with some Semitisms and pick ups from here and there. In the age before the internet, you can imagine that Greek dialect varied somewhat from place to place. The kinds of resources we would need to go really specific on these sorts of matters (an AD50 Corinthian dictionary, Ephesian dictionary, Philippian dictionary, Greek Jerusalem dictionary) just don't exist. And just to be clear, they did not have dictionaries back then.

10. So to understand Matthew, you need to read Matthew on its own terms first, before mixing it with Mark or Luke or John. This of course goes beyond vocabulary to the story itself, since it seems like ancient historians and biographers did not operate like modern historians. There was apparently some freedom to form such stories and an oral dimension to it as well.

But that's enough for one sitting...

Friday, January 23, 2015

If you had one Bible course...

... to orient pastors about how to use the Bible, what would you put in it? I don't mean Bible content. I'm talking hermeneutics and how to use it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Passing of Marcus Borg

I see from James McGrath that Marcus Borg has passed. I never met Borg, and he was always an example to me of the wrong trajectory with regard to the historical Jesus. But I read Jesus: A New Vision when I was working on my doctorate. I always felt like Borg was someone whose head had undergone quite a change with his studies but who had just as warm a heart as he ever might have had. Never met him, but really respected him.

He, Tom Wright, and Lincoln Hurst were all students of G. B. Caird, all four of whom had an impact on me. I encountered Caird's Language and Imagery of the Bible in seminary. Amazingly clear and helpful, I thought. Wright inherited some of that sense that apocalyptic imagery wasn't always meant to be taken literally (e.g., the Lord coming on the clouds). Borg also brought that to his "non-apocalyptic" Jesus.

Again, he didn't convince me in the end, but I'm saddened today by his passing.


Book Review: Campbell's The Deliverance of God

There are certain books that you have to read in your field, whether you want to or not. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God is one of them if you hope to be any kind of expert on Paul. I've come to admit that Douglas Campbell's The Deliverance of God is another. It's 936 pages.

Campbell teaches at Duke Divinity School but is originally from New Zealand. He also taught in London for a few years.

I see in this exhaustive, methodical tome a glimpse of my teenage self. His first chapter is an analytical philosopher's dream, a theologian's version of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In these opening pages, he tries to paint a picture of what he's about to do and why he's about to do it the way he's going to do it.

I find it a bit tedious at this stage of my life, but he's earned my endurance. I'll keep going and see try to keep an open-ish mind.

Some thoughts on the Preface, Introduction, and first chapter:
  • I would be offended if I taught with him in Otago (xxv). Apparently there was nothing there to stimulate his brain cells.
  • You can see that he is going to critique prevailing interpretations of Paul for being 1) individualist, 2) conditional, and 3) contractual. Here are also the first hints that I'm not going to end up going with him. I don't think Paul would have formulated himself necessarily in these terms, but to do what he's doing, I think Paul inevitably sets the stage for these three.
  • I don't have a problem with Campbell starting with somewhat of a draft that he then will deconstruct and eventually newly construct from scratch...
  • ... but I agree with the thought that his starting point is somewhat of a straw man. There were contractual, conditional arrangements in the ancient world long before Kant. He starts with a modernist draft of Paul that should rightly be deconstructed. But there are other "contractual" models that would be right at home in the ancient world (e.g., patron-client relationships assume a certain informal contract; suzerainty treaties were a sort of contractual arrangement). Again, he's going to deconstruct this starting point anyway, so it doesn't matter much to me at this point, other than the fact that I'm having to read through all this material he's going to later throw away.
  • He says we should assume coherence until we see otherwise. I'm very fine with this. The question is, "When we are working 'too hard' just to maintain the assumption of coherence?"
  • I'm fine with the idea of doing a hermeneutical circle. Start with a draft. Critique, revise, redraft. Repeat as necessary. There seems to be a "jump in at any point" dimension to the book, which is fine, although I intend to go from beginning to end.
  • He sets out in numbered form a modernist, Kantian version of justification as a contract. It's very propositionally set out and is the bulk of the first chapter. It's not worth critiquing because it's just a draft he's going to unravel. Patience, Ken. Be patient.
  • He ends chapter 1 with some recourse to Lakoff and Johnson's ideas of root metaphors. He mentions the fundamental anthropological and theological metaphors in the propositional structure of contemporary justification thinking. Again, since he's going to deconstruct these, I'm being patient. I will say that meaning is always synchronous, even if the diachronic sometimes leaves traces, artifacts in the synchronous. But metaphors aren't truly metaphors if they're dead in current usage. In that case, they've taken on a plain meaning. We might even say that they have become literal, though once metaphorical. 

Paradigm shifts about translations

Paradigm shifts with the Bible are always hard and sometimes involve anger. The Bible is so central to faith that making adjustments is often scary and painful. Today I want to talk about paradigm shifts in relation to Bible translations.

I posted some of these a few years back in relation to Mark Driscoll's seeming lack of education on these issues. Here is a paradigm shift I would like to see on this part of the Bible journey:

Pre-modern starting point: Unreflectively, many pastors and Christians do not realize that we do not have any of the original copies of any book of the Bible. So there is an assumption that the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible is a fixed entity in every detail. A second common assumption is that there is just one right way to translate from one language to another.

This creates a climate where too much can be staked on the detailed wording of some English translation.

Modernist education: When one becomes aware of these issues, the first instinct is to "get back to the originals." It is no surprise that textual criticism is a big deal among individuals making the transition from fundamentalism to broader evangelicalism. Wait, if we don't have the original manuscripts, then we had better figure out what the exact original wording was. It is no surprise that Bart Ehrman, who started off fundamentalist, ended up studying textual criticism at Princeton on his journey. That is the natural progression for a fundamentalist who gets a little education.

Even the smallest amount of biblical education makes it clear that there is no one way to translate from one language to another. The sentence structures are different. Words do not map from one language to another in a one-to-one fashion. All translation involves interpretation. None of this is debatable in the slightest. It is simply a question of whether you know anything about language or not.

For the overwhelming majority of experts on the text of the Bible, there is also no real debate that the text behind the King James is not likely to be based on the most likely original wording of the books of the Bible. There are some really smart people who disagree, but they are mostly driven, IMO, by philosophical factors rather than evidentiary ones, even if they can pack a wallop in an evidentiary discussion.

As you will see below, I don't have a problem with still using the KJV tradition because I don't think God is concerned with the detailed wording. He is concerned with the message. Indeed, ironically, while I don't think that the Greek and Hebrew text behind the KJV is most original, it may actually be clearer in terms of orthodox Christian theology! This is, IMO, an enlightened position, to be open to the New King James as a good translation to use in teaching and worship even though you recognize it is not based on the most original Greek text! I don't do it, but if you get what I'm saying, then you have reached what I am calling a second naivete.

Second naivete
I think the endpoint is the realization that God has always been concerned with the message rather than the details of wording. There is a pragmatic argument here. If the detailed wording is so important, then the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages, including the vast majority of pastors who don't know Greek and Hebrew very well, are sunk. So there's your choice, either the details are important and the Bible has largely been useless to Christians throughout history or the message is what is important and the Bible has been useful.

This, by the way, is supported by what we find in history. The majority of manuscripts, according to most scholars and anyone who uses any version other than the KJV, are not worded exactly the same as the first copies. Most scholars believe that the early copying of the New Testament was somewhat fluid--think The Message more than the ESV. So God himself apparently was not concerned throughout most of church history to make sure that Christians were using the precise wording that was in the originals!

Similarly, the fun stories about the care with which scribes copied the OT come from the Middle Ages, not from the time of the Bible itself. If you look at the way Paul paraphrases the OT, if you look at the Aramaic Targum (which are again more like The Message), if you look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, the overwhelming impression we get is that copying and translation was always more about the message than the details. Early transmission of the text--and I'm not even talking about translation here--often had a certain paraphrase quality.

So use whichever version seems to convey the message the best to you or your congregation. Don't fight over translations. God apparently never has.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Regional God Concepts in America

Somehow I basically missed the Baylor Religion Survey of 2006. One of its findings is that concepts of God do tend to differ from region to region in the US, and that this variation does have an impact on other factors relating to life, including politics.

So some of the questions in this survey asked in relation to two features of God--his tendency to get angry and God's level of engagement with the world. This resulted in four basic types of God-view.
  • High engagement, low anger results in a more or less "benevolent" picture of God.
  • High engagement, high anger results in an "authoritarian" view of God.
  • Low engagement, high anger yields a "critical" God.
  • Low engagement, low anger would give a "distant" God.
By region, the basic breakdown of God concept was:
  • Most Americans fit in the authoritarian category (31.4%).
  • A second group (24.4%) see God as distant.
  • Third were those who see God as benevolent (23%).
  • Next are those who see him as critical (16%).
  • Finally, 5.2% are atheist.
By region, it turns out in this way:
  • 43% of those who live in the South believe in an authoritarian God.
  • The Midwest had its highest number there too (32.5%) but had a more significant number who had a more benevolent conception (28.8%).
  • The highest number for the West was the distant God (30.3).
  • Finally, the East was more evenly distributed, with 25.8% in the distant category, 25.5% in the authoritarian category, 21.2 in the critical category, and 19.9 in the benevolent category. This is the group with the most having a view of God as critical.
  • The East (7.5%) and West (7.9%) had the most atheists.
  • African-Americans especially had an authoritarian conception of God (52.8%).
These views of God significantly affect the way people view social and political issues.

Moving beyond the study, I think theological traditions also tend toward various God concepts. The Wesleyan tradition should intrinsically lean toward the benevolence of God. You would expect the Calvinist tradition to be more authoritarian or critical in flavor. Liberal Protestantism might lean more toward the distant God, although possibly toward God's benevolence.

Politically, you might expect Wesleyan-Arminians to lean more toward libertarian and state's rights on non-moral issues and issues of disputed morality. But you might expect them to lean more toward the protectionist of others on issues where human harm is potentially involved. You might expect the Calvinist to be more in favor of forcing the Christian ideal on everyone, as well as to have a strong view of enforcing the law and punishing law-breakers.

Monday, January 19, 2015

MLK and State's Rights

1. Over the years, a number of thoughts have coalesced in my mind in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr. One is that today is not really just about him. There are some who would try to undermine today by pointing to character flaws in this specific man. There are some who would cry foul that this particular man would have a day and other worthy individuals would not.

Although I am open, I cannot think of any scenario where these sorts of responses are not misguided at best, even more often reflections of a carnal heart. Does anyone deny that it was wrong to make a person drink from a different water fountain or get to the back of the bus because of the color of their skin? If you don't, then you implicitly believe that MLK's cause was just.

He advocated a non-violent path. I strongly affirm that as a Christian. There were many "Christians" who thought such people bad because they were law-breakers. Jesus was a law-breaker of this sort when people were involved.

MLK Day is not just about MLK. It is a day set aside to remember the societal and institutional oppression of our past. It is a day to remember that our society once treated something as trivial as skin color as an indicator of value. It is a reminder to be vigilant about such inequities in society today. That is a Christian cause in any generation.

2. It is significant that "state's right's" was the political tactic that was used to try to perpetuate these prejudices in the past. There are some in the civil religion camp who would mistakenly think that state's rights is somehow the Christian position. This is obviously wrong, for the following reasons.

State's right's may be a tactic Christians would use at a particular point and time to try to get society to a particular Christian destination. It might be a Christian means to an end. For example, as it has tended to play out, it is unfortunate that MLK Day comes the day after Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Actually, these two might easily go hand in hand. Sunday would remind us that abortion is still taking place in America, and Monday would remind us that prejudice is still present in America.

But, unfortunately, the issue of abortion on Sunday is sometimes pitted against MLK day in an attempt to overlay or crowd out the other. It raises questions of motives, about which Jesus calls us to suspend judgment.

State's rights is a tactic in the abortion debate, but it is clear that if we could eliminate abortion on a federal level, that would be preferred. In other words, even in the abortion debate, we would prefer a national ban to a state by state ban. State's rights is a tactic in that fight, not the ideal.

And so it is that, for Christians who believe in absolutes and definite rights and wrongs, state's rights is not the preferred position. It is a tactic when we believe that the majority or those interpreting the Constitution are wrong. State's rights was the mantra of the South then they could see the writing on the wall with regard to slavery. State's right's was the mantra of the South when they were being forced to give equal rights to blacks.

But, from the perspective of right and wrong, if something is truly wrong, we want it to be wrong on the national level. The ideal is to prevail on a national level on matters of right and wrong.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

S4. God used Israel to prepare the way for Christ.

This is the fourth post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
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God used Israel to prepare the way for Christ.

1. It is possible to be reconciled to God as a lone individual apart from any community of the reconciled. These are the Jobs of the patriarchal period. These are the random Ninevites in the time of Israel.

However, God has designed humanity to live together in groups, and communities of faith are the norm. It is no surprise to hear that "Salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22), and that "there is no salvation outside the Church." [1] It is not that you cannot be reconciled to God outside these groups. It is rather that the default is for salvation to come in the context of a reconciled community.

We will explore the Church more extensively in a later section. We only mention it here because it is too easy in a Western context to think of salvation in purely individual terms. There is a tendency in our modern, Western, individualistic world to remove salvation from its roots in history and think of it as a one-on-one affair between each individual human and God. There is some truth to this pattern, but it is not the way salvation unfolded in history.

Before Christ, there was Abraham and Israel. After Christ, there was the Church. Christ came in the context of a people. Scripture came within the context of a people. Salvation came within the context of a people.

2. Salvation is also a matter of a story in history. Although God walked with Adam and Enoch and Noah as individuals, the story of God's walking with a people begins in Scripture with Abraham. For Paul in the New Testament, Abraham is both the father of those non-Jews who become God's children by faith and those who have faith in Israel, Abraham's blood descendants (Rom. 4:11-12).

By blood, Abraham gave birth to Isaac and Isaac to Jacob, who was renamed Israel. God gave the Jewish Law to Moses. The Law in part told Israel what right and wrong was (Rom. 7:7). [2] But it also served in many respects to insulate Israel from its surrounding peoples. The New Testament begins to separate out these two aspects of the Jewish Law, where Paul tells his Gentile churches that God does not expect them to keep those aspects of the Law that put a hedge around Israel as a race (Gal. 5:2-6). [3]

Paul's rhetoric had much to do with the arguments he was having with fellow Jewish Christians. What is clear is that he saw God's walk with Israel as a preparation for the coming of Christ. With Israel, God was preparing for the coming of Jesus. The exodus showed how God saves his people from slavery and bondage. God gave them a country, just as God will give his people a heavenly city and country (Heb. 11:16). In Judges, we see the pattern of God letting Israel be enslaved because of their faithlessness and then rescuing them when they repented. In the Babylonian Captivity of 586BC, God allowed Israel to be taken captive to Babylon for almost a century, but then later restored Israel after the exile.

So God showed in his dealings with Israel not only his fundamental moral expectations of humanity, but he showed the rewards of faithfulness and the consequences of unfaithfulness. In hindsight, the sacrificial system was seen to foreshadow the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the whole world (cf. Heb. 10:2-3, 14). In the Scriptures he gave to Israel, Christianity would find both knowledge of God, and God would use the Scriptures to transform us into his people.

God used Israel to prepare the way for Christ.

S5. God justifies us in response to our repentance and faith.

[1] Cyprian (ca. 200-258).

[2] Lutheran and Reformed traditions debate over three uses of the Law, particularly the third. Although they sometimes order them differently, the first and second have to do with 1) restraining criminals (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:9) and 2) showing us that we are sinful (Rom. 7:13). Lutherans, however, generally question the value of noting a third use, namely, to show a believer how to live rightly. Fearing that we will boast in our own righteousness, Lutherans see this function collapsing into number 2.

[3] Christians throughout history have generally called those universal aspects of the Jewish Law the "moral law," which in the New Testament reduces to love (e.g., Rom. 13:10). John Calvin, following the precedents of church history, divided the Jewish Law into three different components: 1) the moral law, 2) the ceremonial law, 3) the civil law.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Parable of the Talents

Joanne Solis-Walker gave a challenge to service at The Gathering based on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. She was especially interested in the useless servant who is cast into outer darkness.

1. I know she found this parable puzzling, because Jesus is generally negative toward the accumulation of wealth (e.g., Matt. 6:24). Indeed, if we look at the context of this parable both here in Matthew and in Luke, it is one that is against the type of person who hoards wealth for him or herself. In Luke 19, the story of Zacchaeus comes right before Luke's version of this parable. Zacchaeus was someone who "took out what he did not put in" and "reaped what he didn't sow."

Here in Matthew, the story is immediately followed by the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where those who are not saved are those who do not help those in need.

Joanne's focus was on the fact that this useless servant did not truly know what his master was like. But if you ever listen to the recording, she tactfully sidestepped what this parable cannot be about. This is not a parable about investment banking or a capitalist manifesto. That is an anachronistic reading that gets what we want to hear from the passage.

2. We should always keep in mind that most parables weren't allegories. That is to say, a parable often had only one or two points to it. I'm not saying you have to limit your preaching to that one or two points. I'm saying that most parables were not intended to be read as detailed allegories. There are points you can get from a parable that weren't the point.

What might we take of God from this parable? It is clearly a context of judgment in Matthew. This picture of the God who currently is absent but will be angry when he returns should not be taken too far. He is not really absent and his anger is a picture of the ultimate destiny for those who are faithless.

3. What does it mean to take his money to the bank? First, as Joanne pointed out, the parable pictures his money, not mine. And what does that money represent in context? My income? My "talents"? It is so easy for us to go there, because we live in a monetary economy. And of course we should use the resources God has given us wisely, as good stewards. That's just good theology. As Wesley put it "Earn all you can; save all you can [that is, buy the cheapest brand]; give [away] all you can."

But what comes right after this parable? It is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. And what is the point there? That those who have not used what they have to help the needy--the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, will be the ones judged! Amazingly, what it means to invest God's resources in the parable is to use the material possessions you have to help others!

What a truly subversive parable! It says, in effect, that those who do not share what God has given them--those who bury God's stuff in the ground (or in their own bank account)--are useless servants. By contrast, those who use what God has given them to help others are like those who invest God's money in a bank. Great will be their reward in the kingdom.

But those who hoard God's stuff, like by stashing it in a literal bank, are like the useless servant who buried God's stuff in the ground.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gathering Reflections

As I sit back and look at the complexity behind the simplicity of this year's Wesleyan Gathering (which happens every four years in Florida), I am truly amazed. Much of it, as it almost always is, was having the right people in the right places. Or as my colleague Bob Whitesel often quotes John Maxwell: "You need the right people on the bus, and you need the right people in the right seats on the bus.

Here's some quick thoughts:

International Conference of the church
Sunday to Tuesday was business for the international Wesleyan Church. They were here from all over the globe. One great strength of Joanne Lyon, our General Superintendent, is networking (which is also a gift of my boss, Wayne Schmidt). We have partners in Egypt, Brazil, and South Korea who are really more kindred groups than subsets of our denomination. This is a great strength, IMO.

BTW, I was really impressed by the leadership of Richard Waugh and Lindsey Cameron in the international sessions. Richard gave a superb 8 point summary of Wesleyan thought. Lindsey did an amazing job at pulling together international position statements on homosexuality and refugees.

I've been doing an informal social analysis of the church. To me, this group fits with one section of the church. You might call this the missions group. These are the more traditional Wesleyans. These are the ones that really enjoyed Wednesday night's tribute by Ken Murphy to those who have gone before us and Thursday morning's traditional chorus segment with a tribute to Orville Butcher.

These tend to be the lifelong Wesleyans, the smaller church pastors. They are an important segment of the church. If the church should have a balance of "interest centers," this group probably should be one of three main voices in the balance of the church's interests, the traditionalists.

Something for Everyone
The diversity of the interest groups that each had something for them was amazing. For example, Russ Gunsalus got all the board members of the Wesleyan colleges together on retreat for the first time I think ever. During the second half of the week, there were teasers from Wesley Seminary and Asbury in a forum that reminded me of Hyde Park, where anyone can get up and talk about something.

To me, the theologians and academicians of a church should represent a second "interest center" in a church. They often don't, because academicians usually don't know squat about church politics, leadership, or how to win friends and influence people. But, usually, they do actually know something about something.

The Wesleyan chaplains got together with Gary Carr several times--don't think that's ever been done. There were things for clergy couples, almost like a retreat. All the different interests groups--church planters, pension fund, investment foundation--there were opportunities for them. Steve Wingfield even had a race car smack in the middle of the exhibition hall!

The third influence group in my mind are the "church growthers." They are the practitioners, the doers. I think they rightly should have the edge because they move the church forward. They tend to be so good at politics and communication that they often can dominate the traditionalists and theologians quite easily. I think it would be dangerous if they ever used their powers to run them over. With great power comes great responsibility.

The Denominational Leaders
I didn't mention the denominational leaders as one of the interest groups above because I think it is their job to make sure all of these interest groups have a seat at the table. Again, I think Russ' team has done admirably, with Gary Carr a master of logistics, Joel Liechty too clever for his own good, Charlie Alcock did a smash-bang job orchestrating the worship (exposing the denomination to its best worship leaders around the country--amazing orchestration!), Dave Higle is a pastor's pastor, a man truly without guile, Kim Craft and others did a great job of putting everything together.

I know there were problem solvers working tirelessly when rooms weren't available and all sorts of unexpecteds. Thanks to Bob Haymond for some creative work with my own room!

In the words of a family member, "I think this was the best Gathering yet."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sermon Starters: Jumping to Conclusions

Here's the fifth sermon to go with my devotional book on the Sermon on the Mount: The Wisdom of Jesus. If you're at The Gathering, you can find it at the Wesleyan Publishing House booth in the center of the exhibition hall. :-) The devotional goes along with the background book Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels.


The sermon notes for the previous four weeks of the devotional book are:

Week 1: "The Winner Isn't Who You Think" (Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12)
Week 2: "Love the Whole Way" (Matt. 5:43-48)
Week 3: "Who Is Your Audience" (Matt. 6:5-14)
Week 4: "True Significance" (Matt. 6:19-24)

And now this sermon goes with the devotionals from Week 5, "Authentic Love."



Sermon: Jumping to Conclusions

Introduction
Most of us who are parents can easily think of a situation where we immediately jumped to a conclusion about one of our children that was wrong. Maybe we immediately assumed guilt when, at least in this case, our child was innocent. There are of course many movies where this happens (e.g., The Fugitive). There are stories from history (people wrongly lynched, "witches" burned). Prejudice is all about jumping to conclusions because of how someone looks or because you assumed they fit a certain stereotype.

Matthew 7:1-5 is about judging others. This part of the Sermon on the Mount ends with the Golden Rule, "Do to others what you would have them do to you." For Jesus, loving our neighbor captured all of God's expectations for us in relation to one another. Those who judge others in the way Jesus say, are not loving their neighbor.

Body of Sermon
1. When we can judge
Judging has to do with intentions. We often don't know why a person does the things they do. We see the action but we may not know why they did it. More on this under point 3.

But consider 1 Corinthians 5, where a man is sleeping with his step-mother. Paul has no problem drawing a conclusion about this action--the man is doing wrong and needs to stop. Paul "passes judgment" on this man (1 Cor. 5:3).

It is not judging in the sense of Matthew 7 to conclude that a confessed first degree murderer has done wrong and is on a path to hell. It is not judging to conclude that someone who has confessed to cheating on a spouse has done wrong. A person is not jumping to conclusions in such cases for the person has clearly done wrong. A concrete example from the news or a story from experience can make the point.

Although there are clearly gray areas and areas of personal conviction, there are also clear areas of right and wrong where it is not judging to conclude that a person has done wrong and where the intent is clear (e.g., when a person openly admits it). To draw conclusions here is not judging.

2. Judging with hypocrisy
What Jesus is especially concerned with in Matthew 7 is judging with hypocrisy. This is when you the same or worse kinds of things that you criticize or condemn in others. Psychologists have a name for this common human dynamic. It's called projection. Projection is when, usually without even realizing it, you criticize others because you feel guilty about yourself. You subconsciously try to make yourself feel better about yourself by putting down or condemning others.

Stories drive the point home. Tell a story about someone who accuse someone else of something they were guilty of. I heard one once about a man who was cheating on his wife. But before it all came out, he kept accusing her of having an affair. Tell a story from life, the news, movies, novels, etc that illustrates judging with hypocrisy.

This is a crucial moment of potential awareness. You might even pause and have everyone close their eyes to reflect for a moment. Ask them: "Who bugs me the most?" "What do I most criticize or condemn in others?" Now turn the mirror. "Do I do that?" "Do I have a plank in my own eye?" "Do I condemn others because I feel guilty about myself?"

3. Jumping to Conclusions
There is another kind of judging that has to do with assuming the worst of others when we do not have all the information. Because God requires us to love both our neighbors and enemies, it is something we must discipline ourselves not to do. When we do not know a person's intentions, we must be very careful about drawing firm conclusions about their character or motives.

What does 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 say? "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

Love doesn't want to find out that a person's intentions have been bad. Love should not be stupid either, of course. "Wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove" (Matt. 10:16). You shouldn't have a former sex offender babysit your children, even if they are forgiven! But love wants to see the best in others, even when in wisdom you fear less.

Again, drive the point home with a story of someone who took a chance on having faith in someone when their motives were in question. Or you could give the opposite illustration.

Conclusion
End with some sort of a challenge, such as in the devotional for the week. Can you go a whole week without jumping to conclusions? When you are about to criticize, pause and examine yourself first. When you are about to assume bad intentions, can you stop yourself and suspend judgment. Can you live without knowing... because you really don't anyway!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hebrews and Rome

I wanted to collect my thoughts on the destination of Hebrews.

1. The most intriguing detail in Hebrews in this regard occurs in 13:24--"those from Italy greet you." It is an amazingly thin comment to base anything on, but it seems to suggest one of two things: 1) the author is writing from Italy or 2) there are people from Italy with the author ("the Italians greet you").

Most think #2 is the more likely. If it were #1, then it is unlikely the author is in Rome, since then he would have probably said, "Those here in Rome greet you." The suggestion that the author is referring to Priscilla and Aquila, possibly with him in Ephesus, has been made. They were from Italy (cf. Acts 18:2). I think the preposition here (apo) tips it slightly toward the Italians being "away from" Italy but others disagree.

So the majority way of taking this phrase is that the author is writing to Italy and that some Christians from Italy are with him.

2. A second set of arguments have to do with the "afterlife" of Hebrews in the early church. Its earliest attestation is in Clement of Rome and the Shepherd of Hermas, both of which were written in Rome. Clement is traditionally dated to the late 90s. So Ignatius of Antioch does not mention it, nor do we have record of Papias from Asia mentioning it. It is mentioned in Rome by two people who did not completely agree with it.

However, Hebrews is quickly accepted as Scripture in the East. By Origen it is more or less "in." But it took longer in the West. The key issue seems to have been Pauline authorship. The West seems to have had a memory that the author wasn't Paul. Only when this issue passed did the West more or less rest with the idea of Hebrews as Scripture. They seem to have had a question mark about the book that lingered long after any specific memory of its provenance survived.

These dynamics are usually taken to support a Roman destination for Hebrews.

3. The internal evidence of Hebrews' situation fits Rome more than any other location we know in the early church. The audience has been Christian for some time (5:12). In a previous persecution, they lost property and stood by leaders put in prison (10:32-34). I think the overwhelmingly most natural way to read 13:7 is that their leaders died a martyr's death, probably in that previous persecution.

The only martyrdoms we know of in the church up to the year 70 are Stephen and James in Jerusalem, then Peter, Paul and a host of others in Rome under Nero. Jerusalem, despite being a long standing suggestion for Hebrews, really doesn't fit the letter at all. The temple is not mentioned, only the wilderness tabernacle. It's a thoroughly Greek document, which could fit a group in Jerusalem but probably not the type of group Hebrews is writing to.

Meanwhile, there are numerous persecution bumps in Rome. In 49 Christian Jews were kicked out by Claudius. In 64 Nero put a bunch to death. 70 could not have been pleasant with Vespasian and Titus parading conquered Jews about the city and then killing them. Although I am not in the majority in the US, I think it should be obvious that Hebrews 6:1-2 makes little sense if directed at a Jewish audience. The items listed there were not beginning Christian ideas for a Jew, only for a Gentile convert. This is an instance of obvious anachronisms fixed for Paul not making their way into Hebrews.

Similarly, Romans pretty much says it's primarily for Gentiles (1:13-15; 10:1-2; 11:13). It has an imaginary Jewish interlocutor (2:17), and no doubt there were some Jews in the audience. Again, it is only anachronistic thinking that would assume there would not be both "weak" and "strong" Gentiles in Romans 14. We've had almost forty years now to get over these blind spots.

So the Roman church was a primarily Gentile church, especially after Claudius kicked the Jews out. But these Gentiles were conservative, more like Jerusalem liked than Paul (cf. Ambrosiaster's indication of this in the 300s). In short, it fits neatly the likely audience of Hebrews.

Monday, January 12, 2015

International Conference of the Wesleyan Church

I'm not a delegate, but have enjoyed worshiping and learning at the International Conference of the Wesleyan Church last night and today. I grew up around missionaries and have always felt at home with this special breed of person who answers to the call to live long stretches of their lives in a foreign culture so that they can share the good news of Christ. I don't know if that's where the seed in me of loving other languages first came from.

It is quite amazing to me. Look at me or any of the missionaries in the room (for that matter look at those from other countries in the room). We are not powerful or important people. Few in this room are even upper middle class, and many missionaries spend months every few years just trying to scrape together a minimal salary.

Yet we have been around the world. Here I have shaken hands with people from Sierra Leone, Egypt, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. I have greeted others in Arabic, Spanish, and Tagalog (Philippino), sat behind people from Japan and said, "kamsamnida" after hearing from the leader of a Korean group that has more than double the churches we have here in the US. We've heard from people who live in countries they won't even tell us the name of because of the potential threat from radical Muslims, along with a pastor from Pakistan.

It is quite amazing. Want to meet people from all over the world and travel to countless lands? Want to speak a dozen foreign languages? Join a missionary minded church!

The passion to bring good news to the world is contagious in these rooms. There is also wisdom in these rooms. God is bringing people to them. They are not Crusaders.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

S3. God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

This is the third post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
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God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

1. Grace is God's "unmerited favor." That is to say, it refers to the fact that God gives us gifts and blessings that we have not earned and do not deserve.

There are some common misconceptions about such grace in the New Testament. For example, it is often suggested that grace comes with "no strings attached," that grace is unconditional. This idea, although frequently repeated, neither is what the New Testament says nor what we would expect given the background of this language in the Greco-Roman world.

First of all, to say that grace is, by definition, undeserved, unearned, does not imply that it is unsolicited or that the patrons who dispensed it had no expectations in return. Grace language was patron-client language. In the Mediterranean world, patrons were individuals who gave gifts to others. As gifts, they were not earned or paid for and, true, there were no contractual obligations involved. The arrangement was informal.

But a person could ask for grace (charis), and grace usually came with some informal expectations. For example, if a person was given a gift (charisma) from a patron and then went on to shame or disgrace the patron, it was not at all likely that the gifts would continue. Grace often came with certain informal expectations of the recipient.

So the New Testament concept of grace did not in any way suggest that a person might not ask for it. The idea that we must put our faith in God and Christ order to receive God's grace in no way contradicted the meaning of the word grace, for the key is that the gift be disproportional to any human action, not that it be completely unrelated to human action.

2. John Calvin had a sense that God had bestowed on all humanity something he called "common grace." In other words, all humans share in common good gifts from God that we have not earned and that we receive whether we do good or evil. The model for common grace is Matthew 5:45, where God causes the sun to rise on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Similarly, he gives rain to farmers whether their hearts are turned toward or away from him.

3. John Wesley further suggested that God's grace reaches out to us in hope of our salvation long before we know it. Indeed, he has been reaching out to us long before we were even born. He called this sort of grace, "preventing grace," but most in the Wesleyan tradition now refer to it as prevenient grace, God's grace that comes before we are even aware of it.

This grace goes back to God's plans to save the world through Jesus Christ. [1] In that sense, God's overall plan, of which each of us is a potential beneficiary, was in action millennia before we even existed. It was existent in God's walk with his people Israel before Christ came to earth. It was most evident in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself. It has been playing out in the church these last two thousand years.

In our individual lives, God's prevenient grace takes hold of our lives before we are conscious of our need for God. If we are born in a church, we are hopefully surrounded by God's grace in people who love us and pray for us. We are under the ministry of God's servants. We hopefully fellowship with God's people  In some churches, we experience baptism as a child in a way that both is God grabbing hold on us from the very beginning and a community of faith binding itself to pray and nurture us in faith.

All this can happen long before we have any sense of our need for God. It is part of God "wooing" us to him. He draws us toward faith and toward himself.

4. Yet even for those outside the direct influence of the church, God is leading each person toward him. Wesley himself believed in total depravity as Calvin did, meaning that humanity is not empowered to reach up to God. Our default state is one of moral powerlessness.

However, while Calvin believed God either "turned on" our coming to him or "left the switch off," Wesley taught that God's prevenient grace brought everyone up to a point where we could either continue to move toward him or might ignore his invitation. Philosophically, there is a great difference between these positions. Both indicate that we come to God on the basis of his grace and, indeed, that no one would come to God without God's grace.

The contrast is that, for Wesley, God has made it possible for everyone to come to him and thus puts the ultimate responsibility for our possible condemnation on us as individuals. For Calvin, God effectively decides for us whether we will choose him or not. For Wesley, God makes it possible for us to choose him, so that choosing him is still a matter of God's power but we are each responsible for the choice we make. No one is condemned without an opportunity to have been saved.

For Calvin, God is ultimately responsible for our condemnation. For Wesley, we are. Yet for both, God's grace is the basis of our salvation. [2]

5. Wesley himself did not draw the logical conclusion of his own theology. If God truly gives light to everyone in the world, if God's prevenient grace truly makes it possible that everyone can, in theory, be saved, then God must shine this light even on those who have never heard of Jesus or have heard of Jesus in a hostile or vastly erroneous way.

True, there are stories of individuals having visions and dreams of Jesus. Then when they come into contact with Christians, they immediately recognize in Christ the person of their vision.

Yet what are we to make of the Old Testament saints, who did not yet know of Jesus? What do we make of the Ninevites, whose repentance God accepted even though they had no knowledge of Christ? What do we make of Job, who by all reckonings was not even an Israelite but someone who worshiped God as best he knew how?

Indeed, Paul himself uses the uncircumcised Abraham as a model of justification by faith, but the faith of Abraham is not a faith directed toward Jesus but toward God the Father (Rom. 4:17). God has chosen to reconcile the world through Christ, but he did not justify the Old Testament saints on the basis of their knowledge of Christ but on the basis of their faith in God. "Whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb. 11:6). Note that not a single instance of faith in Hebrews 11 is directed specifically toward Jesus.

The point here is not in any way to diminish the centrality of Christ in atonement. It is to say that the heart is the location of faith rather than the understanding. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner once suggested that there may be "anonymous Christians" who have responded to God in faith on the basis of Christ who do not yet, with their heads, know the name of the one in whom they have believed. [4]

This position is not without its difficulties, but it is the logical outworking of Wesley's theology, which both affirmed God's prevenient grace and the heart as the center of human response to God. It's greatest objection is the urgency of spreading the gospel, and the fact that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17).

Theology is of course worked out over the whole of Scripture, rather than by a war of individual verses. What Wesleyan theology wishes to affirm is what Scripture itself says, that God wants everyone to be saved, which implies that God reaches out to everyone.

But here is an important point. To say that God reaches out to everyone does not mean that everyone has an equal exposure to God's voice. It is only to say that everyone has a chance, enough to be without excuse. Does not Paul himself imply in Romans 1:20 that God's power and glory are self-evident to all? Does not Acts 17:26-28 imply that God has set out the world in a way that can lead non-Jews to him?

At the same time, to say that everyone has a minimal chance does not suggest that evangelism, traditionally conceived, does not greatly increase the opportunity for salvation. It does not deny that prayer can create a greater likelihood that a person will finally reach out for God, although God always in every case looks for the human response. He does not force anyone to choose him.

6. We cannot presume that God will always empower our will to move toward him. If we can only come to God because his prevenient grace is drawing us to him, then we will not be able to come to him if he ever withdraws it. Wesleyans in that sense do not believe in free will in the pure sense. Since the Pelagian controversies of the 400s, Christians have not believed that we have the power in ourselves to come to God. Rather, God empowers us to move toward him.

In that sense, a person who rejects the grace of God today cannot assume that he or she will even want God's grace later on. It is his grace that draws us to repentance. In one of the scariest verses in the New Testament, Hebrews suggests that Esau knew that he needed to repent, but at that point could not find a place of repentance (Heb. 12:17).

So anyone who truly repents and seeks God will find him. But a person who says, "I will repent on my death bed," probably will not find true repentance in their heart on that day. They may know in their head that they need to repent but not find the will to repent in their heart, which is a gift of God's prevenient grace.

In all these things we must confess that we know very little of how God works behind the scenes. We know that he wants everyone to be saved, which means he must surely give everyone a chance. His grace has been reaching out for us before the world began and it continues in or births and lives, long before we realize it. It continues in our daily lives, even after we have come to faith. We cannot possibly know how often he intervenes in the events of our lives, interrupting the normal flow of cause and effect. It is a striking demonstration of his love for us.

Next Sunday: S4. God revealed himself to Israel in preparation for Christ.

[1] Theologians debate whether Jesus would have become human if Adam had not sinned. Those who believe Jesus planned to become human regardless of whether Adam sinned are called "supralapsarians." Those who think he only planned to come if humanity sinned are called 'infralapsarians." In general, Wesleyans would tend to be supralapsarians. For hyper-Calvinists, of course, there is no meaningful distinction between the two, since by their reckoning, God planned for Adam to sin.

[2] The Calvinist idea that God entirely manipulates our salvation is called "monergism." For them, a single work is in play, that of God. Wesleyan-Arminians and historic Christianity have more predominantly affirmed a "synergism" between God's action and human response. The work is vastly disproportionate, with God's work the overwhelmingly predominant element. Yet God empowers the human will to play a role as well. Otherwise, God is straightforwardly responsible for evil.

[3] E.g., Rahner, Theological Investigations IV (New York: Crossroads, 1982 [1966]), 180-187. This idea helped the Roman Catholics at Vatican 2 explain how non-Roman Catholics could be saved and yet not be part of what they believe is the true church. It helped provide a basis for non-Catholics being "separated brothers."

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Je suis Charlie.

"I am Charlie."

Well, I hope I'm actually little like the person Charlie or his publication. My impression is that Charlie Hebdo was an in-your-face publication that was hostile and insulting toward religions of all sort.

We are Charlie today because we stand against the kind of person that marches into a place and murders a bunch of people. We would be against someone calling himself a Christian who marched into an abortion clinic and killed a bunch of people. We are against terrorists. If God really needed people like this, he wouldn't be much of a god.

Freedom of religion is not absolute in that sense, not in a modern, representational democracy. Your religion doesn't give you the freedom to kill people. Indeed, since your children are individuals protected by the fundamentals of democracy, there is a point where you are not free to have your religious way with your children. For example, if for religious reasons you refuse to let your child have a blood transfusion, a democratic society will give them one anyway.

Given the circumstances, the French right now are tempted to think freedom of speech an absolute. But none of these privileges of a modern democracy are absolutes. There is a point at which a radical cleric crosses an ambiguous line between stating ideas and making violence happen. Whatever that point is, it is the point where freedom of speech ends.

As a side note, words can actually be more hurtful than physical actions, as most people with multiple children can attest. The cutting words of a sharp-tongued child are often more hurtful than the physical response of a less verbal sibling. You cannot neatly partition off speech from action, as speech-act theory attests. Speech is action, and there is a point where its action crosses a line.

"Charlie" didn't cross that line. So this discussion is merely the reflection of someone who doesn't live in France today.

Today, "je suis Charlie."

Wesleyans and Grudem (Angels)

Some of my previous posts in this series include:
Miracles
Prayer

Chapter 19 Angels
1. To begin with, there was not much in this chapter to which a Wesleyan would object as a Wesleyan. For example:
  • Wesleyans believe that angels are created beings, created sometime in between Genesis 1:1 and the Fall of Adam.
  • Wesleyans do not believe that angels marry (e.g., Mark 12:30)
  • Most, if not all Wesleyans would believe that there are lots of angels and that they are powerful. (To be frank, I don't hear Wesleyans talking about angels very often. Practically speaking, this is not a major area of conversation for most Wesleyans).
  • Angels show the greatness of God's love. They carry out some of God's plans. 
  • Wesleyans (again, without really discussing it much) would believe that angels are present in the world around us. But it would make us uneasy if someone put too much emphasis on them. We certainly do not believe in worshiping them. We would entertain the possibility that angels take human form and appear to people from time to time (although we might hesitate to express certainty about any individual instance).
2. There was one section a Wesleyan should find problematic in tone. Grudem writes, "If God had decided to save only five human beings out of the entire human race, that would have been much more than justice" (403).

In this section, Grudem is arguing that angels show the greatness of God's love for us by contrast. God did not try to save angels. He did not send Jesus to die for them. But God did send Jesus to die for us. This is where the quote above occurs.

Technically speaking, Wesleyans would agree with the quote above, but not with the tone. God did not have to save anyone. However, Wesleyans would say that God's disposition toward the creation is love. In that regard, we would have been completely baffled if he had not made a way of salvation. Sure, he didn't have to save one. But it is no surprise that he made it possible for everyone to be saved.

Therefore, as Wesleyans, we believe that God would have even saved Satan himself if that were at all possible within the parameters he has created for this universe. What are those parameters? Those are the parameters of free will. The difference between humans, who can be saved, and the fallen angels, who cannot at this point, must therefore be in the nature of our wills rather than in God's openness to it.

In particular, the human will must surely be more pliable, less resolved than that of the angelic will once such decisions have been made. We must suppose that Satan's free will, once fixed, will now never be unfixed. Perhaps our wills will turn out to be the same in our glorified bodies. In that sense, our wills will never turn against God once in the kingdom. Similarly, the wills of those who are against God presumably will never change thereafter.

3. There are a number of questionable moments in this chapter, not from a Wesleyan standpoint, but from that of a contextual Bible scholar. I have said repeatedly that Grudem is a premodern reader of the Bible. He reads the words flatly as the words of one book from Genesis to Revelation with the words in one part more or less having the same meaning as words in another part.

When we come to a subject like angels, where Jewish thought changed significantly over the course of the writing of the Bible, this approach ends up with a bizarre concatenation of pieces that do not really go together.

Here we get back to a fundamental fact. The books of the Bible were revealed in the categories of their audiences. To find the voice of Scripture as a whole, the whole council of God, you cannot simply mix and match verses from here and there and assume they all mean the same thing.

For example, Grudem more or less adds up the different names for heavenly beings, as if these are different things: seraphim, cherubim, etc. But we should be very careful about adding these pieces together. We don't know what they literally point to. All we have are the kaleidoscopic images of Israelites and Jews looking at them through the lenses of their day. Inspiration never came in a bubble. It always came in categories that made sense to those to whom God wanted to speak.

It is incredibly difficult to study the intertestamental period in any depth and not be struck by how much the language of the Bible in this category has been affected by the language of apocalyptic Judaism. Yet almost no one in Christianity today accepts that body of imagery as inspired. [1] In short, we must be very careful not to assume that all the angelic imagery of the Bible is straightforwardly literal. Genres we don't recognize are involved. Fantastic symbolism is involved.

4. Finally, there are a number of interpretations in this chapter that are at least questionable. For example, I do not believe that Colossians 2:18 was about the worship of angels but about a Jewish group that believed they were mystically worshiping with angels. It does not change any of Grudem's points, however.

Similarly, I think it is incorrect to portray the Sadducees as liberal. Many, including myself, do not see Acts 23:8 as a denial of belief in angels and spirits but as a denial of different forms of afterlife. Peter's angel in Acts 12:15 may refer to a form that Luke saw people taking between death and resurrection. Again, this is only one set of biblical imagery, one that expressed truth in Luke's categories. We should not take it as how it works literally, minus the symbolism and worldview.

The Bible seems ambiguous on guardian angels. You should not base a doctrine on one verse, and Matthew 18:10 seems about the only really substantive basis for the idea.

Lastly, there is the angel of the LORD in certain Old Testament passages. Notice again that this is a passing image in a certain part of the OT. In other words, it is not a whole Bible image. This immediately pushes us toward seeing it as an expression of truth in the categories of Moses and a certain layer of the OT. [2] It may or may not combine with other images elsewhere.

However, the angel of the LORD would seem to be a messenger from God who so represented God that a person who had received word from this angel could be said to have seen and talked to God himself. No doubt we--and later Jews--would have wanted to word such encounters more carefully, with greater distinctions between God himself and his messenger. But at this point in Israel's history, when polytheism was the default surrounding culture, it was not so crucial to emphasize these points.

5. In summary, there is very little doctrinally in this chapter with which Wesleyans would disagree. The only point is where Grudem is asking why angels cannot be redeemed. Here Wesleyans agree with him on their non-redemptive status, but we disagree on the reasons why they will not be redeemed. Finally, Grudem's use of Scripture is generally non-contextual, so his interpretations should be read with caution.

[1] The Ethiopian church would be an exception, since they consider 1 Enoch inspired.

[2] I am using this traditional language for simplicity. I'm not making an argument for authorship above.

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