Saturday, May 23, 2020

William Webb 4: Moderately Persuasive Criteria

I continue my review of William Webb's Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis.

Previous chapters:
Chapter 1: The Christian and Culture
Chapter 2: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic
Chapter 3: Persuasive Criteria

Now on to Chapter 4: Moderately Persuasive Criteria
Webb finds these criteria helpful in the discussion, but not as definitive as those in the previous chapter.

Criterion 6: Patterns of the Original Creation
The basic question of this criterion and the next two relates to whether the way God originally created humanity was an absolute ideal. Were there cultural dimensions even to the original creation? Will the new creation go even further than the original creation?

Generally, Webb starts with what he considers "neutral" examples. Here I note as before that today's common sense may need to be defended in the next generation. I remember I felt similarly in 2001. It seemed obvious to me that everyone would agree slavery should have been abolished. But people be crazy.

His thesis in these first two criteria is that "one cannot automatically assign a transcultural status to all that is found within the garden" (124). Here is a list of various items relating to the garden:
  • Divorce -- Jesus appeals to the Genesis creation text to argue against divorce.
  • Polygamy -- Here I am not sure I agree with him. I am doubtful that Genesis saw polygamy as a contradiction of the "one flesh" passage in Genesis 2:24. In the Ancient Near East, a man could become one flesh with many wives. This is thus a culturally unreflective reading on Webb's part, IMO.
  • Singleness -- Webb rightly notes that we might prohibit singleness if the original creation was absolute.
  • Farming as an occupation -- clearly not all men are farmers, although this seems a near assumption of the biblical text
  • Ground transportation -- we don't insist on walking today, although this was possibly an assumption of the original creation
  • Procreation command -- although some do, we do not consider procreation a command today
  • Vegetarian diet -- The diet seems to shift after the Flood, but should we go back to being vegetarians as in the Garden?
  • Sabbath -- Christians have certainly modified sabbath observance. We observe Sunday rather than Saturday. I would add that the New Testament explicitly does not consider the Jewish Sabbath binding for Gentile Christians, even though it is modeled in creation (Rom 14:5; Col. 2:16).
  •  Length of a work week -- We get Saturday and Sunday.
Women
He then looks at the somewhat mixed nature of the original creation in relation to women:
  • God's image - Both male and female are created in it.
  • Ruling together - Both man and woman are to rule
  • Helpmate - He thinks the evidence is indeterminate. 72% of the instances of this word are a superior like God helping and inferior (e.g., Ps. 54:4). But in 10% of the uses the helper is inferior.
  • Adam's rib - He finds any rhetoric here unhelpful. It can be argued both ways.
  • Man naming the woman - already discussed
I want to separate off the last three. Webb suggests there may be some patriarchy in the creation account. He will especially address this question under the next criterion, so see below.
  • man leaves and cleaves - We don't apply this literally today, so it's hypocritical to make a big deal out of taking it literally. 
  • God addresses man first - "quiet whisper of patriarchy"?
  • Creation order: God makes the man first - 1 Timothy 2:13 seems to use this logic. See below.
Homosexuality
Webb argues that "the author of Genesis understood the creation story as a statement about normative sexual patterns being heterosexual" (133). On the other hand, he also notes that the creation story does not mention contrary situations. For example, it does not say anything about singleness. It must thus be acknowledged that homosexual relationships are not addressed one way or another. However, Webb argues that abstinence from sex limits while homosexual sex would broaden. He thus argues that abstinence from marriage is a different kind of situation than a different kind of marriage.

To put it another way, "God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve," is only a partial argument, not an absolute argument. The Garden no doubt presents the norm, but it does not actually argue against other variations like singleness. God made Adam and Eve to have children is not an argument that it is wrong not to have children. Description is not prescription.

Criterion 7: Basis in the Original Creation: Primogeniture
This criterion focuses in on the created order. We already mentioned that 1 Timothy 2:13 seems to argue in this way "Adam was formed first, then Eve." I've heard David Ward poke at this logic a little, since trees and animals were made before Adam. Must we thus submit to the will of goats?

Here is where Webb raises an important question: "Eden's quiet echoes of patriarchy might be a way of describing the past through present categories" (143). "Given the agrarian base to primogeniture logic, the patriarchy of the garden may reflect God's anticipation of the social context into which Adam and Eve were about to venture" (144). Here we remember that Genesis was written in the Ancient Near East. It is not simply a dictation in heavenly categories. The story of the time before the fall is told in a document written after the fall.

Webb points out the inconsistencies of someone who would argue that these features of the original creation are transcultural.
  • Scripture often overturns primogeniture.
  • Christians no longer apply primogeniture today.
  • Primogeniture was linked to ancient culture, which was agrarian based with short life expectancy and great potential for feuding and fighting over land. 
In the end he suggests that the best way to appropriate 1 Timothy 2 today is something like, "Choose teachers/leaders who are worthy of high honor in the congregation" (145).

Criterion 8: Basis in the New Creation
This criterion is similar to when I talk about the kingdom trajectory and it also relates to his previous criterion of "breakout verses." For example, Galatians 3:28 points to the new creation. See the previous post.

I might add some features he does not mention and might not agree with. The wording of Galatians 3:28 is curious: "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is not 'male and female.'" I think it is quite possible that this verse alludes back to Genesis 1:27, where God creates them "male and female." Poetically, something even of the creation order is undone in Christ.

In short, I agree with him that the consummation of the creation goes one step further than the creation itself. This is solid Christian doctrine I learned once upon a time from Chris Bounds. Indeed, it is not clear that our glorified bodies will be sexual at all. In the kingdom, there is no marriage (Mark 12:25). We are like the angels.

"Original-creation patterns are far more likely to have culture-locked components with them" (148). They "simply do not have the same potential for reflecting transcultural features as do new-creation patterns."

Criterion 9: Competing Options in the Original Culture
His concept here is that if the Bible picks an option among many different cultural options, then that choice is more likely transcultural. On the other hand, if there was only one basic option at the time, then that instruction is quite possibly cultural.
  • Slavery versus abolition - Abolition wasn't really an ancient option. "The lack of alternatives increases the likelihood that biblical interaction with slavery addressed this limited (culture-bound) horizon."
  • Geocentric cosmology - the cosmology of the Bible assumed the earth was the center of the universe. There just wasn't another option.
  • Monarchy - Democracy wasn't really an option in biblical times. The monarchic assumptions of the Bible are therefore likely to be cultural rather than timeless.
With regard to women, pretty much all the cultures of the ancient world were patriarchal. Even today, matriarchy is not really a thing when you dig deep. [Interestingly, I remember David Wright telling me this several years ago.] Accordingly, the role of women displayed in the Bible may very well be cultural since there weren't really any other options at the time.
The situation with homosexual practice is different. Homosexual practice was a known quantity in the ancient world. He does raise the question of whether "covenant" homosexual relationships were present in the ancient world, like gay marriage today. He says the ancient evidence is not agreed on, but he thinks it was an option (not marriage, but committed relationships).

So here and elsewhere he eliminates casual homosexual relationships from moral behavior because the Bible chooses against that option in its cultural world. He is not entirely certain whether married homosexual relationships are a phenomenon different enough from the options of the ancient world that they would not be covered under the biblical mandates. But he certainly leans in the direction that they would be covered.

Criterion 10: Opposition to the Original Culture
This criterion is closely related to the previous one. The previous one simply asked whether other options existed. This one asks whether the Bible actually argues against those other options. In that sense we have already started talking about this one.

Here are some extensions from his discussion of the previous criterion:
  • Slavery: Although the Bible assumes slavery, it does challenge aspects of its cultural practice (see criterion 1, preliminary movement).
  • Cosmology: Although the Bible assumes a geocentric cosmology, it argues against the worship of heavenly luminaries.
  • Worshiping other gods: While the sanctuaries of Israel resembled those of other gods, while Israel offered sacrifices like other religions offered sacrifices, Israel was only to worship Yahweh. I would add that the Israelites probably believed those other deities were real entities (Paul calls them demons), but God did not allow their worship.
  • Bestiality and transvestite activities - I have found the revival of Deuteronomy 22:5 interesting in recent days in relation to transvestitism. When I was a boy, this verse was used to argue that women should only wear dresses, not pants or slacks. I spent a couple years tortured over whether I should date a girl who wore pants. So let's just say I'm not too keen about the sudden "clarity" this verse has all of a sudden again. I don't understand transvestitism. I find it highly unusual, shall we say. But I get really annoyed by Boomers who would have mocked their parents for using this verse against pants now suddenly touting this verse loudly and widely as a proof text.
  • Non-retaliation/love of enemies - This is the big one. Love of enemies makes no sense whatsoever from a worldly perspective. This is the distinctive biblical ethic above all.
Webb quotes Grant Osborne to sum up this criterion (from The Hermeneutical Spiral): "Teaching that transcends the cultural biases of the author and his readers will be normative" (161). Here is how Webb adds: "The countercultural side to the criterion is almost always accurate in detecting something of transcultural value, whereas the converse expression simply increases the probability of something being cultural" (162). In other words, if the Bible argues against something in the culture, that is likely transcultural. However, if the Bible doesn't argue against something in the culture, that doesn't mean that cultural feature is transcultural.

Criterion 11: Biblical Treatment of Closely-Related Issues
If we see that the kingdom moves beyond the Bible on an issue closely related to another, then it is at least possible that the kingdom would move beyond the Bible on that issue too.

Slavery as a closely related issue where we have a sense that we need to move beyond the Bible:
  • viewing slaves as property
  • releasing Hebrew slaves after 7 years (although not foreign slaves)
  • using slaves for reproductive purposes (like Hagar)
  • different penalties for rape of slave women and free women
  • physical beating of a slave
  • value of slave's life versus a free life
So on the question of women, Christians have also already moved beyond the Bible in many respects:
  • Women are no longer viewed as property, as they are in much of the Old Testament.
  • Wives are no longer transferred from father to husband.
  • Women can now inherit property.
  • We now would argue for consistent virginity for both men and women, while the Bible is largely only concerned about the women's virginity going into a marriage.
  • Adultery legislation was much stronger in the Bible toward the woman than the man.
  • Divorce legislation in Scripture was much more strongly directed against the woman.
  • Other issues where the kingdom seems to move beyond things said somewhere in the Bible: polygamy, concubines, levirate marriage.
However, he argues that homosexual sex is in a different category than, for example, the fact that we do not enforce legislation on having sex during menstruation or the abandonment of polygamy or concubinage. [Interestingly--and uncomfortably--he is not sure that the Bible implies a prohibition of anal sex within a heterosexual marriage]

Here are some of the arguments for homosexual sex being in a different category. 1) The prohibition of homosexual sex is not tied to ceremonial impurity, 2) The New Testament retains the Old Testament prohibition of homosexual sex. 3) There is no intrinsic or logical connection between the rules on sex during menstruation and homosexual sex.

The second argument is the one that I have found most persuasive. Unlike other laws that the New Testament explicitly does not continue from the Old Testament, the prohibition on homosexual sex is explicitly retained.

I might add that the distinction between ceremonial law and moral law is really anachronistic. It is an overlay that makes sense to us but wouldn't have made any sense to, say, the apostle Paul. The Bible does not divide up the Old Testament Law in this way. What we have is 1) laws that related to Israel as a people distinct from their surrounding peoples, 2) laws of Israel that overlap with the laws of the Ancient Near East, and 3) laws that transcended Israel's Ancient Near Eastern context into the New Testament and beyond.

Criterion 12: Severity of the Penal Code
The criterion here looks at how severely various actions were punished in the Old Testament as an indicator. "The less severe the penalty for a particular action, the more likely it is of having culturally bound components" (172).

So some actions had the death penalty. Some might result in expulsion from Israel. Others involved punitive consequences that were less severe. Finally, some resulted in being impure for a time. Webb argues that we have a sliding scale here, with the final category being the least transcultural.

He notes that homosexual activity held a result of a death penalty. On the other hand, the law tells of no punishments for the insubordination of a wife or slave.

He anticipates a later criterion here as well--pragmatic considerations. For example, it is simply impractical to give young children the same vote in the family as a parent. They simply are not mentally equipped to make many important decisions. It is thus appropriate to retain the hierarchy of parents to children even though it no longer makes sense to retain the hierarchy of husband over wife.

I might add that there is some debate about how active ancient near eastern penal codes were. One line of thinking sees them more as "position papers" than actual practices. For example, how often in ancient Israel was a disobedient son actually stoned to death?

Criterion 13: Tension with General Principles
The final criterion of this chapter deals with a situation where a specific statement of Scripture seems to be in tension with an overarching principle. "Specific statements within Scripture are more likely to be culturally confined in some aspect than general statements" (179).

I have expressed a similar idea. Individual verses are most likely to be ambiguous and situational/time-conditioned. Therefore, it is important to focus more on the overall themes of Scripture than on individual verses. We should be cautious about how we apply any idea that is only expressed once in Scripture

He mentions gleaning laws as an example, leaving the edges of a field for the poor to eat from. Compassion toward the poor is timeless, but this particular way of showing compassion is not likely binding on modern farmers. Doing what they did doesn't do what it did.

In general, the principle of loving one's neighbor is the macro-ethic that should guide our approach to human relationships. We of course need to be careful not to have a myopic sense of love. Sometimes, "love must be tough." Love does not contradict discipline or the protection of one group by acting restrictively toward another.

However, we would be enacting kingdom values the most in culture if we could make the structures of society be equally "loving" toward all its members.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Kingdom of God 2

This is the second post in my series, "What is a Christian?' The first post asked:

1. What is a human being?

The Kingdom of God
1. There is a danger in posing the question, "What is a Christian?" The danger is that we fall into the trap of individualism and subjectivism. These are the waters in which the typical Western Protestant swims, so I may gravitate toward an individual description without thinking.

However, the focal point of Christianity is not me. It is not even us. The focal point is God, who looks at us first before we ever look back.

This is a danger in thinking about the gospel in Western Protestantism. We easily assume, unthinkingly, that the heart of the gospel is about getting saved and salvation. But Christ is the center of the good news. [1] The good news is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God's royal Son, who was designated Son of God in power by the resurrection of the dead (Rom. 1:3). My salvation is good news, but it is only part of the good news.

2. A Christian is a servant in the kingdom of God. A Christian is also part of the family of God, a member of the people of God. But the kingdom of God was the language that Jesus used primarily in his preaching when he was on earth.

In the kingdom of God, God is king and the creation are God's servants. As Christians we are more than God's servants, but we are also God's servants. Jesus is also king Jesus, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. We are co-heirs with Jesus of the kingdom, which puts us as Christians in a special place in the kingdom indeed.

3. Within the kingdom, the primary posture of the Christian is that of faith. This is not faith as in belief, although belief in the king and the kingdom is clearly an assumption. It is faith as in allegiance to the Lord and to the King. [2]

"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and have faith in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

When you confess someone as Lord, it is not a mere mental assent. It is a commitment. Faith is not merely belief but we must "keep faith" with our Lord. Someone is not a Lord simply on a quiz. "Check yes or no." Someone is a Lord if we obey them, if we serve them, if we surrender to them.

A Christian is someone who has confessed allegiance to Christ as Lord.

4. The posture of surrender is difficult. We are more accustomed to seek our own power, our own freedom, our own rights and what we have coming to us. We can even use God as an excuse not to submit. "I defy you because God told me to," when I get to decide what God thinks.

Yet as a servant of God my primary posture is one of submission. When my life outside of the kingdom first comes into contact with the kingdom, acts of confession and repentance are natural. I confess that I have not lived in loyalty to the king. I repent of my past misdirection and turn toward the King.

Then I make another confession, this time not a confession of sin but a confession of faith. I swear allegiance to the King and to the Anointed One. I become part of the kingdom, part of the people of God. From then on I am a loyal servant. I am more than a servant, but I am a servant.

5. It is gracious of my Lord to grant me entrance to the kingdom, after living outside in rebellion. It is a gift I cannot merit. Entrance comes with the power to live as a loyal subject. I am not left to flail on my own as a miserable failure to live up to the expectations of all citizens of the new Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, allegiance remains a requirement of the kingdom. It would have made no sense in biblical times to say, "I am in the kingdom though I act with regular defiance of the King." The expectation of faithfulness remains. "If we continue sinning willfully after receiving a knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins" (Heb. 10:26). The King does not eject us for any failing, but it is absurd to think we can remain in a kingdom to which we have no true allegiance. This is simply not the way grace worked in the New Testament world. [3]

6. God's kingdom is an exclusive kingdom. God will not suffer any other lords but God alone and his Christ. "A double-minded person is unstable in all their ways. That person should not think they will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:8). The path of the person with divided loyalties to the kingdom is a path toward expulsion from the kingdom. "Throw this worthless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and wailing and the gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:30).

Many of us do not realize our divided loyalties. They can lead us outside of the kingdom before we hardly even realize it. "You cannot serve God and wealth." The American church often cannot tell the difference between Christ and capitalism. But rest assured, God and the New Testament couldn't care less how much money you have.

Syncretism is the mixture of elements into our faith that do not belong, in fact that are contrary to its essence. The love of money is a potential syncretistic element. Though Scripture says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10), we somehow baptize the economic system of capitalism, which is based on self-interest.

But rest assured, whatever good there is in capitalism, it is only insofar as it leads to overall human thriving. This is a much different purpose than the goal of individual, personal wealth or my own acquisition of material goods. The latter goals have nothing to do with the kingdom of God.

7. Nationalism and racism are also syncretistic elements. There is nothing wrong with loving your country (patriotism) or loving your ethnic heritage. But there is no place in God's kingdom for someone who exalts their people over other peoples. "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal. 3:28).

No earthly kingdom is righteous enough to be confused with the kingdom of God. Although God is merciful in the face of our blind spots, the flag of no human kingdom has a place in God's sanctuary. God is merciful, but it is intrinsically blasphemous to confuse any earthly polity with the divine polity.

God is not a Republican. God is not a Democrat. Even to think so suggests blindness and a syncretism of human thinking with kingdom thinking. The same impulse in Jesus' day that confused the tradition of the elders with God's values is present in the confusion of conservatism with the kingdom. By the same token, the world's idea of progress is just as beset with confusion and blindness.

God's kingdom is not of this world, although it will come to this world. It is inaugurated in this world but not consummated. Our blindness to our own culture will always threaten a syncretism of worldly values with heavenly ones.

8. God loves the immigrant as much as the natural-born citizen. God loves the Iranian as much as the person of European descent. The law-breaker who breaks the speed limit and the law-breaker who crosses a border are no different in God's eyes. "All have sinned and are lacking the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

God sees through our excuses. We divert. But what about this other kingdom issue? Yes, your eyes are open to that issue. That issue is easy for you to talk about because it is not a temptation for you. But at this moment God is talking to you about something else, something that is not easy for you. Right now God is speaking to you about something that you do not want to open your eyes about.

God is not fooled by our diversions. Nor can you talk God out of the values of the kingdom. You can fool yourself. You can fool others. You cannot fool God. God is not elected. God grants you the freedom to rebel against the kingdom for now. But a Day is coming when "every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10-11).

On that day the true motives of our hearts will be laid bare (Heb. 4:13). There will be no negotiations. There will be no rationalization or excuses. All the excuses not to love our neighbors and enemies will be exposed without rejoinder. Anything that conflicted with our love of God will be seen for what it was.

A Christian is a servant in God's kingdom. We are more than servants. But we cannot be Christians for long if we are not surrendered to our Lord.

[1] Cf. Scot McKnight, King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).

[2] Cf. Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

[3] Cf. John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).

Saturday, May 16, 2020

William Webb 3: Persuasive Criteria

My review continues of William Webb's Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis.

Previous chapters:
Chapter 1: The Christian and Culture
Chapter 2: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic

Now Chapter 3: Persuasive Criteria
In this chapter Webb sets down five of his 18 criteria for determining the extent to which biblical instruction on slaves, women, and homosexual acts relate to today. This chapter gives the five that he considers most persuasive.

Criterion 1: Preliminary Movement
The basic concept of this criterion is the direction in which biblical instruction is moving relative to the culture of its day. Another question that this criterion does not in itself answer is whether that movement is "preliminary" or "absolute."

The concept here is that sometimes Scripture differs from its surrounding culture in a way that reaches a final destination, what I would call the kingdom ideal. This is like scoring the touchdown on this issue. At other times, I think Webb rightly observes, Scripture demonstrates a movement toward the kingdom that is not fully reached. This is like moving the scrimmage line toward the goal.

Slavery
He mentions 8 ways in which the practice of slavery in Scripture reflects movement in relation to the culture of its day:
  • generous number of days off work
  • elevated status in worship setting
  • release of Hebrew slaves after six years
  • provisions given to slaves upon release
  • limitations on physical beatings/freedom for damaged slaves
  • admonitions toward genuine care
  • condemnation of trading stolen slaves/people
  • refuge and safety for runaway slaves
So Scripture does not fully move to the absolute destination where "in Christ there is neither slave nor free" (Gal 3:28), but it is moving in that direction.

Women
He mentions nine ways in which Scripture shows preliminary movement in relation to the status and empowerment of women:
  • improved rights for female slaves and concubines
  • no bodily punishment of a wife
  • women's gain of (limited) inheritance rights
  • the right of women to initiate divorce
  • greater rights in divorce cases
  • fairer treatment of women suspected of adultery
  • elevation of female sexuality
  • improved rape laws
  • softening the husband side of the household codes
Several of these are of particular interest to me. I smiled at "the right of women to initiate divorce." I don't think his argument is quite right here but I agree with where he is headed so I won't say more. I have long taught that Paul's concern for the woman's sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7 would have been striking in that day.

Similarly, I have long argued his position on the household codes. I regularly read from Aristotle's Politics when we get to Colossians and Ephesians in a New Testament Survey class. There is nothing distinctively Christian about what Paul says to wives in these codes. It is rather what he says to the men that is striking.

Homosexuality
I note throughout the anachronism of his references to "homosexuality" and "homosexuals." This is a modern paradigm. There was no concept of sexual-ity or sexual orientation in the ancient world. The Bible refers to acts of men having sex with men and once to women having sex with women. It speaks of passion toward the same sex. It has no category for a person with a homosexual orientation.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not about homosex-uals. It is a story about attempted same-sex rape.

We can thus recalibrate and note his three movements of the Bible in relation to culture on the question of homosexual acts:
  • challenging the portrait of ancient gods (the Bible does not depict God having homosexual sex)
  • removing homosexual practices of the temple cult
  • legislating against homosexual practices within community life
The last one has the most force since the first two would also apply to heterosexual sex. Homosexual acts were practiced to varying degrees among the nations around Israel. Leviticus makes a broad-sweeping ban of such practices in Israel.

Criterion 2: Seed Ideas
This criterion looks at statements in Scripture that seem to point the way in a redemptive direction even though that path is not fully developed within the pages of Scripture. Perhaps the most obvious verse of this kind is Galatians 3:28--"In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is not male and female." Patriarchalists note that Paul is primarily speaking of salvation here rather than social equality.

What Webb argues is that it is clear from other criteria that these liberations sow the seeds of a social direction. Because the Jew-Gentile distinction was crucial to the spread of the gospel in the first century, it is in this area that Paul most fully works out the implications. Once other criteria are brought into play it seems clear that the trajectory is a kingdom without hierarchy in relation to slaves or women either.

He also points out that the principle does not obviously apply to "gay and straight." As I argued above, it is doubtful that Paul would even recognize these categories. The issue seems one of homosexual activity not personal identity. Even in 1 Corinthians 6:9 he formulates the prohibition in terms of individuals in the active homosexual role and those in the passive homosexual role.

Criterion 3: Breakouts
It seems to me that this section largely presented individuals who did not fit the cultural norms of the ancient context despite the Bible often conforming to those norms. Some of Webb's examples are easy for us because our culture has already "broken free" of those cultural norms and those issues are not debated in the church. For example:
  • Left handed people are not devious.
  • Long hair is usually not an issue for guys any more.
  • Firstborn children don't always get more of the inheritance.
  • We are affirming of there not being slavery.
I do think he glosses over some of these too quickly. My father was conscious of hair length on men his whole life, and my mother would comment on my hair if I visited her right now. Webb finds exceptions to these rules in Scripture and dubs them "breakouts," pointing to the fact that they were merely cultural not absolute.

I agree with his conclusion that they were culture-bound, but I'm not sure his argument would be felt sufficient by someone who disagreed. My criteria has much more to do with the "Love God, love neighbor" criterion. There is nothing intrinsic about hair length that seems to violate the love of God or the love of neighbor in absolute terms.

Meanwhile, it is simply false to say that all left-handed people cannot be trusted. In fact, that common cultural view is based on ignorance. Behaving differently toward left-handed people than right-handed people violates the core principle that God does not show favoritism and loves all people equally, including his enemies.

Meat offered to idols
I find his argument here muddy. The fact of the matter is, there was disagreement in the early church on how to handle this issue. We can discern three different positions. First, James and the Jerusalem church took an "avoid at all costs" position. If in doubt, don't eat. Paul took a medial position: "Don't ask where it came from." Eat according to your conscience. If you don't know, feel free to eat. Then there was the Corinthian position--"You have knowledge, eat it anywhere."

Because Paul's writings have pride of place in the canon--and because his position embodies the full inclusion of the Gentiles--it seems to be the position that wins in the canon. Is that a breakout? Sure. I suppose it is.

Women
In this section Webb points to a number of women leaders of both political and spiritual kinds in Scripture. There is Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Junia. He argues that these are "breakouts" that point the way rather than mere exceptions to the rule.

On the one hand, these examples do clearly demonstrate that male leadership is not an absolute. That means that no one can claim biblically that a woman can never lead. God does call women to lead, clearly. Deborah is the supreme political and military leader of Israel--so a woman could be president of a Christian nation. Huldah is sought for a spiritual decision by the high priest and the king. So a woman can be a general superindentent or bishop.

What the Day of Pentecost does is make this normative. Now sons and daughters will prophecy (Acts 2:17). Everyone has equal access to the Spirit now. And while women may have been generally uneducated in biblical times, that is simply not the case. Any claim that women are somehow inherently worse leaders or thinkers than men is simply an ignorant claim in itself, suggesting the person who says such things lacks the wisdom to lead themselves.

He also mentions the equal consideration of women in sexual rights (1 Cor. 7:3-5) ultimately undermines any principle other than mutual submission. Although Paul only speaks of it in the sexual arena, Webb argues that this cultural breakout points toward its extension into to all areas of the marital relationship.

Homosexuality
Webb indicates that there are no breakout instances in relation to homosexuality in Scripture. He rightly concludes that there is nothing about the Jonathan/David or Ruth/Naomi stories that indicates a homosexual relationship. Here is an instance where our culture may make it difficult for us to see that men and women can have strong and affectionate relationships that are not sexual. Indeed, a professor I knew in England argued that our fear of appearing gay has at times made it difficult for men to have the kinds of non-sexual intimate relationships that they used to have.

Criterion 4: Purpose/Intent Statements
The idea of this criterion is that when Scripture links instruction to a purpose that doing that instruction would not accomplish today, then that instruction was cultural and should not be practiced. I generally agree, although I don't think it is always obvious what the actual function was. But as I have said before, "Doing what they did isn't doing what they did if it does not have the same significance it had in the ancient world."

So the holy kiss would not produce today the same result it did then. It would be offensive and troubling in our context. So a handshake will suffice today. Or in the days of COVID-19, jazz hands. "If we obey the text, we may violate the purpose of making people within the Christian community feel a warm welcome and a special bond" (105).

Webb argues that the submission of slaves to masters or wives to husbands similarly does not accomplish its original function of Christian witness and evangelism. Rather, a strong subordination of wife to husband would turn off a lot of people in the United States today. It would not accomplish one of its original functions, which was evangelistic. "Only deference and respect in a mutual-submission framework allows for the evangelistic or winsome gospel purpose statements to be realized in our social context" (108).

With regard to homosexuality, Webb argues that, by contrast, the purpose of the instructions against homosexual practice remains the same as it was originally. For example, the purpose of this instruction had nothing to do with evangelistic witness, in contrast to the submission of wives to husbands and slaves to masters. "The prohibitions against homosexuality are related to purposes such as the appropriateness of sexual intercourse within the male-female physical relationship... sexual intercourse was intended for a male-female relationship."

I might note here that the Bible isn't actually very clear about the reasons why homosexual sex is thoroughly prohibited. It is an abomination in Leviticus 18 and 20. Along with various practices of incest and bestiality, it seems to be something that the Canaanites did. My guess is that it might have been difficult for an ancient Israelite or Christian to explain why homosexual sex was wrong.

Criterion 5: Basis in Fall or Curse
My sense is that he has put this criterion in for those who would actually argue against egalitarianism. He has another criterion in the next chapter called, "basis in original creation." However, this section foreshadows the important point of the next chapter that I have said often--if we can enact the redemption of Christ on a societal level now, why would we artificially wait for the kingdom? If we can do away with slavery now, why wouldn't we? If we can restore the balance of full equality within marriage now, why wouldn't we?

But this section asks, are there omni-cultural (he says transcultural) factors that are a consequence of the fall? Yes, there are:
  • childbirth pain
  • weeds
  • death
Still, it would be perverse to prohibit the advance of medicine because death is human punishment. We would not prohibit modern farming equipment or weed-killing chemicals because farming is supposed to be hard. It would be devilish to prohibit a woman from having an epidural because of the fall.

So, as Webb says, "It is not part of Christian mission to perpetuate the curse; it is our mission to fight the curse" (111). He rightly ends the section by saying this is not an argument for nudity. Clothing is actually a fight against the curse.

Prescriptive or Descriptive?
Here we get to an issue I have mentioned when I have taught from Genesis. We should view the consequences of the fall as more descriptive than prescriptive. Since salvation and redemption are the ultimate goals of God in Scripture, it is clear that God's own ultimate goal is to undo the Fall. Therefore it works against God's purposes to view the consequences of the Fall as prescriptive. The curse "should not carry any imperative implications" (112).

A couple other horses are head off at the path. One is that the order in which Adam and Eve sinned plays no role in Scripture. The fact that Eve ate first never is even pointed out in the Bible as a thing.

The nature of Eve's sin in 1 Timothy 2:14 seems to be that she was more easily deceived than Adam. This has been the most typical interpretation of the verse throughout church history (his Appendix B). But women are not intrinsically more deceivable than men (Appendix C). We thus find ourselves explaining this aspect of 1 Timothy 2 as either 1) a matter of the situation at Ephesus or 2) an aspect of the culture of the day (that women were less educated). Either way, the deceivability of women is not an omni-cultural data point.

Origins of Hierarchy
Another question is whether hierarchy was a consequence of the fall or baked into the creation. Webb states, "There are no clear or explicit statements formulating a hierarchical relationship between man and woman until after the Fall" (115). He argues for a post-Fall introduction of hierarchy based on the following factors:
  • There are explicit statements of hierarchy between humanity and animals pre-Fall, but only after the Fall for men and women.
  • The way the man names the woman is different from how he names the animals--she is like me. [As a side-note, it is often noted that "helper" does not imply hierarchy, since God is our helper in the psalms.]
  • Finally, blessing and cursing formulas often involve a change in status, so it would be natural if the curse of Eve involved a reduction of status.
Long chapter with a lot of content!

Friday, May 15, 2020

What is a Christian? 1

What is a Human Being?
We human beings have multiple dimensions. I am not certain how these categories all play out inside me. I am not sure whether they are in the world itself or whether they are just helpful for us to process the world. But they are useful categories. They help us discuss matters that are true about us in the world.

1. There is our thinking, reasoning capacity. This is the part of us that has to do with ideas. We draw conclusions from premises. We make hypotheses about the world by gathering data. We reflect using certain rules like 1) if a is completely true and 2) b is fully entailed within a, then 3) b is also completely true. No one has ever shown an instance where such rules of logic are not true.

2. We have emotions and feelings. These are typically reactions to the world mediated by our personalities and brain chemistry. We are angered by something or saddened by something. We are motivated to "fight for freedom" or demotivated from doing anything. They can also churn within us without clear external cause. We can have moods and chemical imbalances.

Our emotions often connect our perception of the world to action. Emotions are neither about truth nor morality, but they can move us toward or away from them. Temptations often come in the form of emotions, but it is our choices that most fully reveal who we are.

3. We make choices. We have volition or "will." Sin properly so called is a matter of our choices. We cannot fully control what goes through our head. Indeed, there are situations of addiction where we cannot control our choices. However, under normal circumstances, it is our choices that most indicate who we are, who we choose to be.

Many aspects of who we are fall outside our control, at least initially in life. We cannot control who our parents are. We cannot control whether we are born with a male or female body. We cannot control the socio-economic status with which we come into life. From a Christian standpoint, these are relatively trivial characteristics.

It is our choices that reveal who we truly are. We start out in life a slave to fallen impulses. We do not have control over what we choose. The draw of temptation is with us our whole life. But a Christian has a power source beyond the world that we see. The Holy Spirit can empower our volition to be able to choose the good.

For heuristic purposes, let us call these three aspects of a person the main constituents of the mind--reason, emotion, and volition. Let us call the general tendencies of our mind--our ways of thinking, feeling, and acting--our personalities.

4. We also have bodies. Our brains are part of our bodies and thus there is clearly a physical component to our reason, emotions, and will, to our minds. We experience our minds as more than our bodies, whatever the underlying reality might be. As Christians we often speak also of a spiritual dimension of a human being. This is human identity as it relates to God and matters of virtue.

To distinguish spirit here is to say nothing of the metaphysics. These categories are heuristic. They allow us to talk about the world without committing to a particular configuration of the world in itself, das Ding an sich in Kantian terms. [1]

We will resist calling the spiritual realm, "supernatural." To call that realm "supernatural" may be to smuggle in a distinction from Descartes and the seventeenth century. [2] We are not committing to any ontology here, to any actual configuration of existence. We are not committing to dualism and certainly not to any Gnosticism. It is simply the case that we can talk about spiritual things as a category that reflects an aspect of humanity.

5. One might think of the human mind as an intersection between our brains and our "spirit," from one perspective what we might call our souls. From another perspective, we might call our "living souls" the essence of us that continues into eternity in whatever form our glorified bodies might take (cf. 1 Corinthians 15). [3] The part of our mind that relates most directly to the spiritual is our volition. The choices we make reflect most directly our connection to God.

The pattern of our choices over time is our character. Some of us are as consistent inside and out as an arrow flies. Some of us have a churning of conflicting impulses within us but still shoot like an arrow in the choices we make. In one sense, the latter person shows greater strength of character, greater virtue, because their choices are made with greater intentionality.

While there is an external virtue to the person who does the right thing every time without turmoil or conflict, there is perhaps a greater virtue for the person who does the right thing every time despite conflicting impulses. Morality is most meaningful as a function of intentionality.

In the end we are not simple beings. Despite Descartes' belief that my "I," my "soul," was a unitary, simple entity, I am a swirling mixture of factors. I do not always know who I will be in a particular moment until that moment comes and a choice is made. I am not one desire. I am many conflicting desires.

5. Thus far we have focused on who we are as individuals. Thus far we have potentially followed a course of Western individualism and Cartesian subjectivism. By contrast, part of human identity is social and relational. Further, more important than me looking out at the world is God looking in at it.

Being a Christian certainly relates to my internal world. But who I am is not primarily a matter of my choices toward myself. Scripture formulates who I am more in terms of my choices in relation to God and others, my external world. The fundamental Christian ethic is to love God and love neighbor.

So as an individual I may be body, mind, and spirit. However, God is focused especially on how I interact with "him" and others. [4] Indeed, our spiritual dimension is more a matter of our relationship with God and others--movement beyond ourselves--than an internal matter, although we may experience the spiritual as an internal matter.

6. Our identity is thus bigger than being the mere "thinking things" that Descartes thought we were in the early 1600s. We are creatures who live in community, in culture. We are communities of practice. We have cultural rituals that also define us. We share common symbols that embody our collective identity (e.g., a Bible, a flag, a Steeler's sweatshirt). We have community stories that tell us who we are. [5]

The biblical cultures were "collectivist" cultures where identity was much more a matter of the groups to which one belonged than a matter of how an individual might have defined him or herself. Bruce Malina has helpfully summarized human identity in such cultures as a matter of gender, genealogy, and geography. [6] However, we should neither endorse group or individualist culture as the proper one. Both have strengths and weaknesses.

Who we are is both a matter of the subjective (internal, tending toward the individualistic) and the objective (external).

7. God's perspective is of course the truly "objective" perspective. God sees das Ding an sich. God knows all the facts of the universe in all their proper relationships to all other facts. This is what absolute truth is, the God's eye view.

We have only fractional access to God's view. Even Scripture was revealed within the categories of those to whom God was speaking initially. The Bible is thus incarnated truth, truth revealed "in the flesh" of those to whom God wanted to communicate. Otherwise, no one would understand.

There is a subtle narcissism when we think our understanding of the Bible is absolute truth. Those who think such things are unaware that they have a particular worldview and particular paradigms, which are functions of their culture. [7] They are like fish who do not realize they are swimming in water. If they would say, "the Bible is absolute not incarnated truth," what they really mean is, "My understanding of the Bible is absolute truth." They thus imply that their worldview and their culture has finally arrived, not knowing how to read the Bible in its own original cultural contexts.

However, a real understanding of the Bible reveals that the Bible made sense to all those to whom it was first revealed. The words of the Bible made sense to them. They had paradigms. They had worldviews. The vast majority of the words of the Bible, perhaps even every word, made sense within the cultural frameworks of their original audiences. Since my/our paradigms and worldviews are different from theirs in many respects, reading the Bible in context is like an intercultural experience, reading someone else's mail from another time and place. The Bible is for us as Scripture, but its books were not written directly to us.

We can thus take the stance of critical realism. Truth about the world exists. It is what God "thinks." But our apprehension of that truth is overwhelmingly colored and skewed by our finitude and fallenness. We do not see the world as it but through a glass darkly. A former professor at Indiana Wesleyan University also used to say rightly, "but we do see." [8]

8. From God's perspective, humanity is created "in the image of God" (Gen. 1:26-27). The people of God both within Scripture and history have long reflected on what this image might be. In Genesis, it is first the position of humanity within the creation (the "political" image). However, it has been extended to refer to other aspects of a human such as our ability to reason and the eternality of our souls (natural image). Wesley also refer to our moral image as that part of us that could become righteous and holy. [9]

The above musings on the image of God all reflect to one degree or another the culture of the thinker, and they all point to truth. Genesis comes from a collective culture and so is focused on humanity's identity as a group within the groups of the creation. Wesley was a child of the Enlightenment and focused on individualistic features like personal morality and will.

Perhaps most helpful is to think of humanity in the image of God as a reflection of human value. Human life is sacred because we are reflections of God. No human life can be treated casually or trivially, even when we are speaking of morally reprehensible individuals. It is not that we have inherent rights, as if I am intrinsically valuable apart from God--more on this subject to come. It is rather the fact that we are loved by God that makes us valuable. We are valuable because we are reflections of God.

9. What is a human being? We are the image of God in some state of relation to God. We are "spirits in bodies." We are social, relational beings that live in communities of storied identity and practice. We are thinking, feeling, choosing things.

[1] Kant argued in The Critique of Pure Reason that we cannot know the world as it is in itself, the "thing in itself" (das Ding an sich). We can only know the world as it appears to us, the "phenomenological" world.

[2] Descartes sharply distinguished the natural world of our bodies from the spiritual world of our souls. This created a sharper dichotomy than had existed before. Prior to Descartes, existence was more of a continuum of being, and the ancient Greeks could think of the soul or life-force as thin material.

Descartes thus creates a distinction between the natural and the "supernatural" realm. Both become entirely separate modes of existence with completely different rules. Modern science can now treat the world as a machine that follows laws. Deism can emerge as a perspective that sees God as creator but not as involved in the world. The spiritual becomes something entirely different than the natural. See especially Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1992).

[3] The Bible has more than one picture of the soul, all of which give truths about human identity. These reflected the "psychological" paradigms of the various cultures within the Bible. Treating the eschatological whole of an individual as a person's soul leans toward the Hebrew construct that talked of the human nephesh as the whole living being. Treating it as a part of a person leans toward the Platonic detachable soul. Both images can be useful.

[4] God has no sexual organs. God is thus not literally male. This is a metaphor, an anthropomorphism, a portrayal of God in human terms to help us capture a glimpse of God in one aspect.

[5] While the term worldview is often limited to ideological systems, N. T. Wright helpfully expands it also to include core practices and rituals, key symbols, and common narratives. See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

[6] Cf. especially, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992).

[7] Paradigms are particular patterns and systems of understanding by which people at a particular time and place process the data of the world. These change over time and are an element of culture. See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012). A worldview is a collection of paradigms that show coherent patterns. As mentioned in n.5, a more holistic understanding of worldview moves beyond the ideological to the cultural.

[8] Dr. Glenn Martin. I generally disagreed with Dr. Martin's overall perspective, which I considered unreflective in its foundations. However, I agreed with him on this point.

[9] E.g., in his sermon "On the New Birth."

Saturday, May 09, 2020

William Webb 2: Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic

Earlier in the week I started reviewing William Webb's Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis.

Chapter 1: The Christian and Culture

Chapter 2: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic
1. The second chapter is where he lays out his general "hermeneutic," his philosophy of appropriating the biblical texts. He calls it a "redemptive movement hermeneutic."

I found this chapter fascinating and maybe a little jarring. I've been tip-toeing around sensitive issues for my whole teaching career. He just kind of lays it down. I try to be so careful how I present these things--sometimes I may have danced so gingerly that students haven't even really fully understood what I was getting at.

Meanwhile, he just lays out a sentence like, "From one direction the Bible looks redemptive (and is); from the other direction it appears regressive (and is)" (31). "There is much within Scripture that needs an infusion of greater justice, greater compassion and greater equity in the treatment of human beings" (43). He argues that in some cases our culture reflects a better ethic than the words of the Bible isolated from the spirit they had in their context. For example, "surely there is a more humane and just treatment of women POWs than what is reflected in the biblical text" of the Pentateuch (33).

Now, if you dig into what he is saying, I think we will generally agree. There are some pretty harsh and cold laws in the Pentateuch. An America where women can vote and have equal rights to men is arguably a more Christian world than the world in which the women of the first century lived--and the New Testament does not entirely revolutionize that world.

On the other hand, there is some whiplash in the way he treats those who go further than him in the other direction. For example, he seems fairly harsh to me on what he calls "secular egalitarianism." To be fair, I almost always react to a book like this with the thought, "I'd like to rewrite this book in my own way." :-)

2. In the end, I generally agree with what he is getting at, even if I might put things slightly differently. Here is the main gist:

The words of the Bible are more than what they say. They had a spirit, a direction, in their original contexts. We do not necessarily fulfill what they are saying by taking them in an "isolated" sense. The words of the Bible have an "underlying spirit." You might say they have a "vector"--the Bible is pointing in a particular direction. This direction is redemptive.

This reminded me of something I read in a book by Ken Schenck, "Doing what the ancients did is not doing what they did if the significance of the action is different."

He thinks in terms of two vantage points from which we might look at the Bible. The first is the standpoint of the original meaning in its original context. When the Bible is viewed against the backdrop of the Ancient Near East or Greco-Roman culture, we find that the Bible is progressive. It has a "radically redemptive spirit" (34).

However, at times we look at biblical texts and they seem less redemptive than we would be today. For example, Leviticus 19 has a lesser penalty for the sexual violation of a slave woman than for a free woman. We would not consider that a very Christian position today. Parts of the Old Testament follow the thinking of ancient culture and assume that barrenness is purely the woman's problem. Improvements in our knowledge of reproduction clue us into the fact that this is not the case.

These are places where he boldly suggests that our culture sometimes has a "better ethic" than some parts of the Bible. This is where it gets a little touchy. Take slavery. He would say that the abolition of slavery fits the redemptive movement of Scripture and the "ultimate ethic" or logical conclusion of Scripture better than any position finally taken in Scripture itself. Even in 1 Peter 2, slaves are expected to endure wrongful beatings by their masters.

I have used phrases like "kingdom trajectory" and "trajectory of heaven" [2] for what he calls an ultimate ethic. I have been a little more hesitant to use the phrase "progressive revelation" because it seems a bit more of a land mine. In my booklet on women in ministry, for example, I ask what slave-master and wife-husband relationships will be like in the kingdom of God as an argument against slavery and an argument against the subordination of women to men today if we can enact such things. This is essentially the same move.

In this chapter, he presents charts on slavery and women with Scriptures that demonstrate his point. In these charts, verses on the left demonstrate places where the Bible shows redemptive movement in relation to the culture of its day. Then the column on the right reflects verses in the Bible that have not yet reached the ultimate ethic or what I call the kingdom trajectory. The trick will be to see what criteria he sets up to tell us what the ultimate ethic is.

As in the first chapter, he is working against what he calls a "static" hermeneutic that reads the words of the Bible in isolation from their spirit and underlying redemptive direction. I have spoken of a "flow of revelation" in the Bible, which is less of a concept for him so far. I also in recent years have focused on Jesus as the "last Word," taking a clue here from N. T. Wright.

I then talk of everything after Christ as "unzipping the file" or clarifying the final revelation in Christ. While the central aspects of this unpacking take place in the New Testament, there were still some details to refine in the earliest centuries of the church (e.g., the Trinity).

Webb points out that many advocates of a static hermeneutic actually have already incorporated some of the movement of Scripture into their positions, although they might deny it. The soft patriarchy of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood have already snuck into their work a perspective that is actually softer than some of the biblical texts. No mentally stable person would stone rebellious children today.

3. He also speaks of "canonical movement," particularly between the Old and New Testaments, although he has not yet spelled this out. I also speak of a "flow of revelation" in my work.

This movement of Scripture is one reason why a "find the principle" approach is valuable but inadequate. In fact, I would suggest it is why Steve Lennox's "what does this passage tell me about God" approach is missing one element. This is the fact that the older parts of the Old Testament do not have as precise an understanding of God as the later parts, and the Old Testament does not have as complete an understanding of God as the New Testament.

This has been one of my critiques of Duvall and Hays' Grasping God's Word. We are taught to cross the "principlizing bridge" from each Scripture to today. But this implies that the individual bridges all lead to a final destination today. Rather, we must take the whole counsel of God in all of Scripture into account before the bridge will lead us to an ultimate destination. In other words, crossing the bridge from certain parts of Leviticus does not get us to the final point on the other side of the river. We need the book of Hebrews and other passages in the New Testament for help with that.

A hermeneutical thought tool he mentions is a "ladder of abstraction" (54). The idea here is that if we abstract far enough from the concrete biblical text, we ultimately find a principle to apply to today. This is not entirely wrong, but it is not the whole story because it does not take into account the movement of the text.

5. In the final section of the chapter he provides a theological rationale for his approach. He affirms the authority of Scripture but claims that a static hermeneutic "cannot provide credible answers for the inquisitive seeker, the critical secularist or the troubled Christian" (57). I would have walked a little more gingerly here.

He presents what I call God's "incarnational" approach to revelation. God "takes on the flesh" in terms of the worldviews and paradigms of those to whom "he" is revealing himself. God wants to be understood, so he meets us within our own paradigms and moves us along. "Good teachers set the level of instructional material at the level of their students" (61).

This also relates to what Webb calls the pastoral dimension of God's revelation. "Pastors lead their people in soothing, quiet ways along a path toward where they ought to be" (60). It is when an audience of Scripture is near the edges that the revelation gets stark and sometimes harsh. So Paul at times is harsh in 1 Corinthians but at other times much more gradual.

There is also an evangelistic component. You meet people where they are at to move them toward the kingdom. It's more important to get them in the door first. Then you can refine their understanding later in discipleship. This is not just a technique we use outside of Scripture. I believe Webb is correct to discern that this is the approach God took within Scripture in relation to its original audiences.

It cannot be denied that there is even some accommodation to less than God's ideal in Scripture. Jesus says as much in Matthew 19 when he says that divorce was never God's preference. God gave this allowance in Scripture because of the hardness of Israel's heart. God sometimes compromises, playing a long game with humanity. The nature of revelation suggests that God is relational and practical more than idealistic.

6. I am not entirely clear on the criteria he will use to critique "going too far." He mentions for example, that while abolition is the ultimate ethic in relation to slavery, it would be incorrect to assume that we should get rid of hierarchy altogether (49). I am not entirely clear yet on how he discerns the stopping point.

Another possible critique is that he does not acknowledge the role that early Christianity played in finalizing certain aspects of Christian thinking. Admittedly, he is focused on ethics rather than doctrine. He also aims to establish criteria internal to the Bible. However, it seems to me that his approach is based on reason in this regard.

I have heard nothing yet of the actual core biblical ethic: "Love God and love neighbor." From an inductive standpoint, this is the biblical center point for all kingdom ethics, and it is clear within Scripture. This is the revealed criterion of the kingdom. That is how I would approach these issues.

I'll end today's post by pointing out that I have worked my version of this hermeneutic in a self-published book called, Who Decides What the Bible Means? I initially submitted it to Westminister John Knox and Abingdon but finally decided to publish it on my own. I also employ the hermeneutic in Why Wesleyans Favor Women in Ministry.

[1] In Making Sense of God's Word.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

William Webb's Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals

1. More than one person has recommended William Webb's 2001 book to me, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. I suspect they have done so in part because Webb articulates positions similar to ones I have articulated over the years. I would like to blog through it over the next couple weeks.

On a very minor note, I'm not too fond of the title. I would have preferred "Slavery, Gender, and Sexuality" or some such. Indeed, his use of a particular word at one point in chapter 1 made me think, "Hmm. This book is nineteen years old."

I'm sure he didn't mean it, but the title ironically implies a male perspective (as well as that of a free heterosexual). It is a book that is going to talk about women (and the others). The title ironically implies a position of dominance in order to talk about egalitarianism.

2. Having said that, the introduction suggests that he is going to express in probably more convincing terms the kinds of positions that I have argued my whole teaching career. When I look at the list of instructions from the Bible on pages 14-15, I see passages to which I have referred throughout my teaching to make similar points.

The question he poses is, "Which of these instructions from Scripture are still in force for us today exactly as they are articulated?" Here are just five of the some forty scriptures he gives:
  • "Be fruitful and multiply."
  • "Greet one another with a holy kiss."
  • "Sell your possessions and give to the poor."
  • "Love the LORD with all your heart."
  • "Use a little wine because of your stomach."
The question he raises in effect is how we know which we apply to today completely as stated and which we modify in some way in our application.

The book moves in three parts. The first section lays the groundwork--"Toward a Hermeneutic of Cultural Analysis." He will set out culture and present what he calls a "redemptive-movement framework." This is similar to what I have called a trajectory in Scripture and that some call "progressive revelation."

The second section lays out criteria. Webb will set out 18 criteria to determine what components within the biblical text have ongoing application in a straightforward rather than indirect form. Key to this task is to find internal criteria, that is to find the principles for such hermeneutical discernment from within Scripture itself.

The last section both corroborates the ideas with reasoning outside the Bible and he also plays the Devil's advocate against his own perspective.

3. Chapter one is titled, "The Christian and Culture." He starts giving the familiar comparison of culture to the water in which a fish might swim. "What awakens us to culture is contrast" (21). In other words, we best realize that we are in a context by seeing how our context differs from other contexts.

Sometimes, he argues, Christians are to be counter-cultural. At other times, they go along with the culture ("paracultural"). "It is necessary for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values; it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters" (22). The key is to know what kingdom values are, which is not always as easy as you might think.

As an aside, I was reminded of discussions we had in 2007 as we were putting together the initial outcomes for the Wesley Seminary curriculum. Norm Wilson suggested that the phrase "kingdom values" was complicated because of the tendency to confuse them with values that are really Christianity played out in our culture. To put it another way, kingdom values never exist in the abstract. We can only observe them played out in particular times and places--"contextualized."

Here is a key point--kingdom values are always contextualized in Scripture as well. "Within the text of Scripture we find portions that are transcultural (e.g., love for one's neighbor) and portions that are cultural, or more accurately, portions that contain significant cultural components (e.g., slavery texts)" (23).

He does mention something that I think is important here. In one sense, this language is misleading. "In one sense all of Scripture is cultural" (24). Indeed, I do not like the term transcultural. I prefer to use the term, "omnicontextual." Every word of the Bible--and anything else--is cultural in the sense that we cannot escape culture or contextualization.

Nevertheless, he uses terms like "cultural confinement," "cultural relativity," and "culturally bound" to refer to parts of the Bible that would not translate well into other times and places.

4. The chapter ends by setting out the spectra of positions on "the women's issue" and "the homosexual issue." Again, don't really like the way this is phrased.

The spectrum on the role of women
1. Strong patriarchy
  • No instance of women in leadership over a man
2. Soft patriarchy
  • Women in lower ministry positions, just not senior leadership, ok in secular society
3. Evangelical egalitarianism
  • Women in any role, mutual submission in marriage
4. Secular egalitarianism
  • equal rights rather than submission of some kind, work can take priority over family
The spectrum on homosexuality
1. Marital heterosexuality only
  • traditional position
2. Covenant adult
  • Homosexuality can only be expressed in a monogamous, covenant (we would now say marital) relationship
3. Casual adult homosexuality
  • any expression involving consenting adults
So those are the categories Webb will be using. More to come...

Sunday, May 03, 2020

2 Thessalonians Introduction

Author and Audience
1. Our first impression may indeed be a correct impression. 2 Thessalonians begins very similarly to 1 Thessalonians, with the names of Paul, Silas, and Timothy as authors.

Indeed, 2 Thessalonians 2:2 warns about the possibility of fake letters that are not really from Paul, Silas, and Timothy. 3:17 emphasizes that Paul is writing the closing greeting with his own hand. He emphasizes his signature for comparison with any other letter that might claim to be from him.

This is a very strong argument for the literal Pauline authorship of the letter. If it were not the case, would we not have to conclude that 2 Thessalonians was a forgery? There is debate over whether there are letters in the New Testament that were "allonymous"-- written by someone other than the name on them. [1] Some have argued that the recipients might have known that these letters were not directly from the person named in the greeting.

We will return to this question under the heading of genre below. Nevertheless, the impression we get is that Paul, Silas, and Timothy are the co-authors. Similarly, the impression we get is that the Thessalonian church is once again the audience of the letter.

Date and Situation
2. We do not find Silas as an author on any of Paul's other letters. Timothy is mentioned in the greeting of Colossians. The specific names of Paul, Silas, and Timothy, as well as the Thessalonian audience, thus suggest that we might think of this letter in the same general time frame as 1 Thessalonians. The impression we get is that 2 Thessalonians must have also been written from Corinth to Thessalonica around the years AD50-52.

Paul's letters are arranged in the canon by length, so it is at least theoretically possible that 2 Thessalonians was written before 1 Thessalonians. 1 Thessalonians is first because it has 5 chapters, while 2 Thessalonians only has 3. Nevertheless, the current order seems to be the correct one. The story of the founding of the church and Timothy's recent return suggests that 1 Thessalonians is Paul's first contact with the church since he left.

1 Thessalonians addresses the matter of Christians who die before the Lord returns. 2 Thessalonians seems to address those who might believe the judgment has already begun. Some have also argued that an immanent expectation of Christ's return might explain the idleness addressed in 2 Thessalonians 3. If you believe the Lord is coming back immediately, why work?

The impression we thus get is that 2 Thessalonians was written to indicate events that would take place before the second coming. The point was to indicate that the Lord had not yet returned. Nor would he would return immediately, for some of the key signs had not yet happened. There is still a near expectation, just not an immediate expectation. Some things still had to happen. There was reason to keep working as usual.

Genre
3. Above you find the impressions we get from a surface level reading of the letter, and these impressions may indeed be the correct ones. However, a close reading of the letter also finds a number of curiosities. They have led some to wonder if more is going on with this letter than we might get from our first impressions.

For one, the content of 2 Thessalonians 2 is unique to Paul's letters. Nowhere else does he speak of a man of lawlessness or a rebellion. The impression we get from 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians is indeed that the Lord could return at any time. Indeed, even the eschatological passages of the Gospels hardly speak of such things. Mark 13:14 does speak of an "abomination of desolation," presumably in the temple, which Luke 21:20 interprets in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem.

At the same time, the form of 2 Thessalonians is very close to that of 1 Thessalonians. The greeting is very similar. Elements of the thanksgiving section are very similar to those of 1 Thessalonians. 2 Thessalonians even has a second thanksgiving (2:13) in the same general location as 1 Thessalonians (2:13).

Yet the language of 2 Thessalonians is more formal and the general feel less relational. Some have wondered if someone was following the form of 1 Thessalonians and yet writing for a quite different situation. It could of course have been Paul himself, writing a kind of code letter at a much different point in his ministry. The hand could have been Silas or Timothy, either before or after Paul's death. Then of course some suggest it could be someone else entirely, either an allonymous author or even a forger. [2]

4. The form and style of 2 Thessalonians alone would not be sufficient to push us in a different direction than our first impressions. However, there are other curiosities. For example, by almost all reckonings, 2 Thessalonians is a candidate to be either the second or third letter Paul wrote. It would thus be highly curious for Pauline forgeries already to be in circulation, as 2 Thessalonians 2:2 seems to suggest. Such an occurrence seems much more likely after Paul became known as a letter writer and several of his letters were known. In other words, 2:2 does not fit as nicely into the time frame of Paul's time at Corinth as it would fit a time either later in Paul's ministry or beyond it.

Another example of possible context misfit is the mention of traditions the Thessalonians received from Paul, Silas, and Timothy (3:6). They were only there for less than two months and they had one letter from them, 1 Thessalonians. One verse hardly seems a tradition (5:14). Tradition sounds like a word that implies more time than the default dating of 2 Thessalonians might suggest.

Similarly, we find what at least sounds like code language, "tells" that more is going on here than meets the eye. "You know what is restraining him" (2:6). "Do you not remember that, while still being with you, I used to say these things to you?" (2:5). It sounds like there is an understanding between authors and audience that they do not want to put down in writing. The audience knows what is going on--there is no deception. But someone may read Paul, Silas, and Timothy's letter, so they are intentionally cryptic.

5. These hints might suggest that 2 Thessalonians is something like an "apocalyptic letter." An apocalypse was a genre where someone wrote about their current circumstances through a voice from the past. For example, 4 Ezra is a book written about AD100 in which an author uses the voice of Ezra from the past (400s BC) to address the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. In the genre of the book, Ezra seems to be given a revelation about the future, but it is really someone from much later talking about their present.

What if Paul or Silas or Timothy wished to speak about the events of their time using their own voice from over fifteen years earlier? They take 1 Thessalonians, a letter that explicitly addressed the second coming. They follow its form, not to deceive, but because it fits the form of what they wish to say and because a letter from the past might pass a Roman filter more easily. If Silas were the primary writer and Paul were already gone, it would be all the less threatening.

The intended audience would thus not be the Thessalonians specifically, but all Christians of that moment. the Thessalonians would be a literary representative for all Christians. If Silas were writing soon after Paul's passing, the words, "while still being with you" become even more poignant. Paul could thus be the one "restraining" these events, though now with him removed they might take place.

The most difficult piece of this hypothesis is Paul's signature in 3:17. But perhaps Paul is about to die at the hands of Nero. Perhaps Silas could be writing for him with him giving the signature. Or perhaps the audience knows that what the letter is saying is that Silas is the one who can give the authentic voice of Paul, as opposed to other voices for him that were not authentic. Since 2 Thessalonians is in Scripture, we would assume that 2 Thessalonians gives an authentic voice.

Situation 2
6. We assume the inspiration of 2 Thessalonians, whether our first impression is correct or if something deeper was going on. In either case, it is difficult to know what the events of 2 Thessalonians 2 were addressing. The mention of the temple probably suggests that the events in view were to take place while the temple was still standing, that is, before AD70. We note the similar language again to Mark 13:14 and the "abomination of desolation." No mention is made either of the temple being destroyed or being rebuilt.

As with Mark 13, it is thus likely that we have some blurring between events that took place in the first century and events surrounding the return of Christ. The phrase, "man of lawlessness" could refer either to an external or an internal figure. Among external figures, a Roman emperor or general seems quite possible.

Ample precedents for foreign powers defiling the temple were at hand. In 167BC, it was Syrian representatives of Antiochus Epiphanes (cf. Dan. 11:31). In 63BC it was the Roman general Pompey. In AD38 the Roman emperor Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple. When a first century Jewish audience heard talk of someone setting themselves as God in the temple, surely the Romans would be the first thing to come to mind.

At the same time, mention of leading those who do not believe astray could suggest a Jewish leader (2:10-12). Could the rebellion against Rome in the Jewish War be seen as an inappropriate falling away? Might a revolutionary leader or a high priest be seen as a "man of lawlnessness"? Or are those who do not believe Gentiles rather than Jews?

The idea that Nero might return after his apparent suicide was known in Jewish circles, and there were some pretenders. A Jewish writing called the Sibylline Oracles refers to this legend. [3] Some have suggested that 2 Thessalonians alludes to this concept. It is sometimes suggested that this concept also stands in the background of Revelation 13:3 and 18:9-11. If we consider Nero as a type of one who is yet to come, the imagery need not be problematic.

For this reason, the balance seems to point more toward an external, Roman figure as the basis for the man of lawlessness imagery. There might be many enamored by such a figure, whether Jewish or Gentile. However, those who believe would not be deceived. For us there is but one king on earth, and it is Jesus.

[1] The more conventional term is pseudonymous, but I. Howard Marshall suggested we use a different term because it might imply a value judgment that the name on the letter is "false." See A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2004), 84. An allonymous author would thus be an "other" author writing under the authority of someone else's name.

[2] See n.1.

[3] Cf. Sibylline Oracles 4.119-24; 5.137-41, 361-96.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

1. Socrates was an idiot.

This summer I am aiming to read some selections from the Great Ideas. To kick off the series, I read what I consider to be the beginning of the trail (at least in the Western tradition): Plato's Apology, which gives us the trial of Socrates. Here is a video version of this week's comments. I also have a Facebook group called "Summer Reading."

1. Socrates was sentenced to death in 399BCE. The charges against him were corrupting the youth and not believing in the Greek gods but coming up with his own. It was a mixed vote, with the citizens voting to put him to death. He willingly drank the hemlock, although he had options to escape.

He has been called the first martyr to philosophy. There are indeed very noteworthy things to consider in this piece, which of course is a "dialog" by Plato, not a transcript of the event. I'll get to the idiocy soon enough.

2. According to Socrates, it all began when a friend of his went to the oracle of Delphi and asked who the wisest person was. The oracle said it was he. So, as the story goes, he began to inquire of supposedly wise people in Athens. But what he found was that they were no wiser than him. Indeed, he at least knew he wasn't wise.

His final conclusion is thus that the oracle must, in a sense, have been correct. "The wisest of you is the one who has realized, like Socrates, that s/he is really worthless when it comes to wisdom" (23b). This is one of the great take-aways from this dialog. Wisdom means knowing not just what you know but how much you don't know.

Of course there are many circumstances where someone does know far more than others. Take the current pandemic we are in. I don't know as much as an epidemiologist. That doesn't necessarily mean that the epidemiologist is right on everything, but let's just say that Facebook and Twitter are filled with people who know almost nothing about pandemics and still are quite convinced they know what should be done.

3. I could be wrong (see what I did there), but I get the impression that Socrates was both right about Athenian leaders being ignorant and that he was a prat. There is a type of person that asks questions just to ask questions. There's really no point other than to show how smart they are. That's really the point.

And they may be. They may be smarter than most people. There are Christian "apologists" (defenders of the faith) whom I suspect are really this sort of prat. It's more about showing off than actually trying to lead anyone to faith. And of course there are atheist prats of this sort. In my opinion, Richard Dawkins is this sort of wise fool who is not nearly as wise on the subject of religion as he might think.

There is a time to be a "gadfly," something Socrates considers himself. There's a time to needle at the heels of power. There's a time for the whistle blower, the prophet, the warrior for truth and justice. There's also the prat who just likes telling people off. This sort of person may imagine that they are like Jesus or a prophet. But the argument came to Jesus. Most of the time he did not go looking for it.

Then there is the person who feeds on the conflict. Argument is sport for them. There is no point. "I assume you have prepared more insults for me?" This type of person, dare I say, is an idiot trying to disguise themselves as a smart person.

4. 399BCE was a bad time for Socrates. Athens had recently lost the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans. One of the people that had hung around Socrates at one point, Alcibiades, had turned traitor to Athens. You could see where people would be bitter about Socrates corrupting the youth, making them enemies of Athens.

And no doubt the politicians and "smart people" of Athens may have needed some push back. The Apology doesn't really give the impression that Socrates always approached this critique in a good way. Maybe he did. Maybe he was the media exposing their fakeness, and so they got rid of him.

For his part. you could see where he might be seen as corrupting the youth. He taught them to ask questions. One of the great quotes from the Apology is that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Now I'm not sure I totally agree with the statement in every circumstance for every person. For some people, "ignorance is bliss."

But I do, personally, prefer self-examination. I want to know my blind spots. I don't want to believe things that are false just because I don't want to be proved wrong.

We all grow up with unexamined assumptions. They are the water of the culture in which we swim. We learn them from our parents and families. We get them from media and movies. We get them from everyone around us. We largely do not even know we have these assumptions--they are unexamined.

So asking questions is a path toward reflectivity. It is a path toward seeing ourselves and our blind spots. We become aware that we are swimming in a certain water we didn't even know was there. Such education is a liberation, a moving out of ignorance. It is a move out of the cave (see Plato's Republic).

Now those who are unreflective will often find this movement dangerous. You begin to see traditions as traditions, not unexamined truths. There is a reason why education is often viewed with suspicion. Of course to be consistent, we must question our education as well.

5. We've mentioned a couple of the memorable quotes from the Apology: wisdom is knowing what you don't know and the unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates modeled what we call the Socratic method--learning by leading a person through a series of questions that leads them to discover the truth on their own. Plato's treatises are called "dialogs" because they follow this dialogical pattern.

The author of Acts arguably wanted his audience to think of Socrates in a couple of places. For one, Paul actually appears at the Areopagus before the Athenians in Acts 17. They accuse him, like Socrates, of inventing new gods. In Acts 4, when Peter and John appear before the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, Peter basically quotes Socrates--"You decide whether I should obey God or humanity." Acts arguably wants us to think of Socrates.

Plato's Apology is not the only ancient witness to Socrates. Xenophon was also there and has his own Apology. It of course is very similar to Plato's account, although with a few minor differences. Some thirty years earlier the playwright Aristophanes portrayed Socrates in a very negative light in the comedy The Clouds. Socrates is portrayed there very much like Anaxagoras, a natural philosopher who did believe that the sun was a stone and the moon a mass of earth. Plato may imply that the reputation Socrates acquired from this play contributed to his death.

6. I am grateful for the tradition of Socrates. I am grateful for the writings of Plato. Of course I think their brand of absolutism can be idiotic, even harmful. The number of issues on which we must never compromise is actually rather small. Those who champion, "no compromise"--on both liberal and conservative sides--sometimes harm society more than they help. They are good voices to have in the room. You really don't want to have one of them as the leader making decisions.

Socrates and Plato were also wrong in seeming to think that if we get our thinking straight, the rest will fall into place. "Right thinking leads to right action." This perspective seems to betray a glaring ignorance of human nature. There is a minority of people who aim to live by reason. It is not the majority of people and dare I say that those who most profess to live by reason often are those unwise about which Socrates warns. See Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind.

So we honor Socrates for the good in him and for what he inspired, despite the possibility that he was quite idiotic at times. Platonism was inspired by him. Aristotelianism out of Platonism. The Stoics claimed him. The Cynics claimed him. The Skeptics claimed him. If he had avoided his death, philosophy as we know it might not even exist.

As an almost totally unrelated aside, my grandfather lived in Hemlock, Indiana in 1920.

Next week: Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Ready for my Gospels Quiz?

1. Know the key themes of Mark. Be able to recognize a likely quote from Mark if it matches one of the following themes:
  • The hiddenness of Jesus’ identity
  • The disciples’ lack of understanding
  • The connection between Jesus’ death and him being the Messiah 
2. Know the following possibilities of the Gospel of Mark’s situation
  • That it was likely written primarily for Gentiles 
  • That it was likely written around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (AD70) 
  • Know AD70 as that date. 
3. Know the key themes of Matthew. Be able to recognize a likely quote from Matthew if it matches one of the following themes:
  • Jesus is the Son of David, the king 
  • Jesus is the authoritative teacher/interpreter of the Law, the new Moses
  • Jesus fulfills the Old Testament 
  • Most Jewish Gospel—focused on Israel in his early mission (but also has the Great Commission) 
  • Most apocalyptic Gospel
  • Hardest on the Pharisees—and the unfaithful in the church 
4. Know the following possibilities of the Gospel of Matthew’s situation
  • Primarily Jewish Christian audience 
  • Used Mark as a source (maybe Q), so possibly 70s 
  • Hardness on Pharisees may be because they were the primary alternative group at the time 
5. Know the key themes of Luke. Be able to recognize a likely quote from Luke if it matches one of the following themes:
  • The gospel is for everyone. 
  • Good news for the marginalized: the poor, widows, orphans, emphasis on the role of women, the lost sheep of Israel. 
  • Emphasis on prayer and the Holy Spirit 
  • More for Acts, but Christians aren’t troublemakers 
6. Know the following possibilities of the Gospel of Luke’s situation
  • Probably a primarily Gentile audience—indeed author may be a Gentile 
  • Used Mark as a source (maybe Q), maybe knew Matthew, so possibly 80s
  • Written in honor of a patron, Theophilus, who may have been a Roman official 
7. Know the key themes of John. Be able to recognize a likely quote from John if it matches one of the following themes:
  • Jesus pre-existed his time on earth. 
  • Emphasis on the signs Jesus did 
  • Importance of faith in Jesus in order to have eternal life 
  • Use of “I am” sayings to show who Jesus is (bread of life, light of world, resurrection and life, I AM, way/truth/life, good shepherd…) 
8. Know the following possibilities of the Gospel of John’s situation
  • Very different from the Synoptic Gospels, possibly very symbolic 
  • Maybe Ephesus, engaging both early Gnostics and non-believing followers of John the Baptist 
  • Source is the Beloved Disciple (uncertain identity), although possibly put in its current form by someone else
  • Likely written in the 90s