Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ecclesiastes Days

Earlier this week, Don Sprowl, the Chief Academic Officer of IWU. Shared about the contrast between the times when we really feel like Ecclesiastes--"Futile, futile, everything is futile"--and the inner peace we can have with Christ inside. We can learn to be content, as Paul says in Philippians 4.

I'm not having an Ecclesiastes day today, but I know what he was saying. I've come to view most of Ecclesiastes as something like a psalm of lament, although maybe I would call it a psalm for days when everything seems pointless. Dr. Sprowl was contrasting how things look "out there" to the way we know things are "in here."

The point of psalms of lament--or psalms of thanksgivings... or especially imprecatory psalms--is not to teach us stuff. That's a shallow view of the Bible, as if it's only about some school teacher with a ruler waiting to smack us on the knuckles if we don't memorize the point. These serve an inspired cathartic purpose. Yes, they tell us it's okay to be sad, to rejoice, to be angry. But they are not an excuse to wallow in sadness, feed our anger (it's fine to endlessly feed your thankfulness). They're moments for expression so that we can get it all out and move on.

It was a helpful thought to me for those days like Ecclesiastes. To me it is essential to read all of Ecclesiastes in the light of the final chapter, which I might paraphrase something like this--"So Solomon was pretty smart, but hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and do his will, because that really sums it all up."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Immigration Reform

It is deeply unfortunate that we now find ourselves in a situation where it will be very hard for many Christians in America to think anything but that immigration reform is of the Devil. David Drury, the Chief of Staff at Wesleyan denominational headquarters, put it this way: "The details and ramifications of such executive orders will be worked out over some time and should be discussed at length."

That is to say, it is appropriate to debate whether the President has the authority to by-pass Congress on this issue. Joe Donnelly, Senator from Indiana, who earlier voted in favor of immigration reform, put it this way: "I am as frustrated as anyone that Congress is not doing its job," but "only Congress has the ability to change the law to fix it."

The problem is that it will now be very difficult for many American Christians to support immigration reform at all. Why? Because many American Christians can't tell the difference between being a certain kind of Republican and being Christian. Well-intentioned to be sure, many American Christians can't clearly see where their faith ends and a particular form of Republicanism begins. It's called civil religion, and it is a major problem in the American church.

So it will be hard for many Wesleyans to remember that they overwhelmingly voted to support a statement on immigration by the Wesleyan Church at the last general conference. Would we get the same vote today, since it is now so closely associated with President Obama? That is to say, would the political dynamics of the current situation override the church's Christian sensibilities?

David Drury makes three points:

1. We should vote for compassion over our political parties.
Why do those at my church HQ strongly support immigration reform? It's because they actually know people caught in the current limbo. Perhaps they face being ripped away from their children. Perhaps their country of origin is extremely violent. Perhaps they were brought here when they were a baby and wouldn't even know what to do in the country they were born in. Some may not even speak the language of the country in which they were born.

Those at Wesleyan HQ actually know these people. They are in our church. So this is not some abstract, philosophical discussion for them. This is about real people. This is Jesus with a real person in front of him, someone naked who needs clothed.

Some of these individuals were brought here as children and didn't even make a choice to come. Others broke a law that seemed as insignificant to them as breaking the speed limit is for some of us (so should we have them pay a fine for breaking the speed limit?). Others just didn't leave after their visas expired. Think of the 43 students who were murdered in Mexico last week. Would you go back?

I believe that most Wesleyans would feel exactly the same if these real people in real situations were right in front of them.

2. Drury called for immigration reform.
I lament that the situation has now become so polarized. In such situations, carnal human nature hardens. Will Congress pass immigration reform now, or will they stubbornly now refuse even more than ever? There was a by-partisan bill passed by the Senate. Because of the political climate, how many of those who even voted for immigration reform would be in jeopardy to do so now? I bet even Joe Donnelly of Indiana would have to decide whether he could get away with voting for it a second time. My own representative, Susan Brooks might have voted for it before but I bet she'll have a hard time doing it now.

One thing Wesleyans can do is tell their representatives that the best way to stick it to Obama is to pass immigration reform and make it legal.

3. Finally, Drury urges Wesleyans to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
Of course carnal human nature is now going to be more opposed to immigration reform than ever. Obama beats his chest; the carnal reaction is to beat ours in response. But that's not the Christian response. The Christian response is to seek God's will, not to get back at the enemy.

I admire David Drury. It can't be popular in some Wesleyan circles to respond in this way. I know there will be a vocal minority who will grumble about this statement he made.

What I've found at every General Conference these last fifteen years, though, is that the church does the right thing anyway. I know the thirty somethings who will be leading our church in fifteen years. They will strongly resonate with this message of compassion.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Different canons at the time of Christ

I have a hunch that there were varied edges to the Old Testament canon at the time of Christ. Most agreed on the Law and the Prophets (although an argument can be made that the Sadducees really only considered the Pentateuch to be canon... Philo also is majorly focused on the Law and considers the Prophets a kind of second level canon).

The Essenes considered various apocalyptic writings Scripture like 1 Enoch. I've wondered if there was some overlap in the early Jerusalem church with the Essene community, and here it seems notable to me that Jude quotes 1 Enoch. At Qumran I suspect they looked at writings like the Hymns and such as Scripture.

The Protestant OT canon today, as well as the Jewish canon today, seems to me to be the canon of the Pharisees, which became the canon of Rabbinic Judaism. Meanwhile, the OT canon of Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity seems to me to be the Diaspora, Hellenistic Jewish canon, which it seems to me was both the OT canon for the NT Greek writers, as well as the canon of the patristic church.

That is my sense of the lay of the land, certainly open for dispute and discussion. It is something like what seems most likely to me given what I've studied of the topic.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Making an exegetical argument...

I actually have the workings of a post, "Exegesis in Bullet Points" that I might post sometime, but today I made this single PowerPoint slide on the nature of exegetical argument. For those who know me, this does not preclude other approaches to the biblical text. I only mean to say that this is the surest method if your goal is what the text really meant.

In exegesis:
1. Conclusions need to be based on evidence:
  • from clues in the text itself (literary evidence)
    The text has the upper hand in the hermeneutical circle. No matter what nice parallels there might be in the background literature, no matter what is written in the rest of the NT, no matter what your denomination wants you to say or your particular Christian subculture, if you are doing real exegesis, the text casts the only deciding vote for what it meant.
  • the most likely conclusion, not wishful thinking
    In exegesis, we are not looking for a possible meaning that fits with my preconceived notions. We are looking for the most likely meaning in context. We're looking for the probable meaning of the text, not a possible meaning that works out better for me.
2. Proposed meaning generally has to fit within meanings that were actually in the range of meanings from the time of writing. (historical context)
  • I am open to the possibility that God implanted hidden meanings in the text such that no one had a clue what a text meant until centuries later. However, this is usually pre-modern thinking. Virtually all, if not all of the biblical texts had a demonstrable meaning to their first audiences. If you think the text is about attack helicopters, you're either a prophet or a bad exegete. 
3. The text has the final say:
  • over supposed background information
    Scholars are especially bad at parallelomania. They know some parallel in Josephus, Artapanus, or Quintillian. But the text itself casts the final vote in exegesis.
  • over my theology and pre-understandings
    It can be hazardous to your health to learn exegesis. Sometimes the text just didn't mean what my group wants it to mean. The polyvalence of the text actually may allow us to continue to believe things that are "extra" beyond what the text actually meant. I put most theological exegesis in this category. But if your goal is to listen to the text, then your theology is irrelevant. It meant what it meant, whether it is convenient to me and my group or not.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wright versus Campbell at Duke

Finally made it through the hour and a half panel discussion from last Monday that took place at Duke Divinity School. N. T. Wright was the reason, who spoke last Tuesday there. Richard Hays moderated. Douglas Campbell was the main debate partner, with Susan Eastman and Ross Wagner occasionally weighing in.

If I am allowed an opinion, I have similar questions about the extent to which Wright sees the exodus/return from exile motif in Paul, as well as his identification of Christ with Israel. Campbell's opening question seemed quite apropos.

Still, I didn't enjoy what soon felt like Campbell badgering him. Wright fittingly asks him if he is a lawyer at one point. I'm currently trying to wade through Campbell's own tome. Frankly, I don't think Barth is particularly helpful for understanding Paul, for whom I believe theology is ultimately more central than Christology.

For those not acquainted with Richard Hays, he is the elder statesman of Duke Divinity School, currently Dean. He made his entry into the scholarly world by championing that the expression, "the faith of Jesus Christ," referred to Jesus' faithfulness (to death) rather than to faith in Christ. Most reading this post would benefit most by reading his book called, The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

The table seemed arranged from least sympathetic at least to most congenial. Ross Wagner is a class act, and a steal for Duke. Beyond that, I'll let the video speak for itself.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Best New Perspective Insights

Here is my attempt to capture the best insights of the last sixty years or so since the first rumblings of a revised perspective of Paul in relation to Judaism:
  • Paul did not see himself as a miserable failure at keeping the Law before he believed on Christ. If anything, his attitude was more like the Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18. As far as the righteousness in the Law, he was blameless (Phil. 3:6). Stendahl
  • Paul's "conversion" certainly was not a change of religions but a partial modification of his beliefs within Judaism, most significantly the fact that he came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. (Stendahl would say a call, but that is probably too weak.) Paul is not his Christian name (Acts continues to call him Saul for over a decade after he believes Jesus is the Messiah) but relates to his Roman name. It would be easy to argue that Paul had long suppressed his Diaspora identity--a more generative psychological explanation for his conversion than introspective guilt in the modern sense.
  • Paul's turning point centered on a religious experience he had of the risen Christ. (Segal)
  • The earliest Christians were thus a messianic sect. They in no way saw themselves as departing from Judaism but saw themselves representing what all of Israel should believe and do, true Israel, as it were.
  • Those elements of Paul's theology that the "new perspective" has most impacted largely grew out of the Gentile mission. In these areas, Paul's theology largely developed "from solution to plight." (Sanders) Paul knew that the Gentiles were in through Christ (solution); therefore, he presented arguments for why keeping "works of Law" was not effective for "justification" before God (problem).
  • "Works of Law" for Paul referred especially to those aspects of the Jewish Law that were "boundary markers" that separated Jew from Gentile. (Dunn) These stood at the heart of the earliest Christian debate over the inclusion of the Gentiles into the community of faith. Judaizers argued that Gentiles had to be circumcised to be included, and James/Peter argued that they had to observe certain purity rules to have table fellowship. Paul's teaching on justification by faith (solution) grew out of these problems.
  • Later interpreters of Paul have understandably misread Judaism in the light of Paul's arguments. For example, Jews did not see themselves as keeping the Law to get right with God. Keeping the Law was not about "getting in" but about "staying in" (Sanders). Indeed, it wasn't even as much about staying in as about responding appropriately to God's covenant expectations (covenantal nomism--Sanders).
  • Judaism thus thoroughly presupposed that God was a God of grace, meaning that his favor was not earned by Israel's faithfulness. (Sanders) Once we understand grace against the backdrop of patron-client relationships, we see that there were informal expectations that came with grace, even if grace could not be earned. (Malina)
  • It is thus incorrect to accuse either Judaism or interpretations of Paul as "justification by works" if we conclude that there were definite ethical expectations of both Jews and believers. Paul teaches that our deeds are an element of our final justification before God. (Wright) This neither contradicts a proper understanding of grace nor Paul's arguments that keeping the ethnic particulars of the Jewish Law cannot demonstrate one's right standing before God.
  • Justification language did not stand at the heart of Paul's theology but was rather a set of lenses Paul used in response to opposition to the Gentile mission from conservative elements within the earliest church. (Sanders, Dunn)
  • Paul's arguments about "faith in Christ" begin with statements about how he and the Jerusalem church agree on the necessity of the "faithfulness of Jesus" for a right standing before God. (Schenck, synthesizing both Hays and Dunn)
  • Paul's arguments with his opponents are thus arguments over a story (Hays), namely, the story of Christ's death and resurrection. Paul shares with earliest Christianity the belief that the resurrection has enthroned Jesus as Messiah. He shares with earliest Christianity the belief that the cross has functioned as a sacrifice of atonement, that the "faithfulness of Jesus" has made justification possible before God. He agrees that baptism in the name of Jesus is a mystical participation in the death of Jesus (Sanders, Schweitzer). He disagrees on the implications of these affirmations.
  • Wright is probably correct on a background narrative at least in this respect. The cross was seen by the earliest Christians as the solution to the problem of Israel's "captivity." Israel should not be under the power of the Romans. God would send a Messiah to deliver it. Jesus' death was likely initially seen as a Maccabean type sacrifice to atone for the sins of Israel.

A2. In his death, Jesus showed us the love of God.

This is the second post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have just finished a section on Christology.
A2. In his death, Jesus showed us the love of God.

1. John 3:16-17 put it aptly, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

The cross demonstrates the love of God. "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:7-8).

God did not have to atone for our sins. He was under no compulsion to offer us hope, let alone to send his Son to die on the cross. God does not send anyone to hell. The default state of humanity at this time is already one of separation from God. God is not compelled to lift a finger to do anything about it. The gravity of our sinful state will pull us to destruction on its own without God's intervention.

Christ's death on the cross thus took place by God's free act, where the will of God the Father and the will of God the Son were in complete agreement. The cross demonstrates God's love for humanity, his desire to be reconciled to us.

2. This free act of God was potentially for everyone. Not all Christians believe that Christ died for everyone. In 1618-19, the Synod of Dort in Holland concluded that the scope of Christ's atonement was "limited." The "L" in the Calvinist acronym "TULIP" stands for "limited atonement" and issued from this council, where Armininianism was rejected.

The idea of limited atonement is the sense that Christ must have only died for those God predestined or predetermined would be saved. Christ thus only would have died for those whom God unconditionally elected. [1] However, 1 Timothy 2:4 indicates that God would prefer all people to saved. If this is the case, then he must not predetermine who will be saved. If God desired all people to be saved and it was entirely up to him, then all people would be saved. Since the Bible clearly does not teach that all will be saved, God must not predetermine who will be saved.

Christ thus died potentially for everyone. Not everyone has or will avail themselves of this possibility, but God has made it possible by his will, and Christ has made it possible by his free death.

3. Could Jesus have chosen otherwise? This question relates to another question, "Could Jesus possibly have sinned while he was on earth?"

The controversies about the person and nature of Christ concluded that Jesus was one person but that he had two natures and thus two wills. [2] Hebrews suggests that Jesus was tempted in every way like us but that he did not sin (Heb. 4:15). Hebrews is clearly speaking of intentional sin, since the situation presupposed is one in which Jesus had a choice based on temptation.

Could Jesus have chosen wrongly? Certainly we should think of these temptations as real. That is to say, the temptations of Jesus pulled on him but not to the point of sin. We have said in a previous article that the temptation to sin can in some cases be a good desire that is directed toward an inappropriate object, such as when a good sexual desire is directed toward the wrong person. So a person without a "sin nature" can be tempted, as in the case of Adam and Jesus. [3]

So we can suppose that Jesus' human will in itself would have been capable of sinning. However, the orthodox Christian teaching of the centuries suggests that, on this point, Jesus' divine will would have prevented his human will from taking that step. Thankfully, there was no such crisis. Both Jesus' human and divine wills both freely chose to do what was right.

Similarly, both Jesus' human and divine will in concert freely and willingly chose to die on the cross for our sins.

4. I argued in the previous article that God as all powerful had the power to heal us of our sin by divine command and that as sovereign he had the freedom to forgive us by his free choice. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise. We must therefore conclude that God's choice to send his Son to die for our sins was entirely his free choice, since he could have forgiven and healed us by his divine command.

This fact accentuates how great an act of love the atonement was. God chose to identify with our suffering when he did not have to. God the Father does not learn anything on the cross. He created the possibility of suffering, pain, and temptation. He knows everything.

But we learn something on the cross. We learn that, even if we do not always understand why God allows evil and suffering to persist, God the Son has suffered with us. God has identified with our situation.

5. Therefore, while it is not complete, we must consider the "moral influence" theory of atonement to be an important element of the atonement. [4] Some would argue was the most prevalent view in the early church until the time of Anselm in the 1000s. [5] The moral influence approach suggests that one reason for Jesus' life and death was to make us righteous, to "influence" us in a positive moral direction, to empower us to be righteous.

We see this sense of Jesus as the perfect moral example in the slogan, "What would Jesus do?" As 1 John 3:16 says, "Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters." Jesus came to earth to do more than give us a good moral example and to show us how to love each other, but certainly part of what he came to do was to show us how to be the kinds of human beings we should be, indeed were created to be.

Jesus' death on the cross was the ultimate demonstration of God's love because God did not have to heal us and because he freely chose to heal us in this way. He chose to heal us in a way that identified with us in the predicament of our suffering and the consequences of evil. In his humanity Christ showed us how to be fully and perfectly human, and he then gave us the Holy Spirit to become as human as he was.

In his death, Jesus consummately showed us the love of God for us and for the creation.

Next Sunday: A3. In his death, Jesus satisfied the order of things.

[1] A five point Calvinist is someone who accepts all five tenets of the TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverence of the saints. There are "four point" Calvinists who reject limited atonement.

[2] We might call these controversies about Christ, "Christological controversies." The view that Jesus only had one will, which was eventually rejected is called "monotheletism," just as the view that Jesus only had one nature is called, "monophysitism."

[3] As we have argued in a previous article, the idea of a "sin nature" is itself a metaphor rather than an actual thing inside us.

[4] The moral influence theory is often associated with the very weak form of Abelard in the 1000s, when it was directly opposed to Anselm's theory of penal satisfaction. Abelard did not present it a form where it could be combined with the other theories of atonement. It was simply Jesus showing us his love. Similarly, as we will argue in the next two articles, Anselm overemphasized the satisfaction and substitutionary elements in atonement. Both thus reflect significant changes to atonement theory in church history.

[5] Cf. A. J. Wallace and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011). (reference taken from Wikipedia)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What was the "new perspective" all about?

The late 20th century saw the rise in biblical scholarship of what was called the "new perspective" on Paul, the third quest for the historical Jesus, and re-investigations of the "parting of the ways" between Christianity and Judaism. What was that all about? Basically, it was the fact that it took until the late 1970s for Christian scholars to recognize the Lutheran glasses that they had been wearing to interpret the New Testament and Judaism for centuries.

The new perspective was not just a new perspective on Judaism. It also involved some modification to the understanding of early Christianity. There has been much debate over the new perspective, especially in Reformed and Lutheran circles. And while there was much push-back and "new perspective" remains a dirty phrase in some circles, I don't know that you will find any scholars anywhere who haven't made some adjustments to their understandings after the debates of the last 40 years.

On the side of Judaism, new perspective was being honest about the fact that there was far more grace in the Jewish literature of Paul's day than the paper cut-out that had been in use in the 1800s and early 1900s, especially in German scholarship. Joachim Jeremias is so off on some things that E. P. Sanders was tempted to think he was intentionally skewing his account of Judaism at some points.

The stereotype of legalism, as if all Jews were like the Pharisees of Matthew 23, just doesn't fit what the Jewish writings of the time say (such as the hymns of the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls). Reformed folk like D. A. Carson launched a push-back project called, Justification and Variegated Nomism to try to undermine the new perspective's understanding of Jewish literature. But the entire project more less confirms that Judaism wasn't this "works-righteousness" type hypocrisy that was par for the course before 1977. Even those pushing back have already modified their understanding of Judaism.

On Paul's side, those of us in the Wesleyan tradition can be happy to find that the new perspective actually says what we have said all along. The Reformed tradition has always accused us of works-righteousness in our interpretation of Paul. So it's no surprise that they would reject the new perspective when it more or less said what we have said all along--Paul expected a Christian to demonstrate fruit of righteousness in Christian living, and those who do not are in danger of not making it into the kingdom.

So the new perspective suggested that Paul and the rest of the New Testament believed that righteousness was a central part of Christian living. Similarly, it suggested that grace was an essential feature of Second Temple Judaism. It took the Lutheran and Augustinian glasses off of our reading of Judaism and Paul, which prompted a wholesale re-evaluation. That eval spread to Jesus (thus the "third" quest) and eventually to a re-examination of when Christianity really became a distinct religion from Judaism.

The result has been a much fairer perspective on both, more or less calling into question any resource on Paul or Judaism before about 1980.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Biblical Theology - Women Leaders

One assignment people do in the Seminary is to sketch out an overall biblical theology on a subject. Here is a brief sketch I did on women in leadership in the Bible:
In the OT, with no surprise given the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE), it was unusual for a woman to be a leader. There were exceptions like Deborah to be sure. It clearly was no absolute that women couldn't lead. It just was unusual. The role of prophetess is not widely attested but clearly happened, as we see from the instance of Huldah. She is thought to have more spiritual clout than the high priest himself. He may have had the formal power, but she clearly had the spiritual goods, in everyone's eyes.

In the NT, the age of the Spirit levels the playing field because there is no distinction between male and female with regard to the Spirit within. Similarly, Jesus atoned for the sins of Eve. This spiritual leveling was so difficult for the cultural context that we quickly find Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 trying to create a balance so that the husband was not shamed or threatened by the participation of his wife in spiritual activities of public worship. The later parts of the NT increasingly accommodate this dynamic, setting us up for the long haul of patriarchal history that leads up to the 1800s.

But today, in a world where the secular world itself considers women equal, there is no reason not to go with the kingdom trajectory of no spiritual or leadership distinction between male and female. We know there is no objective basis for making a distinction--we all know women who are better leaders than other men. Indeed, it would now actually be a bad witness to continue this distinction, which was always connected to human culture rather than eternal principles. (We know they're not eternal because in the kingdom, women are not given in marriage).

So we should not stand in the way of any women who are truly called to be leaders. Neither the OT nor the NT prohibits it, in my opinion.

Novel Excerpt 5

I'm making myself finish a novel on Fridays.

Excerpt from chapter 1
Excerpt from chapter 2
Excerpt from chapter 3
Excerpt from chapter 4
...Then ensued the intricate détente of two people who are intrigued by each other but don’t want to let on too much so that they don’t get embarrassed. By the time it was all over, with a careful exchange of smiley faces and cautious advances, we were meeting at Friday's at 6 and then advancing to a movie called, No Win Situation, by 7:40.

"So what have you been up to for ten years?" It seemed like a reasonable enough way to start off a dinner conversation.

"So you're going to make me go first," she answered.

"Well, you know what I've been doing since you left," I jokingly said. "I've been working at Cafe D'
Espoir" about forty hours a week.

"Wow, full time. Are there many people who work there full time?"

Notice how she had managed to shift the conversation from her to me?

"There are four of us who work full time, including the manager. I do afternoons and evenings mostly."

"If I remember right," she said, "you weren't much of a morning person."

"So that's me. What about you these last ten years?" I tried to shift the focus back to her.

"One more question," she stubbornly continued. "Did you ever graduate?"

"Of course I did," I protested. "It did take a few more years than you did."

"Weren't you actually a year ahead of me?"

"I don't remember," I jokingly said. "I think I was still a junior when you graduated."

"Didn't your father die that year or some time around then?"

"Yeah, but I was already about a year behind then. I had to slow down and shift to part time. I actually didn't do too badly with one or two classes a semester."

A small pause and I tried again. "So did you start working at a hospital after you graduated?" It seemed like she would have to answer that.

"Yes, I live about four hours from here, so I moved back home and took a job at the local hospital in town."

"But you're in a doctoral program now, right? Doctor of Nursing Practice or something? So you must have done a master's degree somewhere?"

She had. She had moved to Chicago for a couple years and finished her master's at a teaching hospital associated with a university there. Still, I felt like I was pulling teeth to getting any information from her.

"So what made you decide to come back here?" I finally asked, not getting very far with her time in Chicago.

"I always liked it here, at least until Charlie dumped me..."

Yeah, I wasn't going to bring that one up. I knew what it was like to see a relationship derail when you were engaged. They were only two months away from the wedding when he cheated on her.

"... so when I had to get out of Chicago, I considered my options and coming back here to do a doctorate seemed like a good choice. I'd stayed in touch with my old professors, and they kept trying to get me to come back. There was an opening at the hospital. It all just clicked. I'm calling it a God thing."

"So they kicked you out of Chicago?" I joked.

"That would be what you heard in all that. You know what I mean. I needed a change of scenery."


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Functions of a Church

What are the functions of the Church?

Following up on yesterday's post, what are the functions of the Church, and what are the ultimate priorities. I came up with five:
  • worship
  • discipleship
  • witness
  • service
  • fellowship
I think that's the ultimate order, but I'm not completely at peace about it. Glad for push-back. Like the body of Christ, a specific local church might emphasize one or the other more. As individual Christians, we might emphasize one or another more.

1. Worship
Surely the ultimate priority of the Church is to give glory to God. Isn't that the ultimate priority of all Christians, to love the LORD will all our heart, mind, soul, and strength? "To glorify God and enjoy him forever"? I think many would want to emphasize that we can worship God through witness, through service, and so forth.

But it seems to me that God has to come first.

2. Discipleship
I debate inside whether witness or discipleship within the church is the more ultimate priority. "Make disciples" in the Great Commission is about way more than the narrow sense of evangelism that we've grown up with. "Making disciples" is not just baptizing but "teaching them to observe all the things that I have commanded you." So even the Great Commission is more about long term discipleship than with "getting people saved."

3. Witness
Witness to the world, whether it accepts Christ or not, is a major function of the Church. The apostles were called to witness to the resurrection in the early Church. In the 1700s, it became a focus again with the English revivals and the Great Awakening in America. In the mid-1900s the neo-evangelicals brought it to the forefront again. We have to guard, however, against a shallow sense of witness (pray the sinner's prayer and you're good) based on proof-texts ripped out of the Bible and made into memory verses.

4. Service
One of the ways the Church witnesses to the world is by serving it, by doing good in the world, following the example of Jesus. "As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people" (Gal. 6:10).

5. Fellowship
Humans need fellowship, and we shouldn't make light of the social function of the Church. It can make all the difference between a Christian who makes it to the kingdom and one that doesn't. It can make all the difference between a Christian whose life becomes like Christ and one that gets choked by weeds or scorched without roots. Fellowship is the glue that attaches a person to the Church so that the other functions can take place.

There are structural elements that facilitate these functions. So leadership is not exactly a function of the Church, but the Church needs leadership and management for these functions to happen. It needs a structure.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Models of the Church (Missional Church class)

I facilitated an assignment for a Missional Church class last week and was reminded of how helpful a curriculum the teams who designed our Seminary curriculum is. This assignment was suggested and written by Chris Bounds five years ago.

The source is Avery Dulles' Models of the Church. This stuff has such practical implications. Let me recook it in the way of a practically oriented Seminary. Most churches mindlessly fall into one of these categories. Let me emphasize the "mindless" part. We just assume one of these is the right way.

With Dulles, I would argue that nearly all of these are an essential part of the Church. I would say also, though, that I am comfortable with the idea that some churches, like the body of Christ, may legitimately focus on some more than others.

1. The Herald
Evangelical churches often seem to mindlessly assume that the purpose of the Church is just about converting people and preaching stuff. That is certainly part of what the Church is about. And it's fine for there to be many churches that focus on this. It just isn't the whole of what a church is.

2. The Servant
Some churches focus on helping others. This is also an essential feature of the Church, although we question whether it is the only thing an individual church should be doing.

3. The Institution
Dulles rightly questions whether a church can just be institution and truly be part of the Church. I agree. You could focus on one of the others, be a bit out of balance, but still be part of the Church. But if all you are is institution, you're church probably isn't part of the Church.

On the other hand, without some structure, without some ordering to the community of faith, you're like a body without a skeleton and probably won't have much impact, especially long term.

4. The Fellowship
Some churches mostly focus on the life of the community that is already there. Call it an inward discipleship focus (although the current version of Dulles has added the discipling church as another model--I prefer to keep the original five). Call it a body life focus. It is an essential feature of the Church. In the long term, however, a church that is only focused on itself is likely to dwindle and die. There are exceptions, I suppose.

5. The Means of Grace
Some churches see the church as a means by which God brings his grace to bear on people. On the one hand, we might first think of churches that focus on sacraments. On the other hand, you might actually broaden your sense of sacrament to include all the other models:
  • The Church helps facilitate God's converting grace by proclamation as a herald (the first mark of the Church--proclaiming the word).
  • The Church helps facilitate God's prevenient grace by its service to those in need.
  • The Church is an institution because it's hard to facilitate anything without structure (the third mark of the Church--a community rightly ordered).
  • The Church helps facilitate growth in grace by fellowship and discipleship within the church walls.
  • The Church facilitates the sacraments, broadly conceived (the second mark of the church).
For these reasons, I agree with Dulles in his earlier editions. The "means of grace" model of the Church--if it is broadened to include the others--is the most robust, the most balanced, and indeed, the model of the Church that has the most depth.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A1. God chose Christ's death as the means to reconcile the world to himself.

This is the first post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation (soon to be self-published), and I have just finished a section on Christology.
God chose Christ's death as the means to reconcile the world to himself.

1. In Christian history, there has been a spectrum of Christian perspectives on atonement. Atonement is the reconciliation of humanity to God by means of a sacrifice. Unlike the Trinity and the nature of Christ, there has never been a universal council where a specific perspective on atonement was endorsed as the Christian perspective.

There are four main perspectives, none of which necessarily excludes the others. The ability to combine these probably speaks to why Christianity has never chosen one exclusively.

The first is arguably the oldest and relates to Jesus' death as a sacrifice. That is the conviction that Jesus' death in some way satisfied the order of things, including the wrath of God toward sin. A second perspective involves substitution on some level, with Jesus taking our place in some way. A third theme is that of Christ's victory over Satan and the powers of evil, including the defeat of death. Finally, there are approaches to atonement that focus on God's love for us and his desire to woo and influence us toward him.

2. The New Testament teaches that "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Similarly, Jesus says in John 14:6, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." And in the book of Revelation, no one is found in all creation who is worthy to open the scroll to initiate both the final judgment and salvation except the Lamb of God, Jesus: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10, NIV).

It is thus the consensus of the New Testament that God has chosen Christ as the only path to be reconciled to himself. As it was put in the Protestant Reformation, "Christ alone" (solus Christus) is the only means by which such reconciliation can take place. The default state of humanity is one of alienation from God. Christ alone has made reconciliation possible.

A later article will explore the question of how Christ's death is appropriated by those who are reconciled to God. There is a spectrum of positions, ranging from those who believe Christ only atoned for a limited few who will are predetermined to make a conscious decision for God to those who believe God gives every a chance to be reconciled in one way or another to those who believe Christ's death automatically brings salvation to every last human being.

For the moment, we affirm that God has decided that Christ's death would be the only means and path by which a person can be reconciled to him. We might additionally point out that the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition does not believe in "limited atonement." That is to say, we do not believe that Christ only died for some individuals, those whom God has predetermined to be saved. [1] The Wesleyan-Arminian tradition holds that Christ died potentially for everyone who has ever lived, even though in actuality not everyone will appropriate that atonement.

3. In most of church history, the assumption has been that humanity could not have been reconciled to God without atonement taking place in the way it did. In the late 300s, Gregory of Nazianzus put it in this way, "What has not been assumed has not been healed." In other words, if Jesus did not fully assume our humanity, he could not heal us of the disease of sin.

In the early 300s, Athanasius put it this way, "God became human so that humanity might become God." He did not mean that we would literally become God (that would be heresy). He meant that Jesus' incarnation was what made it possible for us to become like God in our moral character and in the restoration of God's image in us. [2]

There is a certain logic to this tradition. We will explore the "substitutionary" element of atonement in a later article. This is the idea that in his life and death Jesus identified with our humanity and took on our sin.

However, if taken too literally, this line of thinking seems to contradict a robust sense of God's sovereignty and his omnipotence. If God is all powerful, then he is able to heal us miraculously of our sins by his divine command, by divine "fiat." [3] To say anything else seems to deny God's omnipotence.

Similarly, if God is sovereign, then surely he could have forgiven us of our sins by an act of his divine free will. To say otherwise seems to imply that God is not free to do what he wants, since we know that he wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). He does not want to punish my sins more than he wants me to be saved or else there would be no possibility of salvation at all.

We must therefore conclude that God has chosen for atonement to take place through Christ, not that atonement had to take place in this way. As we will see in later articles, it certainly made sense for God to reconcile the world in this way. There is a logic to it. It satisfies the order of things that God himself created. [4]

But we would claim that it was ultimately God's free choice to reconcile in this way. To say otherwise seems to deny either his sovereignty or his power.

God freely chose Christ's death as the means to reconcile the world to himself.

Next week: A2. In his death, Jesus showed us the love of God.

[1] "Limited atonement" is a belief of many in the Calvinist tradition. It is the "L" in the so called TULIP, that captures the general sense of salvation for high Calvinism. T=total depravity, U=unconditional election, L=limited atonement, I=irresistible grace, P=perseverance of the saints.

[2] Sometimes called "theosis."

[3] "Fiat" is Latin for "let it be."

[4] In this last set of comments, I have gone beyond Wesley. Wesley was still quite Calvinist when it came to his sense of atonement.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Wesleyan-Arminian Reflections on Christology

As I get ready to start the posts on atonement tomorrow, I thought I would summarize where I have been so far in my "theology in bullet points" series.

Posts on God and Creation (I'm currently editing these for self-publication)

Now on to volume 2:
The Doctrine of Christ (Christology)
1. Christ has been the Son of God from eternity past.
2. Jesus is "God with us," God's Word become flesh.
3. Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.
4. In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and creation.
5. In his resurrection, Jesus became the king of all humanity and creation.

"Means of Grace" 5

Paraphrasing continues of Wesley's sermon, "Means of Grace" in contemporary English.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Part 4
6. These individuals do not really understand that great foundation of the whole Christian building: "You are saved by grace." That is, you are saved from your sins, from the guilt of them and from the power of them, by the free gift and grace of God, his sheer mercy. You are saved through the merits of God's well-beloved Son. Only in this way are you restored to God's favor and only in this way is the image of God restored in you. It does not happen because of anything you have done on your own or because you have earned it or deserved it. You are not saved by any power or wisdom or strength that is in you or any other creature. You are only saved through the free gift and power of the Holy Spirit, who is working in everything.

7. Nevertheless, the central question remains for someone who is convinced that he or she does not have salvation: "We know that this salvation is the gift and work of God, but how can I get it?" If you say to this person, "Believe and you will be saved," the person might answer, "True, but how do I believe?"

You might respond, "Wait on God."

Again, you might hear in response, "OK, but how should I wait. Should I wait and participate in the means of grace, or should I wait without participating? Should I try to use these means of grace as I wait for the grace of God which brings salvation or should I not use them while I wait?"

8. It's impossible to imagine that the word of God has not given us any direction on such an important point. We can't imagine that the Son of God who came down from heaven "for us humans and our salvation" (Nicene Creed) would not have left us without a clear sense of a question that is so connected to our salvation.

And, indeed, he did not leave us without a clear answer. He has shown us the way in which we should go. We only have to consult the oracles of God [in Scripture] and ask what is written there. And if we will simply abide with what they teach, no possible doubt will remain...

Friday, November 07, 2014

Novel Excerpt 4: The Vigilante

I'm making myself finish a novel on Fridays.

Excerpt from chapter 1
Excerpt from chapter 2
Excerpt from chapter 3
As the bank robbers sped down the streets of Miami with multiple police cars racing behind, another figure was emerging unnoticed onto the Intercoastal Waterway. It was a sight not unfamiliar to the people of Miami, a white hovercraft that was a cross between a motorcycle and a jet ski. It glided a couple feet above the water with a sound of air blasting against the surface.

In the blink of an eye, the figure that Miamians had come to call "the Vigilante" launched from the water to hover up a boat launch and onto a side street. A screen in front of the man clad in black plotted a course from where he was to the area of the chase. A quick switch to his own private satellite allowed him to watch the robbers manage to elude their pursuers by a quick set of turns just out of the sight of the police.

His hand on a throttle and the speeder soared from just above the road into the air above the buildings of the Miami neighborhoods. He watched the car disappear into a parking garage. No other vehicles emerged by the time he got there. Another button and three wheels emerged from the bottom of his speeder and the vehicle went electric.

The garage was mostly empty, but he sneaked up on a van just as its back door closed. Next to it was the getaway car he had seen on satellite. But before the van could start, the Vigilante shot an electromagnetic wave that shorted the van's electrical system. By the time the driver emerged, he was standing ready with a machine gun full of tranquilizer darts.

The driver fell to the ground before he even knew someone else was there. When the back of the van opened, the two inside were greeted with a quick round of tranquilizer fire as well. The fourth man on the passenger side managed to get out before the Vigilante could get to him. Before he was back to his speeder, the man had jumped three stories down over the side of the parking garage.

The men would be unconscious long enough for the police to get there. The Vigilante tossed a magnetic tracer onto the van, sending a familiar signal to the police, while he went back into hover mode and sped in the direction of the lone escapee, his gun strapped around his shoulder. There was barely enough room for him to launch out the side of the garage too, hitting the throttle as he shot out.

The man was not in sight, but a quick review of the satellite image of the last minute showed that he had headed to the south and stolen a nearby motorcycle. He had knocked the rider off while she was driving down the street. A moment later and he was in hot pursuit. Pedestrians a few streets down watched first the motorcycle go speeding through a red light, quickly followed by the hovercraft about fifteen feet up in the air, far enough up to fly over the traffic.

Now the electromagnetic pulsar switched to laser mode, as the Vigilante used the eye controlled visor in his helmet to aim it toward the tires of the motorcycle. On the first shot, the tire of the motorcycle blew and the assailant went flying through the air onto the ground. Thankfully, the man only scraped himself up.

In a moment the Vigilante was hovering near him, the man looking up in pain but with nowhere to go. One shot with a dart and he was unconscious, just in time for a police car to arrive. A brief glance at the policeman, and the Vigilante soared off to return from whence he came...

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Jewett's Romans Commentary

I was reading through Romans 10:5-13 in Robert Jewett's Romans commentary in the Hermeneia series last night. I was curious what a student would think of it. The footnotes are an impressive dazzle of references to scholars and ancient literature. The very first page is a dizzying presentation of issues relating to the original text. Although it is translated, the commentary is full with Greek words and comparative quotes, not to mention an extensive train of thought outline for these nine verses.

I don't know what I would have thought as a student. It is impressive work, a kind of definitive resource in one respect. I was able to follow it. I gained in knowledge from it.

I'm not sure though what to do with it or what a pastor would do with it. That's not what Hermeneia is designed to do, of course. It's goal is simply to clarify, in as advanced terms as possible, the train of thought of the text, not its significance. I highly value it personally.

What would be the value of a resource like this for you?

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

"Means of Grace" 4

Paraphrasing continues of Wesley's sermon, "Means of Grace" in contemporary English.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
... I am using this expression, "means of grace," because I don't know of any expression that is better. I also use it because it has frequently been used by Christians in the Church for many ages. It has particularly been used by our own church, the Anglican Church, which instructs us to praise God both for giving us these means of grace, as well as for our hope of future glory. The Church teaches us that a sacrament is "an outward sign of an inward grace, and a means by which we receive this grace."

The most important of these means are 1) prayer, whether privately or publicly in a worshiping congregation, 2) searching the Scriptures--including reading it, hearing it read, and meditating on them, and 3) partaking of the Lord's Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Christ. We believe that God has ordained these to be the normal channels by which God conveys his grace to the souls of men.

2. But let's make it clear that the whole value of these means depends on whether they actually serve the ultimate goal of faith. As a result, all of these means, when they are separated from the goal, are less than nothing. They are emptiness. If they do not contribute to knowing and loving God, they are not acceptable in God's sight. Indeed, they become rather an abomination before God, a stink in his nostrils. He is tired of putting up with them. Most of all, if they are used to do away with the faith they were designed to serve, it is not easy to find words for the enormous foolishness and wickedness of thus turning God's arms against himself. It is keeping Christianity out of the heart by using the very means that God put in place to bring it.

3. Similarly, we accept that apart from the Spirit of God, no outward means whatsoever can bring any benefit. It cannot to any degree bring the knowledge or love of God. Beyond dispute, the Spirit himself brings about any help that happens on the earth. It is he alone who, by his own almighty power, brings about in us what is pleasing in his sight. All outward actions--unless God is working in them and by them--are only ineffective and impoverished actions.

Therefore, whoever imagines that there is any intrinsic power in any means of grace whatsoever is greatly in error. This person does not know the Scriptures or the power of God. We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound of Scripture heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord's Supper. Rather, it is God alone who is the giver of every good gift and the author of all grace. The whole power is from him whereby there is any blessing conveyed to our soul through any of these.

Similarly, we know that he is able to give the same grace even if there were no means [of grace] on the face of the earth. In this sense, we may affirm, that, with regard to God, there is no such thing as a means of grace, because he is just as able to work whatever he wants by any means or by no means at all."

4. We believe further that no use of these means of grace will ever atone for a single sin. Only the blood of Christ alone can do that. Only through the blood of Christ can any sinner be reconciled to God. There is no other satisfaction of the need for atonement [propitiation] because of our sins. There is no other fountain to wash our sin and uncleanness.

Every believer in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no worthiness before God except in Christ. There is no virtue in any work that we do, not in saying prayers or searching the Scripture or hearing the word of God or eating the bread of communion or drinking the cup of communion. No one who knows the grace of God will deny that Christ is the only real basis and cause of God's grace, which if nothing else is captured by the expression that "Christ is the only means of grace."

5. Still again, although it is a sober truth, we recognize that a large proportion of those who are called Christians today abuse the means of grace to the destruction of their souls. No doubt this is the case with all those who are content with a look of godliness but who lack the power of it. Some of them would like to think that they are already Christians, because they do certain things, even though Christ was never yet revealed in their hearts, nor the love of God poured out in them. Others suppose that they will certainly become one just barely because they use these means. They may be dreaming, without hardly thinking about it, that there is some kind of automatic power in them that will sooner or later (they don't know when) make them good people. Or they imagine that there is some sort of merit in using them that will earn them true righteousness from God--or that perhaps he will accept them without it...

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