Friday, December 19, 2014

Faiths of Post-War Presidents

Received this book in the mail today from the author:

I'm grateful for the copy. I have the unpopular opinion that it can actually be detrimental for a President to let specific faith ideas determine his or her decisions too much as President. Let theologians hammer out Christian ideas. I prefer a President who is a good Pietist, not an armchair theologian.

So I would like a President to have Christian virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, self-control. But specific Christian ideologies can be dangerous in leaders, in the same way that a little knowledge can be dangerous. In general--even in many Christian institutions--I prefer leaders who have a Christ-like heart and are actually good leaders with good leadership sense.

Moss - Women led in the early centuries

Here is Candida Moss of Notre Dame's reminder that there was more female leadership in the early centuries of Christendom than we often assume. I do disagree a little with her reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, which I think was about the first century husband-wife relationship rather than female leadership in general. [1]

Also see this eye-opening book by our own Kristina LaCelle-Peterson of Houghton.

[1] My translation, which sounds so caustic that its cultural/contextual dynamic should be obvious: "I do not let a wife teach or dominate a husband but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived but the wife, having been deceived, has come to be in transgression. But she will be saved through childbearing, if they remain in faith and love and holiness and sobriety."

This verse is the only verse in Scripture with this thrust. 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is clearly about disruptive speech in the light of 1 Cor. 11. Women do lead and minister in Paul's ministry. You can't base a theology on one verse, especially one that goes against whole Scripture principles. This is one of the major hermeneutical problems in the current American fundamentalist and neo-evangelical landscape. They are oriented around individual trump verses rather than the "greatest common denominators" of Scripture. This is the Pharisaic hermeneutic Jesus condemns in Matthew 23.

The Gospel in Cuba

No doubt because it's something President Obama is doing, a good deal of the American church will mindlessly and predictably condemn the idea of opening up relationships with Cuba again. I don't know enough to have an opinion that matters, although it seems to me I'd rather Cuba be friends with us right now than Russia.

That's not the point of this post. The opening of relations will undoubtedly open up more opportunities for Christianity in Cuba. In fact, it already has. We've already seen in recent years increased opportunities for the church in Cuba.

I hope we'll be very careful about this re-entry. On the one hand, I suspect this one will work a lot better than our work in Russia, which has seemingly evaporated after over two decades of work with little to show for it. One of our difficulties in Russia, I believe, was the fact that the Baptistic form of Christianity we tried to plant in Russia had little traction with the culture of Russia. Why didn't we try a reform movement within the Orthodox Church, much as Wesley did within the Anglican church? My hunch is because we didn't have enough historical or theological depth to see what that would look like. My hunch is that we just assumed a Billy Graham church growth approach was the Christian approach. I could be wrong.

The situation is different in Cuba. There is already a virulent form of Protestant Christianity in Latin America, and it fits much better with the culture of the Wesleyan Church than Russia did. In other words, we might be historically and theologically unaware of ourselves and still be able to present a form of Christianity there that resonates with the culture.

What I do hope is that someone somewhere in our church will actually be thinking about these things. I would hate to see happen what seems to have happened in Russia--initial great openness to spirituality after the iron curtain came down, followed by somewhat of a rejection of the cultural form of Christianity that rushed in thereafter.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kruger on the Earliest Canon List

Larry Hurtado has a nice summary of an argument from Michael Kruger, arguing that Origen's list of books that belong in the NT canon is authentic. They also accept the Muratorian Canon as authentic from the 200s.

The case seems very well argued and suggests that Origen had three lists (like Eusebius): 1) NT books that are widely accepted , 2) books not widely accepted, and 3) books that seem to have mixed content.

Pulling The Interview

Hollywood got a dose of reality yesterday with the pulling of The Interview. Yes, we're all sorry that political and economic reality has trumped freedom of expression. But it is an important reminder that none of the freedoms of the Bill of Rights are guaranteed in all situations. Americans--especially young Americans--have come to view these freedoms as absolutes, when that has never been the case.

So there is the capitalist reality. Sony is owned by a parent company in Japan--a lot closer to North Korea than Indiana. Sony in the US has to do what its owners tell it to do. Power trumps even what some rich actors want.

Then there is the geopolitical reality. Freedom of speech doesn't trump avoiding war, including Cyber-World War I.

Of course this movie will find its way to the public somehow. And when it does, the demand to see it will be astounding.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Rumors of Degree Cancellations...

Jim Davila has sounded the warning that the University of Manchester is considering closing degree level studies in Persian, Turkish, and Modern Hebrew. These are part of the monumental shifts in education that we have already seen in seminary education.

I had an idea for an MTS once that functioned on a seminar and mentor model. Students would work with an advisor and regularly present individual research at a weekly seminar that included students working on a wide range of topics. It would be on an Ox-Bridge model where the students would pursue an individualized course of study and would largely be self-directed, reporting regularly to the advisor and presenting to the seminar regularly. The number and specificity of the seminars would depend on the number of students in each category, but it would be scaled so that it could work financially with just one student.

I wonder if universities could have something like a "College of Obscure Majors." Obviously I'm joking, but it could function on a model something like this. I do think that the day of the "I know everything there is to know about a subject about a millimeter wide" is mostly over.

Witherington on Employment in Biblical Studies

Some sobering but realistic advice from Ben Witherington. I especially resonated with his comment on the potential for teaching pastors. If I worked at an educational institution, I would suggest developing biblical studies programs that aim at equipping teaching pastors. :-)

Also, if you are going into biblical studies, be prepared to teach primarily online and in distance modes, as he also says.

Biblical Foundations for Ministry

I'm toying with the idea of writing notes here on Wednesdays presenting biblical foundations for ministry. Who knows, if someone is interested it could become a book.

Here's the outline I'm contemplating, even though I don't have time to start today:

1. The Bible and Ministry
  • some brief hermeneutics
2. The Bible and Worship
  • God as the ultimate concern in ministry
  • baptism, communion, and much more
3. The Bible and the Mission
  • the whole Gospel
4. The Bible and Congregational Formation
  • individual and corporate spiritual formation
5. The Bible and Proclamation
  • more hermeneutics
  • how it integrates theology and history too
6. The Bible and Congregational Relationships
  • Christian fellowship, individual human needs, unity
7. The Bible and Leadership
  • principles on how to lead and manage it all

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jonah Adventures in Pre-Modernism

The book of Jonah is a pretty good case study in biblical reading paradigms. I use the term "pre-modern" reading of the Bible in reference to an ahistorical reading of the Bible that doesn't know it's ahistorical (as opposed to an ahistorical reading that is intentional).

1. For example, Jonah is not at all written in a way that would suggest that Jonah himself wrote it. It is all in the third person (he did this, he did that). It is about Jonah but written in a way that doesn't sound like it is Jonah himself telling the story (I did this, I did that). It has a prayer from Jonah in it, but this is quoted not given as the words of the author. Default paradigms for reading Scripture often can't see this because the paradigm doesn't read the way you would normally read something.

2. In the Gospels, Jesus talks about the Jonah story, but he doesn't ever say, "Jonah said." So the NT doesn't even present us with the question the Bible expert asks: "Is this way of referencing the OT a matter of paradigm or a divine indication of authorship?" Since the NT authors spoke in the categories of their day, I personally as a Bible expert do not think that comments in relation to OT authorship were the point of NT statements by Gospel authors and Jesus but rather some of the cultural clothing in which those points came.

3. Another point of paradigm shifting is to point out that when Jonah the prophet lived and when the book of Jonah was written are two completely different questions. So Jonah may have lived in the 700s, before Assyria (the empire of which Nineveh was the capital) destroyed the northern kingdom. But there is a very real possibility that the story of Jonah was not written until much later.

After all, I could write about Jonah even though he lived 2750 or so years ago. When the book was written is a completely different question than when Jonah lived.

4. In fact, my hunch is that Jonah was written long after even Assyria was decimated by the Babylonians. This makes its message even more powerful because the readers of Jonah knew that Assyria was an arch-enemy of Israel. God was willing to have mercy even on Nineveh! I think there are lots of very powerful messages that come out of this thought but I'll leave it at that.

5. Finally, and this is more a point of method, I usually emphasize that the literary context of Jonah is just the book of Jonah. The books of the OT were not bound together originally. Literary context gets a little complex when you think of some of the parts of the OT belonging together as units. Then there is the hypothetical literary context of sources and then the literary context of edited compilations.

But, as far as I know, Jonah was originally written as Jonah, not as part of a collection. So only the four chapters of Jonah are the literary context of Jonah.

If Jonah presupposes any of the other material in the OT, whether as books or as oral traditions, that is part of the historical context of Jonah. We cannot assume off hand that the author of Jonah knew the Pentateuch (or that Jonah did) or any other part of the OT. There are connections between 4:2 and other parts of the OT that are at least suggestive of connections, however.

Finally, the NT is neither part of the literary or historical context of Jonah. Nothing written after Jonah is part of the context of Jonah, at least not from an original meaning perspective. That material didn't exist for the author of Jonah to draw on.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Truth and Justice are the American Way

I think that truth and justice fit with Christianity, so that makes it easy for me to be an American as a Christian. I believe it could also be the case for someone who is Muslim as well... or a Buddhist, or some other religion.

But I'm reading some of a high school world history textbook. Take this line: Islam's "fundamental teaching that all Muslims are equal within the community of believers made the acceptance of conquerors and new rulers easier" (176). It's talking about the military conversion of parts of Africa to Islam in the 1000s.

I almost laughed. Now think of ISIS. Imagine they come to town and say, "We're going to come in here and take over your cities. But if you will convert to Islam, we will consider you all equal and that will make it okay." Of course not if you're a Christian or Hindu. Of course not if you're a woman.

I am of course not wanting a textbook that is biased against Islam either. What I'm wanting is a real commitment on the part of objectivity and truth, thinking that ardently strives neither to be biased one way or another. I don't want to walk on eggshells around someone who holds to a Black Athena theory or around Ken Ham or around some person who skews the history of Islam. I want to be able to say, this is just a mess of special pleading.

The American way is truth based on evidence and logic, approached as objectively as possible. America was forged by Enlightenment thinkers. An objective approach can fit with all these religions, including my own Christianity. The goal is to find what God truly thinks, not what my tribe wants him to think.

Give me truth, not collectivist thinking!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why Liberal Institutions Don't Grow

A fascinating piece by Connor Wood (HT: Joel Watts), arguing that the reason why liberal churches don't grow is because they are not strict. The thesis is that groups with strict standards--whatever they are--attract followers with a greater commitment and ultimately last longer.

It actually doesn't even matter whether those standards make sense or not to outsiders. The standard could be, "We are the people who don't use telephones" (Amish). It could be, "We are the people who don't drink alcohol" or "Our women don't wear anything but dresses" or "We are the people who live on a compound and have multiple wives."

Wood's fascinating suggestion is that liberal churches need to be strict about their open-minded, tolerant theology. Then they would attract followers who were more committed and stayed around longer.

I've actually thought about something along these lines before. I don't think I would necessarily have called it "strictness." It's more fervor for a cause. I hate to say it, but it seems to me that most men thirst to be fighting something. It can be fighting for a cause or fighting against an enemy, but you're going to get more men involved if you're smacking something.

Liberal seminaries are dying in part for the same reason, I think. They don't smack anything. They're boring. See what I did there. I'm making Wesley Seminary attractive by smacking other seminaries. :-)

So I can see Wood's point. If there were a liberal church that could convince people that they are the church that smacks fundamentalists, it might grow...

... or not. :-)


Purple Fish 2

Surprisingly busy week! But I did manage to read the rest of Part 1 of Mark Wilson's new book, Purple Fish at my son's swim meet last night. My first post on it is here.

Here is a nugget from each chapter:

Chapter 5
"Jesus is our ultimate purple fish." "When you find purple-fish Jesus, you've found all you need."

Chapter 6
"You can't be full of Jesus when you're full of other things."

Chapter 7
I'll just tease you with this punchline: "'Yeah,' Luke replied before I could cover his mouth. 'Mom prayed... but Dad didn't believe it could happen.'" "The gospel is better than the best news you've ever received."

Chapter 8
"Don't hide your brokenness... Perhaps you will find a treasure there."

Chapter 9
Teaser: "My roots go back to hillbillies, rabble-rousers, and moonshiners." "When it's personal, it's interesting."

Chapter 10
"Distressed couples are marriage missionaries in the making..."

Chapter 11
Teaser response to evangelism done well: "One of the daughters ran down the hall after me... She fumbled in her purse, pulled out a five dollar bill, and said, 'Here, go have a beer on me.'"

Australia Debate over Funding Theological Colleges

Mike Bird weighs in on the question of funding theological colleges in Australia. It only interested me because of the strong connection IWU now has with Wesley Institute in Syndney.

Indiana AP World History

I'm now one semester into reading through the AP world history text for Indiana high schools with my son. Here are some thoughts to whoever controls this curriculum, especially about the textbook, World Civilizations: The Global Experience.

I'm not competent to know the bias of this book, and I don't want to be one of those ignorant parents that meddles with things they know not. It does feel like one goal of the book is to put "Western" civilization in its place a tad, which I find annoying, but that's not my reason to write.

Basically, this book is so boring to me that I want to jab out my eyes. This book tells me that history is so boring I'd almost rather jump off a cliff than pursue it as a long term subject of interest. Some of the sentences felt to me like they'd been translated from German into English.

Basically, I would hope we could do better. Some of the math textbooks I've seen have been exceptional. But this one almost has me hating history--not an easy feat. Unless the history teacher using this book is Robin Williams, I'd almost rather them have no textbook at all.

How 'bout it, Indiana?

P.S. The passing opinions of Ken Schenck are not those of anyone who matters.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Christians and Violence

1. Yesterday the report on the torturing the CIA did in the aftermath of 9-11 came out. Four questions seem to emerge: 1) Was it moral? 2) Was it legal? 3) Did it work? and 4) Should the report have come out?

I'm primarily interested in the first question today. You can either answer yes or no, or you can say that there was some point where it became immoral.

I am not a Christian pacifist, although I admire those who are. They feel more Christ-like than I do. Of course if I thought their position really was more Christ-like, I would adopt it.

But certainly the Bible accepts the necessity of war, both OT and NT (cf. Revelation). The New Testament implicitly accepts capital punishment (e.g., Rom. 13:4). To me that is not necessarily the end of the story, for we have to consider the trajectory of the kingdom, and it's pretty clear that the trajectory of the kingdom is toward peace. But the Bible assumes, doesn't even consider the possibility that there will not be war between now and the eschaton, IMO.

2. So I am a "just war" guy, and perhaps nowhere sets this position out better for me than the Catholic Catechism (see 2307-17). The danger needs to be severe. All other means need to have been tried. There should be good chance of success. Your action should not create more harm than good.

War requires killing people. It's usually hard to do that successfully without a whole lot of hate going on. Yet hatred of people is immoral for a Christian. There is the rub for the Christian when it comes to war. And how could you torture someone without a whole lot of hatred going on? I'm sure there has never been a war without torture on all sides. It's just impossible to keep it a secret now.

3. I write today with a heavy heart. For many Christians, the immorality of torture is obvious. Blessed are you. You have the spirit of the Beatitudes. You are the kind of person I want to see in the pulpits of our churches. You are the ministers of reconciliation. You are the peacemakers. You are the pure in heart.

The philosopher in me asks the question, "If you had a person who knew where a nuclear bomb was hidden in New York City, and torture would get that information from the person, wouldn't the end justify the means?" This question troubles me, and I won't give an answer. If I did, I would start with lots of qualifications and I'm not sure where it would end up.

What concerns me, and this is where I am going, is that I suspect there are a lot of pastors in America whose sense is, "Of course we should torture those evil people to death." This is what concerns me, that there are many "Christians" who not only would affirm torture, but might do so with no hesitation whatsoever.

We should find this dynamic troubling. There is a human dynamic. We saw it in Nazi Germany. It is the difficulty at some point to distinguish between our religion and our nationalism. It is a morally dark place where we make killing for country or religion a virtue. It is a place where the jihadist lives. It is a place where we enjoy violence and rationalize it.

If you are a Christian and especially if you are a pastor, and your bias is to defend this torture, I hope the Spirit will trouble your heart. I say that without taking a position on the philosophy question. I am taking a position on the attitude question.

Anyone with the heart of Christ should find this report troubling, whatever the answers to these other questions. If you don't, you have no business being in the pulpit.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Faith versus works in Paul

Continuing some of my writing from Sunday...
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... If Dunn is correct that Paul primarily has works of the Jewish Law in view, particularly those actions that distinguished Jew from Gentile, then the issue is alleviated somewhat. Then Paul was never thinking about works of love or a life free of murder or sexual immorality when he declared that Jews and Gentiles are not justified by works of Law. Rather, he was primarily thinking about works like circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance, and so forth. [1] This ambiguity in Paul’s language of Law goes a long way toward explaining what might otherwise seem like inconsistencies. How could a Gentile possibly demonstrate the Law written on their hearts (Rom. 2:15) unless some of Paul's uses of the word law referred to a core of the Jewish Law that did not include those boundary markers than distinguished Jew from Gentile? Other instances then had these boundary markers as their primary referent.

A second ameliorating factor in explaining Paul's rhetoric of faith versus works against a revised sense of his Jewish background is the strong possibility that at least some of his references to the "faith of Jesus Christ" refer not to human faith directed toward Christ but to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ himself. The name of Richard Hays is not usually invoked when presenting the new perspective on Paul. He is rather associated most strongly with the resurgence of a particular interpretation of the phrase, pistis Iēsou Christou, in passages like Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16. [2] Reviving and re-presenting an older suggestion, Hays argued that this phrase should be understood as a reference to the "faith of Jesus Christ," his faithfulness to the point of death, rather than to faith in Jesus Christ, as the phrase had traditionally been understood. It is a question of whether Jesus in this phrase is an objective genitive—trust of Christ—or a subjective genitive—faith of Christ, understood as Christ's faith. Hays' revival of this interpretation was not a direct result of Sanders’ work on Judaism nor of Dunn and Wright’s versions, so it is understandable that it is often not included in discussions of the new perspective.

Another reason why the pistis Christou debate is often not connected to the new perspective is the fact that James Dunn, one of the key players in the new perspective, is Hays' most notorious sparring partner on the issue. Neither Sanders nor Dunn agree with Hays' reading of the key passages. On the one hand, Hays does not deny that faith in Jesus was part of Paul's theology. Indeed, part of his argument in relation to the interpretation of Galatians 2:16 is that Dunn’s interpretation implies an extensive redundancy in this verse. Paul's statement amounts to three consecutive mentions of faith in Christ: "knowing… through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have put faith in Christ Jesus in order to be justified through faith in Christ." By contrast, in Hays’ interpretation, only the second instance, the expression εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν (“on Christ Jesus we have believed”), refers to faith directed toward Christ Jesus.

If Hays' interpretation is at least in part correct, our picture of earliest Christianity does seem even more integrated with its Jewish precedents than even in Dunn's reconstruction. Paul’s theology, for example, turns out to be theocentric more than Christocentric. God rather than Christ becomes the primary object of faith (cf. 1 Thess. 1:8). I have argued elsewhere that Paul may, in effect, argue "from Hays to Dunn." In this reconstruction, the initial sense of διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ in both Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 would be "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ," perhaps a shorthand for a common Christian belief that the faithful death of Jesus was an atonement for the sins of Israel. Paul may then have used the ambiguity of the genitive phrase in order to suggest that the fundamental principle of justification was faith, now contrasted with works of Law in a more ethnocentric sense. [3] This reading combines the strengths of both Hays and Dunn's arguments.

In this revised perspective on Paul, Paul conflicts with other Jews primarily on the significance of what we might call the ethnic particulars of the Jewish Law, those boundary aspects of the Law that most differentiated Jew from Gentile. This is an argument generated from practice, namely, whether Gentiles must be circumcised and whether Jewish believers can have table fellowship with Gentile believers. These arguments are simply ideological proxies for real people that Paul believed must be fully included within the people of God.

Paul argues that faith is the more basic principle than these boundary practices. He uses the example of Abraham, who was justified before he engaged in the Jewish boundary marker of circumcision (e.g., Rom. 4:9-10). While Paul's Jerusalem brothers and sisters agree that the faithful death of Christ as essential to justification, in Paul's view they overrate the significance of Jewish particulars in the Law in the equation of righteousness. Paul radicalizes the principle--even Jews are not established as right before God by their keeping of boundary markers. The essence of rightness before God is faith, and there is a core to the Law that even Gentiles can keep, a circumcision of the heart...

[1] As Dunn and Wright have both demonstrated, 4QMMT among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that the phrase "works of Law" especially referred to inter-Jewish debates over how to keep the Jewish Law. See Dunn, "4QMMT and Galatians" in New Perspective, 339-345 and Wright, "4QMMT and Paul: Justification, 'Works' and Eschatology," in Pauline Perspectives, 332-355.

[2] πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. His primary work in this regard is, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[3] "2 Corinthians 4:13 and the πίστις Χριστοῦ Debate," CBQ (2008): 524-37.

JROTC and Leadership Theory

It's quite ironic for me to be reviewing leadership theory with my son for a JROTC test, since I've mainly encountered this material as part of the Seminary Leadership course. He's learning things like:
  • Trait theory is about 100 years out of date--the idea that leaders are only born, not made.
  • The two key behaviors of a leader, at least in the behavior theories of the mid-twentieth century, are relationship and structure.
  • The prevailing theory of the last fifty years has been more contingency theory. Good leadership doesn't presume just one set of skills or approach but requires the ability to wed one's individual strengths to specific types of situations.
I found it hilarious that he's learning sentiments from Peter Drucker (e.g., you're not a leader if no one's following you). He's learning that direction, motivation, and purpose are the three domains of leadership.

Fun stuff!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Hays' Reading Backwards

1. If you were to ask me the top influences on me as a New Testament scholar, James Dunn probably comes first. For all my griping Tom Wright is probably second. Then I think the tie goes next to Richard Hays and Krister Stendahl.

[I am of course sui generis as a Hebrews person--the interpretation I preach came neither from a mortal nor through a mortal, but... just kidding]

I'm sure Hays doesn't know it but I actually co-dedicated one of my church-directed Paul books to him, N. T. Wright, and of course my Doctor father, Dunn. I'm rather bad about telling people that I have dedicated books to them. My old professor David Thompson just happened to wander through the Seminary building last month and, as he was leaving, it suddenly occurred to me that I had co-dedicated a book to him as well. ;-) Dr. Bauer, yours is signed and also sitting on my desk.

If by chance Richard Hays or Tom Wright stumble on this post, I'd be glad to send you a copy if you need something to balance out your bed. :-)

2. But I'm on a tangent again...

Hays' new book, Reading Backwards, promises to be very memorable indeed. His books are all quite significant. Practically every one is a benchmark of some sort: The Faith of Jesus Christ, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, The Moral Vision of the New Testament...


This is a book about the way in which the Gospel authors breathed the Old Testament as an intertext. Hays of course is known for leaning more toward the side that sees the NT authors as presupposing more rather than less of the literary contexts they quote and to which they allude. "Metalepsis" is his middle name, meaning that he thinks allusions pull in significant meaning from the texts with which they interact.

For today I just read his Preface. [I particularly resonated with the part about it being hard to get much scholarly writing done as an academic Dean] He puts some stakes down. He is including John. He will be looking at the Greek OT rather than the Hebrew, since the Gospel authors were drawing on the Greek, not the Hebrew. He is not particularly friendly to Q but is good friends with Mark Goodacre (just kidding). He is in the "Early High Christology Club" (as opposed to Dunn, who is in the High Christology club and the late Maurice Casey, who was in the Christology Club--in joke).

He mentions the scholars who have most influenced him in this area (not that he always has agreed with them): C. H. Dodd, Barnabas Lindars, Nils Dahl, Donald Juel (who is closer to my thinking), Hans Frei, Joel Marcus, N. T. Wright, Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Daniel Boyarin, and Kavin Rowe. David Moffitt gets the nod for being the real author of the book (again, just kidding).

Well, that's just the Preface. But it promises to be a most excellent read, first delivered as lectures at Cambridge and, eventually, to be a full scholarly treatment (probably after he steps down from being Dean ;-)

Looking at a Purple Fish...

This is the week I dive in to the waters of Purple Fish, a new book by Mark Wilson, whom I consider a good friend and a incredible pastor.


This morning I read the first four chapters and I can tell you this: Mark is a good writer. The style is incredibly easy to read, completely transparent, and it pulls you along. Those of us who grew up under the pressure to witness to anyone, anywhere, no matter what they were doing or how annoying we were to them... we will find ourselves laughing at Mark's own guilt stories. How many of us felt guilty not to stop--not to help but to inquire about the eternal destiny of someone having car trouble on the side of the road?

I'm just started, but Mark's honesty is refreshing as he shares his own pilgrimage with evangelism. At the end of the fourth chapter, he has a personal breakthrough.

More to come...

Sunday, December 07, 2014

New Perspective and Works

... One feature of Wright’s interpretation that seems particularly helpful is his recognition of the role that works play for Paul in the ongoing life of someone in Christ. Key texts in this regard are Romans 2:6-10, 12-16 and 2 Corinthians 5:9-10, both of which seem to indicate that God will take into account the deeds of a believer in the judgment. [1] If I read Wright correctly, he believes that those who are truly justified by faith in the present will live, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the sort of life that will result in justification by works in the future. That is to say, "the verdict already announced is indeed a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced." [2]

Of course, Paul is less than explicit about any certain connection of this sort between justification by faith in the present and a future justification that takes deeds into account. [3] The best we can do is suppose that Paul would generally, although not certainly, expect the two to correspond. Nevertheless, it is also difficult to deny Wright's conclusion about the role works play for Paul in the final judgment. Romans 2:6 indicates that God will repay each person, both Jew and Gentile, for what they have done. While interpreters have often considered these verses as a sort of hypothetical, 2 Corinthians 5:10 presents the same idea in a context that has no hint of the hypothetical. Paul tells believers in Christ that they will give an account for what they have done while in their bodies.

It is hard for Pauline scholarship to kick against these conditional pricks. Nevertheless, Paul considers even his own place in the resurrection to be contingent on his faithfulness (e.g., Phil. 3:10-11; cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27). We are not suggesting that Paul really felt insecure about his final salvation any more than most Jews felt insecure about their membership in the people of God. We are simply suggesting that Paul expected those in Christ to produce a life of righteousness, a life of striving for "glory, honor, and immortality" (Rom. 2:7). God would evaluate those in Christ in relation to their works. It would matter, just as it mattered in general to Jews that they act in faithful response to God's covenant with them.

Paul does not clarify the details of great interest from the perspective of later theology. At least on a surface level, his language speaks in synergistic terms. He did not know the future in order to guard himself against accusations of Pelagianism. He did not produce a passage where he explained how justification by faith and judgment that includes consideration of works might fit together. So the disciplined exegete will leave it at that and not try to fit his thought together more than his writings themselves seem to warrant...

[1] Key places where Wright discusses these passages include, “The Law in Romans 2” (1996), now in Pauline Perspectives, 134-51; Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 158-68; and Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1086-90.

[2] Justification, 198.

[3] I am assuming here that, at least at some points, Paul's justification language is forensic in the sense that word has normally had in Pauline scholarship, contra J. L. Martyn, Galatians (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2004) and D. A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God.

A4. In his death, Jesus took humanity's place.

This is the fourth 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 also finished a section on Christology.
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A4. In his death, Jesus took humanity's place.

1. While sacrifice primarily had to do with the satisfaction of a god, it could also have an element of substitution, where the sacrifice in some sense took the place of the worshiper. So the substitutionary theory of atonement holds that, while we deserved to die, Christ died in our place. Great care should be taken with this idea, for most of the verses used to support it probably did not exactly mean this idea.

For example, to say that Christ died "for us" is not the same thing as saying he died "in our place." I can do something for your advantage or in your favor that doesn't exactly have the sense of me taking your place. While we were still sinners, "Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). This verse is not saying that he took our place as sinners. The point is that it would have made sense for Christ to do something for a friend, but he died for us when we were his enemies.

"For us" in this context is certainly not some mathematical sense of penal substitution, where Christ takes our punishment in some criminal sense to some precise degree. In its most rigid form, this idea requires a substitute for sin to suffer the exact quantity of punishment that each individual sinner deserved. Some interpret the line in the Apostle's Creed, "he descended to hell" in reference to Christ experiencing the punishment for our sins there in between his death and resurrection.

But there is no biblical text that either says or means anything of this sort. It is a medieval idea that traces to Anselm and that became part of the Reformation through John Calvin. It is neither a biblical doctrine nor one that ultimately fits with the character of God.

2. The statement, "he descended to Hades," should be understood to say that "he descended to the dead." There is no verse in the Bible that indicates Jesus suffered in Gehenna, the hell of fire. Hades is the Greek word for the realm of the dead, not the place of punishment for the wicked dead. So Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27 cannot be used to support this position. Similarly, 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6, where Christ seems to visit the dead after his resurrection, say absolutely nothing about him suffering there.

We must therefore consider this notion of Christ suffering in hell to be one element of the medieval perspective that should also have been abandoned as unbiblical in the Reformation. We are a few centuries late, but the spirit of the Reformation is semper reformanda, "always needing to be reformed." Jesus did not suffer in hell to take our punishment. It is an unbiblical notion.

3. The New Testament at times approaches using transfer terminology in relation to Christ's death. For example, Paul says in Galatians 3:13 says that on the cross Christ became a curse "for us." Even here, Paul does not exactly say that our curse was transferred to him. He certainly does not say that our guilt or penalty was transferred. This is the language of defilement and abomination, language from a different worldview than our modern legal mentality. It is purity language.

Israel was cursed for not keeping its covenant with God (Gal. 3:10). But Christ redeemed Israel from the curse of failing to keep the covenant, and everyone else with them (3:13). His cursing on the cross in some way seems to transfer or absorb our curse. More precisely, it "redeems" or "pays the price" for our curse. Redemption in this sense is obviously a metaphor, and accordingly we must be careful not to over-read it.

The image of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement is relevant here (Lev. 16). Two goats were involved. One was sacrificed, the other set into the wilderness. The one that was sent out into the desert in a sense transferred Israel's impurity and uncleanness to it and carried it away from the camp, so that the camp could be clean (Lev. 16:10). Again, there is a transfer of impurity here, but not a substitution of guilt. The goat absorbs the defilement of Israel, perhaps similar to Christ taking on our curse.

Other verses in the New Testament that are often read to indicate some straightforward substitution also likely have the broader sense of Christ being a sacrifice for us rather than some precise replacement for us. 1 Peter 2:24 says, "'He himself bore our sins' in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness," and 3:18 says, "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."

In these verses, Christ clearly dies "for us," but no precise equation is given of some legal exchange. It is not said that Christ is some exact substitute. Indeed, it is a corporate atonement that Christ makes here, formulated in terms of humanity as a whole rather than, as we immediately think with our Western glasses, an individual substitution.

Christ tasted death for us (Heb. 2:9). There is an overtone of substitution here to be sure. He did it on our behalf, but he also did it so that we would not necessarily have to die. Most of us still do, of course. But the power of death has been defeated in the long term. There is a "taking our place" element here and in all passages like this one.

So there is certainly an element in the New Testament of Christ taking our place. We are just prone to over-read it. It is not formulated in legal terms--Christ taking our sentence and criminal punishment. It is formulated more in terms of defilement. It is not formulated in individual terms. It is our sins taken together corporately. And it is not mathematical, as if God must account for every last ounce of penalty. In short, the Bible does not teach penal substitution in the manner of Anselm or John Calvin.

4. Here we should say a note about 2 Corinthians 5:21. Wearing our modern glasses, it is very easy to think we see a transference of sin and righteousness in this verse: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." It is hard not to hear overtones of transference in this verse, for the verse is arranged as a kind of chiasm: 1) no sin 2) becomes sin so that 3) we with sin 4) become no sin.

However, if it had these sorts of overtones, they were likely a play on words whose more basic meaning would have been obvious in the context of the earliest church. So what does it mean for God to make Jesus "sin"? The most obvious meaning in a first century context would be for Jesus to be a sin offering "for us," as in Romans 8:3.

Similarly, the phrase, "the righteousness of God" had a history at the time as well, not least in Old Testament passages in Psalms and Isaiah where God's righteousness is parallel to his faithfulness and his salvation (e.g., Ps. 85:8-11; Isa. 46:13). [1] The righteousness of God is thus that faithful propensity of God to save and rescue his people. The context of 2 Corinthians 5 is full of such imagery, for Paul is talking about how God is reaching out to the world to reconcile it back to himself. [2]

The first meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:21 was thus likely, "God made him who did not have sin into a sin offering on our behalf, so that we might demonstrate the righteousness of God in Christ."

Still, it is difficult not to think that Paul has worded this verse in such a way as to evoke a kind of double entendre. "In Christ," we have gone from sin to righteousness. In some sense, Christ took on our sin as a sacrifice of atonement. This is nothing like a straightforward exchange or transfer. It is a poetic exchange.

5. The phrase "in Christ" brings us to a more fundamental category for Paul. Paul's writings have a strong element of our participation in the salvific (salvation related) actions of Christ. We are baptized "into Christ." We are baptized "into his death" (Rom. 6:3). When he died, we died. As he lives, so we are raised (Rom. 6:8).

The phrase "in Christ" leaps repeatedly from the letters of Paul. When we are baptized, we are somehow, mystically, incorporated into Christ's body. Christians constitute the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:13). We have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), which allows us to die to the Jewish Law and its condemnation. In Christ, we will all be made alive, just as in Adam we all died (1 Cor. 15:22).

This is something more profound here than a mere legal exchange. We actually die ourselves "in Christ." It is not just Christ dying in our place, it is us dying in Christ's body with him. We participate in his death. We participate in his life. This is not substitution. It is incorporation.

6. With this groundwork laid, we should dispense with all sorts of other foolish rumors about atonement. God the Son, Jesus, is the one who suffered on the cross, not God the Father. Jesus learned what it was to suffer death on the cross. God the Father, however, did not suffer on the cross. [3] God the Father did not learn something on the cross.

The view that God learned what it was like to suffer--indeed, the idea that, in Jesus, God learned what it was like to be human--assumes that God was not all-knowing beforehand. Rather, since God created the possibility of suffering out of nothing, God knew exactly what it was like to suffer from eternity past. He created suffering as a possibility. There is no distinction in God between experiential knowledge and head knowledge for God. This is a human distinction.

In the same way, the popular notion that "God turned his face away" when Jesus assumed our sins finds no clear basis in Scripture. It is rather a romantic notion built on a series of assumptions that go far beyond anything the Scripture says. It both involves a significant anthropomorphism (picturing God in human terms) and a legalistic sense of God's justice.

The Bible simply says nothing of the sort. Our sins cannot harm God. Our actions are just not that significant. God does not throw temper tantrums when people do not listen to him. This is the reaction of someone who is insecure, and Go is not insecure. When the Bible pictures God getting angry at sin, it is impressing the seriousness of sin for us, not for God. We diminish God if we think these images, drawn from humanity as pictures we can understand, literally picture God's mind. He is far greater than that.

In his death, Jesus took humanity's place. That is, he took away our stain and our shame, our curse. He became sin, a sin offering in fact, so that we might become truly righteous in him. And in him we are, if we have the Holy Spirit. We are in Christ, incorporated into his death and incorporated into his life. We have been crucified with Christ, and the life that we now live, we live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

Next week: A5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.

[1] The discussion of the phrase, "the righteousness of God" is extensive in biblical scholarship. As good places to start, see N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) and Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1993).

[2] N. T. Wright has effectively set out this interpretation in, "On Becoming the Righteousness of God," in Pauline Theology, D. M. Hay, ed., vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 200-8.

[3] A false idea known as "patripassianism."

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Conservative is relative...

I sat on a plane recently next to a Chinese student from Beijing who was attending college in the US. We were talking about newspapers and I suggested that The Wall Street Journal was a relatively conservative newspaper. He looked at me really funny.

It turns out that, since conservative means resistant to change or slow to change, in China the conservatives are those who do not want communism to change. To favor capitalistic reforms is progressive or "liberal" in China. Of course in America, capitalism is conservative and any movement toward Keynesian economics is considered liberal.

It shows that what is conservative depends on what tradition you are trying to preserve, that you do not want to change. For Wesleyans, the affirmation of women in ministry is conservative. For a Baptist, it's progressive.

"Conservative" and "progressive" are inevitably relative terms. So in China, Ted Cruz would be a flaming liberal on economics.

Clever post on Santa by Candida Moss

Well written in a playful style, How Santa Hurts Christmas.

Grafting Gentiles into the Tree

In the first chapter, we saw that one aspect of the recently revised perspectives on Paul and Judaism was a greater sense of the continuity between Israel and earliest Christianity. Indeed, throughout the book I have argued that it is much more accurate to speak of Christian Jews than it is to speak of Jewish Christians. Even Gentile believers in Christ were, at the beginning, something along the lines of Gentile converts to Israel. When I speak of "Gentile Christians," I am in a sense speaking of a certain species of "Gentile Israelite."

In this chapter, we now want to look at Hebrews in relation to the Jewish sense of election, covenant, and the Law in its environment. The previous chapter looked at the Christology of Hebrews in relation to Jewish "monotheism." Earlier chapters have looked at Hebrews in relation to the temple, which speaks to Jewish conceptions of land and redemption. [1] Now we want to ask to what extent Hebrews might reflect a partitioning or parting of the ways with Judaism in relation to election, covenant, and Torah. [2]

At this point it is perilous to enter into Pauline waters, even though we must. Much like the first chapter, we will simply have to take certain positions and more or less by-pass the significant amount of debate that surrounds an issue such as this one. The amount of literature on Paul and the Law is staggering to the mind. To some extent, we will simply have to comfort ourselves with the fact that the position we will take here in relation to Paul has already been defended elsewhere by others, even though we cannot hope to rehearse an exhaustive argument.

So we begin with Paul as potentially relevant background to Hebrews on the question of election, covenant, and the Jewish Law...

[1] In Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood  Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), Pamela Eisenbaum considers redemption one of three key components of Judaism at the time, along with worship and Torah (68). N. T. Wright considers her category of redemption to correspond loosely to his third element, "eschatology," alongside monotheism and election, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 612 **.

[2] See chapter 1. For language of "partitioning," see especially D. Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004).

Making money off Christians...

Skip to #4 below if you want to know that this post is about. Key sentence in this post: "I have a hunch that, in Christian circles, it is the most ideologically conservative professors who are most in attitude like the professor in God's Not Dead."

1. I work at a Christian university. It would be interesting to know what people think we do here. Probably what people most want us to do is train students with the skills to be able to find a good job. I think indeed that society has more or less dictated to us that "skills for work" are our number one task. Seems completely appropriate to me.

As a Wesleyan Christian university, many of us think a primary goal of an education is the spiritual formation of the students, to facilitate a deeper love for God and others and a deeper commitment to Christ. We have required chapels. There are small groups meeting on campus. Professors are expected to integrate their faith with their teaching and in general with how they interact with students. I'm in a reading group that this week spent an hour reflecting on IWU's goal of seeing our students become "sanctified" in the sense of growing toward spiritual maturity while they are at IWU.

There is another goal a good university will have and that has to do what are traditionally called the "liberal arts." No, that isn't "liberal" in the way we currently use the word. The phrase has been around for centuries, long before our contemporary sense of conservative and liberal existed. I almost feel we need to come up with a different phrase because of how stupid people are today.

The liberal arts are about making us reflective humans who aren't just slaves to whatever ideas and habits we happen to be born into. They are about learning how to think objectively. They are about being able to understand how people and groups different than we are think. We learn from the past to help us live for the future. They are about appreciating things that distinguish us as humans from other animals, things that enrich life like art and music.

At a Christian liberal arts college, part of this broader enrichment includes learning about the Bible and usually a Christian philosophy class, one that examines life from a faith standpoint. IWU just this year added a required theology class. They studied the OT and NT already, but now Christian beliefs will be taught in a course that organizes core beliefs into a systematic form.

 2. And now for the title to this post. First of all, the title is not about Christian colleges making money off people. I assure you that the pastor of a medium sized church earns more than the vast majority of Christian college professors. I know one Christian college where the most senior professors earn a little over $50,000 a year. If you think anyone at your neighborhood Christian college is getting rich, think again.

What inspired this post is a recent event at IWU that, as usual, was twisted in social media. Why anyone continues to think you are getting the straight scoop in social media is beyond me.

First of all, you're insane if you think IWU is liberal. I am a Republican and the fact that I feel the need to say so in itself indicates how stupid the situation is. I assure you that the very few people at IWU who are Democrats don't tell anyone about it. I'm not even sure who they are, if that is any indication.

IWU had Mike Pence, Republican governor, on campus recently. Susan Brooks has been on campus. I can't remember when any Democratic candidate on this level has ever been on campus. Once upon a time when someone wanted to start a student Democrat organization, it took a little time for everyone to process that and I'm not even sure if it still exists. A Republican professor had to serve as its faculty advisor because no one could find a professor who was a Democrat to do it. We're suing the government so that we do not have to provide abortion associated health care in our insurance.

It is a disgrace for our context to be such that I feel like I should say these things. College is about learning to think objectively, which means that you need to understand the positions of people who disagree with you. Those who are afraid to hear opposing points of view--and can't do so without exploding--probably aren't very confident in the views they claim to have. Critical thinking isn't necessarily about changing your position. It's about holding your positions with eyes wide open, not as a robot.

3. So there was a recent event. I think it was actually part of a series initiated by students. Once again, they searched high and low for someone who might try to present at least some contrast, even if the person had to play the Devil's advocate. If you know what I'm talking about, if you've seen the small snippet, you can see that the thrust of the panel was so overwhelmingly pro-life that it is absurd to the highest degree to think that IWU has any ambiguity at all in its position on abortion. It doesn't.

A warning here. A good thinker gets suspicious when the deck is stacked or when s/he thinks opposing views are being treated like straw men. Having a panel that is so overwhelmingly stacked in one way, where it even feels like the pro-life team is almost bullying the person drafted to create contrast, will actually have a tendency to push the smarter students in the room away from the dominant position.

I wish someone else had served in the "push back" role. I don't know if the guy knew he was destined to be a sheep to the slaughter. I know at least two people turned down the role knowing it would be a piranha fest. The professor basically said he was conflicted. He was pro-life but he recognized that there were difficult situations sometimes. As you would expect, he's been stoned in the social media since the event.

4. Now to the real point of this post. The organization that presented the pro-life position has seemed to have a hey-day with this thing. Here's my hunch. It sure seems like they are using this event to raise money for their organization. They've taken a snippet of the event and put it on their website and now seem to be raising money off it.

So here's a scenario that I wonder if we are prey to, now speaking in general. Do organizations that advocate for certain causes make money off public frenzies like this one? Take a situation. Blow it out of proportion. Play into the fears or anger of your constituency. Raise a bunch of money off the masses.

In this case, you already have this stereotype that universities are liberal. You all know the movie, God's Not Dead. Here's an ironic thought. Could it be that conservatives sometimes act like the atheist in this movie? There are no doubt liberals at secular colleges that badger those who disagree with them. But could it be that some Christians act this way toward those who disagree with them? If you watch the video of this event, who is most badgering the other side?

I have a hunch that, in Christian circles, it is the most ideologically conservative professors who are most in attitude like the professor in God's Not Dead. Both liberals and conservatives are surely guilty of bullying those who disagree with them, yes? Absolutely yes! But that's just not what college is supposed to be like.

I'm thinking of a Christian college I know. IMO, the president's recruitment strategy is to vilify other Christian colleges as liberal. He or she loves programs that skewer the liberal and the atheist. I have at least heard that any faculty or administration person who disagrees with him/her is quickly pushed out of the university. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if s/he tries to use this event against IWU if s/he hears about it, to try to recruit for his/her own college.

So what is the impression we get here? It is of a college where professors are encouraged to be militant for a particular conservative point of view and where anyone who disagrees or even asks questions is quickly silenced. In short, it looks like a college situation where the ideal is for the attitudes of professors to be just like the professor in the movie God's Not Dead, just on the opposite side of the issue. Now isn't that ironic?!

5. The bottom line is that I hope we as Christians will be better thinkers than this. Brain science tells us that we do not think as well when we are in an emotional frenzy. Could it be that there are groups out there that are preying on our irrationality? In this scenario, they would know, consciously or intuitively, that the more worked up we get, the more money they can raise. And we seem to mindlessly play right into their hands.

Truth is no respecter of person. A real commitment to truth requires us to be willing to change our positions on things given a sufficient reason. The other approach talks a lot about truth, but it's really about preserving its own traditions.

God's not afraid for us to question whether he exists, because he knows he does.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Hasty Generalization

The fallacy of hasty generalization--jumping to conclusions when you don't have all the information--something I fight because I don't want to look stupid and because Christ commands me to love my enemy.

I think I'm at least getting better. How about you?

In the Wright

I've decided to take a Schencky approach to my depressing reading list. Since I know I can't read through the list from start to finish--simply the realities of my life--I'm going to pop in and out of them.

So tonight I popped into the Introduction to Part III of N. T. Wright's tome, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. This is the beginning to the second book of this "one book." This is where he gets to Paul. The first book is background and context.

1. His goal in this second book is to show the central concern and inner logic of Paul. He emphasizes the coherence of Paul's writings. I'll confess that I much prefer Dunn to Wright. Dunn builds up patterns from the text up. Wright has a tendency to presuppose a metanarrative and then see it everywhere, implicit in passages even at times when he can't point to a verse.

I actually wonder if his earlier work on Paul was more helpful before he had looked at Paul so long that he began to see all these complex patterns everywhere. Also I think his Paul articles on specific passages are more helpful.

2. His reduction of Second Temple Jewish theology to monotheism, election, and eschatology is interesting (Dunn had four pillars--monotheism, election, covenant, and land; Eisenbaum has worship, Torah, and redemption). I'm not sure how prevalent eschatology was at all times but it obviously plays a large role for Wright.

"Paul remained a thoroughly Jewish thinker" (611). Fair enough.

Early Christianity reworked monotheism, election, and eschatology around Jesus the Messiah and the Holy Spirit (612). Definitely on the first. I wait to see what he means by the second.

3. Wright and I will no doubt soon find ourselves in tension over how much of the OT context Paul presupposes in his use of Scripture. My dictum is, "As far as the intended meaning, see no more meaning in the words than is necessary." Wright will rather see lots of resonances and a deep theological richness. I have no problem with that as a reader response, a "theological interpretation." I just think it goes beyond what Paul himself was likely thinking. I call it promiscuous exegesis.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Chaldean ordained in the Wesleyan Church

I was so excited to see that Juliet Jamil, one of our Wesley Seminary students, has been ordained in The Wesleyan Church. See the article here.

You may not know it, but there are still Aramaic speaking Christians in Iraq--exactly the type of Iraqi that faces intense difficulties in the face of antagonists like ISIS. The language understandably has not stood still for two thousand years, but it is exciting to me to know that there are people like Juliet who speak the same language as Jesus while he walked the earth!

Congratulations to Juliet, who has lived in California now for several years since she and her husband left Iraq under Saddam Hussein's regime!

The Neo-Evangelical Synthesis

These last ten years or so, I've been very interested in the question of how appropriate it might be to call people from my tradition, "evangelicals." Although I haven't been able to read it yet, I was happy to see that Don Dayton has put out a new edition of his earlier book. The publisher named it "Discovering an Evangelical Heritage" the first time. Now it has his original title, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage.

The point of the RE-discovering is that Dayton wishes to point out that the dominant forces within NEO-evangelicalism, which arose in the late 1940s, are not exactly the same as the primary forces within evangelicalism historically.

1. I was reading Wesley's sermon, "Spirit of Bondage and Adoption," a few weeks ago. In it he says that a person who has been justified by faith, the person who has the assurance of salvation, is someone "in the evangelical state."

Wesley doesn't use the word evangelical much, but it seems to me that he used it in a way that connected to Luther's sense of the gospel. His evangelical state is a "gospel state," where a person has been justified by faith, has believed in the good news, and has an assurance of salvation. My hunch is that William Tyndale is where this use of the word comes from in English.

[Scot McKnight, as well as Tom Wright, have pointed out that this is of course not what "gospel" means in the New Testament. The gospel is, most centrally, the good news that God has enthroned Jesus as king. Salvation is part of that good news. It just isn't the central meaning.]

But that's not important right now. The origins of American evangelicalism are in these preachers of assurance, these preachers that you can be justified by faith now and you can know it. In short, the original evangelicals in America were revivalists. George Whitfield and the First Great Awakening are the starting point for American evangelicalism and, yes, Jonathan Edwards was a part of that.

John Wesley and his followers are a key part of that, the early American Methodists like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Then the Cane revivals in the early 1800s, the Second Great Awakening, are part of that. Think of the Baptists who preached assurance and a moment of conversion.

2. What wasn't a part of these "evangelical" movements were the "Princeton Calvinists." Charles Hodge was not a part of that. Archibald Alexender and B. B. Warfield were not part of that. This is Don Dayton's point. The evangelicals of the 1800s were people like Charles Finney. The camp meeting preachers were the evangelicals of the 1800s. They were the ones preaching a moment of conversion and the assurance of salvation.

They were also often abolitionists and activists in favor of women's right to vote, especially the Wesleyans. They were the ones who believed that the Spirit called women to preach as well as men. They were, in short, the very people that the Princeton Calvinists both looked down the nose at and opposed.

The Fundamentals came not from these revivalists but from the tradition of the Princeton Calvinists. Somehow in the 1950s the word "fundamentalist" got switched around. Instead of the people that started the notion, primarily Calvinist academics, it got applied to those who were most in continuity with the original "evangelicals." Suddenly the "fundamentalists" were calling themselves "evangelicals" and they were now calling the original heirs of evangelicalism "fundamentalists."

3. My point is that what we call evangelicalism today is a synthesis of two different traditions, a synthesis that took place in the late 1940s. The key focus of the earlier evangelicals was conversion, pushing individuals to a moment of decision leading to justification by faith and an assurance of salvation. In its Wesleyan form, it had always included social activism as well (think Salvation Army).

Now it was synthesized with the theology of the primarily Calvinist fundamentals. In reaction to the social gospel and the FDR administration, social justice was removed from the concerns of evangelicals. It now became questionable to focus on helping the needy. You will now hear these new evangelicals saying that, with limited resources, the church needs to put all its resources into conversion rather than the less important task of helping people.

Now penal substitution as a theory of atonement became very important. The word inerrancy, a concept that had earlier been invoked against the abolition of slavery, became part of the mix. These neo-evangelicals had money and would grow in power. They would set up publishing houses and magazines. They would take the name "evangelical" and dismiss the earlier stream as "fundamentalists," those stupid holiness, Pentecostal, and dispensational people who hid from the fight against an increasingly secular nation.

Bebbington says that evangelicals have historically had a four-fold focus on 1) Scripture, 2) cross, 3) conversion, and 4) activism. But a list like this one is deceiving. Just because someone believes something doesn't mean it is the focal belief, and there are conflicting ways evangelicals have acted in these categories. A list like this can inadvertently promote the periphery to the forefront or give an impression of continuity where it doesn't exist.

What most distinguished those whom we might first call evangelicals was a focus on conversion, with an assumption of the need for the cross. The word "activism" conceals the fact that the activism of the first two centuries of evangelicals was a social activism that late 20th century evangelicals would actually oppose. And the word "Scripture" hides the fact that the form of engagement with Scripture changed dramatically from the "whole Bible," pre-modern preaching of the first two centuries to the fundamental, inerrantist approach of the Princetonians.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Purposes of Scripture

Certain genres of Scripture seem to relate more directly to different "power words" we use about Scripture more than others.

1. Infallible seems to be an umbrella term in the sense that no part of Scripture fails to do what God wants it to do. But what does God want each part of Scripture to do?

2. The commands of Scripture are authoritative, but their purpose is not to make us do them, because God has given the freedom to disobey for now. So the purpose of the commands of Scripture was to give God's will at specific times and places, as well as for all time. There are time-specific commands in Scripture too, however, such as the command to Israel not to eat pork. God did not intend it to apply to today. So God did not intend all the commands of Scripture to be "all time." Some were "that time."

3. God's promises do not fail either. But not all of God's promises were unconditional. God tells the Ninevites he will destroy them. But it was a conditional prediction. After they repent, he does not destroy them.

4. God's purposes in the stories of Scripture were often to reinforce the identity of his people. In keeping with the original contexts of Scripture, their purpose was not primarily to tell history according to our modern sensibilities. That is more of a modern concern. Biblical stories often involved moral lessons for Israel or identity-confirming elements. In the New Testament, the stories help establish the Christian metanarrative.

5. God's purposes in many psalms seem to be to provide an expression for God's people of thanksgiving, lament, and anger, as well as to facilitate the worship of Israel. Their purpose is not primarily to teach or to identify but to express. They also give hope. They help God's people vent and express strong feelings.

6. In some cases, God's purposes are to inform. In such cases, the Bible is inerrant. This is the minority function of Scripture, although modern Western culture, unaware of itself, has sometimes assumed this is the major, perhaps even the only function of Scripture. But the main purpose of Scripture is not to give the answers to a test. Even in those cases where the Bible gives information, God gave that information within the categories of its original audiences, within their ancient worldviews. The Bible thus does not give specific answers to the make-up of human psychology or cosmology. It presents other truths or does other functions within the cosmological and psychological paradigms of its own ancient audiences.

7. To speak of the Bible's inspiration is to say that it unfallingly accomplishes what God intended and intends it to do. Sometimes people imagine inspiration in a premodern caricature, where an individual sits down and the Spirit takes over the stylus to write words. The inspired meaning thus pictured is then often not the original meaning, but a meaning seen in the text by the later reader. Inspiration in history was far more three-dimensional than this two-dimensional caricature.

Even in the NT, when 2 Timothy 3:16 speaks of the God-breathed nature of the OT, it does not refer necessarily to the contextual meaning of Scripture but includes the meanings that the Spirit breathes through Scripture above the contextual one. When Paul hears a word about the material support of ministers in Deuteronomy 25:4, he is hearing an inspired metaphorical meaning that goes beyond the original sense of oxen treading grain.

2 Timothy 3:16 thus cannot be used to argue for a fundamentalist agenda, which tries to constrict the sense of inspiration to a quasi-literal straight jacket. Rather, God inspired the words of Scripture originally, working with the authors' minds, to do what he wanted it to do, and the Holy Spirit continues to inspire readers' minds today for Scripture to do what he wants it to do.

8. Ultimately, God can do in us whatever he wants to do in us. As Wesley suggested, God uses Scripture as a means of grace. It is a sacrament of transformation, by which God changes and transforms us. Ultimately, God can do whatever he wants in us with any Scripture, regardless of genre, regardless of what it originally meant.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Of the making of books, there is no end...

Woe is me. I come away from SBL with a whole new list of books to add to the list... and I've hardly started on the ones from last year!!!

So how can I get through these books, both old and new???
  • N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God
  • Doug Campbell, The Deliverance of God
  • Doug Campbell, Framing Paul
  • Richard Hays, Reading Backwards
  • John Collins, Early Judaism
  • Bruce Longenecker, Thinking through Paul
  • Torrey Seland, Reading Philo
  • Joel Green, The World of the New Testament
  • Mark Wilson, Purple Fish
  • Sandy Richter, The Epic of Eden
  • Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method
  • Scott Soames, Philosophy of Language
  • Greg Woolf, Rome
Alas! All I know to do is to try to read a chapter a week of one of these. Stay tuned on Monday to see if I've succeeded.

The Interpreter's Tale 2

Continued from yesterday
________________________
... There is a scenario that can take place here, one that I want to air as a cautionary tale before we begin. Love of the Bible usually leads a person to pour over its words. There is a magic to the biblical text that makes someone, especially a recent convert to Christianity, to swallow up the Bible, to drink deeply from its words.

This person probably knows very little about the historical context of the Bible. He or she is a sponge. They long for teaching. They long for explanation. They want to know more, more, more. They make sense of the words however they know how. Hopefully the Holy Spirit gives them some insights to make up for background knowledge. They certainly feel like God is speaking directly to them page after page.

This thirst for the Bible often leads to deeper study. Tell me about these Romans who crucified Jesus? What was crucifixion like? Tell me about these Ninevites in Jonah. Tell me about these Canaanites. Now who was Ba'al? Who was this Paul?

Superficial answers to these questions often feed the magic. But the deeper this person goes into the original context of the Bible, the more they may face potential disenchantment. The reason for this is because to read the Bible for what it really meant almost inevitably creates a greater distance between the words and you as a reader. Before, the words were all for you. Now you must negotiate in what way the words were both for them and for you.

Am I to greet people in my church with a "holy kiss"? Are women to keep silent in the churches? Am I not supposed to eat pork? Must I not work on the Sabbath, which it turns out is from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown? Am I blessed if I bash the babies of the Babylonians?

Some people, particularly the imaginative, negotiate this duality of Scripture just fine. The words can be for the original audiences of the Bible in one way and for us in another. The same Holy Spirit can apply the words one way for us no matter how he applied the words for them. But the more concrete may find the text slipping away from them and into the distant world of the past, where the words were clearly for them first. And they were quite different from me.

Some intuitively avoid the journey. They avoid any deep study of the Bible and keep things superficial. I've known pastors of this sort. They avoid going to school to be ordained as a minister and stick to a lighter route that allows them not to face what "so called scholars" have to say about the Bible or theology. They don't want to lose the magic. Groups can even develop training schools for ministers in part designed to avoid deep study of the Bible in context.

Fundamentalism arose in the 1920s in resistance to the rise of historical methods of studying the Bible. A collection of conservative scholars erected a set of scholarly walls setting boundaries that interpreters were not allowed to cross, and this became part of the substratum to neo-evangelicalism when it arose in the 1940s. The modern methods of historical study are still used, but at these boundaries, they serve to reinforce existing positions rather than to draw the most likely conclusions of the evidence.

So it is ironic to find that a great number of Bible scholars are former fundamentalists. Their pursuit of the magic led them to study the Bible seriously in context. But their study of the Bible in context took away the magical enchantment the Bible once had for them. It became a collection of ancient books. At worst, it became a biology experiment, a dissected frog whose parts are all clearly labeled but that certainly is no longer alive. [1]

Surely it is possible to study the Bible seriously in context and yet not lose a sense of divine enchantment. On the one hand, it seems dubious ever to take an "ignorance is bliss" approach. Since Christians claim to be proclaiming the truth, it would be deeply contradictory if we have to avoid the truth like the plague on such a fundamental level in order to maintain our positions. If we have to avoid the truth to maintain the magical enchantment of the Bible, then the magic is not real in the first place.

What I would like to suggest is that there are two slight shifts that can make it possible for us to keep the magic while we pursue a deeper understanding of the Bible. First is to realize that the magical enchantment of the Bible's words was never a function of the text itself but was always a function of the Holy Spirit to the extent it was real. The magic of Scripture is not in the words. It is rather in God as he dances with us while we read and meditate on the words.

If we can make this shift, then the Spirit can continue to dance with us. It is not a dance with some fixed meaning to the words in time. It is a dance with the words loosened from their moorings in history. [2] It is a poetic dance that can hear God speak through words no matter what they first meant. This is arguably how the biblical authors themselves danced with the text of the Old Testament.

A second shift is to learn to appreciate how God has danced with his people at other times in history. Can I experience the magic of God's dance with Israel in the middle of the dance floor while I am standing on the side waiting my turn to cut in? Can I even learn to appreciate the possibility that God danced with the editors of hypothetical sources behind the Gospels or the Pentateuch? Can I appreciate God's dances with others when their dance was different from my dance?

In short, I believe it is possible to enter a "second naivete" in our reading of the Bible, new forms of magical enchantment. [3] The one is an enchantment with the Holy Spirit on the dance floor of biblical words loosed from their historical moorings. The second is an enchantment with God's walk through history with his people, knowing that I am also part of the people of God.

Let us commit ourselves as we journey toward reading the Bible in context to keeping these enchantments. There is no disputing that the Bible had a first meaning and that this first meaning was a function of what words meant when they were first written. When God spoke, he wanted to be understood, so it is no surprise that the words of the Bible made sense in the categories of its first audiences. But that does not mean they must lose their magic as God's words for us as well.

[1] This is a commonly used image in this conversation. I am not sure who first originated it.

[2] We will need to make clear the boundaries of these dances. There have always been such boundaries, even though we may not have been fully aware of where they came from.

[3] The term "second naivete" comes from Paul Ricoeur.

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