Sunday, April 26, 2015

SP2. The Holy Spirit enacts the will of the Father and Son in the world.

This is now the second post in a unit on the Holy Spirit in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and the second was on Christology and Atonement.
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SP2. The Holy Spirit enacts the will of the Father and Son in the world.

The Holy Spirit is God's presence in the world, and the Spirit acts for God in the world.

1. Christian tradition does not hold that God the Father is only beyond the creation (transcendent) and the God the Holy Spirit is only in the creation (immanent). Nevertheless, in terms of the predominant domains where we find the Father and the Spirit operating in Scripture, we find the Spirit overwhelmingly mentioned in relation to this universe.

"Spirit" thus indicates at least two features of the Holy Spirit. First, spirit suggests otherness in the sense of heavenly origins. The Spirit is "stuff" from beyond the creation that is present here in the creation. In this way, the Holy Spirit is the "heavenly gift" and a taste of the "powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:4-5).

"Spirit" also suggests that God is not limited by embodiment. He is everywhere present in the universe. At the very beginning of creation, we find the Spirit of God hovering over the primordial, unformed waters (Gen. 1:2). The Holy Spirit is thus the primary manifestation of God immanent in the creation, the primary presence of God in the universe in this age.

2. As such the Holy Spirit is the primary agent of God's action in the world. When we read of God's word doing whatever God sends it out to do in Isaiah 55:11, we should think of the Holy Spirit as the one enacting God's will. In Genesis 1, when God speaks and his will is accomplished, we should think of the Holy Spirit as the one accomplishing the creation of light or living things in the waters or the creation of humanity.

When Proverbs 8 uses the metaphor of wisdom working alongside God in creation (8:22-31), we should more literally think of God's Holy Spirit as the one who enacted the will of the Trinity for the creation of the world. Although John 1 ultimately correlates the Logos or "Word" with Jesus, surely much of the biblical imagery about God's word acting in the world should technically be related to the work of the Holy Spirit. When we hear that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword," we are hearing about the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

3. In the next two articles, we will discuss how the Spirit works in the Church and in the individual. Yet we have also seen that the Holy Spirit also works in the creation and in the world. Here, the work of the pre-incarnate Christ and the Holy Spirit seem to blur into each other. For example, the hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 is clearly about Christ, but it is arguably based on Jewish traditions about God's word. So some of the poetry about Christ here may more literally relate to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

For example, in a poetic sense, Christ holds all things together (Col. 1:17). But in a more literal sense, the Holy Spirit sustains the creation. The different roles that the individual persons of the Trinity play are not always clearly distinguished in Scripture but blur into each other. [1]

Although Christ will come again to judge the world on God's behalf, in this present age the Spirit both convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11). The conviction of the Spirit in relation to sin ideally leads to salvation, but perhaps most of the world ultimately rejects the prompting of the Spirit in "prevenient grace," God's reaching out to us before we even know it (Matt. 7:13-14).

The Spirit convicts the world of righteousness in the sense that he works with our consciences to move us to act in the right way. He is an "inner light" that shows us the right way but leaves the choice of how to go to us. To be sure, our consciences are overwhelmingly formed by our cultures and the environments in which we are born and raised. However, the Holy Spirit also reaches out to everyone who comes into the world with God's prevenient grace and prompts us to move in the right direction.

Those who do not respond to the Spirit's prompting may eventually "grieve" the Holy Spirit to where God gives us up on us (Heb. 10:29). Although the Spirit has made it such that we should know God and his power (Rom. 1:20), God may eventually "give us up" (Rom. 1:28). We should assume that those parts of Scripture that talk about God hardening someone's heart (e.g., Exod. 7:3; Rom. 9:18) relate to individuals who have already rejected the initial prompting of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit also enacts God's judgment in this current time. We see such judgment clearly in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Peter indicts them for trying to "lie" to the Holy Spirit (5:3) and they both drop dead. It is thus not only clear that judgment takes place in the age of the new covenant as well as the old. But the Holy Spirit is the primary agent of judgment at this time.

4. The idea of an "unpardonable sin" comes especially from Matthew 12:31-32 and Mark 3:28-29. In that context, it refers to attributing to Satan an act of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Hebrews 6:4-6 and other passages in Hebrews also suggest there is a point of apostasy beyond which one cannot be saved.

Theologically, we must assume that the individuals involved in these passages are people who have decisively rejected the promptings of the Holy Spirit toward salvation. We must assume that the Holy Spirit has already reached out to them, offering them the possibility of reconciliation, but they have rejected the light given them. Therefore, these acts--of blaspheming the Spirit or committing final apostasy--are the embodiment of a pattern of rejecting God. It is not the act itself that is permanently condemning but the permanent condemnation is what results when the Holy Spirit stops prompting.

Repentance, a decisive turn from sin toward God, is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, anyone who is drawn toward God has not been abandoned by God and thus has not committed an unpardonable sin. Yet there is no promise that the Holy Spirit will prompt indefinitely. Christianity, not even Wesleyan-Arminian Christianity, does not technically teach free will. It teaches that God gives everyone a chance to move toward him.

But there is no promise that this chance will always be present in our lives. We cannot assume that we can wait until our death bed to move toward God. The Holy Spirit may not be around to prompt us toward him any more. We may know we need to repent but not find the power to repent within. We may seek a place of repentance and not find it (Heb. 12:17). We thus need to seek God while he may be found (Isa. 55:6).

The Holy Spirit is God's presence in the world and enacts the will of the Trinity in the universe. He convicts the world of its sin, of what righteousness is, and he administers God's judgment in this current age.

Next week: SP3. The Spirit sanctifies the Church.

[1] This is an important reminder that God did not reveal most of the truths of the Bible systematically but situationally. This is why systematic theology is not only a valid enterprise, but a necessary one. It is also why we would be foolish to ignore 2000 years of Christian reflection on Scripture--surely the Spirit has continued to unpack in his Church both the significance of Christ but also the implications of Scripture.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Reformulating Chemistry

My youngest children take chemistry next year. So I was thinking. What are some different ways that someone could present the content of chemistry? (I actually wrote 65 pages a few years back toward a chemistry novel back when one of my step-daughters was taking chemistry. It was along the lines of Alice in Wonderland.)

1. It seems to me that, for most high school students, chemistry should probably start with things that can be observed and then move to explain them with theory you can't observe. So you can observe many elements. You can observe chemicals. Atoms? Not so much. You can observe gases, liquids, and solids. Covalent bonding, a little harder.

2. For whatever reason, I am really attracted to teaching chemistry from the periodic table. I know it has to do with my personality. I remember things far better if I can see the big picture first. Start with individual details and half of them will evaporate away for me.

The periodic table is like a map. Again, my memory and understanding works better if you approach learning with a spiraling circle. Start with the big picture. Then swirl around the land again in more detail. Then start swirling around the subtopics in the same way. Since there is limited time, don't teach any one area exhaustively before moving on to the next. If you do that, I will know half the topics well and know nothing about the other half.

Some topics in math and science are cumulative, but many aren't. I think you could start with motion, thermodynamics, or electromagnetism in physics, for example. But, inevitably, high school and college students like me end up with a lot of knowledge of motion and very little of electromagnetism. I don't think I had a history class in high school that got beyond World War I. And the surface area or volume of a sphere--I was never in a math class that got that far, even though you could go do a web search and learn it right now.

So I prefer swirling. Go over the whole field in the broadest of strokes. Then go through all the major topics again in greater detail. Then in later courses go into the individual topics in great detail.

3. Another way to teach, and one that would fit with yet another personality, is to start small and go big. You could start with the atom. Then move to molecules. Then move to organic chemistry. Then organelles, then cells. Then move to tissues, organs, systems. Then motion, sociology, eventually astronomy.

4. So in conclusion, how's this for a chemistry curriculum?
  • Start as usual by distinguishing mixtures from homogeneous material... compounds, elements. Do it with actual stuff. Goal--to show that all the stuff around us boils down to some basic components and combinations of components.
  • Now move to the periodic table. These are the elements. All matter around us reduces to these. Run through it with object lessons. Some are gases, some liquids, some solids at room temperature. Some are more stable than others. Look, here's a helium balloon. Here's a lithium battery. 
  • You can combine them together and make compounds. Salt. The oxygen in the air comes in pairs of two oxygens. Etc...
  • With hydrogen you can dive into what an atom is. What is the default state of an atom? How do atoms take on charges? How do you get hydrogen chloride (ions)? What are acids?
  • You can do some experiments too. Use electrolysis to isolate hydrogen and oxygen, for example.
  • With helium you can introduce the noble gases and go down into Neon, Argon, etc. Now comes the octet rule and an explanation of why these are so stable.
  • I think you could cover a good deal of the basics in a short time in this way. Atomic mass, metals, alkali metals, semiconductors, precious metals, radioactive elements. Mention types of bonding, electronegativity, etc but save depth explorations for later.
  • But before long, you will want to begin looking at reactions. Now we're balancing equations. Now we start looking at energy and heat. For whatever reason, these aspects of chemistry seem harder for people to get their heads around, but we've now been amply prepared for them. 
  • Show the reactions, show the experiments. To the extent it's practicable, have students do the experiments.
  • Repeat in greater depth...
In my perfect world, you would be doing physics somewhat at the same time in a different class. But the schedule could be arranged so that the topics overlapped at key points. So you can be doing atoms at the same time. You can do thermodynamics and electric charge at the same time. Then when they don't overlap, you can be doing motion and other topics in physics.

But that's for another day...

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Novel

Alan walked south gingerly along the river Cam out of Cambridge. He felt quite strange, having lived his whole life in Chicago. Alone, in such open space, he felt exposed, almost naked.

No one was in sight, which was even stranger. There was something idyllic about the walk to Grantchester. It made him realize what peace would be like... and that he had never known it.

He was to meet his new mentor at the Orchard Tea Gardens at noon. It was easy enough to find. Grantchester was the smallest place he had ever visited. He was early enough to wander a little. He didn't know most of the names of some famous Cambridge people who used to visit--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Virginia Woolf. He had heard of a couple others--Bertrand Russell the philosopher and Maynard Keynes the economist.

"Eos scias?" came a voice behind him.

"Let's see. 'Do I know them?'" Alan deciphered the Latin. "Yes, a couple. Keynes, Russell."

"Both studied at the school," the man continued. "Wittgenstein was a mentor... when we could get him to show up."

"Who was Wittgenstein?"

"Another philosopher, like Russell. Very moody. Everything you expect of a genius."

They both continued to look at the history of the Orchard on the wall.

"Want some lunch?" the man finally said.

"So your name is Fox, right?" Alan broke the silence.

"Yes," he answered. "Daniel Fox. I attended the school some twenty years ago in the mid-90s."

"And what exactly is the school,"Alan asked, again trying to get a clearer sense of what was being offered him."

...


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Academic "price fixing" at SBL?

I'm on the periphery of a group for SBL that was denied this year even though it had quite a significant line up for this Fall and probably would have been quite popular. I'm trying to process the reason given, which more or less had to do with perceived overlap with other groups that already exist (even though they weren't interested in the specific topic). Also cited was a move away from "fragmentation" in SBL groups.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this decision. I know that decisions by leadership are often complex and involve a bigger picture than an individual decision. It's difficult to see the whole picture from the receiving end. I was really on the edge of this group anyway so I didn't have much invested in it.

But here are the thoughts going through my mind?

1. Did this group and topic appear too "evangelical" and thus not "diverse" enough or too "fragmented"? It would be interesting if the SBL program committee thought so. Was there a bias against confessional scholarship involved?

The line up included prominent individuals from Duke and even had Tom Wright scheduled this Fall. By contrast, the SBL program committee, as far as I can tell, is made up overwhelmingly of individuals from secular schools. There is interestingly some strong bias against Wright as a scholar in the academy. Some of his work drives me nuts but there's no denying that he is one of the most influential scholars of the last twenty years. Who has heard of Ken Schenck (or the author of the linked protest letter)? Wright, him I've heard of.

2. Some steering I've seen at SBL to me has been about as boring as a dead fish. I personally think this phenomenon is something that plagues academia in general, where professors and leaders think they get to decide what people are interested in. And they drive their institutions into the ground with declining enrollment until their departments or colleges close.

I attended a group for about a decade at SBL that started with the seats packed. The topic was brimming with interest. Then it seemed to me that the leadership packed the agenda with just the right balance of "non-fragmented" speakers, including interdisciplinary talks by people from other areas of expertise who frankly looked silly to me speaking on topics about which they weren't experts.

Before long, the leadership seemed to muse at all the papers on the topic being presented in other groups. Attendance didn't seem to be as strong as it started. When interest found other ways to express itself, there seemed to be an urge to find ways to keep power over the topic centralized with the enlightened group. To me, it looked similar to my perception that struggling Methodist seminaries try to use power at their HQ to force ministerial candidates to go to schools they just don't want to go to.

3. What I'm talking about here is "price fixing" in academia, using power to squelch voices you don't agree with. This phenomenon is not conservative or liberal. It's human. Conservatives do it. Liberals do it. Personalities do it against other personalities. It has only to do with who is in power, not what their ideology is.

There is a temptation even within an institution like IWU to try to squelch a program in one part of the university because it might grow over the territory of another program. There are some valid concerns here. But what doesn't make sense is to hamstring a program that looks to be wildly successful just because you don't want a struggling program somewhere else to suffer or die.

4. Oh well. Stuff happens. I suspect the proposed group would have been pretty popular at least its first year. Who knows? It might have been the hot thing this Fall at SBL.

My question is this. What will the "Dead Fish Quotient" (DFQ) be this Fall at SBL? Will there be some topics where the rooms are brimming with interest? Or will most of the sessions be a mirror of many struggling religion departments today, where the professors can't get anyone to sign up for their classes?

Art and Religion in the Curriculum

The fun of my pointless novel continues!

I've brainstormed on material for the protagonist's education in relation to languageshistory, science and math, and philosophy. So now I'm on the last brainstorm for art and religion.

Of course religion is integral to the Christian college. But what about a secular university education?

1. The role of art and religion in a college curriculum, IMO, is to teach students how to be human. You can learn about the science of economics, but ethics is essential when it comes to applying that knowledge. (Yes, it is ignorant to assume unthinkingly that the goal is just for anyone who can to make as much money as possible in whatever way possible) You can learn how to do a lot of things, which might make you a fine communist or a fine capitalist. But without values, you're little more than a dumb animal--maybe dumber.

Beauty and value are important because they make life meaningful. Your yearly salary doesn't matter when you're drowning. And it doesn't matter that you've won a Nobel Prize if you never spent any time with your children and have no healthy relationships. The selfish will die one day and will not be missed. I consider legislators idiots who think public school is only about reading, writing, and arithmetic, while they slash funding for music and pay no attention to the resources needed to redirect students on a trajectory to be a burden on society.

2. The problem of course with teaching values is the question of whose values. Religion can be an incredibly positive force for good in the world... and it can be just as incredibly a negative tool of oppression and evil. I would think a classy undergraduate curriculum would expose students to the great religions of the world--Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, secularism, as examples.

There are some axioms that most religions would accept in some form. Most would have a sense that it is virtuous for individual self-interest to come behind the greater good of the many. There is a balance between "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one" and "all individuals have certain basic rights." I personally find the idea of a social contract between the members of a society to be perhaps the most useful construct for thinking about human society.

3. Art and literature remind us of a feature of humanity that is almost entirely unique to the human race. Art does not have to represent anything. It does not have to teach anything. I agree with Tolstoy that it is best when it is infectious. But it is valid for its own sake. Literature is the same.

It seems to me that the great art and great literature, even great religions of different world cultures, naturally goes hand in hand with learning their histories and languages.

4. So this alleged first novel focuses on Europe. The first quarter of the novel is in Cambridge. What art and literature of Britain should he study? Shakespeare of course, Dickens, Austin. Locke seems appropriate. The British museum offers a window into some of the art taken from Greece, Turkey, and Egypt in the 1800s.

The second quarter is in Bologna. Obviously that offers all the art of Florence and Rome. In literature there is Dante, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas. Since Greece is near there is Homer, Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle. There is Roman and Greek architecture.

The third quarter is in Germany. I suppose there is Goethe and the Brothers Grimm. Of course there is Kant, Heidegger, and Gadamer. There are plenty of museums in Berlin and Munich.

The fourth quarter is in Paris and there is the Louvre. There's Picasso, Seurat, and countless others. For literature there is Sartre and Camus, Foucault. Les Miserables, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Descartes, Rousseau, Pascal.

I'm not sure how much I would weave in or how, but this is part of the territory...

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Process Theology versus Open Theism

It should be clear that I am almost a medieval scholastic in my the-ology. I have no time personally for open theism or process theology. However, I would make a big distinction between the two.

1. Open theism, as I define it, is the idea that while God is omniscient and God is omnipotent and God is distinct from the world, he has of his own will decided not to know the future so that we can have free will. This is an Arminian twist and it is a conservative twist on normal theology.

It is an Arminian response to an argument I consider silly. A certain Calvinist says, "If God knows the future, we cannot have free will." The open theist (in my mind) responds, "What if God chooses not to know the future so that we can be free?"

Remember, I am a medieval scholastic who thinks God sees all time in an eternal present. "You are both silly," says I.

It is conservative because it more or less takes the Old Testament literally. "Where are you Adam?" Poetry, says I. "God chose not to know where Adam was," says the open theist. "Silliness," says I.

I don't think Wesleyan-Arminians should worry much about open theism, even if I think it's silly.

2. Process theology is something quite different. Process theology does not believe that God created matter and does not see it as under his control. Sometimes, process theology sees God's nature and character as something that is in a process of change along with the universe.

Let's be clear. Wesleyans believe that God does not choose to direct everything that happens in the world. But Wesleyans believe that God is in control of the universe.

Wesleyans believe that God chooses influence over determination, but process theology usually holds that God cannot determine. That he can only influence.

A Wesleyan can easily believe that God created using evolution, but a process theologian believes that evolution is/was not under God's control or supervision. Indeed, a process thinker believes that God himself is evolving in some ways.

3. So there you have it. Schenck's perspective on these things. Open theism is silly but generally harmless. I would not support a Wesleyan college or university hiring a process theologian.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What's in a PhD dissertation?

I've been an external examiner now for three doctoral dissertations on Hebrews. This is a great honor and also a good way to keep your pulse on Hebrews' studies. It is also very interesting because I'm usually asked in relation to confessional communities that each have their own landmines and understood criteria that the candidates have to navigate.

For example, a doctoral student in a Seventh Day Adventist context has to navigate Ellen White. Someone in a strong evangelical community will navigate critical issues in a certain way. And someone from a conservative Reformed context might navigate issues of second repentance in a certain way.

But what are the key things I look for in a dissertation:

1. The most crucial thing that I am looking for is what you might call a "doctoral spark." This is ultimately the basis for the degree. Where in this dissertation has the candidate demonstrated that he or she can think originally and creatively in a super-competent way that advances the scholarly discussion and isn't just nuts?

2. Obviously we want a clear thesis that is tightly argued throughout the dissertation.

3. We want good organization. The introduction should set down the method followed and give necessary theoretical background on the scholarly discussion up to this point.

4. If I were the doctoral advisor, I would want clear hermeneutical distinctions. This is one area where as an external examiner I feel I need to respect the norms of the institution for which I am examining. For me, a dissertation should not be preachy, should not blur application with interpretation, should evidentiarily oriented (especially to the degree it is exegetical), and a host of other things that indicate hermeneutical competence to me.

5. It goes without saying that an exegetical dissertation should demonstrate thorough knowledge of the primary texts being investigated and the original languages associated with them. In the case of the New Testament, the text must be engaged in Greek, not in English.

6. The dissertation should demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the secondary literature relevant to the topic. This includes scholarship in German and French. It includes books and articles. Popular works should not be used.

In any case, there's a thumbnail sketch of what you should expect if you get a Ph.D.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My View of God and Truth

I'm sure I will not do justice to the impulse beyond this post. But if there are curiosities to my views of God and Truth, they reduce in my mind to this. God is bigger than we could possibly imagine and the Truth, that is his thoughts, is beyond human comprehension.

I respect those who believe in open theism (the idea that God limits his understanding so that we can have free will). If I were to listen to them, I'm sure that I might respect process theologians (who believe that God actually is not all-powerful but is evolving with the universe).

1. But I have no interest in a God who is not all powerful and all knowing. Such a god is not actually God. Such a god is rather a god like the Greeks and Romans, only with Christian values. I am interested in a God who knows every single last thing and who can do anything.

I have a slightly heterodox inkling that even God's "nature" as we know it is a matter of his will, that good is good because God says so. My inkling here (I would not call it a "view," since it is more of an intuition) is that to say God has a nature that he did not determine is again to limit him to being little more than what we are.

But if God decided to be loving, then it means something. It is a matter of his free will. To say otherwise, it seems to me, is to make him a slave to some higher authority that made him that way.

Once again, if my intuition here seems off track, I have it because I want God to be GOD and not just some mere anthropomorphic projection of humanity.

2. The same goes for Truth. I do not think it is unorthodox to say that the Bible reflects God meeting his people within their own understandings. Certainly this perspective gels with my own expertise in biblical studies. The words of the Bible almost always make thorough sense within their original historical and cultural contexts.

But hear the implication here. If God revealed the truths of the Bible in the categories of its audiences, then Truth is something much, much bigger than these divine, incarnated moments. To limit truth, therefore, to these words is to reduce God--at least to some extent--to the paradigms and worldviews he used to communicate to people millennia ago.

I am of course also limited to a worldview that is influenced by my own time and place in history. So do not think I am saying that we, finally, today, have arrived and can see Truth on its own objective terms. No, I am saying that God's Truth is on a completely different playing field, one that none of us will ever play on.

Revelation, insofar as it refers to cognitive thoughts, will always be just a shadow of God's infinity. There is a striking concept in a recent movie called Automata. It talks about how, when they let the robots fix and teach themselves, they started to become smarter exponentially. After an hour or so, they started saying things that no one could understand, they had become so smart.

And so I ask myself, how ridiculous it is for us all in the church today to think we basically have God figured out. How completely stupid we must be making ourselves look! The things we say in our Bible studies, in our sermons, in our classrooms, in our devotions--surely it is all the goo-goo ga-ga of babies.

3. So if I ever say something you think is peculiar, know this. I believe God is greater than anything we can imagine and the Thoughts of his mind are greater than any human language could possibly contain. I believe God is GOD, not the god an ant might imagine.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Notes on Scripture 3

continued from Wednesday

... There is another intuition underlying this most fundamental one. This is the sense that God is more interested in who we are--our motivations and intentions--than even in what we believe or what we do. This is a theme we find in various places in the Bible. In 1 Samuel, when God is telling Samuel who will replace Saul as king, Samuel is tempted to look at outward characteristics. But the Lord informs Samuel that "the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). David is thus remembered as being a man after God's "heart." [1]

In the New Testament, Jesus in Mark connects the root of defilement to the heart, not to matters external (e.g., Mark 7:21). In Romans 14:23, Paul conceptualizes sin in terms of a person's faith and how actions play out someone's fundamental intentions (Rom. 14:23). The book of James draws a distinction between temptation itself and a point of decision when temptation "conceives" (Jas. 1:15).

If these are the right priorities, then perhaps God most importantly uses the Bible in a more profound way than simply informing us about cognitive truths or giving us answers to our questions. God may use the Bible to form and transform us, to shape us into Christ-like people and godly communities of faith. Many read Scripture with this spiritual intuition without even thinking about it, reading Scripture with an openness to God, letting him shape them to be more like Christ.

4. How do you prepare to read the Bible in this way? Clearly an expectation is involved, a reason for reading in the first place. Am I reading Scripture to master it and its content, or am I reading it with an openness to the Holy Spirit to change and transform me? [2] In particular, am I reading Scripture with an eagerness for God to empower me to love him and my neighbor more?

Clearly submission is involved. Am I completely surrendered to God and to his will? Not only am I willing to be what he wants me to be? Am I eager for him to change me? Am I eager to be his servant in this world, not as a burden but as a delight?

John Wesley spoke of putting ourselves in a place where we are more likely to experience God's grace by praying, reading Scripture, and participating in worship, to mention just a few "means of grace." [3] If we worship with the community of faith regularly, if we read Scripture and pray regularly, we are more likely to experience God's hand on us than if we hardly give him a thought. The "method" of reading Scripture, in this regard, is simply to read it with an openness to what God might do in us.

To be sure, this sort of experiential approach to Scripture has its dangers. Countless people will have intuitions that are not at all from God. Some have been enculturated to read the Bible for hidden truths and the answers to questions God may or may not have actually tried to answer on the scrolls of the Bible. As far as groups of Christians are concerned, who decides what God is really saying?

God knows the difference to be sure. God knows who is really hearing and experiencing him. God knows who is using the Bible to gain power over others or who is just nuts. But it would be helpful for us to know as well. Do we just trust the leaders of our church or the majority vote of our denomination? History makes it clear that these bodies are often wrong. Do we trust whoever the latest "prophet" is, the one to whom everyone seems to be listening?

Our criteria help us. Anyone who is using the Bible as an instrument of hate toward others is not speaking for God, even if he or she invokes the name of justice. Anyone who tries to use the supposed "love of God" to justify the harm or hurt of others is simply hiding an ungodly heart behind pious-sounding words. But it would help if there were some reliable way of knowing when God was speaking/acting and when he was not.

Contextual Meaning
We are beginning to uncover some of the deeper issues that lie below the surface in our reading of the Bible...

[1] Acts 13:22, referring to 1 Sam. 13:14.

[2] The first chapter of Joel Green, Seized by Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), does a good job of presenting the difference between reading the Bible to dissect or analyze it and reading the Bible to undergo God's action in us.

[3] Wesley's sermon, "The Means of Grace."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Novel

"Your Dad was given an unusual opportunity when he was your age. And since he was your father, that same opportunity is potentially available to you."

"He didn't really go to the University of Bologna, did he?" Alan asked.

"Not exactly."

Father Barrett took another casual sip of his espresso, as Alan patiently waited for him to continue.

"You have seen the school," he finally said. "It is a special school, one of several campuses in Europe."

"What does it teach?" Alan pushed. "I mean, what's it for? What good does it do for someone to study at some secret school? It's not like you can put it on a resume."

Finally, Alan added: "And I'm not interested in the slightest if it's a school for priests."

Barrett smiled, and took another sip.

"I believe your father had a diploma from Bologna in his office in Chicago," he finally said. "That is what is on his resume. The truth is more complex. It's what is not on his resume that made his life the most special."

"So what was he then? I mean, was he some kind of spy?"

Alan paused. "Was he even really a priest?"

Father Barrett finally finished his espresso. "Want to walk back to the school?"

In a few moments they were walking back toward the school...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Philosophy in Colleges and Novels

As I look tomorrow perhaps to add a page to the novel we all know I'm not going to finish (currently on page 10), I turn to the place of philosophy in a college curriculum.

1. In terms of the cognitive, philosophy stands at the very center of all university education. At first thought you might think, wouldn't it be Bible or theology for a Christian college? (This is, BTW, a philosophical question.) Bible and theology are more important for formation, but you cannot process either without cognition, which is a matter of philosophy.

Philosophy stands alongside every field of knowledge asking, "What are you doing there?" "How do you propose to process that content?" This includes our cognitive processing of theology or the Bible. We can be transformed without cognitive knowledge, but to obtain knowledge we must input it. Our minds must give cognitive organization to it.

From this standpoint, philosophy is the central cognitive discipline. Brute facts are meaningless if they are not organized or put within a context. How are you going to organize it? That's philosophy. Philosophy is the a priori discipline of thinking.

What about presuppositions, Ken? Presuppositions stand in the domain of philosophy. To the extent that the content of the Bible informs presuppositions, we are looking at the Bible from a philosophical viewpoint. The mechanism of processing the Bible's content is hermeneutics, which is the philosophy of meaning. To the extent that theology engages a mechanism of thinking, being, or doing, then we are engaging the philosophical dimensions of theology or the Bible.

Philosophy stands alongside all disciplines because it is the "meta" discipline. Philosophy of science reflects on what science is. Philosophy of art reflects on what art is. Philosophy of religion reflects on what religion is. Philosophy of history reflects on what history is. Psychology was a branch of philosophy before it became experimental. Epistemology asks how it is that we know anything at all. Ethics asks what the value of doing and being is. Ontology asks if any of this is real in the first place.

Our Christian philosophy might tell us than formation is more important than cognition. But as far as cognition goes, there is no field that is more fundamental than philosophy.

2. In the novel, Germany is the primary place for philosophy, although some philosophy is taught at all the locations. In the novel, Germany is primarily a center of phenomenological thinking, steeped in Heidegger, Gadamer, and friends. It emphasizes the situatedness of knowledge. Paris will fit with this as a center of existentialism and postmodernism.

I'm using Italy as a Machiavellian, Nietzschean center of sorts. That leaves Cambridge for Wittgenstein, pragmatism, and analytical philosophy. The protagonist will visit all these places in every novel.

In the first novel, he will spend his first three months in Cambridge. The focus will be science but each center is also selling a philosophy from which he will choose. The philosophy they will try to sell him on is pragmatism, a sense that ideas and language are tools we use to make our way through this world.

Bologna will try to sell a kind of Machiavellian realpolitik, where the end almost always justifies the means. Paris will try to sell him an existentialist outlook. Göttingen will just annoy the protagonist in this regard. :-)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Notes on Scripture 2

Continued from yesterday

... Our paradigm for reading Scripture shapes what we are supposed to do with or get from the Bible. Are these words for us or for people long since dead? Is the purpose of these words to inform us, to transform us, to command us? Our paradigms shape how we define the words and how we connect the content of the books together. They shape how we apply the words to our lives today.

In many cases, we will not have really asked ourselves these questions. More likely, we have inherited assumptions about how to read the Bible. We put these assumptions into practice without really thinking much about it. Our default, you might say, is to come to the Bible as "pre-modern" or unreflective readers.

This mode of reading may sound undesirable, because it assumes a certain lack of self-awareness in reading. However, I would argue that a reflective, Christian perspective on Scripture does not end up far from where most of us start out without thinking about it. If our spiritual intuitions are right, there is a good chance that we have been reading Scripture appropriately anyway.

3. What do I mean by spiritual intuitions? By spiritual intuitions I mean the intuitions we have that lie below the surface of our reading of the Bible, guiding the way we process the content of the Bible. An early Christian named Augustine (354-430) captured these intuitions well when he wrote that "you can come to the interpretation of these books of the Bible without anxiety if you fully understand that 'the goal of the commandment is love from a pure heart and a good conscience, as well as genuine faith' (1 Tim. 1:5). You can come without anxiety if you are bent on making your whole understanding of Scripture derive from the three graces of faith, hope, and love." [1]

Matthew 22:34-40 sets down the basic principle. All the commandments of Scripture are captured in the law of love. No legitimate application of Scripture can violate our love for God or our love for others. Numerous places in the New Testament lay down this rule (e.g., Rom. 13:10; Jas 2:8; 1 John 4:7-8). If we have this spiritual intuition and we always read Scripture with a view to loving God and our neighbor, we will not go wrong.

There is another intuition underlying this most fundamental one. This is the sense that God is more interested in who we are--our motivations and intentions--than in what we believe or what we do...

[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1.44 (I have paraphrased the quote).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Notes on Reading Scripture 1

1. Most of us take our ability to communicate with each other for granted, except when something obviously goes wrong. But our miscommunications simply reinforce our sense that, most of the time, we are able to get our basic point across just fine. "We're out of milk" means, "One of us needs to go to the store to get milk at some point in the near future." Depending on the conventions of the home, it might be fairly clear who should go and where he or she should go to get milk.

God has blessed human beings with this great ability. No other animal can come anywhere close, especially when you consider our ability to write, phone, email, and so forth. Any detailed look at what is involved in such communication is highly complex, and yet we communicate in these ways with such incredible ease every day.

Of course, the more removed we are from the person reading our text, the greater the potential for misunderstanding. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a written text an "autonomous text," because once it is out of the hands of its author, the author cannot control how someone will read it anymore. [1] The potential ambiguity of words and phrases, not to mention tone and connotation, is heightened the farther removed the reader is from the original situation.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of a shared context when it comes to understanding. Even face-to-face, two people from different cultures are prone to misunderstand each other. The greater the difference in their culture or their expectations, the more likely it is that they will miscommunicate.

2. Most of us do not read the Bible like we would read any other book. In particular, we may read it as a special kind of communication from God to us, as what we call, "Scripture." In many cases, we come to the Bible as individuals who have been Christians for a long time. Accordingly, we will inevitably have certain expectations about what God is like and the kinds of things he is likely to say.

You might say that we have a certain "paradigm" for reading the Bible. A paradigm is a way of viewing some topic or issue. A paradigm is like a kind of glasses we wear when we are looking at something. Usually, we are not entirely aware of these glasses, if we are aware of them at all.

Our paradigm for reading Scripture shapes what we are supposed to do with or get from the Bible. Are these words for us or for people long since dead? Is the purpose of these words to inform us, to transform us, to command us? Our paradigms shape how we define the words and how we connect the content of the books together. They shape how we apply the words to our lives today...

[1] Interpretation Theory.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

SP1. The Spirit is a distinct person, but one in substance with the Father and Son.

I have now finished the raw material for two books I hope to self-publish soon. The first is material that covers God and Creation from one Wesleyan-Arminian standpoint. I hope to self-publish it by the end of the week. The other covers Christ and Salvation. Both are part of a series I started over a year ago called my Theology in Bullet Points. It is an attempt to provide some resources for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition.

Myself and a few others have started a new Wesleyan academic series with Pickwick Publishing, a series called the Wesleyan Via Media series. I am hoping to have a conference at IWU next year aiming to chart a future for Wesleyan thinking in the years to come. I'm hoping that one result of this series will be some classic resources for those of us in my corner of the Wesleyan tradition.

Don Thorsen, for example, has agreed to write something on the Reformation for the 500th anniversary of Wittenberg. I am writing a book on how to read the Bible. And I am hoping we will have a proper Wesleyan systematic theology come out of the series as well. More on these things to come.

Today, however, I start the third and final part of my overview of Wesleyan theology. This one might prove to be the most interesting of all, by the time it's done: The Spirit and the Church.

SP1. The Spirit is a distinct person, but one in substance with the Father and the Son.
1. The branch of Christian theology that studies the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology, from the Greek word for spirit, pneuma. As we saw in our discussion of the Trinity, the Spirit is fully God like God the Father and God the Son. The Spirit is "of one substance with the Father," for there is only one God.

But the Spirit is a distinct person, like God the Father is a distinct person and God the Son is a distinct person. This is a mystery. Christians believe there is only one God. But Christians believe God is three persons.

It would be easy to think of the Spirit as an "it" rather than a "he." The Spirit of God in the Old Testament is pictured like the breath or wind of God that comes over a person in power (e.g., Judg. 13:6). [1] It would be easy enough to think of the Spirit in this way in parts of the New Testament, such as on the Day of Pentecost, when a violent wind blows through from heaven (Acts 2:2).

Nevertheless, the New Testament moves beyond impersonal language and uses personal language of the Holy Spirit. "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us," Acts 15:28 says. Here the Holy Spirit is seen giving directions to the early church. We should thus see the various things that the Holy Spirit does in the Old and New Testament as the actions of a distinct person within the eternal Trinity.

Nowhere is the personhood of the Spirit clearer, however, than in the Gospel of John, where the beloved disciple glides from the neuter pronoun for the Greek word spirit to the masculine pronoun implying, "he." [2] John 14:28 starts by using the neuter pronoun for spirit, following the nature of the Greek word. But before the verse is even finished, John slips into the masculine pronoun: "that one," masculine, "will teach you." John thus considered the Spirit to be a person.

2. All the divine attributes of the Father and Son are thus also the attributes of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is eternal. The Spirit is all-powerful. The Spirit is all-knowing. The Spirit is everywhere present.

This latter attribute of omnipresence is intuitive to us, for what is spirit as we think of it but an entity without a body that would locate or limit its location? As spirit, the Holy Spirit is both everywhere present and heavenly in origin. These are the two original ways that the biblical authors understood God's Spirit--God in his presence everywhere and God as other than the material creation around us.

3. One of the more regrettable conflicts in Christian history was a debate over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds only from God the Father or whether he proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque, in Latin). This seemingly minor point of debate was the flash point issue over which the Eastern and Western churches split in AD1054.

The real issue, as it often is, was really over power. Was the Pope the "first among equals," as the East thought, or was he truly the supreme authority in the Church? Did the Western church have the authority to insert this word, filioque, into the Nicene Creed on its own, without it being approved by an "ecumenical" (universal) council? The result of the conflict was the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox churches of the East. [3]

Even today, some in the Orthodox Church would say that the problem with filioque ("and the Son") is not the doctrine, but the fact that it has never been approved by the whole Church. We therefore should not consider this a point of core dogma, but a doctrine over which different parts of Christendom disagree.

4. Both sides of this debate probably are fighting for a truth. In the Old Testament, the Father sends the Spirit when there is no mention of the Son. The New Testament, however, speaks of both the Father and the Son sending the Spirit. John 14 speaks of the Father sending the Spirit in Jesus' name (e.g., 14:16). However, in John 15:26, Jesus says that he will send the Spirit, and Romans 8:9 calls the Spirit the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God.

Of course the debate today especially focuses on the relationship between the persons of the Trinity before creation. I have said before that it is unwise for us to think we know much about that. We are prone simply to project anthromorphisms on them and then call them God's will for us today. The truth is rather that God has revealed analogies to his eternal being that have everything to do with the way he has created this universe. It is unwise to think of them as part of God's literal "eternal nature" but as pictures to help us understand him in this creation.

Next Sunday: SP2. The Holy Spirit enacts the wills of the Father and Son in the world.

[1] The English word, pneumonia, captures this sense of the Greek word for spirit as related to breath.

[2] In Greek, words have what is called, "gender": masculine, feminine, or neuter. These genders are not the same as the "sex" of an entity. So a noun that is feminine in Greek is not necessarily female. Similarly, the Greek word for "spirit" is neuter without saying anything about the "sex" of the Spirit.

Of course, as we saw at the beginning of this series, God is not literally male. He has no penis. How much less should we think that the Holy Spirit has a sexual organ! To call the Spirit a "he" is to use a human image to try to understand "him."

[3] We cannot really speak of the Roman Catholic Church until 1054. Before that point, everything was simply the church catholic, the church everywhere. Even to this day, there are groups within Christianity that consider themselves Catholic without being Roman Catholic. Indeed, some in the Anglican Church consider themselves Catholic in this sense.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sheldon versus Wolowitz

There is a running joke in the show Big Bang Theory about how Howard is only an engineer with a master's degree. Sheldon, the Asperger's theoretical physicist doesn't consider him a real scientist.

This distinction, like so many things on Big Bang, is not just made up. It represents a very real difference that often exists between theoretical and experimental physicists.

It is, generally, the difference between N and S personalities in Myers-Briggs. The N is big-picture, imaginative, and intuitive. The S is concrete, detailed, and hands on. Engineers are S types. But let's just say there aren't likely any Ss doing string theory.

When it comes to experts, you do need to know who you're talking to. Even among engineers, there are several different kinds. You don't ask a surgeon about physical chemistry.

Math and Science in "My Novel"

So my post earlier today was just helping me think through my most recent novel that I won't finish. In my plan so far, the main character studies math and science primary in the area of Cambridge, although he will do some at the other locations as well. How should the novel approach it?

1. Some of the learning will have a historical flavor. I think Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) will feature as one key historical figure in the novel, so there is a good deal that the main character can learn about basic chemistry and physics by simply visiting sites relating to him in London. Scotland offers James Clerk Maxwell.

In Bologna, there is the legacy of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), and we might mention other compatriots like Alessandro Volta and Benjamin Franklin on electricity. In Göttingen, there is the rich heritage of Bernhard Reimann, Max Born, David Hilbert and Carl Friedrich Gauss. In Paris there was Lavoisier.

2. Following a pedagogical theme, I anticipate that some scientific and math learning in the novel would be integrated and problem based. So, early in the novel, I anticipate a group parachuting from an airplane in order to verify that the acceleration of gravity near the earth's surface is 9.8 m/s2.

I have a physics textbook from the 80s that I always admired because it had these grey calculus pages interspersed as needed. In other words, you learned calculus in order to solve physics problems, rather than on its own. Given the way my mind works, I think it would be spectacular to have an honors physics and math block where the learning of both was integrated with each other. And while we're at it, chemistry could be integrated a little as well.

In short, I could see the entire introductory physics, calculus, and chemistry curriculum of relevant students reformulated into three integrated semesters or a summer/semester combination. It's just that the academy doesn't think that way. It thinks in silos. (I'd love to design the curriculum for IWU's approaching engineering program, but of course I'm not qualified. ;-)

3. Another approach that I would love to write in a book in my spare time ;-) would start with atoms and build up. So you would start with the intersection of chemistry and physics in the atom. Electricity and gravity are not far from there. Molecules then turn the focus to chemistry again. The physics of motion might come next. Eventually, you build up to biology.

4. In my novel world, there is ultimately a list of math and science competencies the protagonist will need to master in the first novel, a mixture of calculus, finite math, physics, and chemistry. The order is only important when things build. Perhaps surprisingly, however, many concepts in physics and chemistry could equally serve as an entry point. It's just tradition to start with motion because we do it every day.

Some nerdy thoughts for a Saturday morning.

Science and Math in a University Curriculum

I heard it when I was in high school. I hear it from my daughter today. "When am I ever going to use this?"

So the square root of 48 reduces to 4 times the square root of 3. Who cares, right? What should be an essential part of a college curriculum in math and science and what depends on career and interest?

1. It seems to me that the most important feature of math and science for everyone is somewhat philosophical. People in a democracy need to possess "evidentiary thinking." Unreflective thinking is the enemy of a democracy, where people just believe whatever they want to believe or just follow unthinkingly whatever traditions they've inherited from their environment.

We're overlapping with philosophy here, but the default state of human thinking is "premodern." It is magical thinking. I realize I am on a trajectory of tension with some Christian voices that want to re-enchant the world. But those who completely reject modernism are not only enemies of truth but they are nutters who need to turn in their cell phones and go live on a farm without tractors. They make Christians look stupid.

So a good college education will include competency in scientific method.

2. This may sound mean, but one of the most important functions of math and science in a curriculum is to confront us with how stupid we are. In America, everyone thinks their opinion is as valuable as anyone else's. But we are, on the whole, incompetent thinkers. We're blurring into philosophy again, but logic has to be one of the most important elements of a college philosophy class. It is crucial for a democracy that people be able to think straight or at least be able to recognize those who can.

One of the most important functions of math and science is to humble us.

Of course there is often math in specific fields people go into. It would be ideal if the math requirement of a university were tailored to specific disciplines. A ministry student, for example, might learn math in the context of church budgeting, church loans, fund raising, planning for retirement, etc. Economics is, after all, very mathematical.

3. The most controversial aspects of a science curriculum have to do with our understanding of the world. I watched Interstellar last week, and one of the most fascinating moments to me in the movie was where a public school teacher chastises a parent for letting his daughter think that the US ever went into space. Everyone knows, she suggests, that the lunar landing was a story invented by the US to cause the Russians to spend themselves into the grave trying to compete.

(By the way, the movie is fascinating to describe, but a little boring to watch. If I could put together clips and then just tell you what happens in between scenes, I think it would be much more enjoyable.)

Most of us get our science from one of two places--the scientific community or the evasive maneuver machine of America's current situation. Because of my experience in biblical studies, I don't trust the "round up the usual suspects" machine that has evolved in America to talk people out of believing the scientific community on various issues. From a probabilistic perspective, the majority of actual experts in science are far more likely to be correct than the idiosyncratic puppets rounded up to tell people what they want to hear on Fox News.

The situation of the Christian college is particularly sensitive, since there are powerful voices that are willing to throw significant amounts of money at counter-science. I've always been glad that most people aren't smart enough to try to sabotage quantum physics or relativity (although I am curious to know if part of American rhetoric against relativism may go back to an initial reaction against Einstein's theory). Christian nuclear physicists are free to follow the evidence wherever it seems to lead.

In fact, another part of the miracle of us winning WW2 is the fact that Hitler didn't trust the Jewish scientists at the forefront of a lot of nuclear physics developments in the 1930s.

4. Christian colleges have to be very sensitive to these issues, however. They just have to be. I've always felt that if a professor can present options and evidence fairly, the choice of position can be left to the student. I have personally found that, if a person is truly a truth-seeker, the most likely truths have a tendency to gnaw at your soul until you eventually submit to them.

So it is just the case that, at many Christian colleges, professors will have to be very sensitive to these sorts of issues. It's just not helpful to take a "matter of fact" approach. In such circumstances, a good teacher has to re-enact looking at the evidence for the very first time, as if he or she doesn't know where it will likely lead, at least in introductory classes.

And it goes without question that professors really should genuinely have a permanently open mind. Paradigms do shift from time to time.

Friday, April 10, 2015

1985 years ago this moment...

Jesus died on the cross.

April 10, 30 at 3pm is my current guess for the death of Jesus on the cross. With a 7 hour difference between Indiana and Jerusalem, that makes now the anniversary of Jesus' death.

Friday novel

Alan stood looking at his father's gravestone. It was a curiously shaped thing, more like a shield than any tombstone he had ever seen. A red cross ran from top to bottom through the center and then from side to side. In the center, where the two lines met, was the same crest that stood over the entrance to the school and in several other places.

"Did you know him well," interrupted a voice over Alan's shoulder in a British accent. It was a tall man in the same scarlet gown he had seen several individuals wearing at the funeral. He looked to be about his father's age.

"Not really. Let's just say my feelings for him were... complex."

The man smiled wryly. "Non miror."

Alan looked at the man. Latin, he guessed. "Non" was easy enough. "Not." Miror was one of those funny words.

"I do not wonder?" Alan asked.

"Something like that. 'I am not surprised.'"

"So what's with the Latin?" Alan finally asked.

"You have time for an espresso?"


Return to Jerusalem

In Acts, Jesus spends the bulk of forty days after his resurrection in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, appearing off and on to his disciples. Given that Matthew and Mark only tell us of appearances in Galilee, the disciples would then have to return to Jerusalem.

So this morning I'm remembering their return to Jerusalem, another three day trip.

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