Sunday, October 04, 2015

SA7: Christians vary somewhat in their conceptions of Scripture.

This is the seventh post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
Christians vary somewhat in their conceptions of Scripture.

1. The New Testament believers clearly knew that Scripture was "inspired by God" and "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). However, they did not always find that teaching and correction in the plain meaning of the text. As an example, Paul did not hear a lesson about oxen in Deuteronomy 25:4, the literal meaning of that verse. Rather, he heard a spiritual, metaphorical teaching about how ministers should be materially supported while they do the work of the ministry.

Therefore, from the standpoint of the New Testament authors, the inspired point of Scripture was not always the literal meaning. Throughout the centuries, Christians have always believed that the Scriptures were inspired, that God "breathed" them. [1] They have believed that the Scriptures were authoritative and infallible. That is to say, they have believed that God's commands in Scripture hold authority over God's people and that God's word is both true and unfailing.

But they have frequently disagreed on what the Bible teaches and how we are to interpret it. Indeed, the exponential multiplication of Protestant churches into the tens of thousands suggests that the Bible alone cannot serve as a basis for the unity of the church. [2] This is because there are almost as many interpretations of the Bible as there are people reading it.

Many of the first Protestants strongly disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church on the allegorical or figural reading of Scripture. The problem here is that there is a fair amount of figural and allegorical interpretation in the Bible itself (e.g., Gal. 4:24). Similarly, many Christians in the last 200 years have read the Bible with an openness that God might speak beyond its contextual meaning.

So those who do not like non-literal interpretation must face the problem that the New Testament itself uses non-literal interpretation. The best among these admit that the New Testament sometimes reads the Old Testament out of context, but suggest that this practice was cultural. They would say that we today should not because we are not inspired. [3] There is of course no basis in the Bible for this position.

On the other extreme are those who see hidden meanings everywhere in the Bible and those who regularly receive a charismatic "word from the Lord." These individuals are not unlike the prophets of 1 Corinthians 14. The problem here is how to know "which spirit is of God" (1 John 4:1).

We find a tension in the latter parts of the New Testament between prophetic words of this sort (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:26) and the "deposit" of teaching from the apostles (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14). Augustine and other early Christians would call this deposit the "rule of faith" (regula fidei). God has developed a core collection of Christian understanding, the "faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Any spiritual words will surely fall within these boundaries and must be "tested" (1 John 4:1) by the corporate body of Christ.

So there are fundamentalists in their use of Scripture and there are extreme charismatics. God will judge them for their hearts, not for their ideas. But the Wesleyan tradition has historically been open to spiritual interpretations within the boundaries of orthodoxy, and the Wesleyan tradition has practiced historical-cultural interpretation, which reads the Bible in context.

2. A bone of contention in the twentieth century revolved around the word inerrancy. Although it is true that Christians throughout the centuries have considered Scripture truthful, twentieth century debates had a distinctly different flavor. The reason is that earlier Christians felt free to interpret the Bible in non-literal ways and earlier Christians were not reacting to the rise of the historical-cultural method of interpreting the Bible.

The earlier sense of the Bible being without error simply meant that, once we understand properly what God is saying through Scripture, that meaning is entirely truthful. In the twentieth century, however, fundamentalists applied this sense only to what they considered the "literal" meaning. And more importantly, the word was used to fight against modern ideas like evolution, source theories of the Bible, or difficult findings from archaeology.

There are some difficulties for this approach because it does not always do what it aims to do. For example, once you take genre into account, it may turn out that the plain meaning of a passage like Genesis 1 does not support the agenda of the literalist. Similarly, if the parameters of ancient history writing were different than the anti-modernist wants them to be, then the plain meaning of biblical narratives will not support the harmonizing goals of the fundamentalist inerrantist.

The best scholars even in the neo-evangelical community inevitably have nuanced their positions. A writer can be inspired in the use of sources, for example. We can also affirm the truthfulness of Scripture while recognizing that the theological precision of the New Testament is greater than that of the Old Testament and that the theological precision of the later Old Testament is greater than that of its earlier parts.

The contextual and incarnational nature of Scripture imply that the original inspiration must have been a very complicated thing indeed. Once we leave the more general sense that the meanings God wants us to see in Scripture are true, we inevitably find ourselves in complex debates over philosophical and historical nuances that, in the end, are generally neither helpful nor do they accomplish what the neo-evangelicals of the twentieth century wanted them to.

Such debates have rarely been spiritually uplifting. They have often displayed the factional spirit of the Corinthian church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:12-17). It does not seem that they have made the church more holy or Christ-like. They can be debates over minute ideas that threaten to miss the weightier portions of the Law (Matt. 23:23). The previous and next articles hopefully give a more balanced sense of how we might process the truthfulness of Scripture.

3. A colleague of mine once suggested that Christian traditions can get out of balance on any one of the four elements in the so called Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. [4] Charismatic traditions can get so focused on experience that they have nothing firm on which to ground their thoughts and actions. When it comes to the Bible, individual "words" that are supposedly from God can potentially go far astray from the rule of faith and the law of love, which are the deposit of Scripture in faith and practice.

On the other hand, the Enlightenment and an anti-supernaturalist approach to the Bible has at times used an unexamined and faithless reason to dismantle the very idea of revelation itself. Churches have become Deist, without any sense of God's involvement in the world at all. The books of the Bible became no different than any other book or the holy books of any other religion.

Ironically, the literalist can also find him or herself merely dissecting the Bible on the level of reason, analyzing it on a purely intellectual level, without any real effect on their life today. The Bible can become a mere book of ideas and propositions, a mirror of the reasoning of the interpreter.

Catholic traditions in the past have let their traditions wander far afield from the early church. The spark of the Reformation had to do with the sale of years off of purgatory. Neither Scripture nor the Christians of the first centuries believed in the existence of purgatory, still less that you could lessen your time there by giving to the church on the basis of the extra-righteousness of certain saints. Similarly, there is no clear biblical basis to require priests to be celibate or that the elements of communion become the literal body and blood of Christ, and many other ideas.

No doubt many who believe such things will be saved because Jesus is Lord in their hearts, but this is an example of tradition when it wanders from its original moorings. Of course there are Protestant traditions too. Indeed, we are all parts of interpretive traditions. We can hardly remove ourselves from them. So the offense is not tradition itself but a divisive approach to my tradition within the broader faith.

Finally, it is possible to be imbalanced in one's use of Scripture. John Wesley's use of Scripture has been described as "prima" scriptura more than "sola" scriptura. That is to say, while all discussion for Wesley began with Scripture and while Scripture was the ultimate authority for him, he valued the traditions of Christianity and he utilized both reason and tradition in his application of Scripture.

Fundamentalists arguably skew the use of Scripture when they both insist that it can only be interpreted literally and when they use it as a tool of violence. Any use of Scripture that violates the love of our neighbor is an unChristian use of the Bible. And it is possible to use the letter of the word to violate the weightier principles of Scripture.

4. A final word should be set about the contents of the canon. All Christians today agree that the books of the New Testament canon are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the Gospels. Acts is a history of the earliest church.

Then there are letters and sermons from Romans to Jude. First come the Pauline letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Hebrews may be a sermon. Then the General or Catholic Letters: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1-2-3 John, and Jude. Finally, there is an apocalypse, the book of Revelation.

However, Christians differ on the precise contents of the Old Testament. They all agree on the books of the Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They all agree that Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther belong in the canon. They agree on Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. They agree on Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi.

However, Roman Catholics, various forms of Orthodox Christianity, and Anglicans also consider Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, as well as additions to Esther and Daniel as part of the Old Testament canon. The church used these books from the very beginning up until the time of the Reformation. Around the year 400 Jerome suggested that these books were in a kind of "second" level canon--"deuterocanonical." They were thus not quite as authoritative as the others, but of more authority than the writings of, say, a church father.

Arguably, Luther downgraded them from the way they had been used before, while in response the Roman Catholic Church upgraded them to "protocanonical" at the Council of Trent in 1545. Perhaps Luther's principal motivation for downgrading them was the fact that 2 Maccabees 12 might be interpreted to give scant evidence for purgatory. Wesleyans have not considered them authoritative, although Wesley did not vilify them either.

There are some variations also many catholic traditions. The Greek Orthodox church considers 1 Esdras to be Scripture and the Ethiopian church considers 1 Enoch to be Scripture.

5. It is thus normative for Christians to consider the Bible to be Scripture, even if there may be some who make it to the kingdom while disagreeing. Christians have agreed on the vast majority of what books belong in Scripture. They have, however, varied widely in their interpretations of Scripture and they have varied in their method of arriving at interpretations.

Next week: SA8. The Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant.

[1] The inspiration of Scripture was not seriously questioned until recent centuries. God knows the hearts of those Christians today who do not see the Bible as inspired or as completely inspired. Since we are not judged for our ideas but for our faith, there will no doubt be people saved who do not believe in inspiration with their heads.

[2] This is Paul Tillich's so called, "Protestant principle."

[3] E.g., Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), *. We consider a complete failure the feeble efforts of some to deny that the New Testament authors often read the Old Testament out of context. See Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, eds. Three Views on How the New Testament Interprets the Old (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

[4] Keith Springer.

Friday, October 02, 2015

IWU Friday Night Live Flashback tonight

Hoping to be able to go to the IWU FNL flashback tonight at 8:45 for homecoming. For a couple years, I did "Deep Christian Thoughts by Ken Schenck" fairly regularly, often with the help of Dan Steller and Dave Wingfield. I dug up a few old ones:
  • As I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I thought, better run.
  • If you ever asked me who my favorite disciple was, you might think I’d say Peter. But you’d be wrong. It’s Abraham.
  • Everyone knows Jacob put hair on his arms to be like Esau, but few know about the fake mustache his mother made him wear.
  • Sometimes pastors are silly, like when my pastor took that hypnosis course. And all 5000 of us remind him about it every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and on the Wednesday night service when we give 30% of our income to the church.
  • I think the last one I ever did was a "hip hop" translation of John 3:16....................

Jerry Bowyer at IWU on Biblical Economics

KERN sponsored a visit by Jerry Bowyer to IWU these last couple days. Yesterday he presented on Biblical Economics Principles.

1. I substantially agreed with Bowyer on most things. Our own Tom Lehman might be surprised to know that I actually agree with him on many, many aspects of economic principles. Of course both of them are light years ahead of me on the math. They are truly economics scholars.

To set some background, Bowyer's conservative political credentials are solid. For example, he completely rejects Keynes as the purveyor of an atheistic system. More on that below. So any comment that might sound balanced should be taken in light of a joke he made about the Republican party: "It's my party and I can cry if I want to."

2. Here are some of his thoughts that I tweeted yesterday:

a. "I want both a pro-growth approach and a safety net that is more like a trampoline" (these are not exact quotes). Jerry Bowyer on the negatives of both political parties. The Republicans have the right economics, he was saying. But Democrats express Christian values when they want there to be a safety net.

Economically, Bowyer argued that only prosperous nations can afford a safety net. He heavily critiqued Bernie Sanders, whom he has debated, for wanting a 90% tax rate. That would kill the growth that affords a safety net. Bowyer advocates a safety net that is more of a trampoline, one that doesn't create dependence.

b. "My experience of the poor is not that they are sponges but that they usually have some sort of block."

His point here is that he finds that a lot of those who are dependent are not so by choice but because they either don't know how to get out of their rut or have something standing in their way.

c. "The Bible has a lot to say against hoarding but seems in favor of 'investment.'"

Wesley was invoked here--"Earn all you can, save all you can [in terms of being conservative in your spending], give all you can." Lehman also argued Wednesday at lunch that profit is a sign that demands are being met, that people are getting what they want.

3. So I agree with a lot of the economic fundamentals that both Bowyer and Lehman are suggesting here. For example, I agree with both that modern economics is not a zero-sum game today (the biblical authors thought of it in zero-sum terms in light of the culture of their day). Economic prosperity has the potential to create prosperity across the board.

Perhaps unlike Lehman, however, I don't think this is automatic. Care has to be taken that production is done in a just way. And I suspect some safeguards need to be in place in relation to the hoarding of prosperity.

Bowyer argued that most of the wealthy do not hoard beyond about 5 million, if I remember correctly. It's just hard to increase one's standard of living beyond that point, he suggested. I was impressed with Bowyer's Christian values.

4. There was one theme that I would significantly nuance myself. It's the suggestion that, somehow, biblical economic values didn't really get put into play until the Industrial Revolution. It reminds me of oneness Pentecostals who claim that their understanding of the Bible is the correct one, yet their movement started in 1916. The idea that 1500 years or more passed before someone finally implemented the true biblical teaching on economics seems highly suspect to me.

Yes, I believe that a regulated capitalism currently is the economic system with the best shot at bringing about the core Christian value of love on the largest scale (that could change in some future yet to come). But to suggest that it wasn't until modern times that true biblical values were played out seems suspicious, and I think it's absurd to suggest that the Church from 100-1500 was somehow "pagan" or at least based on pagan presuppositions.

The core values of Christianity were incarnated to begin with in the cultural thinking of the biblical authors and audiences. That's how revelation works. I agree with Bowyer that they were translated into more hard core Platonic and Aristotelian forms in the first 1500 years of Christianity. And I agree with him that these philosophical translations did not lead to economic flourishing or the flourishing of knowledge.

But here's my central claim. What changed in the late Middle Ages was the rise of modernism as the culture into which Christian values were translated. First, there was the rise of nominalism, which broke up the absolutism of Platonism and Aristotelianism. This coincided with the rise of the individual datum and the individual person. So we have the rise of empirical method and individualism.

So Christian values were applied in a new way, and it is these modernist presuppositions in combination with Christian values that gave rise to modern flourishing. As individuals gained in significance, the Christian value of the individual rose. Capitalism and democracy rose. The result is a world that has flourished as never before in human history.

So it would seem that Christian values have always played themselves out against the backdrop of other philosophical frameworks that are cultural. This fits with the incarnated nature of revelation.

5. Let me also repeat what I have repeatedly said. If worldview talk is limited to ideas, it is absurd. The Bible is clear that our actions play out our deep seated desires. Even to take the biblical word "mind" in a purely ideological sense is to read the Bible anachronistically in the light of certain modern categories.

If we are to use worldview language in a robust way, we have to talk about beliefs that go down to our bones or, as Jesus said, the heart (Mark 7). The NT is full of language about our "lusts" and "desires," not to mention our "flesh."

So if we are to ask what the impact of Keynesian economics is, then we must look at its effect, not Keynes as a person or even his underlying presuppositions. Does his approach result in an effect that "loves neighbor" best? I certainly would not claim so. But to dismiss his approach we need to look at its results, not the person (ad hominem fallacy) or his reasons for formulating it (genetic fallacy).

Actually, it's ironically Platonic to dismiss his system because of its ideological starting point. This approach sees concrete economic realia as a kind of embodiment of his ideas.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Notes on 1 Peter 3:8-4:6 (including "naughty" verses)

Last night was the fourth night in a series of group studies at College Wesleyan Church on 1 Peter. I've posted some notes so far on

1 Peter 1:3-2:10 (aliens and strangers in an oppressive context)
1 Peter 2:11-3:7 (slaves, wives, people in the empire, sit up straight around the bully)

The verses last night continued instruction on how to live in a world where the dominant power has it out for you.

1. Don't waste God's time.
It's not the time for "indecency, lusts, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, disgusting things, idolatry" (4:3). The Gentile audience has done enough of that in the past. So now it's time to suffer. The people around them are going to "think it strange" that they don't join in.

I imagine how hard it must be these days to go to some secular colleges and not get wasted all the time. Drinking is just out of control in these colossal wastes of time and money. Send your kids to IWU instead. :-)

2. Christ is our example.
He suffered. Indeed, this righteous one suffered for the unrighteous. So also the audience of 1 Peter has turned from sin and they were suffering (4:1). They should not repay evil for evil or insult for insult to their oppressors, but wish instead a blessing on them (3:9). Sounds like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

1 Peter quotes Psalm 34, and although the context of the psalm in 1 Peter is not clear, it doesn't seem a coincidence that the psalm gives thanks to the Lord for delivering the psalmist from oppression. So also the audience of 1 Peter can thank God for getting them through a time of suffering.

Against all this background, the original connotations of the "apologetics proof-text" come into view. "Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (3:15). This verse was not about having all the arguments of C. S. Lewis or William Lane Craig memorized. Anyone who knows me knows that I like rational arguments for faith. They're important to me personally.

But this is a verse about giving witness to Christ when you stand before your persecutors. It's about testimony rather than logical argument. Be prepared to testify that Jesus is your Lord when you stand before Caesar, who is not truly lord.

3. Christ has conquered all evil powers.
After the resurrection, God exalted Jesus at his right hand as Lord of the cosmos. He is far above all angels and authorities (3:22).

Here we come to what I call "naughty verses," verses that are hard to fit into my theology. The first is 3:19: "Christ himself suffered on account of sins... to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison... these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah" (CEB).

If you know Jewish literature, it's hard not to think of 1 Enoch here, a book that Jude quotes and to which 2 Peter seems to allude. Given that proximity, it's hard not to hear an allusion to the fallen angels of Genesis 6 in that tradition. I used to get very annoyed at some evangelical scholars at what seemed to me to be cooking the books at this point--using their considerable intellect to dodge what seems a likely conclusion. Let the text say what it seems to say and deal with it in your theology. If inerrancy means twisting the most likely meaning to fit your theology, then it is probably an instrument of falsehood--violating the text to suit your idea of what it should and shouldn't say.

The application stands! In death, Jesus announced his triumph over evil powers! That is the inspired and inerrant point Peter is making, IMO, delivered as all Scripture is in incarnated form. I could of course be wrong, but that is my line of thought as of 7:28 on 10-1-15.

4. Another "naughty verse" is 4:6: "They will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does" (NRSV).

Again, I poke fun at the NIV here, which inserts the word "now" into the translation to avoid the impression that Jesus is evangelizing the dead. That is a possible interpretation. But I hope I don't make interpretive decisions to massage my theology. Again, a neo-evangelical hangover, IMO.

BTW, the CEB dodges the NRSV's translation to avoid any impression that Peter has a body-spirit dualism: "They were judged as humans according to human standards, they could live by the Spirit according to divine standards." :-)

My interpretation is that Jesus is announcing salvation to the saints of the Old Testament. In other words, we should think of Hebrews 11:39-40: "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect" (NIV). Made alive in spirit, Jesus announced to the dead of the Old Testament that they could now be perfected.

Again, a difficult verse, but that's where I'm at with it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Indexing for a world class scholar

Two students here at IWU recently worked with me to do the author and sources indexes for James Dunn's forthcoming third volume in his Christianity in the Making series. This book is going to be fantastic!

First, insert my usual grumbling that the average New Testament scholar these days doesn't measure up to the historical knowledge of previous generations. As universities shut down their biblical studies programs, as theological interpretation rules the day, as ideological pockets of Christianity multiply their Bible training programs and democratize its meaning, hard core historical interpretation increasingly becomes the province of a small cadre of largely irrelevant scholars. This trend won't hurt the church much probably in the short term, although interpretation that doesn't keep at least an eye on the historical has a tendency to go off the rails (arguably what happened in the medieval Catholic church).

As I looked over all the historical sources that Dunn engages in this volume, I was reminded what you have to know truly to be a world class expert on the Bible. I leave this post with a small taste of the categories:
  • The books of the OT and the NT
  • The Apocrypha (Sirach, Wisdom, etc...)
  • Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (e.g., 1 Enoch, Aristeas, etc...)
  • Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Philo and Josephus
  • Mishnah, Talmud, Rabbinic Literature
  • Apostolic Fathers (Clement, Ignatius, etc...)
  • Nag Hammadi and Gnostic Literature
  • New Testament Apocrypha (Acts of Paul, Apostolic Constitutions, etc...)
  • Early Christian Writers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc...)
  • Early Greek and Roman Writers (Plato, Tacitus, etc...)
  • Papyri and Fragments (e.g., Oxyrhynchus papyri)
A good historical scholar of the New Testament will know what all these are and know the primary passages where they potentially intersect with the New Testament.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Fascination with Pope

Some real quick thoughts this morning. On Saturday night, I found myself saying, "For a moment in time, America seems really enamored with the Pope. Why?"

[BTW, Keith Drury re-posted this document some of us at IWU created a few years back on the Catholic Catechism. It points out the places where, say, Wesleyans would differ from Catholics. You can also see that most of the document has no comments. We should also keep in mind that the RCC today also differs quite a bit after Vatican 2 in the 1960s than before. See, for example, this joint statement on justification by faith by both Catholics and Lutherans.]

So why is America enamored with the Pope? My first two points are trivial. But the second two may hold out some thoughts for us as the church in America.

1. Star power
We are enamored with any superstar. I'd probably go to the White House if any President invited me, even if I strongly disagreed with him or her.

2. Catholic pride
There are a lot of nominal Catholics out there who don't agree with the Pope, but they grew up Catholic. This would include a significant number of people in the media.

3. The Pope's humility and confidence
The Pope is clear in what he believes, but he isn't pushy. It's at this point that I began to wonder. There is a place for pushy prophets. But I wonder if the point where America is ripe for revival right now is churches with a confident yet non-pushy humility. It seems clear to me that much of America is enamored with this man who is so confident and yet so loving and so humble.

I wonder if this is a point for revival. The revival point in America right now might not be with the pushy prophets, who could actually be pushing people in the direction of hell right now. Is it possible that some souls will be lost who might otherwise have been saved because of what are perceived to be angry, pushy people?

4. The Pope's message is attractive.
Call it liberal, but the message of love toward all, forgiveness toward sinners, helping the poor, showing mercy to the immigrant, stewarding the environment seems to be an attractive message to a lot of non-Christian Americans. And of course while there are some Christians who decry these as Devilish, there are also a lot of Christians who would say these are actually the core of the Bible.

I wonder if it is thus from some "liberal" direction of this sort that the next great American revival will come. Revival never comes from where we expect it. We want it to come from where it came before.

Bottom line: Saturday night I found myself wondering if the Pope's popularity revealed that there was actually still a spiritual longing in America. I found myself wondering if America is actually ripe for a revival, but one that will come from the "wrong" place.

We'll see.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Notes on 1 Peter (2:11-3:7) = controversy!

For the last three weeks I've been presenting on 1 Peter at College Wesleyan Church. Last week, for example, was on 1 Peter 1:3-2:10. Last night we looked at what are to me the difficult chapters, chaps 2-3.

1. Inevitably, we processed them in the light of America's situation and also Steve Deneff's sermon series that he's doing on being in exile.

Several very interesting thoughts emerged that I wanted to capture before they slipped out of my porous mind. The first is something that I've encountered before in Joel Green's commentary on 1 Peter and now in Abson Joseph's work as well. This is the idea that we are slaves to God but really free when it comes to our oppressors and the powers of the world (2:16).

In a couple key places, 1 Peter uses the Greek middle voice (2:18; 3:1), which can have the connotation of doing something to yourself--"submit yourselves to." In other words, submission in 1 Peter is not about being helplessly enslaved but it is about a free believer choosing to submit him or herself to a master or unbelieving husband as an act of the will, even though those to whom we are submitting are unjust.

So in 2:18 it is the household servant choosing to submit to an unjust master. Then in chapter 3 a wife is willingly submitting to a possibly unbelieving husband.

2. But probably the most generative thoughts of the night were the fact that different books of the Bible speak more powerfully to different times and places. So 1 Peter speaks especially to a situation where it is God's will for us to submit to powers that are oppressive or unjust. We spoke of Joshua as an example of a kind of text that might speak to a time when the church needs to fight and take action.

We used the example of the 1840s before the Civil War in America. That was not a time for Christians to be focusing on 1 Peter but rather a time for them to be reading Joshua.

How do we know what time it is? We only know for sure in hindsight. In Deuteronomy 18:22, we know whether someone is a false prophet by whether their prophecy comes true. In the same way, we will know whether the "fighters" in the church or the "submitters" are right in time.

I also suggested that if the Spirit is in believers, then we might look for trends in the church. My Facebook feed is divided over Kim Davis. I think she should have submitted. Others think she should fight. The church is divided. Which way is the Church moving? In hindsight we may have better clarity on who the true and who the "false prophets" were.

3. Another thought Steve Deneff had was that sometimes God has a 1 Peter role for one person and a Joshua role for another person, even in the same time. I remembered what someone in an African-American class in Indy said to me about the Civil Rights struggle. He believed that African-Americans would not have won that struggle if there had not been both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, that it took both the fighters and the submitters for culture to change.

It was an interesting thought that I won't pursue further, but unfortunately it does seem sometimes that it takes a slap in the face to get the dominant culture's attention when it is unthinkingly oppressing a minority.

4. I don't remember who first suggested that the inspiration of Scripture is best thought of not as one voice for all times but as a collection of voices, some of which speak more powerfully in some times and places than others. The miracle is that this diverse collection of text stands ready to speak poignantly even though the situations of history can vary drastically.

The unreflective reader does not realize that he or she is focusing on different passages than other Christians have at other times. They do not realize that 1 Peter is speaking more poignantly to them than Joshua at that time. The unreflective reader does not realize that he or she is hearing certain passages differently than others have heard them in other times and places.

But this is the miracle of inspiration, not that all the books say the same thing, but that they say different things, all of which speak directly at some time.

So are we living in the days of 1 Peter or the days of Joshua?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wesley Seminary passes 500!

So exited to see Wesley Seminary at IWU pass the 500 mark this month! That puts it in the top 20 seminaries in the Association of Theological Schools (the average seminary is only about 155 students).

Amazing kudos to President Wayne Schmidt (I'm just going to call him that ;-), Dean Dave Smith, and Aaron Wilkinson, who is
(he called the event, pictured in the middle).

President David Wright reminisced on some of the questions the Seminary had to answer when it began. Would the whole church accept it or would it be more an IWU regional seminary? Wayne Schmidt in command guaranteed that the whole church would claim it for its own.

Then there were those who suggested it might not have girth because most of it is online. Man, do those voices sound like pre-Industrial Revolution curmudgeons now. I dare anyone who thinks it's light weight to take a class... hands down more demanding than the classes at _________ (insert name of your seminary here).

Aaron did a great job of thanking all the players at IWU who make everything possible. It was a LONG list! When President Wright got up, he joked that the list of people it takes to run the place is almost as many as the 500 students Wesley now has.

So many congrats to Wesley, to Wayne, Aaron, the faculty, staff, and new Dean Dave Smith, who is fixing all the problems I left with magnificent skill!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Augustine's De doctrina Christiana: My Take-Aways

I wanted to bring closer to this walk through Augustine's book with some final notes.

Book 1
"Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them" (86).

This concept would seem to me to be the most important one in Book 1. All the ethical requirements of God for humanity are summed up in "love God, love neighbor." If we truly understood this double love command, then we would not even need the Scriptures to know how to live in this world, for everything the Scriptures command us are summed up in them.

Where I would critique Augustine is that he does not have a firm sense of historical meaning. Although we do not have full access to the original meanings of the books of the Bible, the most likely method to know them is not theological but historical-cultural. Augustine advocates a method that fiddles with the meanings of the biblical texts if they do not fit with the love of God or orthodoxy (the rule of faith). He is right about appropriation, but not about interpretation.

The texts meant what they meant in history. We can't change that. From a standpoint of truth, we best let them mean what they seem to have meant and then live in that tension. Augustine basically advocates a method of retrofitting the original meaning to suit his theology.

But Augustine is completely sound when it comes to appropriating the biblical texts. We must always appropriate them through the filter of Jesus' double love command.

Book 2
"A person who is good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to the Lord, wherever it is found." (72)

Augustine deals with the clear passages of Scripture in Book 2. There is much that I believe needs critiqued in Book 2. He has an inferior understanding of how language works ("picture theory"). He will develop his method of "fiddling" with the interpretation of texts in Books 2 and 3. Book 2 deals with signs of which we are ignorant, Book 3 with signs that are ambiguous.

I have quoted above a theme that he follows through much of Book 2, namely, that there is validity in much study outside of the Bible, including knowledge gained from logic, history, and science. In the end of the Book, however, I think he approaches taking it away: "What a person learns independently of scripture is condemned there if it is harmful, but found there if it is useful" (151).

There are all sorts of caveats to the notion that "All truth is God's truth." But the basic principle is sound, even if the application is complicated. (Another key element in this Book, BTW, is Augustine's canon list, from the 390s before the Lateran Council of Carthage that set that NT canon for the West.)

Book 3
First we must consult “the rule of faith, as it is perceived through the plainer passages of the scriptures and the authority of the church.” (3)

Book 3 deals with ambiguous texts in Scripture. Here we find the principle to let the clear passages interpret the unclear ones. From the standpoint of historical consciousness, again, this approach is pre-reflective. The texts meant what they meant in history. You cannot change the meaning of a text from one period by a text from another.

However, in the age of hermeneutics, we shift the principle to our appropriation of Scripture. We focus on texts that are "clear" in the light of Christian consensus.

It is more difficult to identify exactly how we can identify exactly what the contents of the "rule of faith" are. Augustine seems to follow a principle that looked to the most prominent churches of his day in Book 1. Someone might say, "the Bible is the rule of faith," but the function of the rule of faith is to help us know how to prioritize biblical material. So do we go with frequency, trajectory, centrality of the biblical teaching? How would we establish centrality?

Orthodoxy seems to require some sense of trajectory, especially on issues like the Trinity or the nature of Christ. The consensus of Christendom is a possible move here--what have the majority of Christians believed throughout the centuries? Formulating a biblical theology is a corporate, spiritual art that resists any easy or straightforward formula.

Book 4
Book 4 is about the delivery of the word of God in preaching.

"It is the duty, then, of the interpreter and teacher of Holy Scripture, the defender of the true faith and the opponent of error, both to teach what is right and to refute what is wrong, and in the performance of this task to conciliate the hostile, to rouse the careless, and to tell the ignorant both what is occurring at present and what is probable in the future."

Clearly Augustine thinks that substance--both in content and in the person of the preacher--is more important than the style or form of delivery. But having said that, Augustine fully supports the use of good rhetoric in presentation. In keeping with the three forms of ancient rhetoric (forensic, epideictic, and deliberative), Augustine sees the three different goals of speech as to teach, to give pleasure, and persuasiveness. Good speaking in each case respectively are clarity, beauty, and persuasiveness.

Wisdom, he says, is more important than eloquence. He urges prayer before speaking, and indicates that the character of the preacher is important if there is hope for the audience to heed the words.

Perhaps the most controversial point he argues is that some biblical passages shouldn't be preached because they are difficult. This flies in the face of current thinking, but I think he has more of a case than you might think at first. For example, imprecatory psalms may show us that it is okay to be angry and I could see myself preaching from one, but the law of Christ suggests we should not dwell on them.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

SA6: The Scriptures are a sacrament of God's transformation.

This is the sixth post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
The Scriptures are a sacrament of God's transformation.

1. It is true that we find information in the pages of the Bible. The books of the Bible are a witness to the most important moments in God's interaction with humanity, not least when he came to earth in the person of Jesus the Christ, died for the sins of the world, and rose again victoriously as king.

In the pages of the books of the Bible we thus hear about the most important events of salvation's history. We hear about how God walked with Israel and the earliest Church. We learn of his character and attributes. We hear about the instruction that he gave them. We hear about the hope and promises he gave them.

There is a fundamental continuity in the people of God. As Israel was the people of God and the earliest believers were the people of God, so are we still the people of God. Their story is our story. The love he showed them is a love he also has for us. The hope that God gave them promises hope still to us. The future of salvation that he promised them is still our promise.

2. To be sure, there are also differences. The words that God spoke to them were first of all words for them. Words only have meanings in contexts, and the original meanings were rich in context. [1] The instructions, warnings, and even the frameworks of thinking in the Bible had much to do with the contexts in which they were spoken and revealed. Only the Spirit can guarantee that we will appropriate them well without taking such distance into account.

The default reader is unaware of such distance. The default is to try to make sense of the words of the Bible using the definitions in our heads--which come from our current world--and then to apply them as best we can make sense to today. The Spirit and the Church are crucial elements in this equation if we have any hope of applying the Bible in this way in a helpful way.

The Spirit helps our weakness. He guides us into truth. The Spirit has already helped the Church develop a kind of intuition about the kinds of things the Bible might or might not say. This is one of the crucial roles the Church plays--developing our intuitions for the reading and appropriating of Scripture. The two greatest intuitions are the "law of love" and the "rule of faith."

3. The law of love is nothing other than Jesus' summary of all God's expectations for humanity. Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Every ethical expectation God has of us falls into this two-fold command. All Christian ethics is summed up therein. Jesus said so (e.g., Matt. 7:12; 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-33). Paul said so (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10). John says so (1 John 4:7-8). James implies as much (Jas. 2:8).

If we understood this love command, we would not need any other Scripture to tell us how to live in this world. How are we to act toward others in this world? We are to act for the good of others, whether they are our friend or enemy (e.g., Matt. 5:43-48). We are not to act in a harmful way toward others. Any attempt to employ the Bible in a way to justify unloving action toward others is simply a misapplication of the Bible, no matter how clear we may think it is.

To love God is to submit entirely to his authority. It is to do everything to his glory (e.g., Col. 3:17). There is a tendency to use the supposed love of God to justify doing unloving things toward our neighbor. There is a tendency to use the supposed love of God to place meaningless restrictions on others because it is "just the way God intended things to be." We should soundly reject the first and strongly question the second.

4. The rule of faith is the "right belief" or understanding that God has unfolded both in the Bible and in the Church. Jesus is the "last word," the final revelation of God's character and will. The New Testament is simply the unfolding of that final word, and the Spirit continued to unfold that basic understanding in the early Church. We find these basic insights in the early creeds of the Church, especially in the Apostle's and Nicene creeds. They clarified God's existence as a Trinity and the way in which Christ's humanity and divinity relate to each other.

There are other common agreements that God developed in the early days after Christ. Which books are the Christian Scriptures? The Scriptures themselves do not answer this question. It was in the first four centuries of the Church that God clarified the New Testament canon, or collection of books that give authoritative witness to Christ. Other issues of consensus include a belief that God created the universe out of nothing, that we will be conscious in Christ's presence between our death and the resurrection, and that we will spend eternity on a new earth. [2]

These intuitions, along with intuitions that come from the various branches of Christianity to which we belong, are always present when we read the Bible. They influence the direction in which we take the words. If we are Baptist, we will steer our interpretations in certain ways. If we are Wesleyan, we steer them another. If we are Lutheran or Reformed, we will have yet another set of boundaries.

These traditions influence us even when we are in a non-denominational church. We never simply "just read the Bible and do what it says." To think so is merely to show that we are unaware of the traditional influences on us.

5. So God first spoke through the words of the books of the Bible to the people of God in the past. And the Spirit uses the Bible to speak to people in the present, even when they are not aware of the fact that they may be reading the Bible with different meanings than those words had originally.

The process of determining what these words originally meant is largely a science. It requires us to read words in their literary and historical contexts. There will almost always be some ambiguity and polyvalence to the words in their literary context. And we lack sufficient historical evidence and understanding to know the meaning of the words against their historical context with certainty. We will also always have some degree of unreflectivity about the role our own presuppositions and preunderstandings play in what we think the text meant.

So, although the process of historical interpretation may be somewhat of a science, it rarely yields results that are absolutely certain.

By contrast, the process of connecting biblical texts together and appropriating them for today is not a science. It is, rather, a spiritual and corporate task. We could know the original meaning of a verse for certain and still not know exactly how to appropriate that specific verse for today. This leads us to two important caveats.

The first is that the appropriation of Scripture for today is a "whole Bible" task. Given the contextual nature of individual verses, we are least secure in the appropriation of the Bible to today when we operate on the level of individual verses. We need to locate all individual verses within the context of the "whole counsel of God" and thus the whole of Scripture. The Bible by and large does not tell us how to locate one book in relation to another. This is a task we are forced to do from the outside looking on.

The second caveat is the recognition that since the books of the Bible addressed "that time" (or, better yet, "their times"), the task of connecting it with our time and our context is again a task we are forced to do from the outside looking on. The Bible itself does not directly tell us how to apply it to today. Thus it is important to read the Bible as reflectively as possible and it is very important to read the Bible in communities of faith, where individual whims and fancies are less likely to dominate.

6. All that precedes might still look to the Bible for information--information about what is true, information about how to live. When we look at the Bible in this way, there is the danger that we would look at the Bible as something for us to master. We gain knowledge. We gain power. We might be able to label all the parts, like a dissected frog. [3]

When we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, it becomes a tool of transformation in the hands of God. As Scripture, God is the one meeting us in these words. We must be careful about thinking that the Bible has intrinsic authority, just as we must be careful of thinking that the water of baptism or the bread of communion has intrinsic power. The authority behind Scripture is the authority of God. It is a derivative authority.

If our reading of the Bible does not move beyond itself to the real God (not merely to our ideas about God), then the Bible has only lead us to shadowy images of truth, not to the truth itself.

An atheist might be able to master the science of interpretation. Indeed, an atheist might imagine what the meaning might be if Christian presuppositions were true. An atheist could possibly be a much better interpreter of the original meaning of the Bible than some Christian.

However, the Bible is not Scripture to such a person. That person has not surrendered to the transformation of God through these words. The Spirit does not normally transform these words to become the word of God for that person. [4]

As Scripture, God does much more through the words of the Bible than merely inform. True, God does inform us of his nature, of our story, of our destiny, of the way to live. But much more important is the fact that he changes us. He makes us more loving. He makes us hopeful. He purges our tears and anger. He leads his Church. He leads us in the way we should go.

7. A sacrament is a divinely appointed instrument that God uses to give us grace. Since the Spirit led Israel and then the Church to collect these writings together, God has used them to speak to and transform his people. When we submit to God as we read the Scriptures, he uses them to make us more like him. He reveals to us what he is like and, thereby, what we are to be like in the world.

Next week: SA7: Christians vary somewhat in their conceptions of Scripture.

[1] An older approach to language saw words as signs that pointed to things (e.g., Augustine in De doctrina christiana) or as signs that point to things signified (Ferdinand de Saussure) or a sense that pointed to a reference (Gottlob Frege). With this approach, there is the possibility to see words as timeless in meaning, for you might think that the things to which the words point do not change.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, however, recognized that it is more accurate to say that words "do" things. They are tools. And to know what a word does, you have to know the context in which the word is being used and the "game" the person uttering/writing the word is playing. The same word thus can have very many different meanings, because the same words can be used to do different things in different contexts. Similarly, the use of a word to a listener/reader can be different than the one the utterer/author intended.

This reality explains the wide diversity of interpretations of the Bible even though its readers are reading the same words. It also demonstrates that any approach to the Bible that assumes its words have one meaning that applies equally to all times and places is "pre-reflective." Words just do not work like that.

[2] Christians do disagree on such things from time to time. Such disagreements are not as crucial as disagreements on core beliefs about God and Christ.

[3] Joel Green uses this image in Seized by Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007).

[4] Although God's prevenient grace can certainly draw them through Scripture. And the Spirit can certainly speak judgment to them through Scripture.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Biblical View of Economics 2

Yesterday I posted a worldview framework for my talk on a biblical view of economics. Here were more of my thoughts:

1. God created humanity to flourish, which included work and striving for excellence, for humanity to "be all it could be." God put Adam and Eve in the Garden and gave them the task of tending it. In Genesis 1, God gave Adam and Eve the charge to be fruitful and multiply, to excel on the earth. Psalm 8 speaks of the glory God created humanity to have in the creation.

How is it that Adam could sin when he didn't have a sin nature? How is it that Christ could be tempted when he didn't have a sin nature?

The best answer I can think of is that the desire for knowledge, the desire to excel, perhaps all human drives are not evil in themselves. They become evil when they are expressed in relation to an improper object or are expressed in an improper context, remembering that temptation itself is not sin.

So the drive to excel, even the competitive drive is not unchristian. You could argue that God created us with a drive to advance.

2. I really believe that communism might have worked prior to the Fall--"From each according to his ability; to each according to his need." Humanity was created with the drive to work. Before the Fall, they would have worked without need for reward. Before the Fall, they would have given without payment.

After the Fall, humanity's drive to work was marred. Now, some don't want to work at all. Others not only want to advance, but often advance over the backs of others. They sometimes even enjoy running other people over.

Capitalism was invented as an economic system by Adam Smith in the age of utilitarianism in England in the 1700s. The idea was that as sellers charged as much as they could in their own self-interest and buyers paid as little as they had to in their own self-interest, a system would develop "as if by an unseen hand" in which everyone's happiness was maximized.

Capitalism thus works best in a fallen world. It is based on human selfishness, as Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness. She considered altruism immoral because it messed up a system that only maximized happiness when everyone acted in their own self-interest.

3. It is a strange thing, to suggest that a system based on fallen human nature might actually hold promise to bring about human thriving. But capitalism was designed to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. In this fallen world, it is a structure that has the potential of maximizing "love for our neighbor."

[There are important caveats, however. Unbridled capitalism has not always proven to maximize happiness. As the Industrial Revolution took capitalism into new territory, instead of maximizing happiness, it made a few people very rich off the backs of a whole lot of workers. The Great Depression, the recent recession, are both examples of how unstable capitalism can be, especially if certain safeguards aren't put into place.]

[We are now entering new economic territory again in the age of artificial intelligence. IMO, the growing income disparity is just a small symptom of what is coming. Like the late 1800s, the new conditions will not only make a very few incomprehensibly wealthy, but the menial jobs that were available in the late 1800s won't exist any more even for the common person to be exploited. Those who own the intelligent machines that are coming will have all the wealth and there will be few jobs for the average person needed.]

[Those last two paragraphs weren't things I said yesterday.]

Of course the attempts at communism were arguably far worse. I was in Berlin in the mid-90s, and the difference between the vibrant West Berlin and the depressing East Berlin was more than obvious. The Soviet Union, North Korea, Eastern Europe are all testaments to the failure of communism as a modern system to achieve its intended goals. Even among Christian groups, communal experiences did not last much more than a generation.

So it would seem that the most "loving structure" in this current age, at least potentially, is ironically a capitalistic one based on selfishness, but with controls to make sure it does indeed bring about the greatest good for the greatest number.

4. An important caveat to this overall utilitarian structure is that the value of each individual must be taken into account. From a biblical, a Christian, and an American perspective (e.g., the Bill of Rights), every individual has worth. A benefit cannot be brought to the majority off the oppression of a minority any more than the Hutu can kill off the Tutsi tribe to maximize the majority's happiness.

From a Christian perspective, every life counts. Jesus wants to redeem every person and cares about every area of their existence, including their economic existence. For Christians in this age, justice is redemptive and protective. The wrath form of justice is God's business.

So there is no space for the Christian of this age to say, "They made their [economic] bed. Let them lie in it." There is a time for letting people experience the consequences of their actions, but only so that they might learn not to do it again or to protect those they might harm. There is no space for the Christian to watch someone die of hunger because "they deserve it."

So if a person is starving to death, we are obligated as Christians to give them a fish. Far more significant though is to teach them to fish or, as one person said, to provide them with a pond in which to fish. In many cases today, people need to be motivated to fish. Others have said we need to change their perspective toward fishing.

5. So here is an attempt to end with some basic guidelines for macro-economic structures that work toward a culture that maximizes human flourishing. [Note: This is different from what God expects of us as individuals or as churches.]
  • All individuals who are able should contribute something. Dependency may be temporarily necessary, but it becomes bondage if it is long-term. 
  • There are many paths of motivation. The baser ones have to do with self-interest and selfishness. Preferred are motivations based on common vision and a sense of identity.
  • No one should fall through the cracks. Everyone is important.
  • The goal of economic systems is the flourishing of all, not the wealth of a few.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Biblical View of Economics 1

I'm speaking this morning in Michigan on "Biblical Foundations for Faith, Work, and Economics: Human Flourishing and the Kingdom of God."

I start off with the basics of a Biblical Worldview, using some material I developed to present to a graduate class of Orthopedic Therapists at IWU. Here is the basic worldview piece of my presentation:

1. God exists and is involved in the world.
2. All human beings have intrinsic worth.
3. The world is not as it should be.
4. God has fixed, is fixing, and will fix the world through Christ--history has a direction.
5. In Scripture, God has revealed two foundational ethical absolutes.

My second slide then emphasizes that we should not think of worldviews here as ideas in a weak sense. By "views" I mean perspectives that are expressions of deep seated values and drives, what Jesus calls the "heart" in Mark 7. James 2 indicates how "dead" mere ideas are, even ideas about God. "Faith without works is dead" or we might say, "Belief that doesn't come from the heart is dead."

Our behaviors and habits flow from our loves, which we often try to express in words and ideas. There are also other very significant components to our view of the world--the way we tell our stories and the stories of others, as well as the key symbols and "rituals" of our lives.

I'll post more later...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Notes on 1 Peter (1:3-2:10)

1. Last night was the second of five nights on 1 Peter at College Wesleyan. Here was the confusing background diagram I drew:
The idea is that 1 Peter sees the current situation of the churches to which it is addressed as one of suffering and judgment. Peter looks forward to the coming revelation of Jesus Christ at his return to earth from heaven. That is the time of salvation (Salvation in 1 Peter, as in Paul, is a future event).

The inheritance for which they wait is on lay-away in heaven. It is kept in heaven for the time of Christ's return. They are being guarded as they wait for it. At that point their present sufferings will become glories.

2. But at present, they feel like foreigners in a hostile land. They are sojourning in fear (1:17). They are being purified through suffering. They are being tried like gold in a fire.

As an aside, it seems beyond reasonable doubt to me that the audience is primarily Gentile. A verse like 1:18, which calls their past a "foolish way of life handed down from your forefathers" makes no sense at all of a Jewish background, unless one doesn't understand that Judaism and Christianity were not yet two distinct religions. It is completely anachronistic to think that Peter would say that to Jews.

[Insert rant here about the sad state of biblical education in America right now from my perspective. It's not going to get better any time soon, IMO.]

I picture a Christianity that feels alone and isolated. I picture a Christianity that wonders where God is. It doesn't feel like he's around.

3. In this context, they are to be holy (1:16). In 1 Peter, this is not just being set apart, but implies a moral purity as well. It involves self-control (1:13). It involves pure love for others (1:22). They are to get rid of malice and hypocrisy (2:1).

There is also language that pictures the audience as a replacement temple. If Hebrews was written to Rome and 1 Peter was written from Rome, I muse in a forthcoming book if 1 Peter might have been influenced by Hebrews. Not something I want to die for, though.

So these Gentile believers are a holy priesthood who offer spiritual sacrifices (2:5, 9). They are a holy nation (2:9). If Roman oppression of Israel is part of the background of 1 Peter, this latter statement would also pop. Alas, there could be a richness here that our simple schemes won't let us explore.

Back to reading Augustine...

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Spot the Fallacy Night

For the Presidential debates (for both parties), our esteemed philosophy professor Steve Horst has his Logic class doing a "spot the fallacy" assignment. If I have enough time, I may tweet the fallacies myself.

Want to join? Let's use #logicalfallacies .

Notes on 1 Peter (1)

Last week I began a Bible study at College Wesleyan on 1 Peter. I don't have time to flesh it out but here are some of my notes from the first week:
  • The greeting tells us this letter is being written to a cross-section of believers scattered throughout what is modern-day Turkey. It has a very large audience.
  • 1 Peter 5:13 has the key for me to 1 Peter. It is being written "in Babylon." This is not the literal Babylon but a code word for Rome. It suggests that, whenever the letter was written, Rome has become a major oppressor of the Jews. Of course Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD70, just as Babylon did in 586BC.
  • "Beloved, I urge you as foreigners and aliens, stay away from fleshly desires, which war against your soul, having such a good way of life among the Gentiles that, even though they accuse you as a wrongdoer [now], they might glorify God on the Day of Oversight as they see your good works [then in retrospect]” (2:11-12, NRSV).
  • The audience do not see themselves as belonging in the Roman empire. Rather, the empire is a foreign context. 1 Peter is a defensive strategy, how to live in hostile territory when your "host" is watching you and ready to pounce.
  • “For it is time for The Judgment to begin with the with the household of God. And if it is first with us, what will the end of those who are disobeying the gospel of God?” (4:17)
  • Both the church and the Jews are experiencing hard times. It won't end here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

President Wright Looking at Year Three

In his post today, President Wright tackles the question of what he sees as his focus in his third year. Read it here: "Third Year Questions: Focus for Year Three."

Augustine's "On Teaching" 2:73-152

I have been working through Augustine's De doctrina christiana again. Here are my posts so far:

Preface and Book I
Book II, first post

Now here is the rest of Book II.
1. Two kinds of learning in pagan society: 1) human made, 2) divine made. He then spends some time talking about human superstition, which is quite fun, for we catch a glimpse of superstitions in Roman culture in Augustine's day. He also includes some of what we might call astrology today.

He talks about how the fifth and sixth months (their year started in March) could be renamed after Julius and Augustus Caesar by imperial decree because there was no real god to offend. He disproves the validity of astrology by pointing out how completely different twins can be, even though they come out of the womb one right after the other without any significant interval. They are both born under the same constellations, but can be quite different in their life's outcome.

He also relays the notion that we find in some Jewish writings and that I think is reflected at some points in the NT that the wicked angels inhabit the lowest sky or heaven. Thus in the NT, Satan is called the "ruler and power of the air" (Eph. 2:2).

I suspect we see the antecedent of some twentieth century views on words as signs in Augustine, and hear I am thinking especially of de Saussure. Augustine indicates that many words have meaning because of agreed convention (that is the signs have no intrinsic meaning). He mentions lege, which means "read" in Latin but "speak" in Greek (93).

2. Having covered human learning that is superstitious, he turns to human learning that is not superstitious.
  • "Everyone aims at some degree of similarity when they use signs, making signs as similar as possible to the things which are signified" (98).
  • "Nothing should be thought more peculiar to mankind than lies and falsehoods" (99).
There's a helpful section here where he speaks of valid human learning. The sense is similar to "all truth is God's truth" although Augustine is unreflective about presuppositions and such. History is history and can be used to correct faulty interpretations of the Bible. He does not see himself of course as correcting the Bible but of correcting interpretations of the Bible with secular history.
  • "For what has already gone into the past and cannot be undone must be considered part of the history of time, whose creator and controller is God" (56).
BTW, he gets the relative timing of Plato and Jeremiah wrong in this section, something he corrects in City of God.

Medicine is different from superstition and is valid as a source of knowledge. Astronomy as it comes to the predictable motions of the planets and stars is valid, although it can be a waste of time. :-) Logic and arithmetic are valid sources of knowledge, including arguments like syllogisms and non sequitur arguments.
  • "The validity of syllogisms is not something instituted by humans, but observed and recorded by them, so that the subject may be taught or learnt. It is built into the permanent and divinely instituted system of things" (121).
There's some good basic logic in these sections.

3. "Falsehood is the description of something which is not actually in the state in which it is asserted to be" (130). "There are two kinds of falsehood, one consisting of things which cannot possibly be true, another of things which are not true, but could be."

Here's a good quote: "The pleasure derived from the open display of truth is greater than the assistance gained from discussing or examining it, though indeed these things can sharpen the intellect, which is a good thing provided that they do not also make people more mischievous or conceited or, in other words, more inclined to deceive others by plausible talk and questioning, or to think that by learning these things they have done something marvelous or which entitles them to consider themselves superior to ordinary unsophisticated people" (135).

As he approaches the end of Book II, Augustine suggests that secular studies that do not contribute to our understanding of Scripture are more or less useless (140). Nothing in excess. However, he finds great use in Platonism (surprise).

Basically, pagan knowledge is like all the gold taken from Egypt in contrast to all the gold of Solomon's kingdom. "What a person learns independently of scripture is condemned there if it is harmful, but found there if it is useful" (151).

Of course, since he interprets much of Scripture figurally, he is wrong. He thinks he sees all truths in Scripture, but many he brings to the Scriptures. Scripture tells us all things necessary for life and salvation. It doesn't tell us how to build a watch. And that's okay.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Augustine's "On Teaching" 2.1-72

I'm working through Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana again as I teach an Honor's College class this fall called, "Foundations of Christian Tradition." I have already blogged through Book 3 on an earlier occasion. Thanks to those who gave feedback on Book I. By the way, here is an excellent version of this work online.

1. Augustine begins by giving the background to his sense that words are signs that point to things. This is what signs are--signifiers of things. Some signs are natural, like smoke that points to fire. But some signs are people made, including both non-verbal and verbal signs.

Some signs are natural--smoke points to fire. But others are "given" or "conventional." These are signs that human beings give to things. There are different ways that humans signify meanings to each other. Some are sounds. Some are picked up by the eyes. The most significant, perhaps, are words.

Scripture gives remedy to many diseases of the human will (9). Augustine believes that the human authors followed the will of God as they wrote. So by figuring out what these authors were trying to say, we can find out the will of God.

2. I don't want to get too far before I do some reflection. Augustine is often connected with what has been called a "picture theory" of language. Words are signs that point to things. The general sense is similar to Gottlob Frege's idea that words have a sense and a reference. The reference is what words point to.

It's true that things and references are often involved in language. But the notion of words as tools seems to express more closely how words work. "Words do stuff" (Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle) expresses how words work far more closely than "Words point to things."

I will have reason to consider Augustine unreflective in his sense that what he is doing in his interpretation is finding out what the human authors were saying. There's too much fiddling with the meaning to make it come out right for this sentiment to be a good description of what Augustine does. I have the same critique of some evangelical interpretation. When the text doesn't say what it needs to say, we downshift into reinterpretation.

3. Augustine speaks of men coming to the font of baptism, rising born again with the Holy Spirit, and then living with the double love of God and neighbor (11). His point is not this statement in itself but that it's much more pleasing to hear about this type of thing in the symbolic imagery of the Song of Songs. But the insight into his theology and the practice of the church in his day is interesting.

He speaks of a process toward knowing God's will. It starts with the fear of God (16), proceeds to holiness, then moves to knowledge. This is knowledge of our own need, of our own lack of love for God and neighbor. This knowledge leads to a fourth stage--fortitude or endurance, which leads to compassion. You wonder if Wesley was impacted by this section. Augustine speaks of becoming perfect in love (21). The sixth stage is a purified eye, which finally leads to wisdom.

4. Now Augustine returns to the third stage--knowledge--which leads him to think more about the Scriptures. A person seeking knowledge should have a knowledge of the content of the canonical Scriptures. And here Augustine gives us a helpful glimpse of the canon as it existed in the late 390s. There are two striking features.

The first is that the New Testament book list is exactly the same as our current one. This is striking because that precise list is no where listed until AD367 in a letter Athanasius sent out at Easter. It would be ratified in the West at the Council of Carthage in 398. But it is not yet official when Augustine was writing. Interestingly, he also says to go with what the "big churches" say on this matter, the renowned ones.

The second is the fact that he considers the Apocrypha to be part of the canon. Jerome at about the same time would put them in something like a second level canon (deuterocanonical). This speaks to my general claim that, in the Reformation, Luther downgraded the Apocrypha from their original status for Christianity, while the Council of Trent upgraded them then.

5. So the first rule of knowledge is to know these books and commit them to memory. Next, examine those matters that are clearly stated in them. You can find everything necessary for faith and the moral life in those parts that are clearly stated, and the greater a person's intellectual capacity, the more of these he or she will find.

I wonder if this paragraph is behind the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture, as well as the idea that the Scriptures contain "all things necessary for life and salvation."

Finally, from the clear passages, one should proceed to interpret the unclear ones.

Of course this is a pre-historical approach. Passages meant what they meant. Sometimes their original meaning is unclear. But Augustine as much refers to passages whose theology doesn't seem to fit, and he espouses a method of fiddling with those sorts of passages on the level of meaning, not on the level of application. This simply isn't appropriate from a historical perspective.

6. Passages can be unclear for two reasons--either the "thing" to which the sign points can be unknown or it can be ambiguous (32).

But Augustine steps back for a second as he builds a theory of language. Signs can either be literal or metaphorical. They are literal when "they signify the things for which they were invented." They are metaphorical when they are used to signify something else.

Augustine mentions some causes of ambiguity. Lack of knowledge of original languages, for example (he indicates that the first translations into Latin were pretty rough). Here's Augustine's position on proper Latin grammar, by the way: "What, then, is correctness of speech but the maintenance of the practice of others, as established by the authority of ancient speakers?" (45).

Then Augustine suggests that weak men are preoccupied with such things. "Their weakness stems from a desire to appear learned, not with a knowledge of things, by which we are edified, but with a knowledge of signs" (46). I completely agree. Shallow people are preoccupied with form rather than substance.

7. Augustine suggests we use multiple translations when we do not know the original languages of the Bible, as well as that we use multiple manuscripts--a sign of his time. Interestingly, he considers the Septuagint to be authoritative over the Hebrew Old Testament (53). This is because of a quasi-inspiration that many afforded to its translation. I believe the Greek Orthodox Church still holds to something similar. When manuscripts differ, he defers to the "more learned and diligent churches" (56).

He certainly believes in hidden, metaphorical meanings (57). He spends several paragraphs talking about such meanings in numbers and such. Ignorance of music can also be a hindrance to understanding.

I close with this quote from 72: "A person who is good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to the Lord, wherever it is found." So truth can be found even in pagan literature.

My Amazon Store