Wednesday, April 30, 2008
May term began today. And quite unintentionally, I found myself talking hermeneutics to a New Testament survey class (this post started out to be about hermeneutics, but I got side tracked with Amazon). Not really appropriate, but I was presenting my signature issue, "Who Decides What the Bible Means?" By the way, I took it off my side list because I sent it off to Paulist Press to see if they would be interested in "officially" publishing it.
Also, since it's tangent day, I had a couple great ideas yesterday. Amazon.com is really killing not only publishers but it's killing the royalties book writers make. They are very demanding on publishers, not least of which is that they demand a 55% discounted price. That destroys royalties for authors. It's great for buyers, but devastating to those who do the work producing these things.
Why even write books any more? I made about $180 dollars last year off of two of my books that sell on Amazon. IWU doesn't put any emphasis on publication at all so why even bother? If I have a "grey thumb," I can write all I want for free here.
Here were my proposals to my publishers:
First, I wrote to three of my publishers yesterday and suggested that they create the kind of product widget that Amazon has. If they offer the same price as Amazon, who cares where the widget takes you. That way I can sell my books and actually get more like a dollar for every copy sold rather than pennies.
Second, publishers and or authors (How about it, google.com?) should form an Amazon-like "union" site that is linked to the actual publishers, offering the same price as Amazon. Man, I've heard that Amazon is even stopping to list self-published stuff (e.g., Lulu) unless you publish it through them. Maybe that's the way of the future, self-publish through Amazon and let someone else distinguish the good from the hack.
In the end we're in the middle of some massive paradigm shifts. The traditional publisher is on the way out and looking toward eventual death. Some sort of self-publishing may become the way of the future with credibility being a matter of some external "accrediting" bodies. So whether Schenck's book is considered a worthy book or not will depend on its external rating, not on whether a publisher was willing to take it.
Drury suggested before he left for hiking that perhaps in the future libraries will hire authors. Since everything will be available on the web, a library will not be judged by how many volumes it has but by what unique sources it contributes to the web, which would include what authors it has on its payroll.
Who knows? If I were a true prognosticator, I would be sitting on a beach somewhere writing this rather than about to return to the last hour of New Testament survey.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Not Jo Anne Lyon this past Saturday! Wesleyans will know her as the founder of World Hope and perhaps the leading candidate to replace Earle Wilson as General Superintendant. By the way, Yes, she would take the office if elected. Yes, she is at a point where she is ready to leave World Hope (they have a well laid out succession plan already set up for whenever she would leave).
I did wonder how the crowd reacted when she mentioned she was ordained in the Wesleyan Church. But I thought she demonstrated the kind of Spirit-filled presence that confirms her place in the kingdom. I celebrate all women ministers, but also recognize that some do not help the cause politically because they fit a certain kind of stereotype that is unappealing.
Not so with her. She has a disciplined appearance and is commanding but not abrasive. She has already earned our respect--she doesn't have a chip on her shoulder, as if she is overcompensating to try to get it.
What held my attention so well was the picture she painted of a Zambian woman with AIDS, four children, almost vainly trying to break the soil because of the way the climate has already changed in that part of the world. Her children are prime candidates to be sold into slavery, a growing world phenomenon Lyon is a leader in addressing. And because this Zambian woman is a woman, she could not even own land if she wanted to.
The address ended with what World Hope has done for this woman's village. Now she and others in her village like her collectively own a plot of land that they now are able to irrigate from a local lake. A school is set up for her children, who will now be protected from slavery after she is gone.
Lyon's point was to inspire these graduates to go let God change the world through them in every way, both physically and spiritually.
Here is a person who is really changing the world. I felt very small. Ooo, ahh, Ken's a blogger who teaches Greek and knows who Rudolph Bultmann was.
It would be hard to think of a Wesleyan through whom God has done more for the kingdom of God than through this woman. Did even Orange Scott and Luther Lee really do more? John Maxwell has more trophies, but not a chance.
I can't think of anyone more appropriate to elect as General Superintendant.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
1. 5:11-6:2 are appropriate for countless congregations that have been Christian forever but so little depth of either understanding or action. In short, these verses beg for discipleship. How many people--especially in larger congregations--manage to come to church year after year with no involvement in the movement of the kingdom? They can slip in and out with no accountability either by themselves or by the church that is meant to form them into a holy people?
Of course some churches go too far in the opposite direction and become cultlike. Unless the people in the congregation conform to the most idiosyncratic whim of the church leaders or social network of the church, they are ostracised. This latter observation reminds us that many teachers and leaders in the church are actually babies who have digested neither the strong meat of the gospel nor the milk.
2. 6:3-8 are of course the strongest verses to argue that a person can indeed be "justified" (to use Paul's language) and "filled with the Spirit (to use Acts' language) and yet still fall away to destruction. The author of Hebrews knows no Calvinist doctrine of predestination or Lutheran doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (at the same time righteous and sinner). At the same time, Hebrews also knows no Methodist idea of coming back to Christ after falling away. The application of these verses is thus very difficult, except perhaps for the Catholic tradition.
We should at least point out that Hebrews is not exactly talking about sin in general. True, the author of Hebrews might also think that continual sinning of any kind will eventually lead one to "lose salvation." But the author is speaking to an audience that is on a trajectory to reject Christ as Messiah, either in order to return to Gentile paganism or to forms of Judaism that rejected Jesus as Messiah. This is the falling away to which the author refers.
There are different ways to address the verse. If you believe in the continued unfolding of revelation, you might consider the matter of "second repentance" as yet unresolved at the end of the New Testament. The church of the 200's would come to believe that a person could repent even after cursing Christ to save your life.
From a more pragmatic standpoint, we might counsel others who are doubting their own destiny by reference to the theology of John 16:8. If indeed it is the Spirit that leads a person to seek Christ, which would seem to be orthodox theology, then a person who is seeking Christ has not fallen away in the manner of Hebrews. The bottom line is that those who are truly seeking Christ are able to find him, regardless of their past.
This statement of course does not completely fit with Hebrews' world of imagery, particularly that in relation to Esau. But it does fit with Christian theology has God has worked it out over the years in the church.
We can find even in Esau a parable of the truth that many people who claim to be seeking repentance often are only trying to get out of punishment. Many people claim to be sorry after they are caught in a misdeed. But they are only sorry for getting caught. The test for true repentance is whether you truly recognize that you should be punished for your wrongdoing.
3. 6:13-20 reminds us of God's faithfulness to His promises. Christians have many core beliefs that involve promises, and Hebrews' words here would apply to all of them. Of course beyond the core beliefs of all Christians we find much disagreement on what God's will is and great caution is called for once we leave the common ground of Christianity. It is an even greater trick in our everyday lives to figure out when God is truly promising us something.
Some hotly debated theological issues issue from the statement that God's will is unchangeable. The hyper-Calvinist takes this as an absolute statement. The normal Calvinist would allow that God permitted Satan and Adam to make a free choice on which His subsequent will depended. Orthodox Christianity in general allows for God's ultimate will--that does not change--and His will that will vary depending on human response.
All of these traditions would of course assume that God knows what His choice will turn out to be, but in time His will does appear to change depending on human choice. The Open Theist, on the other hand, supposes that God has also limited His knowledge so that He knows what choice He will make given our actions (orthodox) but that He does not know what choice we will make (unorthodox).
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Since it's an election year, I'm sure we will have many chances to ask questions like these. For many it will seem the height of ignorance even to ask them. But the ironic thing is that it will seem "ignorant" to people with completely different answers!
- Can a person be a true Christian and vote for a Democrat?
- Is abortion the only issue in a national election for a Christian?
- Is it God's will to make the law mirror God's law?
- Is there a Christian position on war, capital punishment, poverty, and the environment?
It probably won't be till the Fall that we would ask these questions and open the floor for discussion. I predicted way back after the Iowa primaries that Obama would be elected. I've wondered if I was wrong from time to time, but I'm still sticking by the prediction.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
While the possibilities the author has been discussing are real possibilities, he does not think that they will apply to the audience in the end. He has been threatening them with the potential consequences of the trajectory with which they are dabbling. But he believes they will make the right decision, even if this statement is meant to motivate them as well as inform them of his opinion.
The statement, "we have been persuaded," uses the Greek perfect tense, which here gives the sense of a conviction that the author (and perhaps others he represents like Timothy) has held for some time. He became convinced at some point in the past that the audience would endure to the future day of salvation, and he has remained convinced up until the present. Salvation in Hebrews, as in Paul and 1 Peter, generally has the sense of escape from God's coming wrath and judgment. It is thus refers most literally to a future event.
6:10 For God is not unjust to forget your work and the love you showed toward His name as you ministered to the saints and are ministering.
We can be thankful that the author at least gives us some small hints about the audience, hints that he will fill out even more in 10:32-34. During an earlier time of persecution, they ministered to the "saints" who were the direct object of that time. And while their faith may be wavering now somewhat, they apparently have not stopped their ministry to other saints in need--perhaps even to individuals like the author of Hebrews.
If we are right about the setting of Hebrews, the audience had earlier ministered to the saints during Nero's persecution of Christians in the aftermath of the fire of Rome in AD64. The current ministering might thus include their regard for those who might have come to Rome in the aftermath of Jerusalem's destruction. Others might see the expulsion of Christian Jews from Rome under Claudius in AD49 as the earlier time, with the lead up to Nero's persecution as the time of the audience.
6:11-12 And we desire for each of you to show the same diligence in confidence about hope to the end, so that you might not be sluggish, but imitators of those who, through faith and endurance, inherit the promises.
The author's conclusion is no surprise, as it is the same message he has given to the audience repeatedly--don't give up your faith in the truth of the Christian message. Don't stop hoping for Christ to return and for God to judge the world. Remain true to the end.
The word "sluggish" here is the same word the author use in 5:11 that we translated as "hard" in the phrase "hard of hearing." This is the literary technique of inclusio, where an author begins and ends a section with the same word or idea. It is a hint that the heart of the digression that the author began in 5:11 ends here in 6:12.
The mention of imitating those who by faith inherit the promises is a foreshadowing of the "faith chapter" in Hebrews 11. The promises that the audience has believed up to this point remain as God's promises. And just as other Christians have continued to believe even during hard times, even when they died before seeing such promises materialize, the author exhorts the audience to do the same (cf. especially 11:13).
6:13-15 For when God was making a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater by which to swear, “He swore by Himself,” saying, “Surely, blessing, I will bless you and, multiplying, I will multiply” you. And so, after he endured, he obtained the promise.
As some scholars have pointed out, the last part of Hebrews 6 "cools down" from the pointed admonition the author has just made in 5:11-6:12. In that very direct critique, he has called them "dull" or "sluggish" and has shamed them by calling them babes. He has suggested that they need to go back to kindergarten, if God will even allow them, for they are in danger of falling away beyond repair. 6:13-20 thus buffer the author's direct admonition from his return to the argument proper in chapter 7.
Abraham provides for the author a counter example to the wilderness generation. They did not believe God's promise and fell in the desert. Abraham believed God's promise--even though as Hebrews 11 will tell us, he died without seeing it come to pass.
Yet it did come to pass. God promised Abraham that He would greatly multiply him--the sense of the Semitic idiom, "multiplying, I will multiply you." And we know from the later biblical story that his descendants did multiply vastly.
The author's sense of Abraham receiving the promise is interesting, given that Abraham himself--the historical Abraham--did not obtain the promise. As we will see in the case of Melchizedek, the author can move imperceptibly from discussing the characters of the Bible as literal figures from the past to discussing them as characters in the text of Scripture as one continuous narrative. Thus Abel's blood continues to speak in Scripture even though the historical Abel is long dead.
6:16-17 For humans swear by the greater and the oath is for them the end of every argument in confirmation. Even more so, when God was wanting to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeability of His will, He intervened with an oath…
Unlike Matthew and James, Hebrews seems to have no issue with oathtaking, at least not as concerns God. Oaths were of course very serious in the ancient world, because the ancients really believed in their gods. And their gods were not the loving beings that Christians by and large picture when they think of God as their Father. Indeed, ancient Jews and Christians had far more "fear" of God than most do today.
To invoke the name of a deity in an oath was thus to risk the wrath of that God if you failed to keep the oath. This is background to the commandment, "Do not take the name of the LORD in vain." The seriousness of such an oath is seen when Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to the LORD in Judges 11:39. When you swear by God, you have made the stakes of lying as high as they can go.
But God has no one greater by which to swear. So He swears by Himself. What the author wishes to get across to the audience is how serious God's promise is. This is not an issue on which He can change His mind, for He has bound Himself by an oath.
6:18-19 … so that by two unchangeable things, among which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled so that we can hold on to the hope lying ahead might have strong encouragement,
The two unchangeable things are 1) the fact that God has sworn by Himself and 2) the fact that it is impossible for God to lie. We should remember that the idea that God's will is immutable is a later Christian idea--and one that is more particular to Calvinism than broader Christianity. The issue of orthodoxy is whether God knows what He is going to will rather than whether, from where we stand on the ground, God's will appears to change in response to the world.
When 6:17 vouches for the unchangeability of God's will, it does so in relation to God's will on this matter. It does not mean to say that God never seems to change His will. The Old Testament provides many examples where God appears to change His will. God appears to change His mind about making humanity in Genesis 6:6. God changes his mind about destroying Ninevah after they repent because of Jonah's message. Jonah is not surprised for he knew God was a God who changed His mind about doing evil (Jonah 4:2).
What God will not change His mind on is the "hope lying ahead," the promise of salvation in the middle of the judgment of the world. The author perhaps alludes to those who fled to cities of refuge in Numbers, a particularly appropriate allusion if in fact Jerusalem had recently been destroyed. Believers, now clearly more aliens and strangers on the earth than ever before, have fled to the hope that was coming. And God's oath, along with His absolute truthfulness, provide an incredibly strong encouragement to those whose faith might be wavering.
6:19-20 … which we have as an anchor of the soul, both solid and secure and entering inside the veil, where the forerunner for us, Jesus, has entered, as he has become a high priest after the order of Melchizedek forever.
Now the author mixes a nautical image with the city of refuge allusion he has just made and the high priestly metaphor that is to come. This combination of images bombard the audience with images of confidence.
As the author ends the section from 5:11-6:20, he returns to the theme of Christ's Melchizedekian high priesthood. It was mention of this aspect of Christ's identity in 5:10 that sparked the central exhortation of this sermon. Now as the author prepares to continue with that theme, he finds his way back to it again.
The shaming aspect of Hebrews' central exhortation is clear from the fact that the author now returns to the subject that he has suggested they may not be grown up enough to digest. He does not really think they are as far gone as his rhetoric might lead one to think.
Back in 4:14, the author mentioned that Christ had "passed through the skies." He now makes the metaphor of the heavenly sanctuary even more explicit. Christ has gone "through the veil" into the heavenly Most Holy Place. We believe that the author is taking Christ's passage into the highest heaven somewhat metaphorically as his entrance into a heavenly sanctuary and a heavenly Holy of Holies.
A clue to that metaphor is the fact that Christ is our forerunner in this passage. When he leads "many sons to glory," the rest of the perfected will also pass through the skies into that throne room.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Christians have both intentionally and unintentionally basked in the unravelling of Enlightenment objectivity. Those who call themselves post-conservative (like Roger Olsen) or post-liberal (like William Placher) or radically orthodox (like James K. A. Smith) have all enjoyed the idea that Christianity can no longer be tested against reality because, after all, there is no objective reality to which we have access against which to test it. Individuals like Nicholas Wolterstorff have taken their place in the halls of places like Yale because, in a world where there is no objective truth, why not have an evangelical in the zoo along with everyone else.
I recognize the value of the postmodern critique of objectivity.
BUT here are some concerns I have:
- The idea of Truth forced us to look beyond ourselves for the possible correction of our ideas. The postmodern Spirit of the age has pushed us back toward intellectual tribalism and individualism... and that among a vast majority who have never passed through the fires of modernism to get there.
- In religion, it has given us no path by which to distinguish God from the gods of our tribes and individual making. Religions, denominations, and the whims of individual "believers" have no basis by which to arbitrate between each other.
- In society, we are moving away from the individual social contract that made the United States a land of freedom (at least on paper) and to a society of tribes and interest groups.
- When it comes to issues like global warming and evolution, people do not sincerely ask the question, "In what direction does the evidence seem to lie." Rather, with no competence in the relevant disciplines, they make a vigorous judgment based on the tribe to which they belong.
Postmodernism has indeed made it rational to chose a conclusion that does not match the current lay of the evidence. But it need not lead us into a world where there is no real difference between fantasy and fact (one possible outcome). It can also free us up to be honest with where the chips lie--as best we can tell with each passing day.
Then we can openly affirm faith over and against the current look of the evidence--if it comes to that. But we can honor God with honesty as we do it.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
It is the mention of Christ as a priest after the order of Melchizedek that sets the author off on the central and focal exhortation of the sermon. This point of diversion is not simply an attempt to hold the audience's attention, although it does perform this purpose. It is reasonable for us to conclude that the "priesthood" of Christ and what it signifies for the author stands at the heart of the reason for this sermon.
Presumably, the audience's wavering commitment has something to do with a failure to appreciate fully the atoning significance of Christ. The author will go on to unfold this significance in chapter 7. For the moment, he will lay out the high stakes of "falling away" in the most direct language of the sermon. His urging to continue in chapters 3-4, which was somewhat indirect and by analogy, he will now make directly.
To be sure, the author is trying to shame the audience into continuing faithfulness. As he will say in 6:9, he is convinced they will continue in faith. But it makes little sense to make the statements he is about to make if he is not talking about real possibilities. The recurring and emphatic nature of his admonitions to continue points to a real concern on his part and a perceived problem on their part.
5:12 For although you ought even to be teachers because of the time, you are in need for someone to begin teaching you again the elementary principles [one learns when] beginning to learn the oracles of God. You have come to need milk and not strong meat.
This verse confirms our earlier suspicions that the audience has believed that Jesus is the Messiah for some time. We will hear of earlier persecution later in this section, a struggle in which they conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion. It would seem that something different is happening this time around.
The mention of "elementary principles" and "beginning of the oracles of God" will be significant when we get to 6:1-2, where the author will tell us what some of these are. There he will call these things "the word of the beginning of the Christ." It thus makes sense to think of these things as things the audience first learned when they believed on Jesus as Messiah.
Since Jews would have grown up believing most of these things, the implication is that the audience is likely Gentile, non-Jews, as perhaps the majority of the churches at Rome were. When they believed on Jesus as the Christ, they learned the elementary principles of the oracles of God and Scripture. They should now be teachers of such things, according to the author's understanding. But they lack certain fundamental understandings concerning the significance of Christ's atonement, the author claims.
5:13-14 For everyone who partakes of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for [this person] is a baby. But strong meat is a matter of the mature, of those who, because of practice, have disciplined their senses to be able to discern between good and evil.
These are common images used by philosophers of the day to talk about moving toward true understanding. The idea of training one's senses, for example, has clear philosophical overtones. But the author's point is likely that the audience is troubled about things that should not trouble them. They should be able to tell the difference between what is actually a challenge to their faith and what is not.
The ability to see that Christ's death has accomplished final atonement is probably a key "good" the author thinks the audience should be able to discern. Similarly, if we are right about the setting of Hebrews, the author wishes the audience were able to discern that the destruction of the temple is not an "evil."
The "word of righteousness," perhaps the matter of righteousness, presumably relates directly to being able to discern the difference between good and evil. The person who is skilled in the matter of righteousness is able to discern the good. The unskilled person is not able to tell the difference between the two.
6:1 Therefore, leaving the word of the beginning of the Christ, let us bring on maturity and not lay again the foundation...
The word for "mature" in the previous verse and "maturity" here are words sometimes translated "perfect" or "perfection." Nevertheless, to translate the words that way is to mislead, given the way we tend to think of perfection today. When the author tells the audience to move on to maturity, he is telling them to move on the strong meat that is the point of his sermon, the final atonement provided through Christ.
The material that follows will tell us some of the "elementary principles" of the "word of the beginning of the Christ." The items the author is about to mention are foundation, the elementary principles of the beginning of the oracles of God. They are things that, presumably, the audience first learned when they believed on Jesus as the Christ.
6:1b-2 [the foundation] of repentance from dead works and faith on God, [the foundation] of the teaching of baptisms and laying on hands and of the resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment.
In this verse is the strongest evidence that the audience is Gentile, non-Jew. With the possible exception of baptism and laying on hands, none of these items are specifically Christian. The vast majority of Jews would not learn of such things when they began to believe on Jesus as Christ.
Repentance from dead works is likely repentance for sins, acts that lead to death. We should not infer some faith versus works here, as if the audience is repenting of trying to earn its salvation. This approach to Paul is already somewhat skewed, and it is totally foreign to Hebrews. It would be similarly wrong to see such works as participation in the Levitical sacrificial system. The author sees that system as ineffective, but not as a sin for which one should repent.
The mention of dead works in the context of a previously pagan audience immediately evokes images of idolatry. As some scholars have pointed out, Jews thought of such idols as "dead idols."
Faith in God is of course a basic Jewish concept. It would not be an "elementary principle" a Jew would learn when coming to Christ. Certainly belief in Jesus as Messiah gives a clear content to that faith, but Gentile converts to Christianity would definitely need to learn faith in God as a beginning, foundation principle.
The mention of baptisms, plural, is intriguing. Certainly Jews of Palestine participated in regular washings of purification. Perhaps a Gentile convert to Judaism would learn of these, although this thought in relation to Christian foundation is curious. Certainly we can assume that baptism in water in the name of Jesus as the Christ was part of that to which the author refers (cf. Heb. 10:22). But what other baptism or baptisms might the author have in mind?
One possibility some have suggested is the "baptism of the Holy Spirit," a possibility that perhaps becomes slightly more likely given the follow up mention of laying on hands. The gospels do record a tradition that associates receiving the Holy Spirit with a baptism that Jesus would make. The book of Acts regularly associates this baptism of the Holy Spirit with water baptism as twin events relating to becoming a part of the Jesus movement. Acts further associates laying hands on others with the impartation of the Spirit.
Perhaps this is our best guess at that to which the author might refer with his mention of baptism and laying on hands. The main objection is the fact that the author does not use this imagery elsewhere in the sermon. 10:22 speaks of consciences being "sprinkled," which does not likely refer to the mode of baptism. It is an allusion to the sprinkling of blood in the Old Testament.
Resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment are again not specifically Christian concepts but common Jewish belief (although to be sure there was more variety in Jewish afterlife belief than is sometimes recognized). These would thus not be Christian foundation or elementary principles for a Jewish audience. All these items would, however, be foundation for a Gentile audience that came to believe on Jesus as Messiah.
6:3-5 And this we will do, if indeed God allows, for it is impossible for those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have become partakers of Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age...
The author is now setting up one of the most notorious passages in the New Testament, the starkest warning passage to believers in Scripture. The author wishes to take the audience to a deeper understanding of the significance of Christ's atonement. He wishes them to move on to maturity.
But he expresses some hesitation about going on. Likely this hesitation is part of his shaming of the audience rather than a real fear on his part. But he makes his warning clear. It is possible to reach a point, like the wilderness generation, where God has made up His mind to condemn. After a certain point, God swore that the wilderness generation would not enter into His rest.
The author does not likely think that the audience has truly reached such a point of disbelief. But he makes the situation very clear. He wants to take them to the next level--but they have put themselves in a precarious position where it is possible that God might not allow them to go any further. There is a point after which further advancement becomes impossible.
There can be no doubt but that the author considers the audience to be "in" the people of God. They have left Egypt. To partake of Holy Spirit is to be a "Christian." It is not merely to dabble in Christianity, as some suggest, for Christ "partook" of flesh and blood (2:14) and tasted death (9). Any suggestion, therefore, that the audience has not truly converted is wishful thinking.
The mention of enlightenment could of course refer to Jewish believers, but would be especially appropriate for Gentile believers. Nevertheless, the author consistently uses imagery of ignorance for those who have not yet believed on Christ in a general sense.
The heavenly gift is apparently the Holy Spirit, which the New Testament consistently treats as the threshhold of entrance into Christian faith. Hebrews in particular seems to link the Holy Spirit with entrance into the new covenant, with God writing His laws on His people's hearts (e.g., 10:16). Spirit is the stuff of heaven, as opposed to flesh and blood, the stuff of earth. It is thus part and parcel of the powers of the coming age.
The "good word of God" uses the word hrema that is used in 11:3. There we hear that the worlds were framed by the word of God. This word is also something that we experience as believers.
... [it is impossible] if they fall away to be renewing themselves to repentance, since they crucify to themselves the Son of God all over again and expose him to public disgrace.
Like the wilderness generation that reached a point where God swore they would never enter His rest, the audience could reach a point where "no sacrifice for sin remains" (10:26). To fall away in this context does not refer in this case to habitual sinning in general (although perhaps the author would apply the concept to it as well). The specific reference is to an audience that disbelieves God's promise and turns back on faith, that "apostacizes" from the confession of Jesus as the Son of God, as the Messianic king.
Such individuals cannot "find a place of repentance," as the author says of Esau in 12:17. Esau sold his birthright as firstborn son for food. Then later, even though he sought a place of repentance with tears, he could not find one. So the author warns, if the audience falls away from their sonship like Esau, like the wilderness generation disbelieved God's promise, they to will find themselves unable to repent again.
Such actions disgrace God's patronage through Jesus Christ. They haul Christ up on the cross again and expose him to public disgrace... again. This imagery would be particularly appropriate if the audience potentially faces civil authorities. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that such things happened during the persecution under Nero. Some Christians at that time disgraced Christ publically by renouncing him. Certainly if Hebrews was written later at the time of Vespasian, Titus, or Domitian, the audience might anticipate the same course of events again.
6:7-8 For earth that drinks rain coming on it often and that yields a crop pleasing to those for whom it is farmed receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is unworthy and is near a curse, whose end is in burning.
The import of this illustration is clear. The audience is like a field that has received the frequent blessing of rain. They have been believers for some time. They have heard much from faithful leaders of the past (13:7). The author of Hebrews himself is trying to give them strong meat.
The question is whether they will yield a pleasing crop or not. Esau did not inherit the blessing after he sold his birthright (12:17). So the audience, if it turns out to bear thorns and thistles after God has graciously given them so much, will be deemed unworthy of the promise.
The author wishes to show them what dangerous ground it is to waver in faith. It is to be near the point of cursing. The end is in the destroying fire of God, who is a "consuming fire" (12:29). Hebrews is not clear about whether this is a never ending fire, although the author has just mentioned "eternal judgment" (6:2). Hebrews may simply refer to destruction by fire and removal along with the creation (12:27).
Monday, April 21, 2008
It's been an interesting year. There's been intermittent seminary planning, my experimental Hebrews course, reading groups ancient and contemporary. A new set of students has come in from high school and matured to become "wise fools" (sophomores). Another group will launch out into the abyss of the post-college world (which, given delayed adolescence these days, still gives them another ten years to find themselves).
I feel like I've learned a lot too. Somehow, over the course of the year, this blog has gone to practically one post a day. Sundays are explanatory or preaching notes. Mondays are more laid back, more general. Fridays are for book reviews. The rest gets filled in with odds and ends.
The summer I plan to continue the pattern:
Sunday: Preaching Notes on Hebrews (through May), Galatians (June), Philippians (July), and Romans 1-6 (August)
Monday: In the news, general thoughts
Tuesday: Explanatory Notes on the books above.
Wednesday: Writing or Book Review
Thursday: Explanatory Notes on the books above.
Friday: Book Review
Saturday: Writing or Book Review
At least that's the plan... Happy Summer!
Sunday, April 20, 2008
These statements raise questions for us concerning Christ's humanity. As Christians we believe that Jesus is fully human (Council of Chalcedon, 451). This fact seems to imply that sinfulness is not an essential characteristic of humanity. Both Jesus and Adam before the Fall were fully human and yet not sinful. In the Wesleyan tradition, they are generally taken as hints of what is possible for humanity. That is not to deny that Adam and Christ's perfection probably surpassed what we can attain in this life. But perhaps the Spirit can empower a person to live without intentional sinning even while on earth.
But what does it mean to say that Jesus was without sin? Does it mean that he never forgot where he had left the donkey? Here we get into the very meaning of what sin is. Many would consider sin to be anything that "misses the mark," a definition that might extend sin to anything short of absolute perfection. Such a definition would be hard to find in the New Testament and is usually based on a fallacious understanding of language.
Even if the word "to sin" was used at some point in Greek history relation to archery and missing a target, this would not imply such a meaning stood behind the word's use in the New Testament. How a word is used at any point depends on, well, how it is being used at that point. The history of a word may or may not have any relevance whatsoever to the meaning of that word today (that includes the word's etymology).
Sin for Hebrews is not a trivial matter. It is not even a matter of flaring up and losing your temper. To sin in Hebrews is to disobey and disbelieve in a concrete and observable manner. It is not a matter of introspection, some wavering inside your head. As we will see, even the word conscience in Hebrews does not have this sort of modern psychological sense.
Sins of ignorance in Hebrews should probably not be equated with unintentional sins either in the Old Testament sense or in the way we sometimes speak of unintended sins today. These are primarily sins committed while ignorant of the truth of Christ. 10:26 thus speaks of sinning willfully after receiving a knowledge of the truth and refers to sins against faith toward Christ.
When the author says that Jesus was without sin, he therefore is not likely thinking about mistakes or about the kinds of unintended wrongs we do each other. Perhaps Jesus did not do these either, but these things are not likely what Hebrews is thinking here. Hebrews 4:15 refers to how Jesus behaved when tempted and tested. Like 1 Corinthians 10:13 says believers in general can, Jesus always bore temptation without sin, without making the wrong choice.
Interestingly, most of us likely have more difficulty identifying with the humanity of Jesus than with his divinity. His two natures are difficult for us to combine in a balanced way, and at different points of history Christians have overemphasized one to the detriment of the other.
However, in the New Testament the humanity of Jesus is quite clear. A full understanding of Jesus' divinity would take several centuries to unpack. In the New Testament his divinity is the stuff of poetry and exalted language as God helped the early Christians find categories to describe their exalted Lord. The pendulum would swing so that by the 400's, Eutychus was ready to disregard Christ's humanity as a drop in the ocean of his divinity. The church rejected this perspective. Christ's full humanity must be taken seriously as one of his two natures.
Friday, April 18, 2008
I personally struggle to find much of anything objectionable in this article. Indeed, in many respects it is simply Dunn's version of Krister Stendahl's "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." As someone from the Methodist tradition--and a revivalist version of that as well--I need not worry (like Peter Enns of Westminster Theological Seminary) whether or not I am properly living out the Calvinist Westminster Confession of 1647. And the Methodist tradition stands on an opposite side of the spectrum from the Lutheran, which takes a particularly hard hit from recent developments in Pauline studies.
Frankly, developments in Pauline studies have made this a great time for Wesleyan theology. The runt of the litter proves to be the most biblically sound of the lot. Of course Dunn himself is a Scottish Presbyterian, as his stubborn interpretation of Romans 7 reflects. Seemingly out of keeping with his other perspectives, he has become a minority in continuing to see this chapter as an expression of Paul's ongoing struggle with sin even as a person with the Spirit. Wright is an Anglican bishop, and I wonder at times whether the Westminster Confession colors some of his thought as well.
But to the article.
1. A richer understanding of biblical justification
Dunn begins with the famous quote from Luther in which Luther expresses his shift in understanding of what "the righteousness of God" is in Romans 1:17. Luther moves from the Latin sense of the justice of God, which was fearful to Luther, to a righteousness from God. This righteousness from God is our righteousness by faith or, as we English speakers say, "justification by faith."
In his contemporary response to his detractors, Dunn points out several lines from the article they seem to have willfully overlooked, like this one: "I should perhaps emphasize that what I say is not and should not be conceived as an attack on the Protestant doctrine of justification" (194). Oops. Dunn is not denying the doctrine of justification by faith. He is rather "drawing attention to aspects of a larger, still richer doctrine" that have been lost in the train of Luther's rediscovery.
I'm sure it's irritating when you find out that, after your tradition has trashed the church in deference for "Scripture alone," it turns out that your tradition too is a Christian tradition that has modified biblical teaching itself. There is development of doctrine after the New Testament in the church in every Christian tradition. It's about time we all came to grips with it and clarified appropriate and inappropriate means for evaluating it.
2. Negative fallout from Luther's doctrine
Dunn mentions four areas in which the impact of Luther's version of justification by faith has been untrue to Paul himself.
First, it has led interpreters to see Paul's "conversion" as the climax to a long, inward, spiritual struggle (195). The problem is that Paul gives no hint of such agony in any of the passages where he explicitly recalls his pre-conversion days (e.g., Gal. 1:13-14). Dunn recognizes that Romans 7 is not giving pre-Christian autobiography (as Kümmel pointed out way back in 1929).
Secondly, Augustine and Luther led to an understanding of justification by faith in distinctly individualistic terms. But as Stendahl and before him William Wrede and Albert Schweitzer have protested, Paul is focused on identity in relation to groups (which more recent sociological NT studies like those of Bruce Malina have vindicated). Paul only writes indirectly about individual justification before God. It is an implication of his writing but not the main thrust, which is about how the Gentiles can be included within the people of God and God still be true to his covenant with Israel. I frankly don't see how this point is even debatable.
Thirdly, it has led interpreters to see Paul's "conversion" as a conversion from Judaism and the idea that Judaism is opposite Christianity. How many pulpits still speak of "Paul" as Paul's Christian name and "Saul" as his Jewish name, as if Paul's identity changed fundamentally with regard to his ethnicity at his "conversion." Oops. Acts continues to call him Saul for over 10 years after his "conversion."
Stendahl has of course pushed the question of whether Paul's coming to Christ should be called a conversion or rather, a call from God to go to the Gentiles. In his Theology of Paul the Apostle, Dunn rightly notes that it depends (as Joel Green has pointed out previously in blog comments here also). It is appropriate to call Paul's coming to Christ a conversion if you are speaking of a change from one Jewish group to another (such as from Pharisee to Essene or from Pharisee to Christian). However, given the way the term conversion is usually used, it is more often inappropriate. Paul did not see himself changing religions when he believed on Christ.
Lastly, Luther's views fostered a virulently negative view toward Judaism as a degenerate religion, with the Pharisees the worst of all. No doubt Matthew has helped perpetuate this view of the Pharisees. It is important to remember that Matthew's portrayal of them is only one of those in the gospels, and by far the most negative of all. If we only use Matthew to arrive at our understanding of the Pharisees, our view will be very one-sided, which is what happens when you form your understanding of a person or group solely through the eyes of their enemies.
No one would deny that Luther's views toward the Jews were detestable and certainly did nothing to prevent the Holocaust. It is far more likely that, in fact, they helped enable it.
While E. P. Sanders may himself have overstated his case, he has surely shown more correct than not that "Judaism is first and foremost a religion of grace, with human obedience always understood as a response to that grace" (199). To be sure, this theology may at times have been obscured by an over-focus on righteous acts. But I suspect it would have been very hard to find an ancient Jewish thinker who would not have put true to this question on a quiz.
3. Overlooked Pauline Clues
Now Dunn mentions three overlooked Pauline clues that might have kept us from such Lutheran fallout.
First, we should have known from the background of the word zeal. All the examples of zeal in the Jewish background literature are about fighting to defend the exclusiveness of Israel, "by maintaining Israel's distinctiveness as God's own people over against the other nations" (201). It is very easy to see that these sorts of individuals from Jewish tradition--Phinehas, Judas Maccabeus--might very well have served as Paul's "pre-Christian" role models. These are individuals who were zealous for those aspects of Jewish identity that distinguished Jew from Gentile, not zealous to be a person with more good works than anyone else.
Again, I fail to see how this perspective is even debatable.
Second, the boasting Paul has in mind is patently not Rudolph Bultmann's "sinful self-reliance" or Käsemann's boasting in one's own achievements--when these are understood apart from Jewish identity. The confidence of Romans 2 is primarily a confidence in one's status as a Jew. This is not to say that there is not an implication for individual boasting in self-righteousness. It is simply to say that to put this notion first is to skew the context of Paul's comments.
While I am still mulling over Dunn's understanding of "my own righteousness" in Philippians 3:9, I think Dunn must be more correct than incorrect to see the reference to "their own righteousness" in Romans 10:3 as a sense of Israel's righteousness in the light of its performance of the law, understood to refer primarily to distinctives like circumcision and purity laws.
Thirdly, Dunn mentions "works of law" as primarily, although not exclusively, a reference to acts that distinguished Jew from Gentile and, indeed, that distinguished Jew from Jew. As far as I can tell, Dunn here mentions for the first time 4QMMT, which at that time was still unpublished. Dunn concludes, "... 'deeds or works of the law' was a way of characterizing the same intense concern shared by so many Jews of the period to maintain the distinctiveness of their relationship with God as over against the Gentiles" (204).
Dunn draws a conclusion at then end of this section, one that is part of what he means by a "richer" doctrine of justification by faith: "Justification by faith is a banner raised by Paul against any and all such presumption of privileged status before God by virtue of race, culture or nationality, against any and all attempts to preserve such spurious distinctions by practices that exclude and divide" (205).
4. The Righteousness of God in the Old Testament
I never got back to a comment under an earlier post about the idea that Paul understands the righteousness of God as a reference to God's righteousness in His saving relationship with Israel and the world. The comment asked why look to the Psalms and Isaiah for the background of this phrase. The answer is that Paul's writings are replete with echoes of middle Isaiah and, indeed, Richard Hays spends a good deal of his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul unfolding them.
So in this final section of the article, Dunn's makes some claims about the concept of the "righteousness of God" or, as the title of the article puts it, "the justice of God," understood more in its Old Testament sense.
First, Dunn follows Cremer (1900) in seeing righteousness as a "relational concept" (206). It's background is not the Greco-Roman legal sense of absolute ethical norms. "God is righteous not because he satisfies some ideal of justice external to himself. Rather, God is righteous when he fulfils the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel's God" (207).
So in Romans 1:16-17, the righteousness of God is "God's saving power to faith." The issue between Paul and his Jewish brothers is thus "not because of any dispute over the fundamental principles of grace and faith and human obedience" (208). It is rather "dispute about the particulars and outworkings of these principles." By implication, "to characterize Judaism per se as a religion of self-achievement is not only scurrilous, it is simply bad exegesis."
Dunn's second and final point is that God's saving righteousness brought with it expectations both in an appropriate response to God in obedience and in "being righteous toward one's neighbour" (208-9). Dunn cites Ezekiel 18:5-9 to show what Ezekiel understood a righteous person to be. The one who rejects this aspect of righteousness thus rejects not Judaism but the Old Testament.
Part of the justice of God thus entailed care for the poor, the fatherless, the widow as one's brothers and sisters (citing Deuteronomy 24:10-22 at some length). Again, this dimension of righteousness is no doubt part of what Dunn means by a "richer" understanding of the "justice of God."
There are no doubt minor points at which one might take issue with one or another aspect of this understanding of Paul. But its general accuracy over and against the earlier prevailing "Lutheran" reading seems beyond serious dispute. That of course has not stopped attempts by those who have suddenly found themselves kicking against the pricks. Why I heard that D. A. Carson did some kicking and screaming in a class just a couple weeks ago at Trinity against Dunn et al.
Ah, what a great time to be Wesleyan :-)
Thursday, April 17, 2008
With this comment the author begins the main high priestly argument of Hebrews. He hinted that this argument was coming back in 2:17-18, and he announced his intention to consider "the high priest of our confession" in 3:1. But it is not until here in 4:14 that his consideration really begins.
In 5:1-10 the author will begin his consideration of Christ as priest, an argument he does not finish until the end of chapter 7 (with a major interuption in 5:11-6:20). Then in Hebrews 8-10 the author will consider the new covenant with its greater sanctuary and sacrifice. We can tell that 4:14-10:18 is a block of thought because of the way 10:19-25 reiterate--almost word for word at times--the statements here in 4:14-16.
The author sets up in this verse a picture that he will build on in chapters 8-10 in particular. Christ passes through layers of sky to the highest sky or heaven where God "dwells." The idea of the universe as the true temple of deity was well known in the ancient world and is attested both by Philo and Josephus. So it was all too easy to see this passage through the heavens, through the layers of sky, as the entrance of the true high priest into the true Holy of Holies.
Jesus the Son of God is the high priest of our "confession." Various suggestions are made for what exactly this confession might be. We do not have any evidence in the New Testament of anyone confessing "Jesus is a high priest." But it is quite possible that the author has in mind the confession of Jesus as the Son of God. We also know that the early church confessed Jesus as Lord (e.g., Rom. 10:9), but Hebrews does not seem to focus so much on this title. Of course in content both are royal titles that reflect Christ's kingship.
4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is not able to sympathize with our weaknesses but who in all things has been tempted similarly without sin.
Along with 2 Cor. 5:21, this verse makes a clear claim that Jesus was sinless. It is difficult to know precisely what the author meant by this statement. He is about to argue implicitly that when faced with suffering and persecution, Jesus surrendered to God. Jesus was tempted in the same way that the audience is, but did not sin by disobeying or disbelieving the promise. In a sense, the earthly Jesus is as much an example of faith just as the other heroes of chapter 11.
But we might make some more general theological observations from this verse. One is that temptation in itself is not sin. As James says similarly, it is when desire has conceived that it gives birth to sin (James 1:15). In chapter 5 we will find that by "weakness" here the author means falling into sin (5:2-3). So in the vocabulary of the author, Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses without having them.
4:16 Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we might receive mercy and we might find grace as a well-timed help.
It would be easy to see this verse as an offer for help in a time of temptation, that is, to be able to overcome it (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:13). If, on the other hand, the intercession of Christ has to do primarily with "atoning intercession" (in contrast with the Holy Spirit), then the verse could also have to do with mercy and grace after already beginning to fall into sin.
The author likely has specifically an audience that has been wavering in faithfulness under pressure. In that sense, they have not fully fallen away, but they wavering. They have not sinned beyond repair, but they are potentially on the wrong path. In Christ they will find a sympathetic high priest who can help, particularly with assurance of atonement.
5:1 For every high priest taken from among mortals is appointed on behalf of mortals in relation to the things of God, so that he might offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.
So exactly what is a high priest? The author has an agenda with the audience. He wishes to show the audience that the Levitical system is not necessary for their atonement, that the atonement provided by Christ is fully sufficient. For those who see Hebrews written before the temple was destroyed, this argument has to be understood as an argument against participation in the Jerusalem temple and any synagogue meals that might have linked local worship with that temple. However, we think it more likely that the author is helping the audience cope with the sudden absence of a temple to make daily sacrifices for them and such.
Priests intercede to God for the mortals within their perview. In the chapters that follow, the author will argue that Christ is a greater priest than the Levitical priests in a better sanctuary with a better sacrifice. In fact, he is the reality to which these shadowy examples actually pointed in the first place. They were never really able to take away sins. Now that Christ has arrived, they are completely obsolete. The audience need not be troubled at the destruction of the temple. Their atonement is secure.
5:2 ... and he is able to empathize with those who are ignorant and who go astray, since he himself is also beset by weakness.
Christ is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he has been tempted. But earthly high priests are sinners themselves--they are beset by weakness. Sin here is pictured as acting in ignorance. The contrast between sin as acts of ignorance and not sinning because one has a knowledge of the truth is one with which Hebrews regularly operates. Since the author here discusses Jewish high priests, we cannot conclude here that the audience is Gentile, although the idea that Gentiles are ignorant of God was apparently a commonplace.
5:3 And because of it [weakness], [the high priest] must--just as in relation to the people--so also for himself [must] offer sin offerings.
This will be a crucial difference between Christ and earthly high priests for the author. Christ does not have to offer sacrifices for himself. The phrase we have translated "sin offerings" is actually "concerning sins" in Greek. But this phrase regularly seems to allude to the Levitical sin offering.
5:4 And someone does not take the honor [of high priesthood] for himself, but [such a person is] called by God, just as was the case for Aaron.
The author here points out a well known aspect of high priesthood, one that perhaps he would not hardly need to point out to the audience. Priesthood was not a matter of personal choice, like choosing a career in the Western world today. One had to have the right background and be appointed by God.
Perhaps the author is anticipating an argument that might be made against the idea of Christ as priest. As he will argue in chapter 7, Christ at first glance does not seem to have the proper resume to be a priest. The author will quickly and ingeniously address this apparent difficulty in his argument.
5:5-6 So also the Christ did not glorify himself to become a high priest, but the One who spoke to him, "You are my Son; I today have given you birth"
also says in a different place, "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek."
The author here seems to be in the middle of somewhat of a transition. It is not, in my opinion, a clear cut transition. Some would see the first four chapters in relation to Christ the Son and now a clear cut transition to Christ the high priest. To some extent this is true topically, but it is not clear to us that the author has structured Hebrews this way literarily.
In our opinion, the "appointment" of Christ to royal Son and to heavenly high priest both relate directly to Christ's exaltation and, thus, to the same basic event understood somewhat metaphorically in two different ways. The same Christ who sits at God's right hand as king passes through the cosmic sanctuary into the heavenly Holy of Holies.
Both are a matter of God's appointment. Hebrews alludes to or quotes Psalm 110:1 repeatedly in relation to Jesus as cosmic king: "The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." Paul and other early Christians understood it similarly. As far as we know, however, Hebrews is the only author to go further to Psalm 110:4 and read it in relation to Christ: "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek."
5:7 ... who in the days of his flesh had offered both petitions and supplications to the One able to rescue him out of death with strong crying and tears and who was heard because of his godliness.
Some have noted that the offering of petitions and supplications sounds somewhat like priestly activities prior to Christ's exaltation. Given that this description of Jesus starts from a reference to his priesthood, this idea may be true. We remember that Christ's high priesthood is ultimately metaphorical in the sense that he was not a priest in the normal use of the word (cf. Heb. 8:4).
Many take this statement as a reference to Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane. While such an allusion is possible, it is by no means certain. Jesus is not praying here for the cup to pass from him, as in Mark 14:36. After all, God answers the prayer Jesus is making here, namely, a prayer to be raised from the dead.
It may seem strange to us that the resurrection of Jesus would be in question at all. Yet this verse indicates that there was a "moral" basis for it. It is because of Jesus' godliness, his reverent submission to God, that God could justify his resurrection.
5:8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience from the things that he suffered.
This verse does not mean to say that Christ was disobedient and thus that God had to discipline him so that he would learn obedience. This statement is an allusion to the situation of the audience. They are children of God and they are undergoing suffering and God's discipline, a theme the author will unfold in depth in chapter 12.
The author thus means for the audience here to compare themselves to Jesus. He was a son like them, but he had the correct response to suffering--he obeyed God and demonstrated a godly reverence for God's will. Accordingly, God raised him from the dead. So too the audience must demonstrate obedience in the things that they are suffering.
5:9 And after he was perfected, he became a cause of eternal salvation to all those who obey him...
As we saw in 2:10, Christ's perfection in Hebrews does not imply that he was sinful and became sinless. It is rather a reference to his full readiness as a high priest, his "completeness" in relation to the atonement he has provided. From a sacrificial standpoint, Christ was not yet able to provide eternal atonement until he had died and risen from the dead.
Now, with that atonement secured, he offers eternal salvation to all who approach the throne of grace. As he obeyed God to the point of death (cf. Phil. 2:8; Rom. 5:19), showed us what the "faith of Jesus Christ" was (cf. Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:16), so those who obey him and put their faith in him (cf. Rom. 10:11) will find eternal salvation from God's consuming fire.
5:10 ... having been designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
We note again the timing of this designation as the point of Christ's perfection, his resurrection and exaltation. His function as this high priest is clear from the previous verse--he offers eternal salvation as Melchizedekian high priest. The author has thus demonstrated the calling of the Messiah to be high priest, perhaps a somewhat unexpected role, although certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls do speak of a messiah of Aaron and Israel. But they certainly had nothing in mind like what the author of Hebrews does.
The author will pick up this thread again in 7:1. In the meantime, however, he has a rather stern warning for the audience. If they were about to fall asleep as he began his detailed argument, he will now jolt them into attention.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Chiefly, Stendahl argued back in 1963 that the common reading of Paul was anachronistic in the extreme.
1. Paul did not struggle with a sense of moral failure either as a Christian or before he believed in Christ (still a common misreading of Romans 7). Paul had a "robust conscience" that considered himself blameless as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:6), rarely used words like repentance and forgiveness, and regularly admonished his churches to follow the example of his life.
2. Romans is not an abstract theological discussion of how individuals have sinned and need to be saved but about how Gentiles can become part of the people of God. In Romans 3:23 Paul was not thinking "all individuals have sinned" but that "all--both Gentile and Jew--have sinned." Romans 9-11 is not an appendix to the first 8 chapters but in some sense the climax of what he has been discussing all along.
3. Luther read Paul in the light of his own personality struggles and conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. But Paul was a Jew, not a Catholic, and his issues with the Roman Catholic Church were not the same as those Paul had with his fellow Jews.
4. Paul does not have the Augustinian sense that "I" am thoroughly corrupted and thus that sin flows from my sin nature. Rather, the "I" of Romans 7 wants to do the good but is unable to because of the power of sin over me. Paul absolves his "I" of blame for sin--"It is not I that does it but sin that dwells in me."
5. The Law is not a schoolmaster to beat me over the knuckles as a failure but a guardian, a custodian to take me to school and help me learn.
There were some extremes to Stendahl's thought, especially as time went by, but I wholeheartedly agree with all these points from his key article. When I first read them, they seemed so obvious, like a breath of fresh air. My own anachronistic assumptions suddenly seemed so clear.
If you want to understand Paul, read nothing else until you have read this.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
This unit began with a contrast between Jesus and Moses as part of the author's overall purpose to show that Christ has made the now old covenant unnecessary. As such, a sermon meant to show the greatness of Christ might include this idea as one among other points (greater than angels, Moses, Joshua, Levitical priests, sacrifices, sanctuary...).
To the original audience, these contrasts had a direct practical relevance. Whether written to Gentile, Jew, or a mixed audience, they were meant to encourage them not to worry about the loss of Jerusalem and its temple. Or if Hebrews was written before AD70, these contrasts were meant to set their priorities straight. We think the former is more likely.
To find a direct pastoral equivalent today is difficult. Nevertheless, one of the general implications of Hebrews--one that we find ourselves drawing over and over in various ways--is we need not cling to anything other than Christ for rest. A brief word study of the words peace and rest in Hebrews will conclude that these are part of the desired responses to its message.
To cease from your own labors in Hebrews, we have suggested, is to stop fretting over your destiny and to enter into God's rest. The rest that God promises is both current and ultimate. It is ultimate in the sense of something God will give us most fully when we finally see the coming of His unshakeable kingdom. Yet we must also enter it every day that is called, "Today." We can talk about yesterday and tomorrow, but in reality, we never exist outside of today.
This observation leads us to another aspect of this unit of thought, namely, its warning to those who disbelieve God's promises. In addition to the positive hope of God's rest, these verses hold out a stark warning to those who do not continue in faith to the end. We have become partakers of the Christ if we hold fast to the end. We are God's household if we hold on to our confidence and public confession of hope in what God has promised is coming.
We must not be like the wilderness generation, whose corpses fell in the desert. They left Egypt and thus are a type of the Christian. But they did not believe God's promises and their corpses fell in the desert. So a person can truly be in the people of God and on their way to the coming kingdom yet fail to make it in the end because they fail to continue in faith.
The unit ends with a stern warning. God's word, His will in action, sees everything, including the heart. Nothing can hide from God, and we must all give an account to God. We will see these themes in Hebrews reiterated over and over.
Monday, April 14, 2008
We can discuss the difference between how these words "read" in the first century versus how they read today. What is the difference between "that time" and "this time"? We can follow IBS methods and survey Ephesians, do a detailed observation on some of these verses, do our word studies and interpretive studies using the best of commentaries (Asbury speak). We can measure the width of the "river" between their town and our town and cross the "principlizing bridge" (Duvall and Hays textbook Dora the Explorer speak).
But a wedding is real. It's real life. More importantly, it's the lives of two real people. I've been to a wedding where the wife was soundly subjugated to her husband on the pretense of a superficial reading of this text. He was the hero, the superman. She was the poor little mindless thing that should obey the superior intellect, no doubt in between knitting.
My heart sunk, distressed that a teaching that liberated marriages 2000 years ago would be used to enslave them today, angered at the perversion of God's word by way of a shallow reading of the Bible's words.
It was not the time for debate. I prayerfully rendered a dynamic translation that I thought would come closer to what God might want couples to hear from these words today.
"As you surrender to one another in the fear of Christ, let the wives do so to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband provides for the wife as Christ provides for the church—he is the Savior of the body...
"Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for it so that ... it might be holy and blameless. So also ought husbands to show love to their wives as their own bodies. The husband who loves his wife loves himself.
"Christ nourishes and cherishes the church because we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave father and mother and be joined to his wife. And the two will be one flesh.
"So let each love his own wife as himself, and let the wife respect her husband."
One of the main decisions I made was with the statement, "the husband is the head of the wife." Of course it did have to do in part with authority in the ancient context. However, the head also had to do with "feeding" the body and nourishment, as Colossians 2:19 indicates. Notice that this passage speaks of Christ "nourishing" and "cherishing" the church.
So I asked myself questions like this: Does "head" give the most accurate connotations of this passage today, especially given how politicized the issue is. No, I decided, it immediately gives the impression that this passage is about the domination of the husband, and that is not the main connotation of what Paul was saying. It was the secondary feature of the original meaning.
Second, is this the most accurate application of this Scripture to today? Not a time for debate but a time to take responsibility as the designated mediator of God's word.
"The husband provides" I thought was a more accurate translation, especially since the role of Christ as "rescuer"/"savior" of the body is evoked.
Of course in the age of the Spirit, sometimes God provides through the wife as well. :-)
Sunday, April 13, 2008
The author is now going to draw conclusions from his comparison between the wilderness generation and the audience. God gave the wilderness generation the promise of rest in Canaan, in the promised land. God has also made a promise to the audience of Hebrews, the promise of an unshakeable kingdom that is yet to come. The audience is on a journey of faith just as those who left Egypt were. It would be horrible if they fell short before arrival.
4:2 For we also have received a promise as those also did. But the word of hearing did not profit those because they did not mix [the word] with faith among those who had heard.
The author brings out again the theme he mentioned more than once in chapter three and that he will reiterate several times more before this sermon is over. It is not enough simply to have received the word of promise. That promise must be mixed with faith, a faith that includes endurance and continuance toward the promised land. Otherwise the word of faith is ineffective.
The construction, "we have received a promise" is the perfect tense in Greek. It suggests that God made a promise that continues to stand in the present. The promise was made, completed. But it remains a promise up until the time the author of Hebrews made this statement.
The last part of the second sentence is difficult grammatically. That ancient copyists of Hebrews found it difficult as well is clear from the variation in the manuscripts that read that it is the hearing or the word that was not mixed with faith. Perhaps this was the author's intended sense. However, the most probable original reading perhaps points to it being those who heard themselves who did not mix the word of hearing with faith.
4:3 For we are entering into rest, we who have faith, just He has spoken, "As I have sworn in My anger, they will not enter into My rest"...
The present tense in Greek mostly has the sense of an ongoing action far more than meaning that something is happening now. Perhaps the first verb of this verse would be translated well as "we are in the process of entering into rest." Some holiness preachers of the past used this passage to preach entire sanctification. Perhaps the Spirit led them to do so. But the author of Hebrews was primarily thinking about the future entrance into eternal rest in the coming kingdom.
The author uses the usual perfect tense that New Testament authors use in relation to Scripture. The connotation is, again, that the text was written, completed, but it continues to stand as written today, for us and not only for the time of writing.
The author is about to engage in a typical ancient Jewish method of interpretation, gezerah shewa, in which he uses a "catchword" from one verse to link that verse with another. It is important for us to remember that originally such verses usually had nothing to do with each other. The link is being made from the outside of the text looking in at texts that are now together but were not connected originally in any way.
If we believe in the inspiration of the author of Hebrews, then the Spirit validates the reading. But the original inspiration of the texts themselves is a different inspiration and, indeed, involves different meanings. We are reminded of the verse in John that says that "the Spirit blows where He wants and you hear the sound of Him, but you do not know where He is coming from or where He is going" (John 3:8)
4:4-5 ... although [God's] works existed at the foundation of the world. For He has spoken somewhere concerning the seventh day in this way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all His works," and again in this place, "They will not enter into My rest."
The author is connecting the passage that started off this section, Psalm 95, with Genesis 2:2 on the basis of the common root, "to rest." Of course these two texts were unrelated in their original meanings. Psalm 95 was originally about the wilderness generation and Genesis 2 was about the creation of the world. But using Jewish hermeneutical methods, the Holy Spirit can use both texts to shed light on each other.
The author surely knows that it is Genesis that mentions God's resting on the seventh day. To say that God or the Holy Spirit has spoken somewhere is the author's style that perhaps distances the text from its human author.
God has promised a final rest for the people of God, including the audience. What is God's rest? God rested on the seventh day after "working" the six days of creation. So what light does God's rest from the work of creation shed on the rest that God has promised His people?
4:6 Therefore, since it remains for certain individuals to enter into it [the rest] and the first ones who had received the promise [formerly] did not enter in because of disobedience,
The wilderness generation had a promise of entering into God's rest in Canaan, but they did not because of their disbelief in the promise and disobedience of God. But God wills for people to enter into His rest. He will make a way for others to enter.
Some will need to keep in mind that this is not a straightforwardly logical argument. It is much more poetic, especially since the individual texts are blurring into each other and not being read strictly in context. So we should not think the author is saying that God's original plan failed and that the new covenant is Plan B. The author will make it abundantly clear that God has always had Christ in His plan.
4:7 ... [God] is again setting aside a certain day, "Today," in David saying after so great a time, as it has been said previously, "Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts."
Thus another opportunity to enter God's rest has been offered, namely, today. While the author primarily has in view eventual entrance into eternal rest, the author will now begin to focus on the need, in a sense, to enter it daily. Each day that the audience does not harden its heart and continues in faith is a day that the audience does not harden its heart like the wilderness generation.
We enter into God's rest today. Tomorrow is of course another today, as is the day after that. We must therefore enter into God's rest every day so that we can be sure to enter into His ultimate rest on the Day.
In keeping with the author's style, he says "in David" rather than "David says," again perhaps distancing the text from its human author. This differs of course from Paul's style, as we see in Romans 4:6 where Paul straightforwardly states, "David says."
4:8 For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken about another day after these things.
The author now plays on the timing of Psalm 95. Assuming David as the timing of the psalm, we can see that the Holy Spirit speaks of a rest to the audience of the psalm after the days of Joshua. Therefore, the rest of Canaan must not be the rest Psalm 95 anticipates. There must still remain another rest for the people of God after Moses and Joshua, the one that stands available for the audience of Hebrews.
4:9-10 Therefore, a sabbath rest is left for the people of God. For the one who has entered into His rest has also himself rested from his works just as God [rested] from His own works.
The author now ties the Genesis and Psalm text together. The rest of God in Psalm 95 is like the "sabbath rest" of Genesis 2. The timing of this verse--and what it means to rest from one's own works--is ambiguous to us, although perhaps it was not to the original audience. The author has been speaking of entering into rest "today," so perhaps the immediate context tips the scales slightly toward this sabbath rest having to do with something the audience is to do today.
But what does it mean to rest from one's own works, as God did? It is certainly not a reference to keeping the Sabbath, since that topic has not come up anywhere here. It is difficult to see it as stopping to sin, since it would be hard to suggest that God rested from sinning on the seventh day. The faith versus works issue is not anything of which Hebrews reflects any interest and, in any case, the usual interpretation of Paul himself is already somewhat skewed on this topic.
However, if we try not to let post-Reformation debates about faith versus works cloud our minds, it is possible that the author is alluding to the worries and efforts of the audience relative to their atonement. If Hebrews is meant to assure the audience that Christ is the final answer to their salvation, then to cease from their works could be an invitation on the part of the author for them not to worry about those things that are currently troubling their faith. They can trust and rest in God's promise, for He has already finished the work in Christ.
4:11 Therefore, let us be diligent to enter into that rest, so that no one falls by way of the same example of disobedience.
The author now returns to the image of future entrance into God's final rest. Like the wilderness generation, the audience is to continue striving toward that rest. We will see these concepts again. Hebrews 6:6 will warn the audience again about the finality of falling away. Esau in Hebrews 12:16-17 will give yet another bad example to be avoided of someone who began as a firstborn son with an inheritance. But later he did not receive the blessing and even could not find a place of repentance, even though he sought one "with tears."
4:12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than every two-edged sword and penetrates to divide soul and spirit, both bone and marrow, and is discerning of the thoughts and intents of the heart...
Certainly it would be anachronistic to think the word of God here as the Bible. Not only was the Bible as we know it not yet collected into a single volume, but Hebrews has repeatedly referred to God's speaking in a way that reflects a sense of God's word as something that includes Scripture but is much bigger than it. "God spoke in these last days through a Son" (Heb. 1:2), for example, is a comment that almost certainly does not refer to the words written down in any of the literary gospels. The Bible is part of the word of God, but it does not come close to exhausting that word.
Hebrews has not given us reason to consider the word of God here to be Christ, as in John 1. For example, Hebrews 2:3 speaks of God beginning to speak salvation through the Lord and alludes to its continued speaking through the apostles. Hebrews has a sense of God's word, God's logos, but it does not explicitly--or clearly implicitly--equate it strictly with Jesus.
Certainly the idea of the word of God had a history prior to Christianity, primarily in Jewish "philosophical" thinking. The Wisdom of Solomon and the writings of Philo both extensively operate with a sense of God's word as God's will in action. Indeed, Wisdom 18:15-16 speaks of God's word using a sword during the exodus to judge the Egyptians.
Since the author of Hebrews apparently knew the book of Wisdom (see comment on 1:3), it is not impossible that the author had this text in mind here as well. That would especially fit since these verses close a section that remembers the example of the children of Israel who left Egypt.
The "cutting word," a concept we also find in Philo, is able to discern the various parts of the creation. Philo did see a distinction between soul and spirit. The spirit was the soul's soul for him, and the soul as a whole more our animal side that involved our senses.
Yet the spirit was part of the soul, and some believe that to say the word can separate the two implies an ability to separate the inseparable. So the marrow is the heart of the bone, and perhaps intent is the heart of thought. On the other hand, perhaps this is to read too much into the picture.
4:13 And the creation is not invisible before [the word], but all things are naked and exposed to His eyes, whose word is for us.
This statement seems to blur God's word and God Himself. Clearly the statement means that God knows and sees us. We remember the context in which these last two verses appear. They are closing a section that reminds the audience of God's judgment on the wilderness generation. These verses are thus meant to remind the audience of the judgment of God's word that will find them if they disobey and disbelieve. God/His word see.
The last line is ambiguous, "toward whom the word is to us." Some translations take it as a statement of the necessity for us to give account to God. Whatever the precise grammatical sense, the idea of being accountable to God's word is surely the basic sense of the statement.
Friday, April 11, 2008
In this 1985 article, Dunn develops his thesis further. His recent compilation volume The New Perspective on Paul includes no less than 5 articles on the topic of "works of law." I wish I was prepared to review them all today, as well as Dunn's new comments on "works of law" in the introduction. But unfortunately there is much else to do in my life :-)
So today we just look at the first: "Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law." We'll keep in mind that Dunn did modify his views--or at least his rhetoric--at least a little over the last twenty years. To track the broader debate on Paul and the Law that was taking place at the time, I should mention E. P. Sanders' follow up book, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. It came out the same year as Dunn's "New Perspective" article (Dunn had read it before writing that previous article).
Another Paul scholar that Dunn interacts with in the meantime of the articles is Heikki Räisänen, Paul and the Law. Räisänen's basic conclusion is that Paul is massively inconsistent on the topic of Paul and the Jewish Law.
1. The Social Function of the Law
I believe the full recognition that the Law served as a boundary to mark off Jew from Gentile is one of Dunn's most important contributions to this discussion. He quotes the Letter of Aristeas in more than one place to capture this fact:
"To prevent our being perverted by contact with others or by mixing with bad influences, he hedged us in on all sides with strict observances connected with meat and drink and touch and hearing and sight, after the manner of the law" (Charlesworth's translation).
He begins this section with some sociological study--it is precisely the boundaries of groups that define their identity. Since he had Pentecostals on the brain at the time, he uses them as footnote examples more than once. Certainly Pentecostals believe in much more than speaking in tongues, but this has historically been the focal issue for them because it is what distinguishes them from other groups.
So Dunn argues quite plausibly, mention of the Law in the context of Jew/Gentile debate immediately turns one's mind to issues like circumcision and food laws. These are the things both Jews and Gentiles thought of when it came to identifying a Jew and distinguishing him or her from a Gentile. "Works of law" might include much, much more than these issues, but these are the ones that you would picture when you hear this phrase in this discussion.
2. Works of the Law
So far so good. Now that he has put a little depth into the theory he mentioned back in "New Perspective," he now draws some insights:
a. He follows Ernst Lohmeyer of many years before in understanding the phrase "works of law" to mean the "service of the law," the observance of the law. My sense is that Dunn's 1997 article on the Qumran document 4QMMT modifies this "bullet point" somewhat. Nevertheless, Dunn was surely right to say that, it referred to "service not so much in the sense of particular actions already accomplished, but in the sense of obligations set by the law, the religious system determined by the law" (126).
"The phrase refers not to an individual's striving for moral improvement, but to a religous mode of existence ... the religious practices which demonstrate the individual's 'belongingness' to the people of the law."
Surely Dunn is far more correct than incorrect here. The Law was not some abstract moral item at the time of Christ; it was clearly a boundary marker of Judaism. "Works of law" had therefore to say "Jewish" and therefore "righteous" and "God." And any discussion of works of law in relation to Gentiles would thereby naturally focus on those aspects of the law that distinguished the two.
b. The meaning of the phrase "works of law" was apparently self-evident. Paul does not explain it. Both in Galatians and Romans it is used in the context of the Jew-Gentile issue. The implication seems to be that the Galatians and Romans would immediately have known by the phrase that Paul was talking about the very issues under discussion--are circumcision and food laws necessary for Gentiles to be included in the people of God?
c. "... the law and the Jewish people are coterminous" (128). Words and phrases like "with law"/"without law"-"lawless," "under law," "from the law," etc. amount to "Jewish" or not. The issue for Paul, as Dunn understands it, is,
"Are the heirs of Abraham no more and no less than the people marked out by the law, the people whose whole existence as God's people arises out of the law, whose whole national identity comes from the law? Or are they marked out simply by faith, identified simply by faith?" (128).
d. Associated ideas:
1) boasting is not individualistic boasting but "the confidence of the Jew as Jew" (129).
2) the phrase "in the visible" (Rom. 2:28) refers to "the Jew visibly marked out as such," that is, circumcised.
3) the phrase "in flesh" in this same context (Rom. 2:28) means the same.
4) "their own" righteousness (Rom. 10:3) refers not to trying to earn righteousness but to the collective righteousness of the Jewish people as the Jewish people in contrast to Gentiles (130).
This new perspective on works of the law irons out some thorny issues, Dunn thinks:
1) the tension between law as negative in Paul and law as continuingly positive. The law in its social function receives Paul's critique (131), not the law per se.
2) According to Dunn, "Paul does not defend his position by dividing up the law into acceptable and unacceptable elements. For what he is attacking is a particular attitude to the law as such, the law as a whole in its social function as distinguishing Jew from Gentile. Viewed from a different angle, the point of the law as a whole will come into focus in other ways, particularly in faith ('the law of faith' - Rom 3:28; 9:31-32) and love of neighbour (Rom. 13:10). And, just as important, the requirements which obscure that point will become of secondary relevance as adiaphora."
This is a very important perspective to consider, the most important one for me from this article. I am not sure I would put it quite this way, but it is certainly something to mull over.
3. Galatians 3:10-14
I will confess that it has taken me a good deal of effort over the years to see clearly what Dunn is saying here in the final part of this article, which deals with the "curse of the law" in Galatians 3. I have read this passage with Reformation glasses on for so long that it has been difficult even to follow Dunn's argument in the past. In this section Dunn uses his new perspective to address the train of thought in Galatians 3:10-14.
3:10 "For as many as are from works of law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not remain within everything that is written in the book of the law to do the same."
The usual interpretation is that since no one keeps everything in the law perfectly, everyone is under a curse.
Not so, says Dunn. First of all, those "from works of law" are those who consider their right standing with God in the people of God to be based on their attention to matters like circumcision and food laws. So far so good. This makes sense in the overall context. These individuals are under a curse, says Dunn.
So Paul is not talking here specifically of individuals who might try to earn their salvation in the abstract. He is talking about Jews who formulate right standing before God primarily in terms of attention to boundary issues like circumcision and food laws.
Those "from works of law" fail to abide by everything in the law. Primarily, they have a false set of priorities and give primacy to matters that are at best of secondary importance (135). "To thus misunderstand the law by giving primacy to matters of at best secondary importance was to fall short of what the law required and thus to fall under the law's own curse."
I'll have to continue to think about this one. I'm open but not fully convinced.
3:11-12 "And that no one in law is justified with God is plain, because 'the righteous on the basis of faith will live' And the law is not on the basis of faith, but 'he who does the same will live with them."
Dunn believes that to distinguish living "in law" and living "from faith" is for Paul to distinguish things that most Jews did not distinguish. Not that he considered them mutually exclusive, but that his kinsmen had the wrong priorities. Faith is a "trust in and openness to God brought about by the word of preaching, without any reference to the law or its works" (136). It was something a Gentile could do.
3:13-14 "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse on our behalf - as it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree' - in order that the blessing of Abraham might come in Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, in order that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."
Dunn thinks that the curse here "falls on all who restrict the grace and promise of God in nationalistic terms ... the attitude which confines the covenant promise to Jews and Jews" (137). Dunn admits that this is a "suprisingly narrow" curse in relation to our sense that the curse applies to all humanity.
He has not yet fully convinced me here, although old paradigms are hard to shake. I agree that he is talking about a curse on Jews primarily. Dunn notes the very close parallel between 3:14 and 4:4-5: "Christ became under the law to redeem those under the law that we might receive the adoption." Notice how similar that is to 3:14: "Christ became a curse to redeem from the law's curse that we might receive the Spirit."
Christ took the place of the Gentile, outside the law understood to exclude, and on the cross put himself under the curse of the law. The fact that God raised him shows that He accepts the Gentile. Christ broke through the restrictiveness of the typical Jewish understanding of God's righteousness" (139). I'll confess I don't follow Dunn here. I thought the curse had to do with Jews who restricted righteousness to the Gentiles. Jesus didn't take on that curse, did he?
I agree that it is Jews in particular that are under a curse here. But I am not convinced yet that their curse does not also apply in some way to Gentiles as well, and I am not convinced yet the curse is primarily about the exclusivity of certain Jews who exclude Gentiles.
I am open. I have not read all of Dunn's later articles on this topic. It will be interesting to see if and how he might have modified his later views.