Thursday, June 30, 2011

Christian Virtue

Juggling my writing commitments poorly...

Christian Virtue
Of the three main types of ethical theory--duty based, consequence based, and virtue based--we will not be surprised to find that the New Testament is primarily virtue oriented.  We are not surprised because, as we have seen, ancient ethics in general was primarily virtue based.  It is not that we do not find ethical duties in the New Testament--"Stay away from sexual immorality" (1 Thess. 4:3, CEB), for example.  It is not that we do not find interest in consequences--"Strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up" (Rom. 14:19 CEB).  It is only that the primary ethical interest is in virtues like faith, hope, and love (e.g., 1 Cor. 13:13).

Accordingly, New Testament ethics tends to focus more on a person's character and motives than on his or her specific actions or the consequences of those actions.  To be sure, we find enough commands and prohibitions in the Bible that various currents within Christian tradition have focused from time to time more on duties than character.  For example, many Christian circles in the United States today focus heavily on exceptionless ethical absolutes and despise any thought of ethical relativisms.  By emphasizing such things, such currents tend more toward a duty-based approach to ethics than a virtue based one.

One interesting twist on a duty oriented Christian framework are those traditions that process the death of Jesus in primarily legal terms.  In one scenario, God's justice is understood in such duty-oriented terms that he could not possibly forgive any debt or wrong against him unless someone from the guilty party pays him in full.  Accordingly, Jesus must become human because a human must pay God back, and Jesus must suffer the full punishment of every single sin for which he atones.

This line of thinking takes one picture of God in the Bible--that of Judge--and fills in the philosophical picture of atonement (the means by which humanity is reconciled to God) with God as a duty-oriented ethicist.  Of course, such systems then flip the basis of God's judgment.  Because Jesus has paid the debt in full, believers are no longer judged at all on the basis of their actions.  God's legal judgment is based solely on his consideration of Jesus.  The basis of God's ethical assessment is still duty based.  It is just that Jesus is the one God legally assesses.

A more virtue based approach might focus on God's character as one of love, graciousness, and faithfulness. [1] It might invoke the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a better illustration of the character of God (Luke 15).  In this story, a father forgives his son of his recklessness and the insult of the son asking for his inheritance before his father had even died.  There is no legal exchange, no act of atonement.  The father simply forgives because of his love for the son.

Indeed, although there is clearly duty language within the New Testament, the primary orientation of Jesus and Paul seems around a person's heart and intentions.  In Mark 7:18-23, Jesus says, "'Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, 'It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'" (NRSV).

This is a vice list, the opposite of a virtue list.  Jesus is basically saying that either virtue or vice flows out of a person's character.  To be clean or unclean is not so much a matter of external actions but a matter of what is inside a person.

Similarly, Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit being "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23, NRSV).  This is a virtue list, and Paul says it flows naturally from God's Spirit being inside us.  When Paul comes close to defining sin, he says that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23, NRSV).  His sense of what sin is for a believer is thus not primarily a matter of violating a law but of a life that does not reflect the right character.

The New Testament does encapsulate the entirety of human duty into two commands, as we said earlier in the chapter: Love God and love neighbor.  These two duties indicate the appropriate motivations of a Christian's character.  The heart of a Christian should be one that it oriented around helping and not hurting all others in every way.  In terms of God, the heart of a Christian should be one that does everything "for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

Here many will try to sneak back in a more duty-oriented framework.  Loving God, some might say, involves keeping this list of laws for their own sake.  Perhaps so, but some strong cautions are in order.  First, loving God never contradicts loving our neighbor or enemy.  It is not--"I must love my neighbor unless he is a homosexual, for love of God requires me to hate homosexuals."  The love of God does not work this way but reinforces the love of my neighbor and enemy.  It hopes for the redemption of my enemy even if my enemy is seeking to harm me.

However, love of God does contradict an inordinate focus on myself.  It requires me to shift from myself being the focus of all my actions to God and his desire for the greater good.  I cannot excuse selfishness or actions done in private simply because they do not harm my neighbor or enemy.  A heart oriented toward God is a heart that is not oriented toward myself.

[1] Recovering the Scandal of the Cross

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Unintentional Wrongs

So is it possible to do evil without knowing it or without intending it?  It is certainly possible to wrong another person without knowing or intending it.  The Old Testament certainly has a category of unintentional sin.  In fact, the Levitical system of sacrifices primarily provided for unintentional sin (e.g., Num. 15:22-31).  We can infer from the stories of the Old Testament that there was atonement for intentional sin (e.g., when David sinned with Bathsheba), but this fact is not at all clear from the sacrificial instructions of Leviticus and Numbers themselves.

However, the New Testament shows little interest in this category.  The "sins committed in ignorance" in Hebrews 9:7 relate to the time before the audience was "enlightened" (e.g., 6:4), before they experienced the Spirit and confessed Jesus as Messiah.  The kind of wrongdoing that is of interest to the New Testament is not a vague violation of anything that "misses the mark" or anything short of absolute perfection.  Rather, it is wronging others, particularly intentionally, and knowingly doing wrong.

Paul puts it this way, "Everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23).  What he means by that is when you are seriously unsure something is okay for you to do before God and you do it anyway, you are sinning.  You are doing wrong.  The knowledge of what you are doing is key.

Similarly, James 4:17 gives us a classic definition of what we might call "sins of omission," when you do not do something you know you should. "Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin" (NRSV).  In both these cases, the key to what it means to sin or do wrong is not so much the violation of a rule but the intent to violate a rule. [1]

The point is that sin is overwhelmingly a question of intent and motive in the New Testament.  It is not primarily some legalistic measurement against an absolute standard.  One can wrong another person unintentionally or unknowingly.  These kinds of incidences can be called sin, but they are important to God because of what they do to the other person rather than as a matter of great concern for God in relation to you.

Biblically, one can also unknowingly or unintentionally do things that are wrong according to God, even though they do not wrong your neighbor.  It is important to recognize this category as very obscure in the New Testament.  The NIV 2011 of Romans 5:13-14 says, "sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam."  Paul seems to say that there were consequences for such sinning, even though God did not consider such individuals guilty in a moral sense.

In other words, Paul seems to support our claim even here, namely, that the question of guilt and the question of morality has to do with knowingly doing wrong.  Unintentional wrongs we might do are thus not evil, even though we can consider them wrongdoing, even sin.  A person could unintentionally kill someone in an incredibly tragic way.  But if it was truly unintentional--and not involving any inappropriate choices on our part--then technically we would not call it evil. [2]

It is also clear here that the popular notion that "all sin is sin" is also unbiblical to the core.  If by the idea that "all sin is sin" you mean that, before God forgives our past sins, one sin drives us to God's forgiveness just as much as any other sin, this would be correct.  However, since God looks at sin primarily in terms of our intentions, it would not be true to say that God looks on all wrongdoing the same after we have believed.

As an example, you can wrong your spouse in many different ways in a marriage.  For example, a husband could forget his wife's birthday.  But this "wronging" of your spouse is of quite different moral significance than a husband cheating on his spouse with another woman. [3] The level of intention and actual wrong to the wife is of a completely different level.  The relationship can easily survive missing a birthday.  It may or may not survive an affair.

In the same way, both God's evaluation of wrongdoing and the consequences of wrongdoing can vary widely.  Paul does not kick the arrogant and spiritually immature out of the Corinthian church.  He does, however, kick out the man sleeping with his step-mother.  The level of the sin correlates with the intensity of the wrong done and the level of intentionality.

The ancient model of patrons and clients gives us great insight into how such things likely worked in Paul's mind.  Words like grace (charis) and gifts (charismata) from God are terms of patronage.  You did not earn the graciousness of an ancient patron.  The gift was always disproportionate to anything you might do for the patron.  But you could solicit patronage.

Similarly, gifts of patronage technically came without payment, but this fact does not mean there were no expectations.  There were informal rather than formal strings attached.  At the very least, the patron expected to be praised and given honor for his or her giving.  If you were ungrateful, you certainly would not continue to receive patronage.

This model corresponds well to what we find in Paul.  Our right standing before God is a gift of grace from God.  We solicit it with our faith but we cannot earn it.  God does have certain expectations of us thereafter.  Those who do not press on will not win the prize of God's "upward call" in resurrection (Phil. 3:14).  Those who do not discipline their bodies to win the contest will be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).  Those who insult the Spirit of grace will find themselves with no sacrifice for sins left (Heb. 10:26-31).

The notion that "all sin is sin" is thus unbiblical when applied to wrongdoing after individuals are forgiven their past sins.  Sin rather becomes almost entirely a matter of one's intent to do wrong.  It becomes a relational issue.  Some wrongdoing, such as sins of surprise, are more a matter of neglect than high intention and have less immediate effect on one's relationship with God our divine Patron.  Other sins may involve such a high level of intentionality in wrongdoing that they would revoke God's patronage all together and sever our relationship with God.

Accordingly, unintentional and unknowing wrongs do not fall under our definition of evil.  Things that happen and things that are done unknowingly can have very bad consequences.  But for them to fall under the "problem of evil," they must be things a moral agent intends to do on some level.

[1] Here it is probably worth pointing out a common misinterpretation of Romans 3:23.  The New Living Translation interprets this verse to say that all have sinned by falling short of "God's glorious standard."  But in fact, what Paul is saying is that all lack the glory of God, a glory God created humanity to have at the beginning (cf. Ps. 8:5) and that we hope to receive when Christ returns (e.g., Rom. 5:2; 8:18).

[2] In our world, drunk driving almost always does involve inappropriate choices.  So if a person were to kill someone else unintentionally while driving drunk, such a wrongdoing is a moral act because it has involved a prior choice to drink and drive.  It falls under Wesley's category of a "sin of surprise."

[3] On the other hand, a one time "sin of surprise" in forgetting your spouse's birthday can become more an more of a "high handed" sin if you do not do something about it.  Sins of neglect, when not addressed, quickly become sins of intent.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Emotions Just Are

If we follow our train of thought, it soon becomes apparent that emotions are only moral to the extent that they reflect human intention.  I once heard someone put it this way, "Emotions are neither good nor bad.  They just are."  To the extent that emotions are a kind of automated response to what happens in the world--or even often caused by the chemistry of our bodies--they are not a matter of intention or choice.  Therefore, to that degree they cannot be evil.

examples

Now, we need to be very careful here, because sometimes emotions do involve intent and thus come into the sphere of morality.  This is certainly the case when it comes to what we do with our emotions.  Ephesians 4:26 is an excellent picture of this truth: "In your anger, do not sin."  It is thus possible to be angry and yet not sin--that is, not wrong others or do wrong.  However, one can also "give way" to your anger and commit horrible crimes.

John Wesley (1703-91) also had a category for a kind of sin that happened in a moment of emotion.  You did not intend to lose your cool and yell at your children in a moment of uncontrolled anger, but you have been overworking and skipped lunch.  He called such sins, somewhat humorously, "sins of surprise."  We can wrong others in such emotional moments.  They are not pre-meditated actions, and so are less "moral" in nature than many other actions.

But they may involve choices we have made in the past.  Did we have to go into work at 5am this morning or did we have to stay up so late working?  Have we unnecessarily let work take too large a role in our lives?  Could we have chosen to eat more healthily or did we have to skip lunch?  These sorts of choices are not as heavily "moral" as some others because they do not involve significant intent to do wrong.  But because they involve our choices, they do come into the realm of the moral.  This is especially the case the more we know we have a problem in certain situations and yet continue to put ourselves in them.

Once again, our claim is that evil always involves intent to do wrong or to wrong others.  Morality is a matter of choices.  There is no such thing as unintentional or accidental evil.  Evil is a matter of moral choice.  Accordingly, emotions are not good or evil in themselves.  It is what we do with them that brings them into the  sphere of morality, as well as how our choices have led up to them.  If we know we lose our temper in certain situations, then to put ourselves in those situations is to do evil of varying intensity.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Clean or Unclean

The unclean foods and purity laws of Leviticus might seem at first glance seem to contradict the idea that morality is always a matter of someone's intentions (Lev. 11-16).  After all, in Leviticus simply touching something makes you unclean.  There are other instances where a person's intentions seem to be good and their touch gets them in trouble.  In 2 Samuel 6, a man named Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant and died immediately.  Similarly, at Mt. Sinai, any animal that might have touched the mountain was to be killed (Exod. 19:13).

But as with all issues, we cannot simply appropriate one passage without consulting the rest of the Bible.  Similarly, the books of the Bible are in everyday language and categories, which means that it does not express things with philosophical precision, just as it does not express things with scientific or what we would consider historical precision.  When we turn to the New Testament, we find the apostle Paul saying that "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14).

Paul's claim--quite surprising in the light of Leviticus--is that food in itself is morally neutral.  It is the way a person thinks about the food--his or her moral intent--that makes the food clean or unclean.  The matter itself is morally neutral.  We can accommodate the Old Testament by saying that, during the period of the Old Testament, God considered certain foods and actions to be "unclean" in his dealings with Israel.  But in the New Testament, God "declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19), now making them clean.

Why did God consider them unclean?  In itself this question potentially tells us a great deal about how God relates to the world.  The instructions on animals with certain hooves or not having fins and scales seem ridiculous to us today.  One explanation that has made sense to our modern mind is that these rules had to do with hygiene, and this explanation does go back at least to the time of Jesus.

However, explanations that make sense to us are as often as not anachronistic.  A much more likely explanation in light of the ancient world is that these laws mirrored the way the ancient Israelites viewed the world in their socio-cultural context. [1]  In other words, rather than God instituting arbitrary rules, these laws reflected God meeting the Israelites within the categories of their own day.

The food laws all imply a certain order to the Israelite world.  Things in the sea should have fins and scales.  Birds should fly.  Blood is a power that should stay inside the body.  Israelites are shepherds; other nations herd pigs.  The holiness codes of Leviticus thus reflect the lines Israel drew around their world, just as all cultures draw lines and boundaries around their worlds. [2]  These laws thus set Israel apart from the nations around them that served other gods.  When the gospel expanded to the whole world, these boundaries became more of a hindrance than a help, and so the New Testament in effect revokes them.

But of course, though Paul takes this position on food, he does not say that everything is either clean or unclean because of how we think about it.  For example, it is doubtful Paul would have talked about sexual immorality in this way.  But again, Paul's writings are letters, not philosophy books.  We can still extend the basic principle and account for what he says about sexual immorality in a more precise way.

The key is to bring God into the picture as we did with Leviticus.  There, it was not the food that was moral in  nature, but the fact that God at that time was declaring those foods unclean for Israel, meeting them within their categories, taking on their flesh, so to speak--incarnating the truth.  It is thus possible that certain sexual actions would remain "unclean" in the New Testament era because God considered them unclean, regardless of the intentions of those involved (e.g., sleeping with your step-mother; 1 Cor. 5).

But we are arguing, once again, that it is not the act itself or things themselves that are unclean or morally wrong.  Rather, it is either what God thinks about those acts and events or what we intend about those acts that makes them either morally good or evil.  And here the principle is once again love.  Can a person ever act in love toward his or her spouse and have an affair?  Highly doubtful.  Therefore, cheating on one's spouse is always a morally evil act--not because of the act itself, but because of the intention involved.

[1] See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger.

[2] See The Social Construction of Reality

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Skinny on Wesleyans and Baptism

Interestingly, The Wesleyan Church can be attractive to Baptists and Pentecostals for a number of reasons.  To Baptists, it offers a very familiar low church feel with a more robust connecting network.  All they have to do is deny eternal security or not bring it up. ;-)  For Pentecostals, it's very similar except tongues aren't generally allowed in worship.  But then again, a lot of charismatic churches don't speak much tongues in worship either.

So what do Wesleyans believe about baptism?  Here's the official statement:

"We believe that water baptism and the Lord's Supper are the sacraments of the church commanded by Christ and ordained as a means of grace when received through faith. They are tokens of our profession of Christian faith and signs of God's gracious ministry toward us. By them, He works within us to quicken, strengthen and confirm our faith.

"We believe that water baptism is a sacrament of the church, commanded by our Lord and administered to believers. It is a symbol of the new covenant of grace and signifies acceptance of the benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ. By means of this sacrament, believers declare their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior."

But official statements often don't really tell the whole story.  Here's the skinny:

"Until recently, baptism has not been much of an emphasis of the Wesleyan Church.  Most churches practice believer's baptism and have done it maybe once a year.  You may find traces of individuals who have never been baptized or who were baptized as infants, but these are rare.  Few if any would have any theology of baptismal regeneration and in practice, our sense of baptism as a sacrament has generally been somewhat weak."

Now the background:

1. One of the main predecessor churches of the Wesleyan Church (Pilgrims) had significant Quaker elements. So many of the early Pilgrims were like the Quakers or Salvation Army.  They not only did not emphasize baptism.  Many of them were not baptized at all.  My grandfather only got baptized because he was asked to perform a baptism.  He didn't think he should perform a baptism if he wasn't baptized himself.

By far the majority of Wesleyans would now say that, even though baptism does not actually save you, it is a central practice of the historic church with sacramental power. Nevertheless, we still would not believe that a person has to be baptized in order to be saved.

2. The other main predecessor church (Wesleyan Methodist) withdrew directly from the Methodist church over abolition.  Accordingly, it retained the possibility of infant baptism.  Again, the idea is not that such a baptism saves the child or ensures that the child will eventually be saved.

By far the majority of Wesleyans now practice believer's baptism, so much so that many would be surprised to know that it is still allowed to practice infant baptism in the Wesleyan Church.  Nevertheless, my wife and I preferred for our children to be reckoned "in" the church and to have to leave it rather than to reckon them "out" until we could persuade them to come in.  Dr. Bud Bence accordingly baptized our children in a Wesleyan Church.

So basically, in practice we have moved toward the Baptists, although in our theology, we neither specify the method (immersion, sprinkling, or pouring) nor the timing (believer's or infant).  For Wesleyans, baptism is a sacrament in which every believer should participate, but it is neither essential for salvation nor something whose particulars we should fight about.

Were you baptized as an infant?  You do not need to be re-baptized.  If it would be significant for your spiritual pilgrimage, though, we will not stop you.  Were you never baptized?  You should very, very seriously consider it, although we will still call you a brother or sister if you choose not to.

What is Evil? 1

I have a swirl of thoughts that I've trying to organize.

1. Evil has to do with motive and intent.  Many "bad" things happen that are not evil.  Similarly, we can do many things with "bad" consequences without evil intent.

2. Evil intent is that which is contrary to the love command--when we act intentionally to harm others or do not act to help when we easily could have.

3. Loving God is a difficult category to clarify, because here we are prone to smuggle in a lot of do's and don'ts that work contrary to love of neighbor or are context-specific.  So the command to love God principally manifests itself in our love of others.  However, there is also an element of "self-displacement" involved in loving God.  There are patterns of behavior that do not strictly harm others but which are self-oriented in a way that is not virtuous.

4. "Bad" has more than anything to do with consequences, not least causing human pain.  We can broaden such pain to causing the creation pain.  However, this is a tricky thing to spell out.  Pain can serve a good purpose.  It can teach us to avoid certain things. Death is not evil but natural. Humanity as a species currently has a generally harmful effect on the planet.  But since we are a part of nature, is it natural?

some thoughts trying to get my juices flowing...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Psalm 69 and "fuller senses"

If any one doubts my repeated claims that the NT authors read the OT "spiritually" with more tangential interest in the original meaning, I was looking at the NT use of Psalm 69 today.

The early Christians read a number of verses from this psalm in relation to Jesus' last days in Jerusalem:

vs. 9 in relation to Jesus' action in the temple and in relation to Jesus' rejection in general
vs. 21 of the cross
vss. 22 and 25 of Judas

But consider vs. 5 where the psalmist speaks of his guilt and folly, something that clearly would not apply to Jesus.  In other words, the psalm had a distinct original meaning in which a psalmist cried out to God for help. And selective verses had a "spiritual" meaning to many early Christian readers of the psalm.

So as we see over and over again, the NT authors were not wired or apparently worried to read OT texts for what they meant historically.  They naturally and predominantly found "fuller senses" and figural meanings in the words.  Once again we see that a historical orientation to Scripture is a relatively recent orientation.

Devotional Sample: Romans 14:10-18

Here's another daily sample from the devotional: Our Relationships:

Title: Acting in Love
Scripture Passage: Romans 14:10-18

Introduction:
Paul makes it clear that the question of my brother or sister’s spiritual destiny is far more important than whether I am right or wrong in my position on a particular issue.  You can be right on the issue and yet wrong before God.

The Core Teaching:
Paul’s comments here remind us of other places where he indicates that believers will give an account of our lives before God, just as unbelievers will (2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 2:6).  When the Romans do so, it will not matter what their position is on the question of eating or not eating meat that has been sacrificed.  What will matter is whether they have acted with conviction in their own actions and acted lovingly toward others.  It is none of my business if my Christian brother or sister does not feel free to do things I feel free to do.  On the other hand, it is very much my business not to lead my brother or sister into temptation and to cause them to stumble.

The Word Speaks:
Paul takes a very sophisticated position on the question of food here.  He does not believe that food in itself is either clean or unclean—a startling position when we consider the codes on clean and unclean in Leviticus.  What makes something clean or unclean is the attitude with which you approach it.  We might easily generalize this principle to all Christian ethics.  It is not so much specific acts that are right or wrong but a person’s attitude in doing them.  Acts that are universally wrong, like murder, are thus acts that no one could do anywhere in love.  Those who act with peace and joy, as well as love of their neighbor, are the ones pleasing to God (14:17-18).

Life Reflection:
How easily Christians get the values of these verses turned around!  We are convinced we are right in some belief or practice and then ironically become displeasing to God because of judgmental or hateful attitudes toward others.  The irony of what Paul is saying here is that one might actually sin while doing the right thing.  I might tell the truth out of hatred toward another.  I might use my freedom to drink in a way that causes another believer to stumble.  The Christian attitude is thus not one of “do’s” and “don’ts,” a legally oriented mind.  The Christian attitude is one that filters my actions with a view to their impact on others and on the purity of my intentions in relation to God.

Responding through Prayer:
Spirit, search my heart.  Make my intentions pure toward God and my actions loving toward others, even in my freedom.

NIV 2011 and Romans 16:1

I was happy to see at least that the NIV 2011 got its head out of the sand and translated Romans 16:1 with the word "deacon."  The wimpy NIV 1984 as usual wore its Calvino-evangelical theology on its sleeve and translated her as a "servant" of the church at Cenchrea.  We all know this is bias.  If it had been a guy, there's little question they would have identified her as a deacon in the first place.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Translating" Paul's Deterministic Language

A Christian will often both begin and end with a sense of the immediacy of Scripture.  God said it... that settles it.  There is an immediacy of meaning and applicability.

In between, of course, is a time of learning to read its words in context.  In this phase, the text can become distant because you are beginning to hear it as it was originally, someone else's mail.  Paul's words had first century meanings and his audiences heard first century meanings.

Nevertheless, the goal is a kind of "second naivete" in which you can hear God directly in the words in a dance with the text, loosening it from its historical moorings in a controlled and self-conscious way, intuitively bridging the gap between that time and this time, following currents of continuity.

In practice, most Christians never go through the contextual phase, not really.  In practice, most Christians apply the words directly in a way that makes sense to them (usually with their inherited Christian traditions making the sense) and only when they cannot make any sense of a passage at all do they consign it to "that time" rather than "this time."

However, in methodical circles, we speak of formulating a biblical theology, mapping the individual teachings of the Bible to each other.  We map James to Paul on the question of justification by works.  This mapping requires a focal point, a "clear" Scripture that we use to appropriate the "unclear" one.  And of course the great diversity of Christian churches is a reflection that some groups make their base camp in different "clear" verses than others do.

All this hermeneutical spiel is meant to set background for what this post is really about, namely, formulating a biblical theology of predestination.  We Protestants have historically had a tendency to set our base camp in Paul.  We map Matthew and James on works to Paul rather than the other way around.  Indeed, we have historically tended to give greater weight to Paul than even Jesus in the Gospels.

What I am suggesting today is that we must go the other way around when it comes to Paul's predestination language in Romans and elsewhere.  There are two reasons for this:

1. Paul himself does not follow through with this language philosophically in the rest of his theology and
2. It contradicts a fundamental principle in James 1:13, namely, that God does not tempt anyone with evil.

The second is especially important.  If God literally and directly hardens the hearts of people, then God does in fact not only tempt people but he actually makes them do evil.

When integrating Scripture on this topic, therefore, when mapping a biblical theology on the question of predestination, we have no choice but to consider Romans 9 the "unclear" and the theology of James 1:13 as the clear.  Thus, like the difference between 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1, we have to "translate" Paul theologically.  He is saying "God does this," but a more precise way to say it is that "God has allowed this for a reason that fits with his sovereign will" or even better, "God has worked within the allowed choices of those who have rejected him to advance his sovereign will."

I see no way for Christianity to be coherent if we do not suppose something of this sort.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Quote of the Day: James McGrath

I was reading over at James McGrath's blog, and this line jumped out at me: "We are all mutants, after all."  I imagined putting it to the tune of "It's a Small World":

"We're all mutants after all.  We're all mutants after all.  We're all mutants after all.  We're all mu-u-tants." ;-)

So as you go forth today, be looking for the mutant in others.  For some, the mutations will be obvious.  For others, you may need to dig a little. ;-)

Devotional Sample: Romans 12:3-8

Scrambling as usual to finish something that was supposed to be done a long time ago. Here's a day in the life of my devotionals that accompany the Paul books. This is from a devotional on Romans 9-16 called Our Relationships, that accompanies the Paul: Solider of Peace book.

Title: Yourself in Perspective
Scripture Passage: Romans 12:3-8

Introduction:
These verses give us the first example of what a transformed mind looks like.  Such individuals recognize that they are only part of the puzzle, part of a team consisting of the rest of the church.

The Core Teaching:
Romans 12:2 has urged the Romans to have a renewed mind, which is one set on the Spirit rather than the flesh (Rom. 8:5).  These verses show some of the specifics of what it looks like.  A renewed mind does not have an overly inflated opinion of itself.  It recognizes that while you are incredibly important to God, everyone else in your local assembly of believers is too.  God has given you certain gifts, but he has given other gifts to others that you do not have.  They are all gifts from God, not something you can boast about, as if you are responsible for your giftedness.  So let each person exercise his or her own gift for the good of the whole body.

The Word Speaks:
In this passage, Paul gives the Romans the equivalent of what he gave the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 12.  In 1 Corinthians, his picture of a body with many parts especially targeted a local group of believers in a house church.  The local church is the first and most important way to read these words in Romans as well.  In a local group of believers we will find different kinds of God-given talents and roles.  Some are good at seeing the way forward (prophesying).  Others are good at informing others about who we are and how we live (teaching).  Some are great at encouraging or serving.  Some are good at leading.  Notice that Paul puts this role near the end!

Life Reflection:
The lists of roles in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 have really resonated with some Christians in recent decades.  You can even take “spiritual gift tests” to find out what your particular “gift” is.  These tools can be helpful, but they can also feed a certain narcissism and unhealthy introspection.  They can turn Paul’s instructions about appreciating each other into a mirror to admire ourselves.  Paul never meant these lists to be exhaustive or to pigeonhole what God does with you.  We can grow.  God can change us.  What these lists are really about is us appreciating each other and not thinking too highly of ourselves (12:3).  They are as much about me realizing who I am not as who I am.

Responding through Prayer:
Father, help us to see ourselves in proper perspective, as only one member of a body that functions together as one.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Find the Errors 2

Here is my second find the errors vidcast for my Hebrew for Ministry course, based on Genesis 23:12. Their task is to identify three word fallacies in the selection.  Here are the options:

1. English-only fallacy (basing meaning on English rather than the original Greek or Hebrew)
2. Etymological fallacy (the past history of a word does not control its present meaning)
3. Anachronistic fallacy (the future meaning of a word does not control its present meaning)
4. Lexical fallacy (all the meanings of a word do not have to play out some core meaning common to the others)
5. Overload fallacy (meaning is local--don't import extraneous meanings from other contexts to this one)
6. One meaning fallacy (words can and usually do have multiple, distinct, potentially unrelated meanings)
7. Word-concept fallacy (a concept is not limited to a word, and a word will not exhaust a concept)

remote blogging test 2

blogging by email

Schenck philosophy #1a: the one exception: I think, therefore, something exists. (cf. Descartes)

Testing remote blogging. First blogging by texting:
Schenck philosophy #1: With only one exception, everything we believe involves substantial amounts of faith.

A Tale of Three States

Saturday for me started in California, stopped in Texas, and ended in Indiana. On the flight to Texas, I sat next to a business woman who started in California and moved to Texas for a better business environment.

Texas is of course Tea Party heaven. The legislature only meets once every other year to set a budget. It's really the counties that run their own show. There's no income tax. Not a great place to be poor, I suspect.

California is over-regulated and over-burocracied on every level. The legislature couldn't balance its budget to save its life. Great place to be if you aren't interested in working... ever.

Indiana is somewhere in the middle. I think our welfare system needs massive fixing too. A lot of waste there, but it's not like we have a lot of jobs right now either.

I'll just leave it at that. The contrast just struck me as I was traveling. I'm not in a position to try to fix anything. And I can't imagine any politician having or being able to pass a balanced solution anyway.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Romans Book!

I came home last night to find my first print copies of the second of my Paul books: Paul: Solider of Peace.



The first was Paul: Messenger of Grace.

What excites me about this book is that I believe it is the first book that fully embodies the intersection between 1) developments in Pauline studies these last thirty years and 2) Wesleyan-Arminian theology.

This is a book for laypeople and pastors, not a book for scholars, but here are some of its key positions on issues:

1. Paul was a Jew, always remained a Jew, always thought of himself as an Israelite, believed eventually that all ethnic Israel would accept Jesus as Christ.  Believing Gentiles were grafted in to Israel.  The church does not replace Israel.

2. The audience is primarily Gentile in keeping with the fact that Paul is apostle to the Gentiles.  There were "conservative Gentiles" such as we find in Galatians, perhaps Romans to some extent, and perhaps Hebrews.

3. The "righteousness of God" primarily refers to God's propensity to save his people and world, although Paul may very well exploit the polyvalence of the phrase to imply our right standing with God at a couple points.

4. Paul is primarily interested in our faith in God.  Nevertheless, he does at a couple points speak of faith in Christ and I believe he does start off with a sense of the faithfulness of Jesus, his obedience to death.

5. The phrase "works of Law" does primarily focus on those parts of the Law that most separated Jew and Gentile ethnically.  Nevertheless, he does set this concrete debate within a general framework of grace versus earning one's right standing with God.

6. Justification refers to God's declaration of a person being in right standing with him.  This is triggered by faith initially apart from anything a person has done, but final justification will not take place without appropriate deeds following.  The Gentile in Romans 2 who demostrates the Law written on the heart is a Gentile Christian who has the Spirit.

7. Paul does not have a rigid sense of penal substitution.  He has a rather more loose sense that Christ's death demonstrates God's justice, no doubt accompanied with the rather more unarticulated ancient sense that sacrifices satisfy the order of things, including God's wrath.

8. Paul does not have a full blown theology of total depravity, original sin, or the Fall.  Our fuller reading of these things comes more from Augustine and his heirs.  A more careful reading of Paul points to a thorough sinfulness in humanity, a cosmic situation in which Sin has power over our flesh, and that this situation is a result of Adam's sin.

9. Paul does not see sin as compatible with the Spirit inside us.  Romans 7 is not Paul's current struggle with Sin but the situation of a person who might want to keep the Law but who does not have the Spirit.  I further do not think Paul is even remembering his previous struggle.  I don't think Paul ever seriously felt like a moral failure at any point of his life.  The Spirit empowers a person to keep the core of the Jewish Law, the love your neighbor part.

10. Paul does not connect his predestination language with the rest of his theology.  It is a kind of "orphan" in his thought that he does not follow out logically.  It's purpose is to affirm the sovereign right of God to let the Gentiles into the people of God if he wants whether unbelieving Jews like it or not.  Nevertheless, the very ones who he has hardened currently can still be saved.

11. Romans 16 may actually have been a letter of recommendation for Phoebe to go to Ephesus rather than Rome.  I fall off the log on this side.

So there you have it.  The only treatment of Romans I know in existence that will bring a Wesleyan-Arminian up to date with the most recent discussions on Romans by scholars on a popular level in dialog with our faith tradition.  As I've said before, these developments make it a great time to be Wesleyan-Arminian.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Are you an evangelical reject?

Funny list over at Jesus Creed.  All but two or three apply to me.  Although Scot didn't write the list, I'm getting the distinct impression that he's getting tired of the word "evangelical."  Of course he's an Anabaptist, who, like Wesleyan-Arminians, has never entirely fit within the mold of the American evangelical hegemony.

At Conference End...

The conference has come and gone, and thankfully I'll be home for a while now.  Interestingly, Monday after next begins the "Pedagogy of Science and Faith in the Classroom" conference at IWU.  As I mentioned before, it is on pedagogy rather than positions or content.

I ended up really enjoying the Christian Scholars Conference.  I got here too late to hear Polkinghorne, but nabbed a copy of his presentation to read.  I heard Collins. The other plenary speakers spoke on the dangers of genetically-modified food and on the ethical landscape with regard to stem cell research.  I was well prepared for this last talk because of a presentation Burt Webb gave at IWU a few years back.

And of course I gave my paper on Hebrews.  Jerry Pattengale of IWU was hear talking about the Green Collection.  And IWU's Wim Van de Merwe was here.

Pepperdine and the conference turn out to be Church of Christ (non-instrumental).  It struck me as we finished singing three hymns at the end of a dinner/celebration of Thomas Olbricht that we were singing a cappella and that it had significance in context.  I was reminded of our little enclaves as Christian groups, each with our own idiosyncrasies.  Biblical scholarship is very important (on one level) to the children of the Stone-Campbell revivals like the Disciples and Churches of Christ.  They are part of the Restorationist Movement that puts such a high premium on getting back to the early church.

And they have their quibbles like whether you should have instruments in church.  I talked to a Christian minister working on his PhD in church history yesterday and he suggested that the reason Christian churches in the south went non-instrumental were because they were poorer and couldn't afford organs like the churches in the north, who won the Civil War.

The ideological debate was thus, as almost always, an epiphenomenon of social dynamics going on between people.  The pretense is thus that there are no organs in the Bible.  The reality is that we live in the South, are poor, and have slaves.  You are wealthy abolitionists in the north.

And of course the scholars who grow up in these enclaves usually recognize the idiosyncrasies, but there is enough that is true or that they agree with to stay with their movement.  I saw the same when I was at the Seventh Day Adventist Andrews University a few months back.  And I experienced the same growing up Wesleyan, one of the many Methodist splinter groups.

There is a current in America that says education makes you liberal.  I think it would be more accurate to say that education causes you to see the idiosyncrasies of your group, your starting point, which almost always broadens you in relation to your group.  That means that education should also broaden those who grow up in "liberal" circles. ;-)

So it's not so much that truth tends toward the liberal.  It's that education tends to unravel the simplistic assumptions of your starting point, whatever simplistic assumptions you may start out with.   As Socrates once allegedly said, the wise person is the one who realizes at some point how much he or she does not know.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Francis Collins on Adam

I heard Francis Collins yesterday here at Pepperdine.  As you may know, he is author of The Language of God and co-author of The Language of Science and Faith.  He was leader of the project that cracked the entirety of the human genome, a project that I believe will quickly result in curing most diseases like cancer, diabetes and  other gene related illnesses.  Obama appointed him to head the National Institutes of Health, an appointment new atheists like Sam Harris publicly opposed.

His faith is very evident.  Let's be clear about that.  He has a spiritual autobiography something like C. S. Lewis where he started as an atheist but was driven to faith.  It is also evident that he sees no contradiction between science and faith, and he was founder of BioLogos to that end.

I won't pretend that the question of evolution is not a difficult one at one point in particular, namely, our theology of Adam and the Fall.  Genesis 1 is a piece of cake, since it seems rather easily read as a poetic rather than a literal presentation of creation.  The problem is not even with Genesis 2-3.  The problem is with what Paul does with Genesis 2-3 and what Augustine did with Paul and with what Calvin and Wesley did with Paul.

I might describe it like this:
1. The rest of the OT doesn't do anything with Genesis 2-3.  Genesis 2-3 is not of major significance for the theology internal to the Old Testament.  Further, Adam and Eve's sin only stop them from not dying.  It does not seem to bring human death into the world except in that it prevents endless life.
2. The rest of the NT doesn't do anything with Genesis 2-3.  Genesis 2-3 is not of major significance for the theology internal to the rest of the New Testament outside Paul.  Adam is not mentioned elsewhere.
3. Adam in Romans and 1 Corinthians, however, provides Paul's explanation for where sin and death came from.  Adam seems to play a central role in Paul's theology.
4. This became central to our Christian understanding because Augustine and Protestantism focused on Paul and Adam, and made him a centerpiece in the Christian reading of Scripture.  When anyone reads Scripture, s/he must prioritize passages to form a coherent reading.  Adam would not have to be a centerpiece of such a reading.  He is central because we have inherited the readings of Augustine and the Protestant tradition.

The idea that death entered the world through Adam is one issue, since evolution requires lots of death.  There are strategies you can make.  Perhaps spiritual death entered through Adam.  Perhaps we could go with Genesis--Adam stopped life rather than started death.

Collins presented a new problem yesterday I was not aware of.  In his opinion, the human genome is too diverse to have come from one parent (remembering that Eve got her DNA from Adam).  He thinks thousands would have been necessary (he also pointed out that the genome of homo neanderthalis, which they have also decoded in full, is very similar to homo sapiens, possibly implying continuity between the two species.

He presented several possibilities.  One is that God created thousands of Adams and Eves.  One is that God did something special with two of the newly evolved thousands and then retro-did the others or it spread to the others.  Collins doesn't like the metaphorical route, that Adam and Eve are a story expressing the mystery of human identity and our condition before God, but not historical individuals.

Here is some exploration of Adam by RJS on Scott McKnight's blog, including a link to a recent CT article.  I do not offer an answer.  I do have two ground rules:

1. Having grown up with a fundamentalist view of the Bible and then feeling repeatedly stupid--indeed feeling like a complete ignoramus--as I studied the Bible in context, I reject the idea that the Christian position on these sorts of issues is a slam dunk.  The interpretation of the Bible is often complicated and unclear, and its appropriation even more susceptible to debate.

2. I reject any glib dismissal of science by those who couldn't pass a science class to save their life and yet insist on using cell phones and surgeons.  It is one and the same scientific method which has given us lap tops and evolution.  I am not a scientist.  I am not competent to judge the issue.  But I fear basing my faith on the opposite side of the vast and overwhelming majority of those who are competent to judge the evidence, in a field where you make your reputation by coming up with new discoveries, when every single scientist against evolution does so because of a presupposition they start out with rather than because the evidence drove them to that conclusion.

So have at it.  What do you think?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Progressive versus Emergence Christianity (Phyllis Tickle)

I'm sitting in an airport in Houston on my way to a Christian Scholar's conference at Pepperdine.  I'm presenting my thoughts on Hebrews 12:27 from the other day in 20 minutes.  The session I'm a part of is centered around James Thompson's recent commentary on Hebrews.

I don't have time to think through this post, but an online conference at Patheos on Progressive Christianity caught my eye, mainly because James McGrath is one of the blog presenters.  As I quickly dug around, I was struck by Phyllis Tickle's piece, "Progressive versus Emergence Christianity."

My first reaction is to smile.  People are always wanting to start movements.  Yes, yes, I confess; I've dreamed of it too.  My little sense of Tickle is that she has really overreached in her sense of emergence Christianity.  She thinks its the thing and here to stay.  There may indeed be some longstanding things that are emerging but she reminds me of how people confuse philosophical postmodernism with cultural postmodernism.  The philosophy is hard core and must forever be engaged in the history of future discussion. People, on the other hand, ride waves that change with the wind and are weak caricatures of ideological discussions.

So I'm tired of talking about us being in a postmodern age unless you're talking the real deal idea discussion.  Even then, postmodernism is not a thing--it is an anti-thing, an un-thing.  It can't be the next thing.

Meanwhile, people are just going with the flow.  I don't know Tickle's stuff well enough to know but I suspect she doesn't have this distinction firmly enough in mind.

As for "progressive Christianity," I suspect that might be a more real ideological group that is here for a good long while.  Notice that the people at Patheos didn't create a category called "Emergence Christianity."  They have one for evangelicals, one for progressives, and one for Catholics. ;-)

Just some quick thoughts before boarding...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Types of Leaders

One of the benefits of directing the curriculum at Wesley Seminary is that I get to learn a lot of things I wouldn't otherwise have had the time to.  Yesterday I was looking at the second chapter of our own Bob Whitesel's book, Preparing for Change Reaction.  There he was introducing the military distinction between strategic, tactical, and operational leaders.  As simple as it is, I find this a very helpful distinction, and from his notes it is clearly a common distinction made with various terms.

Here's my own twist.  From my own anecdotal experience, a whole lot of those who go into ministry think they are or want to be strategic leaders.  This is the big picture visionary, the prophet who sees where things are going and where things need to go.  It's arguably part of the preaching itch--you want to tell everyone what they need to be, what's wrong with society, etc.  The problem is that, in my experience, very few people really are gifted strategic leaders.

On the other end of the spectrum are what Bob calls operational leaders.  These are people who are good with accomplishing specific tasks and overcoming specific problems.  These people because they get things done.  Gibbs calls them "foremen."  The military image Bob created in my mind is that of a sergeant who can lead a small cadre of troops up a hill.  In a church, I have the picture of a person who can lead a group on a Habitat day or who organizes a pot-luck.

The big gap is what the military calls "tactical leaders."  These are the administrators who can organize the specific operations needed to achieve strategic goals.  These are detailed, precise people who aren't always the life of the party, but they know how to get from point A to point B.  Without them, dreams evaporate and goals aren't reached.

Bob's advice for bringing about change in your church, university, or organization?  Get your tactical leaders in place before you launch your new vision.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Contextualizing in Florida

I'm in Florida for a couple days as part of a team getting ready for our Fall seminary leadership course in Spanish.  I'm here to share what we've been doing.  Then a team of Hispanic leaders are filtering through what works and what doesn't, what Spanish resources are out there, and what needs to be written.

My Spanish is improving in a baptism by fire ;-)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hebrews 12:27

I've been reflecting on Hebrews 12:27 over the weekend.  In this verse, the author of Hebrews says that God's shaking of the heavens and earth refers to the metathesis of the things being shaken--since they have been created--so that things that cannot be shaken might remain.  The word metathesis can mean either transformation or removal, and certainly a meaning of "transformation" would be far more likely given the background of Jewish apocalyptic and the rest of the NT.

Every time I look at this verse, I waffle on exactly what is being said here and yet still come down with it speaking of the "removal" of the created realm.  This is an unprecedented idea, one I find nowhere in any existing literature up to that point in history.  I'm contemplating a new spin this time, but in the meantime, here are the reasons I conclude this:

1. It is the very createdness of the skies and earth that make them shakable.  This is obviously not God's fault but the inherent instability of the materials themselves.  It does not seem likely that belief in creation ex nihilo had arisen yet at this point, so the assumption would seem to be that God did not create the primordial materials of the world, only that he organized them, gave them order.  So transformation in that sense does not fix the problem.

2. Hebrews seems to have a more pervasive dualism between heaven and earth than any other part of the New Testament.  Although it uses the language and imagery of resurrection (e.g., 6:2; 13:20), it arguably does so in a way that clearly identifies spirit with the highest heaven and consistently/strongly contrasts the materials of this realm with the created realm.

3. We find hints of this position elsewhere.  Although it is not clear, if the author equates the universe with a cosmological sanctuary, as I believe, then the removal of the "outer tent" of the true tent might allude to the removal of the creation as the outer room of a cosmic sanctuary whose Most Holy Place is the highest heaven (9:8).

More crucial is 1:10-12, which may provide significant insights. Here Christ may "change" the created realm like a garment.  This obviously involves a removal.  But if the imagery holds, it would also imply putting a new garment on.  I'm contemplating this option today, which would give us a both/and.  Yes, the created realm would be removed, but then God, as it were, would create a new one ex nihilo.

Could this be the first implied instance of ex nihilo in extant literature?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Find The Errors 1

We're now in the second week of Hebrew for Ministry.  One of the assignments for this week is to use their knowledge of Hebrew even this far in the course to find three errors in the following pretend snippet of a sermon based in Jeremiah 7:21-23.

Can you find the three errors? Use the Hebrew text in blueletterbible if you don't have an interlinear or don't know Hebrew.

OMT: Romans 10:14-21

Other translations:

Romans 1:1-7
Romans 1:8-10
Romans 1:11-15
Romans 1:16-17
Romans 5:12-17
Romans 7:13-25
Romans 8:1-8
Romans 9:1-5
Romans 9:6-18
Romans 9:19-29

Now, Romans 10:14-21:

14 How, therefore, might they call on him whom they have not believed?  And how might they believe on him whom they have not heard?  And how might they hear without [someone] preaching? 15 And how might they preach unless they should be sent?  As it stands written, "How beautiful [are] the feet of those who proclaim the good news with regard to good things" (Isa. 52:7). 16 But did they not all hear the good news?  For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" (Isa. 53:1) 17 Then faith [is] from a message, and the message through the word of Christ.

18 But I say, it isn't that they have not heard, is it?  Yes indeed, "their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the inhabited world" (Ps. 19:4). 19 But I say, it isn't that Israel hasn't known, is it?  First Moses says, "I myself will make you jealous by those who are not a nation, by a nation without understanding I will make you angry" (Deut. 32:21). 20 But Isaiah dares and says, "I was found by those not seeking me.  I became apparent to those not inquiring of me" (Isa. 65:1). 21 But to Israel he says, "The whole day I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people" (Isa. 65:2).

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tendency to Become What we Fight

I was reading a little of John Piper's story today.  Interestingly, he started quite vigorously opposed to determinism, which he now interprets as being opposed to the sovereignty of God.  He was a strong proponent of free will when he went to Fuller.

What often happens psychologically when someone is so zealous for one position is that s/he becomes over-aware of the weak points of his/her position.  These have a way of eventually overcoming you to where those weak points become the centerpiece of a diametrically opposite you.  So in Piper's case, the rather unusual and atypical verses in Romans 9 came to dominate his understanding.

So beware of zeal--some of the most ardent fundamentalist zealots end up being some of the most militant atheists.  Moderation in all things is almost always the best policy.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Who is Ken Schenck?

I decided to update the link that takes people to a description of who I am.  Nothing here is new, but occasionally people will link to me and I'll get a flurry of hits on the older version of this post.

Ken Schenck might self-describe himself in the following ways:

A Pietist of Sorts
I believe that what is most important about a person is not what you know but who you are, and by who you are I mean what your motives and intentions are.  This makes your actions--as they flow from your motivations--the second most important aspect of a person.  I love ideas--they are my life.  But they are for me less important than who you are, understood as the most consistent intentions of a person as they lead to actions (=character).

A Seeker of Truth
I love truth, understood as the most likely interpretations of the data of life on the basis of sound logic and hypotheses that accommodate the most data with elegance and simplicity.  As a Christian I embrace the age-old motto of fidens quaerens intellectam, "faith seeking understanding."  We start with the understanding of Christian faith we have and then dialog with the data of life and history.

Because God's revelation is always "incarnated" in the thought categories of its audiences, our specific understandings of faith as they come mediated to us through Scripture and the Church are always subject to interpretation and critique.  I thus reject the high presuppositionalism of the hyper-Reformed tradition.

I have a PhD in New Testament.  I do not treat the "philosophy" element of this title lightly.  I have been trained to interpret the New Testament in its original historical and cultural context.  I appropriate the Bible as a Christian.  I can justify ideological and "theological" interpretations as a hermeneutician.  But my first course of action is always to let the contextual evidence of the original meaning fall where it lies, whether it is convenient to my faith or tradition or not.  I can then deal with it in my theology.

Catholic in Spirit
In keeping with Wesley, I believe Christians share much more in common than they disagree on.  We believe in the literal existence of God and Christ as the ultimate mediator between God and humanity.  If I am Protestant, I am Protestant because I believe the medieval Catholic Church had wandered from some first principles. But in the words of Wesley, "if your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mine."

However, as a Protestant in the Anglican-Methodist stream, I am not nearly as engaged with some of the high Protestant objections (come obsessions) of the Lutheran and Calvinist streams with Roman Catholicism.  I reject the popular dismissal of Catholics as "not Christian."  Indeed, it is quite possible that some Catholics come closer to Wesleyanism than some Lutherans do.

Wesley himself operated with a "quadrilateral" of inputs to understanding and decision making as a believer (Scripture, tradition, reason, experience).  It would thus be more appropriate to speak of prima scriptura (Scripture first) as our motto than sola scriptura (Scripture only).  Indeed, sola scriptura is not even a coherent concept when the Bible is read in context, because the formation of a biblical theology regularly requires organizing dynamics extrinsic to the texts themselves.

Wesleyan-Arminian in Tradition
I thus do not fill in the philosophical blanks in relation to human freedom or divine expectation in the same way as the Calvinist or Lutheran traditions.  The idea of God as love becomes incoherent if he does not in some way give the possibility of salvation to all, including those who never hear the name of Christ.  And it is both biblically and philosophically appropriate that God expect faithfulness from those he calls his own.

So I believe that God judges us according to the light we have, by our hearts rather than our heads.  His justification is always through the mediation of Christ, but we do not have to know about Christ with our heads to receive that mediation if our hearts respond to God's prevenient empowerment appropriately.  God empowers everyone at some point in their lives in this way--which is why I reject the Calvinist tradition at its core values.

But God as patron also expects that we continue to receive his empowerment to live righteous lives, where the basic definition of a righteous life is one consistently motivated by the love of others.  The idea of someone claiming the name of Christ and yet living a life of hatred is ludicrous.  This would thus distinguish me from the Lutheran tradition, which has so overreacted to the idea of boasting over works that it dares not speak of living good lives.

A Chastened Wesleyan
I am an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church, a very small denomination in the Methodist tradition.  I am currently academic Dean and teach at my denomination's only seminary.  I thus not only have the values I mentioned above, but I also represent a denomination with a particular history.  Obviously I would not be in my denomination if I did not think that the values I mentioned above fit well within my church.

I call myself a "chastened" Wesleyan because I recognize the location of any embodied part of the Church universal within the flow of time and culture.  Denominational identities are a study in continuity and discontinuity over time.  The values of my denomination currently are not the same as its values 100 years ago, and it is possible they will look different 50 years from now.  Hopefully there is also much continuity.

As a small example, much of my denomination arguably lost its way in the second half of the twentieth century with regard to issues that had at one time been core values.  A denomination whose very founding took place over abolition tended in spirit and in inaction to oppose the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  A tradition whose founding namesake saw social justice as essential Christian practice found itself caught up in the fundamentalist leftovers against such values.

I believe we are regaining these core values as well as open-hearted spirit of Wesley I mentioned above.  We do not fight over how to baptize or how to do communion.  We do not fight over how the second coming is precisely going to play out.  We do not fight over penal substitution or a precise understanding of inerrancy.  If anything defines us right now it is action to bring the good news on every level to the world.

So I am Wesleyan by family, Wesleyan-Arminian by tradition, a catholic Christian by faith, and a warm-hearted thinker by commitment.

Roger Olson on true Arminianism

Roger Olson is a Baptist at Baylor who has written a number of things, but the most significant for those in my circles is Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.  He has been debating over another new book by Allen and Lemke called, Whosoever Wills, a book claiming to be a middle way between Arminianism and Calvinism.  Both books have the current forcefulness of 5 point Calvinism in their cross-hairs.

However, as you might expect, Olson is quite concerned that Lemke is mis-defining Arminianism in terms of those edges of Arminianism that do not represent all Arminians.  For example, most open theists are Arminian, but it would not be true to say that most Arminians are open theists.

I suppose at this point most of you get a little frustrated with all the labels and fighting over terms.  Believe it or not, I really don't care much for these labels on this level either.  They are just tools to discuss things, not ends in themselves.

  • So I'm Wesleyan, but I don't think Wesley was right on everything.
  • I'm Arminian, but all this really means to me is that I believe anyone could in theory be saved.
  • I'm Evangelical because the denomination to which I belong signed up, but my tradition really doesn't get worked up about the things most in this post WW2 movement get worked up about (penal substitution, a particular kind of use of the Bible, whether God judges us according to the light we have, a particular kind of social activism).
  • I'm Protestant, but through the Anglican-Methodist stream, which doesn't get as worked up as Luther did on a number of issues, can be considered somewhat of a mediating tradition with catholicism, and is often accused of not being solidly Protestant enough.
  • I'm Pietist, but at least believe I can articulate a coherent and systematic theology.
So here's to labels... ;-)

OMT: Romans 9:19-29

Previous translations include:

Romans 1:1-7
Romans 1:8-10
Romans 1:11-15
Romans 1:16-17
Romans 5:12-17
Romans 7:13-25
Romans 8:1-8
Romans 9:1-5
Romans 9:6-18

Now Romans 9:19-29:

19 Therefore, you will say to me, "Why is he still finding fault?  For who has resisted his plan?"  20 O mortal, yes indeed, who are you, who are passing judgment on God?  The thing formed will not say to the one forming it, "Why have you made me this way?" will it?  21 Or does not the potter of the clay have the authority to make from the same lump one thing as a vessel for honor and another for dishonor? 22 And [what] if God, wanting to demonstrate [his] fury and to make known his power, bore with much patience vessels of wrath created for destruction 23 and in order to make known the wealth of his glory on the vessels of mercy that he prepared for glory? 24 who [are] we, whom he also called, not only from Jews but also from Gentiles, 25 as it also says in Hosea, "I will call those who are not my people, 'my people,' and those who have not been beloved, 'beloved'" (Hos. 2:23), 26 "and there will be in place of where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' there they will be called 'sons of the living God'" (Hos. 1:10).

27 And Isaiah cries out for Israel, "[Even] if the number of the sons of Israel should be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved" (Isa. 10:22-23). 28 "For carrying out and accomplishing [his] word, the Lord will do [it] on the earth" (Isa. 1:9). 29 And as Isaiah has said previously, "If the Lord Sabaoth had not left seed for us, we would have become as Sodom and we would have been like Gomorrah" (Isa. 8:14). 

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Years of Silence?

I have often found that a lot of the "background to the Bible" stories we tell ourselves are gross oversimplifications, even misrepresentations of things.  They're like two dimensional flannel graph pictures.  Were the Pharisees all legalistic hypocrites?  Was Judaism a religion of works righteousness?

One I came across again yesterday was the idea of "years of silence" between Malachi and Jesus.  This seems a particularly Protestant story meant to exclude the Apocrypha from the canon.  A book I was reading pinned it to Zechariah 13, where it talks about a time when there will be no prophets.  But this is a very ambiguous passage indeed.  To connect it to the four hundred year period before Jesus seems very dubious indeed.

Yes, there may have been a sense in the post-exilic period that Israel didn't have prophets like in the "good old days" of Isaiah.  But I feel the same way--boy, I wish we had stuff going on like when Jesus and Paul were around.  So have we been living in a period of silence since the NT was finished?  Certainly a lot of Protestants treat the period from the NT to Martin Luther in exactly the same way.

In the end, the idea of a period of silence probably says more about us than it does the people who lived during this period.  We don't know about this period.  We may not know that a flurry of writing emerged in the 100s BC, books like 1 Enoch that Jude quotes and some of whose stories may stand in the background of 1 Peter.  We may not know of the wealth of prophetic type writing that emerged among the Essenes of the first century BC.

Or in hindsight we dismiss this writing as not truly prophetic.  Those groups died out.  They are certainly not my group.  Evangelicals by and large don't accept the dating of Daniel to the mid-160s BC or the late dating of other OT strands.  Frankly, not much literature has survived from the Persian or early Greek period of Israel's history.  There is a kind of "silence" of surviving literature from 400-200BC.

We don't see it.  We don't know it.  The Catholics have books from it.  So it's the period of silence.  It doesn't fit our scheme of what is important.

But there were high priests carrying out the sacrificial cultus of Leviticus throughout this period.  They probably observed the temple festivals more than through the entire period of the Kings.  Indeed, everything we read in Judges, Samuel, and Kings pushes us to suspect that the Law as we have it was followed much more in these "years of silence" than throughout the pre-exilic period.  It just wasn't filled with ideological sects like those that emerged around the time of the Maccabean crisis of the 160s BC.

Bottom line: Yes, we do not have prophetic material in our Bible from around the years 400BC to AD50, and Protestants do not have much if any material in their canon from this period.  But to call these years a period of silence seems about as skewed as saying that God hasn't spoken since the last book of the NT was written.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Crisis of Epistemology

Much of the conflict of ideas relating to religion in America can be depicted as a conflict of epistemologies, namely, of an inductive approach to truth versus a deductive approach.  Call it science versus religion.  Call it natural versus revealed revelation.  Call it open-mindedness versus presuppositionalism.  Call it rationalism versus empiricism.  Call it "philosophy" versus "theology."

The one approach starts with certain assumptions and proceeds to integrate experience with those assumptions.  The other starts with experience and builds general conclusions from there.  Of course Kant pointed out that we inevitably use both.  We have certain "innate" frameworks through which we filter experience (cause-effect, for example).

So what may seem like obvious choices turn out to be rather muddy in reality.  Yes, we all process reality by way of certain presuppositions.  But how big should these be?  Some presuppositionalists see these as huge macro-systems where if you accept one thing as a presupposition, you must then accept the entire system.  This is nothing but lunacy that blows away like a puff of smoke against the smallest stepping out of doors.

Then again, some empiricists pretend like they are completely objective and have no intrinsic biases or starting  points.  Once again, this is lunacy that evaporates on the smallest peak of light.

In a perfect world, these two would coincide precisely--the general conclusions to which our experiences build would coincide with the general presuppositions from which we start.  In life, of course, these often conflict.  We get out of our birth zone and find other personalities and other cultures out there.  Those who come out of the cave recognize that some of their assumptions were options rather than absolutes and that some of their assumptions were just wrong.

Since presuppositions are only subject to revision--they are assumptions rather than evidentiary in nature, they can be tricky.  There is a tendency for various epistemological tribes to treat them as unfalsifiable.  This of course means that those who do not share the same assumptions cannot really have a conversation with them.   Those who have the assumptions are, in a sense, the "elect" and that is that.

However, at some point the common sense "tests" for truth may become overwhelming.  Presuppositions may come into conflict with experience.  Presuppositions may shout of incoherence.  Presuppositions may fail to "work" in life.  For most there will be a breaking point, where epistemological stubbornness yields to a gush of reality.

Let me skip to the end.  The two kingdoms of deduction and induction best work together.  We need a core set of micro-assumptions to think at all.  The micro-assumptions of deduction are logic.  The micro-assumptions of induction are a generalized form of the scientific method.

The best epistemological model for the Christian is "faith seeking understanding."  In my opinion, faith must in theory be falsifiable or else our claims to be a people of truth are meaningless.  To pass muster as claims about truth, faith must be modifiable and subject to critique.

And we must also recognize that easy answers like the church or the Bible are not as easy as you might think on more detailed examination.  For example, not only is the interpretation of the Bible subject to significant debate at countless points, but even when we feel relatively certain about its original meaning, we must then determine how God wants us to apply it today in varied contexts.  Protestants by historic definition reject any absoluteness to the trajectory of the church.

This is not to say, however, that evidence is absolutely determinative.  It can be coherent to have faith despite the appearance of the evidentiary landscape, because all data is subject to interpretation.  In that case, however, one should be honest about the lay of the evidence and invoke some degree of blind faith.  To be coherent, the invocation of blind faith may require one to modify basic common sense understandings of the world.  Few of those who would invoke blind faith in this way can thus be consistent with the way they live the rest of their lives.

Some thoughts I've shared before...

Monday, June 06, 2011

Getting ourselves to change...

I posted this today on the seminary blog.

A few years back one of our MA students did a capstone project on a frustrating phenomenon he was observing.  The kids from his youth group were dropping like flies out of church after they graduated from high school.  This was true even of some who were going to Christian colleges.  What was even more puzzling was the fact that some of them re-emerged in the church after they got married.  His project documented the phenomenon and strategized ways to overcome it.

Now I am not a psychologist nor an expert on theories of change or changing like others in the seminary faculty, but I am a philosopher of sorts.  Cobbling together various elements from ethics, I would suggest that people are motivated for four basic reasons: 1) basic drives and desires, not least for pleasure, 2) a sense of obligation, 3) perceptions of potential consequences, and 4) the randomness of the human mind.

I suspect that the default approach of so many when it comes to getting people to change is to preach at them.  For example, the research the MA student did suggested to me that sex was by far the major reason these youth dropped out of church.  The church told them they couldn’t have it.  Their basic drives told them they wanted it.  Words of obligation don’t stand a chance in this duel.  ”You shouldn’t do that.”  ”You should do this.”

Of course one of the primary tasks of “raising our children in the way they should go” is instilling a sense of virtue and vice in them–which impacts their long term sense of obligation.  Rarely can a reasoned approach to right and wrong compete with the values instilled in a child growing up–values more “caught” than “taught.”  But even such values face hard competition against the primal drives toward pleasure of all kinds–the pleasure of power, the pleasure of sex, the pleasure of wealth.

Potential consequences can deter certain courses of action.  We have police and courts to keep us from killing each other when it would be in our own advantage.  Another way of saying that we have a sinful nature is to say that most humans are by nature more selfish than they are loving.  When my pursuit of pleasure beyond my needs creates displeasure beyond normal for you, most of us are prone to go for pleasure unless there are significantly negative potential consequences.

However, many if not most of us do not follow our heads in these sorts of decisions.  Another way of saying we have a sinful nature is to say that we are prone to choose “the pleasures of sin for a short time” over and against what we know is a better course of action.  Nevertheless, it would seem likely that most of what God asks of us he asks because he loves us and thus shapes our lives in relation to the potential consequences both for ourselves and others.  If a person has not inherited a sense of duty from their childhood, clarifying the consequences of our actions is a more powerful motivation than simply telling us something is wrong.

But in the end, it is “out of the heart” that decisions come, from our most basic drives and desires.  Different Christian traditions have conceptualized the situation of the heart differently.  Certainly we will always have drives for sex and to excel.  When the Wesleyan tradition used to speak of “eradicating” the sinful nature, some probably lost sight of what we are actually talking about here, namely, the fact that the desires of our bodies can be directed at both appropriate and inappropriate targets.  We will have these drives as long as we have bodies and so we will never move beyond temptation or the potential for our desires to target the wrong thing.

But at the same time, many other Christian traditions underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to give us greater desires for the good than our basal desires when they target the wrong things.  Many Christians also underestimate the power of developing habits of virtue, grooves in our wills that make it more easy to do the good than to do the bad.  Changing our hearts is ultimately a matter for God, but there are time-proven ways to help change our desires in the spirit of “I want to change, Lord.  Help my inability to change.”

First, we must get a clear sense of what God desires.  If we are uncertain about what God wants us to do in a certain area, then our basal desires will win easily over the good.  Clarity of God’s will comes from the community of faith reflecting on Scripture in the light of the wisdom of the Christians of the centuries in dialog with our current context and the potential consequences of our actions.

But once we have a clear sense of God’s will, we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in forming our desires.  We create habits of virtue in the context of Christian community.  Habits of virtue are when we practice making the right choices.  We start little and we build to the big.  Habits require repetition, so we practice making the right choices daily in our greatest areas of need.

And we form these habits in Christian community.  Most important is the accountability of the Holy Spirit.  We must build the habit of the Spirit’s presence in every moment of our lives.  We must not allow our minds to think that the Holy Spirit is not present with us at every moment of every day.  How much less are we to make the wrong decision if we have taken the Holy Spirit with us into the room where we are making the decision.  ”Practicing the presence of God” surely will make it harder for us to make the wrong choice than if our mother or father–or someone we strongly would not want to disappoint–were standing in the room with us.

Then there is the accountability of the Christian community.  If we are with others who are holding us accountable–as we are holding them accountable–then we are less likely to make the wrong choice.  They will sense that we are not as open next week as we were the week before.  They will know that we have not followed through on our professed love of God, and we will not want to confess a failure.

Ultimately, we cannot change others.  So many of us think we can, but if someone does not want to change, they will not change.  Unfortunately, most of us are lost even at the thought of changing ourselves.  As Christians, we believe this is a task only the Holy Spirit can pull off.  But God’s strength is made complete in our weakness, and we need not live a life of constant defeat.  We can do the good we want to do–which is the real point Romans 7 builds toward in Romans 8.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

A Taste of Hebrew for Ministry

We're in the middle of the first week of "Hebrew for Ministry," a summer course at Wesley Seminary.  We alternate summers, Greek for Ministry, Hebrew for Ministry and so forth.  The goal is to be able to use the tools without having memorized all the forms.

Anyway, here's a 10ish minute taste of the first week: Transliterating the Shema

Friday, June 03, 2011

Who are you listening to?

I was reminded last night how much there is right now to listen to and how formative your "source" is.  Someone showed me some prophecy literature with a strong KJV only tendency talking about how heretical the NIV2011 is.  Whaaaaat?

But it could be that you're doing a web search on sabbath... what perspective are you going to get from the overwhelming number of sites?  The Seventh Day Adventist perspective.  Why?  Because they're the ones most interested in the topic.

Do you listen to Rachel Madow on msnbc or Rush Limbaugh?  What email lists are you on?  Do you read blogs by Ken Schenck.

What's the solution to the way this feast of information threatens to entrench existing tribalisms?  I suppose education in everything--let's all go get doctorates in every field of knowledge.  Or, since that won't do, we have to develop a "hermeneutics of suspicion"--question everything and develop massive critical thinking skills.  We develop a tentativity about new info, especially in areas where we're not experts.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Suffering and Sovereignty 1

I'm trying to skim a book this week as part of a potential writing project on the side this summer.  The book is Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, an edited collection with John Piper and Justin Taylor as authors.  Today I skimmed the first chapter by John Piper himself: "Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: Ten Aspects of God's Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan's Hand in It."

I agree theologically with almost everything Piper says in this chapter--it's more his understanding behind what he says that I disagree with.  Here are his ten points in my words:

1. Satan's rule over the world is delegated.
2. God is sovereign over Satan's angels and demons.
3. God is sovereign over Satan's hand in persecution.
4. God is sovereign over Satan's taking of life.
5. God is sovereign over Satan's hand in natural disasters.
6. God is sovereign over Satan causing sickness.
7. God is sovereign over Satan's use of animals and plants.
8. God is sovereign over Satan's causing of temptation.
9. God is sovereign over Satan's ability to blind our understanding.
10. God is sovereign over the spiritual bondage Satan causes.

So I agree theologically with these comments, as well as with Piper's opening gambit: "God himself is the supreme value" (17).

Where do I disagree?  I disagree with what stands behind this comment: "In the academic classroom and in the apologetics discussion, the agency of Satan in our suffering may lift a little the burden of God's sovereignty for some; but for others... there is more security and more relief and more hope and more support and more glorious truth in... looking... to Go for the cause..." (23).

In other words, God is telling Satan what to do.  On the contrary, I believe that if this is the case, then Christianity becomes incoherent.  No meaningful understanding of God as love is compatible with him directly ordering Satan to do all the things above.  Only if God has given authority to creation to do less than his perfect will can the concept of God as love be coherent.

This comment brings me to a second disagreement with Piper.  Piper insinuates that intentional agency is involved with everything that happens, both in terms of moral agents like Satan and humans and in terms of plants, animals and the creation.  He thus has no room in his worldview for a creation that operates according to certain "laws" that generate events of pain and suffering apart from someone's will--in his case Satan.

I contend, by contrast, that Satan himself may or may not be directly responsible for all the pain and suffering that happens in the world.

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