Friday, August 31, 2012

Summary: Christian Political Philosophy

Wrote this summary today:
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Throughout history, people have lived under various forms of government. While many of us are privileged today to live in places where we can participate in our own governance, most throughout history have had little say in how they were governed or about the rules of society. We can argue that the representative democracies of today are perhaps the best form of governance for large numbers of people even though this form of government did not exist in biblical times. For this reason we can’t say it is a biblical form of government—indeed, almost all forms of government can be run in a Christian way. But the way a representative democracy tries to “love” every individual, give each person certain basic rights, and take everyone into consideration not only fits with the core principles of the Bible and Christianity in general. It probably fosters those values as strongly or more strongly than any other form of government.

The Enlightenment sense of a social contract seems not only a very helpful but a very Christian way to conceptualize how we live together with one another in a society today. Every individual is part of a society and everyone should be taken into consideration when formulating the rules of that society. God does not show favoritism to people because of their social status, gender, or race (Gal. 3:28), and so everyone needs to be afforded certain basic rights. This translates into the love command, since “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10).

Within this framework, a society that is structured in such a way as to bring about a maximum amount of true happiness is a better one than a society that only leads to the happiness and pleasure of a few. Your understanding of God can come into play here. If you believe as I do that God wants people to choose him freely, then you will resonate with an approach to society that allows its individuals extensive freedom—even to live life unwisely—except when it hurts or impinges on the rights of others. But the tension between individual and societal happiness will always be a matter of give-and-take, following the whims of a nation at a given time. While a Christian might favor individual freedom when it does not affect others, Christians will surely err more on the side of helping the many than defending the self-oriented freedom of a few.

The idea of bringing about maximal happiness for a society was a founding principle behind capitalism as an economic system when it began in the 1700s. This is why a Christian can potentially support such a system, because of the principle of loving one’s neighbor. But it is also easy to lose sight of the reason why we can support a capitalistic system. The New Testament sounds very strong warnings about how money can work against fundamental Christian values. Money brings a power that, given human nature, is more likely to oppress others than to work for their benefit. We can cautiously endorse capitalism if we believe it will bring about a greater good for a greater number. While its fundamental orientation around one’s individual self-interest is fundamentally unchristian, we as Christians can support it when it is working in everyone’s best interest.

Greek of Romans 3:21-31

Did this reading of the Greek with translation for a class:


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Competencies of a Minister

1. A sense of calling and vocation
2. Good personal priorities
3. A personal and corporate spirituality/relationship with God
4. A sense of how people change, who you are, who you should become, how to get there
5. A sense of how culture affects ministry on every level
6. Knowledge of biblical content
7. Ability to apply Scripture with integrity
8. Knowledge of orthodox Christian theology and how to apply it
9. Knowledge of denominational/church theology and how to navigate it
10. Sense of both global and local Christian history to give perspective, wisdom to draw on
11. Ability to lead, manage, and administrate a local church
12. Knowledge and skills to relate properly to denominational/church political context
13. Ability to participate in God's local and global mission (serving, evangelizing, multiplying)
14. Ability to facilitate the worship of a local community
15. Ability to facilitate a congregation's experience of the Word of God
16. Ability of how to facilitate the corporate formation of everyone in a congregation (discipleship)
17. Ability to facilitate good relationships and individual wholeness in a congregation
18. The ability to assess every area of ministerial life and implement appropriate changes

Rhetorical Guide for the Political Season

Be looking for the following good and bad uses of speech and rhetoric.  Find Waldo in every speech and advertisement.  P.S. All the candidates are "he's" this time, thus the "he's" below.
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Straight talk: Words being used in their normal ways.  Candidate means what he says.

Figurative speech: Words being used in a less than literal way.  Comparisons are being made to say such and such is like something else.

Hyperbole/Overstatement: Making the point by over-making the point, exaggerating to make the point

Understatement: Making the point by stating things much more modestly than they actually are

Humor: Making a joke, often one that makes fun of an opponent, either in good fun or as an attack

Irony: When something said has a second meaning that in some way intersects curiously with the primary meaning, often unintended. One example is when you say the exact opposite of what you mean

Sarcasm: a jab or cutting remark, often through irony or understatement

Disagreement: Sometimes candidates just flat disagree.  They just have an honest difference of conclusion or interpretation.

Misplaced blame: Blaming the wrong party for something

Misrepresentation: When a candidate knows that what he's saying is misleading or skews the actual facts, often intentionally but can also happen unintentionally

Glaring omission: Some fact or information omitted that would significantly change the basic impression

Hypocrisy: When a candidate criticizes another candidate for something he actually believes or did himself

Flat-out Lie: When a candidate looks you straight in the eye and tells you something he knows isn't true.

Some Fallacies to look for:

Fallacy of Diversion: Where you change the subject or the issue

Circular Reasoning: Where your conclusion is part of your argument

Appeal to emotion: Where you get the audience's emotions stirred up and pretend that's an argument

Appeal to improper authority: When you treat someone as an expert who isn't

Attack the person: Where you don't actually attack a position but the person with the position

After this, because of this: When you assume that something that came before something else is the cause

False Alternative: When you present something as an either/or that isn't, when there's a third alternative

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Synoptic Question

Made this video to slip into the one assignment in the MDiv curriculum where it seems potentially relevant:

According to the light they have...

One of the concerns I have always had about my denomination, the Wesleyan Church, is that because we are not a very theologically reflective denomination, we have a tendency simply to absorb whatever is in the water of our bedfellows.  In the late twentieth century, we were church growthies, mainly interested in growing ever larger churches.  It was a time of what Webber called "pragmatic evangelicalism," multiplication without much on the brain other than multiplying numbers.

During that time, for those few Wesleyans who studied Bible or theology in any depth, it was a fairly innocuous time because no one really cared.  The church emphasized growing numbers, leaving those at the Wesleyan colleges to do their thing. A good trend in one respect is going on right now, namely, that Wesleyan colleges, large churches, and church leadership are in greater contact than ever. These are arguably the three main centers of leadership in the denomination right now.

It is also a time when we are in greater contact with the broader evangelical world than ever before, and this has potential consequences, where theological options can accidentally go away or be inadvertently modified. For example, in a move designed to count something deeper than mere prayers for conversion, Wesleyan districts have moved to counting baptisms instead. The idea is that we are looking for more substantial commitments to Christ than the mere assent of words.

Here's the danger.  The Wesleyan Church has in its history both Wesleyan Methodists who could baptize infants and Pilgrims who, like the Salvation Army and Quakers, did not baptize at all.  To me, these elements of our history should stay on the books as options.  Few Wesleyans today baptize infants. Few Wesleyans today will not be baptized at all.  But both reflect a fundamental theology that says, "Baptism itself does not save you.  It is an outward sign of an invisible grace, and the grace can exist without the sign."

I was thinking today about another idea that was previously quite acceptable at least in Pilgrim circles. I heard a story about a former Pilgrim general official who on his deathbed felt spiritually inadequate. The quote I heard was that "surely Seneca will get into the kingdom before me, given the light I've had." Seneca was a Roman moralist, a good man who tried to help Nero become a better person. Nero put him to death. As far as we know, Seneca never heard about Jesus, although there is an old tradition that he and Paul died at around the same time and met each other.

What this old Pilgrim was expressing was the Quaker idea that God judges us according to the light we have. Although Wesley didn't have this idea, it is an extension of his idea of prevenient grace, a grace that seeks us out long before we realize it. Chris Bounds once told me that although Wesley didn't have this idea, it was a natural implication of his theology. In short, it is more the Calvinist tradition that would consign those who have never had a chance to hear about Jesus to hell. It is in better keeping with the Wesleyan tradition to wonder if, on the basis of Christ, some will be saved because they have responded appropriately to the light they have, even though they have never heard of Jesus.

Flash forward to today. As Wesleyans make connections, we should be careful to recognize that while we have much in common with other evangelicals, we are not always exactly the same. For example, we may agree with the vast majority of, say, the Lausanne Conferences. But it would be regrettable if, not realizing our own history and the strengths of our tradition, we inadvertently lost some of its richness because we didn't know what we were doing.

Wesleyans, as long as they are Wesleyans, will always be somewhat uneasy partners with broader evangelicalism.  We have our own history, and there has always been debate over whether we belong or don't belong. I suspect that if we get too comfortable with the title, we've changed without realizing it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Attention Deficit Generation...

I am cursed to have a short attention span. But I think it has made me a more interesting teacher/preacher/writer over the years. If I start to bore myself, I figure it's time to switch up what I'm saying in some way.  I admire the way Seedbeds has set up the 7 minute seminary--just about the current attention span.

Consider what text messaging and smart phones are doing to us--and the purpose is not to pretend we can change it.  If we can't deal with it, we're dead.  If education can't lasso Facebook type things, it's dead.  The "no lap tops in my class" approach is the sign of a loser teacher, someone time is going to run over like an avalanche.  The "switch-task" mentality is here for the long haul, and if you can't deal with it, you're not.

This is why things have to begin with the attention grabber.  The novel/movie starts best in the middle of the story, otherwise you've lost the audience a half hour before it gets good.  The curriculum needs to start with what is perceived to be immediately relevant--you can go deep later.  Give a problem that needs solved.  Don't hold a session on how to do PowerPoint. Come alongside me while I'm designing a PowerPoint for my next class.

We learn by doing.  We fall asleep in a lecture--and that goes for traditional preaching as well. Don't give me all the background in preparation for the juicy stuff and expect me to still be in the room when you get there.

Welcome to the new common sense.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"Surviving Success" (Black and Drury on the WC)

For the last three weeks I've been making my way through Bob Black and Keith Drury's magnificent new Story of the Wesleyan Church.

So far we've learned:
Chaps 1-2  About Wesley and the origins of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in abolitionism
Chaps 3-4  About its activist early days that were low church, pro-women (and anti- some other things)

I can think of no better title to capture chapters 5-6 than their own title for chapter 6: "Surviving Success."  The success in question is of course emancipation of the slaves. It called into question the very reason for the church's existence.  With the abolitionist cause over, why continue as a denomination?

10-15% of the church went back to the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In fact, almost all the "best and brightest" exited, including Luther Lee and pretty much all the founders of the connection.  It looks like a really bad decision was made by the grass roots (against the leadership) not to merge with the Methodist Protestant Church. Adam Crooks, the church planter who went to North Carolina before the Civil War, looks to be about the only great leader who stayed, and he wrestled strongly with it.

Black and Drury do a good job of these chapters. They don't have the pessimistic tone of my take-away, but these years were frankly depressing.  After founding Wheaton College and Adrian College, the WMs lost them both because of financial issues. We lost having Asa Mahon in our history because the grass roots refused to merge with the Methodist Protestants.  There was even a 12 year stint from 1879-91 where they backed off on the ordination of women. Laura Smith Haviland left for the Quakers.

The only bright light I see is that the WMs seem to have had the right positions on civil rights for the newly freed slaves.  They opposed President Andrew Johnson's support for Black Codes and veto of a federal Civil Rights bill.  They opposed the KKK when a lot of churches were giving them members.

But you wonder how different church history might have looked if the WMC had merged with the Methodist Protestants, a group twice as large.  Might not have the Free Methodists merged with such a church? Most of the MPs eventually merged back into the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1939.

P.S. Although the WMs were Republicans, they thought Lincoln too soft on slavery because he was a gradualist (wanted to abolish slavery slowly).  It all proved academic anyway.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

2c Revelation cont (bib theo series)

This post continues my series on biblical theology.  Thus far:

1 Introduction to Biblical Theology
2a Revelation (From Text to Scripture)
2b Revelation (NT Understanding of Scripture)

With this post I want to finish the section "From Text to Scripture."
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Another key insight is to recognize that this entire way of talking about revelation focuses on the head, on understanding. One of the insights of modern times, no doubt known informally throughout history, is that there is much more to us than what is merely going on in our conscious minds and our uttered words.  Our words are only a shadowy reflection of what the Bible often calls our hearts.

The "heart" is a metaphor for the part of us that orients our actions.  It is our will and the longings that most direct it.  To expand the words of 1 Samuel 16:7, "God looks on the heart." In that passage, Samuel is implying that external appearance can be deceiving. But the words we say are part of our external appearance.  And as it has turned out, the mere words of our unspoken mind also turn out to be often superficial to our true motivations and desires.

Truly powerful revelation would not just tell us how to think.  It would change us.  It would change our desires and our will to act in certain ways.  To use an often repeated distinction, we would know God in a personal sense and not just in the manner of "head knowledge."

To think of the Bible only or even primarily in terms of telling us what to think is not only horribly myopic.  It is fundamentally skewed.  It is skewed first because it does not take into account the actual genres of the Bible itself.

A narrative does have implications for what we are to think but they are implicit in the story. More fundamentally, a story draws you in. You identify with one of the characters. The story can reveal who you really are and what you should be. This is a much more transformative and existential operation than merely collecting a set of beliefs.

The psalms largely do not tell us what to believe or even how to act.  They are catalysts for us to express our feeling of sorrow, anger, and hope.  This is an emotional, not primarily a cognitive function.

The bottom line is that the genres of the Bible do not translate most naturally into a set of propositional beliefs. They are much more matters of the heart and the will than the mind.  They involve the mind. They have implications for the mind, but it is the mind on a more fundamental level than some credo or set of beliefs.

A second skew is the fact that the vast majority of biblical texts were written to address audiences in the distant past.  Paul's letters addressed the situations of local churches in the ancient Mediterranean world. The books of the Old Testament were written for ancient Israel.  It's sacrificial law related to sanctuaries that have been gone for millennia.  Its civil law to a nation that has not existed for the same amount of time. Even the gospels implicitly addressed a different time and place.

We can certainly draw timeless truths from the Bible, but we do so with most integrity when we are fully aware of the distance between then and now, between their contexts and our contexts. If we are thus to use the traditional model of revelation, then, we must think of these books first as God's revelations to them.  We are not them.  These books were at least written to them.  In terms of truths, we must then determine how to translate those truths to our contexts.

On the other hand, if we see revelation more on personal and transformative terms, then we often take away the timeless without realizing that we are not reading the words with the same import they might originally have had.  Through the Spirit, we experience them as God wants us to. The danger is of course that we can be (and often are) mistaken in what God is saying or trying to do in us. This is why we best read Scripture together, in fellowship. This is why it is good for us to have scholars around who have done their homework on the likely original meanings...

Next weekend maybe: God's speakings

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Listen to the Candidates Themselves

I don't know whether the Citizen's United case went the right way or not, but I do think it is unfortunate either way.  I just don't see the ability for those with massive financial resources to inundate the media with "partisan stuff" as a net positive in any way, shape, or form.  The decision has made things worse than ever, in my opinion, and that's a bi-partisan position (thus the McCain-Feingold Reform Act).

[By the way, this is why (as I've said before) the old, "vote for a Republican so that we can have anti-abortion judges" is a bait and switch, not nearly as slam-dunk as we often pretend.  There are far more consequences for the Clarence Thomas type judge than the reversal of Roe vs. Wade that has never come. Agree or disagree with the type of decisions this kind of judge makes, but don't pretend it's about abortion. So far it's not been about abortion at all but entirely about things like this Citizen's United decision.]

That is all preface and aside.  My point is that there is a lot of smoke and mirrors in the superpack commercials.  It should not be trusted on either side.  If we want to know what the candidates stand for, we should listen to what they themselves are saying and the advertisements that they themselves approve.

Are they themselves saying false things? Almost certainly.  But it seems to deteriorate even more the further you get from the individual candidate. I'm resolved not to hold Romney or Obama accountable for anything in the ads of their superpacks, only for what they themselves say in the ads they themselves endorse because, frankly, their own superpacks turn me off to them.

Did Citizens United go the right way?  I don't know.  But I refuse to be the dupe of these superpacks.  I'll enact campaign finance reform on my own--and intelligence--by ignoring them.

3.2 Grudem: NT Canon

... continued from yesterday
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Someone who sees the Bible as Scripture is going to agree with Grudem that the books of the New Testament are the right books and that no more books should be added to the Bible. But there is a dreamy quality to the way he unfolds it that again is more like a two-dimensional legend with flat characters than reality. And there's no reason for it other than a compulsion for certainty.

Ironically, there is a great deal of "common sense" to his argument that implies what he will not tell you--he cannot rely on the Bible itself for the answers to which books are in the canon. This is a massive hint of the inadequacy of his overall view of Scripture. When it comes to justifying the contents of Scripture he must resort to a common sense completely outside of the text.

So it is "not accidental" that Revelation comes last or that Genesis comes first in the Christian canon 63).  It "must" be that way. Why? Because it makes sense to him. Smile. Or is because there is a circularity to your argument, Wayne? Convinced that the Bible as it stands has to be the canon, you will find any argument that sounds like it makes sense to justify it?

What's the bottom line?  It is because we can have confidence in "the faithfulness of God" (65). I agree. But where was that faithfulness manifested?  Say it; say it.  In the church.  AD367. He acknowledges it. No writing prior to 367 has the same list of New Testament books that are now in our canon.  AD397 before any official recognition of these books as the New Testament canon anywhere that we know of. Looks like the church wrestled a little with the question--and that it wasn't the first order of business (which contradicts the all-importance these issues have for his theology).

His argument for the finality of the New Testament canon gives a glimmer of depth. If Christ is the final revelation, then it makes sense that the canon would not be far behind. This Christ-focused approach points us toward substance, revelation as something more than words, something deep and cosmic. But Grudem is so written word focused that this hint of depth comes only because he has no recourse in the biblical text itself. There's no text that says, "And with Revelation, the canon is closed." Grudem himself admits that the words about adding and subtracting were about the book of Revelation itself, not the Bible or the New Testament as a whole (65).

Ultimately, the collection of the canon--and the collection of doctrine and ethics--require mechanisms that are outside the biblical texts themselves. Some external organizing principle is required to determine the limits of the canon, as well as to systematize biblical teaching. Grudem is forced to engage such factors in this chapter, but he will return to pretending they are not at work in later chapters. His answer is actually quite good: we must rely on the faithfulness of God... in the church, through the Spirit to affirm the canon of Scripture.

Of course those who argue for the Majority Text (roughly that behind the KJV) use this argument as well--surely a faithful God would have preserved the precise text.  Of course the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches use this argument as well--surely a faithful God would have preserved the right interpretations and applications of these texts.

Again, Christians will agree with the destination.  These are the books that belong in the New Testament canon.  Historically, though, that conclusion was won with far more disagreement and real debate than Grudem imagines.  He imagines that it was almost obvious from the very beginning that Paul's writings were Scripture, that the gospels were Scripture. Galatians 2 points to much more conflict and disagreement in the early church. The real story was much more real, much more three-dimensional, like real history.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Grudem: OT Canon

My series reviewing Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology continues.
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OT Canon
As with the previous chapter, Grudem's story of the OT canon's development seems more like a two-dimensional comic book version rather than one that demonstrates any depth of understanding.  Just as an example, Numbers 33:2 says that Moses recorded the stages of Israel's journey at the LORD's command.  Does Grudem want us to infer from this comment that the book of Numbers itself is the record? Inductively, this comment surely wants us to think of Numbers 33:3-49 as the record.

It is exactly this sort of inductive incompetency that plagues Grudem's understanding of the Bible in general. Numbers, like Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, talks about Moses in the third person.  There is material in these books that is Mosaic.  But the books as books, as wholes do not want to be read inductively as books written by Moses. We will have to abandon exegesis and inductive Bible study as our preferred method if this is the way we are to read Scripture and adopt an eisegetical hermeneutic, one that comes to the text trying to find the conclusions we already have.

Exodus, for example, makes reference to a "Book of the Covenant" that Moses reads to the people (24:7).  This book is not just the Ten Commandments, but presumably other laws in Exodus as well.  Inductively, is not this the material that Exodus 24:4 wants us to think of, the laws God wanted Moses to write down, not the book of Exodus itself? Similarly, there is no place in the Pentateuch that fits the description of the scroll mentioned in Exodus 17:14.

Again, like a high school student, it doesn't seem to occur to Grudem that these might be references to material that isn't actually in the Pentateuch.  Why? Maybe because he doesn't have much of a place for revelation outside the written text as it has survived? So 1 Samuel 10:25 does not refer to anything that has survived in Scripture. 1 Chronicles 29:29 does not refer to anything that has survived in Scripture. Although I think Chronicles is well aware of Samuel and Kings, it doesn't seem likely to me that the "Chronicles of Jehu" are 1 Kings. Nor does Isaiah read like a catalog of the acts of Uzziah "from first to last."

In short, Grudem at least seems to reflect the classic pre-modern inability to distinguish between things in a biblical text and that biblical text itself as a historical document.  The main character in a story irrationally becomes the author of the story.  Why would anyone think, for example, that Joshua wrote Joshua because of Joshua 24:26? Joshua is not the Book of the Law?  Joshua is talking about a book, not about itself!  You begin to wonder who the Bible professors were at wherever Grudem studied!

Then there is the old fable about the Jews considering the canon closed with Malachi in about 435BC. There is of course no statement within the Old Testament itself that would attest to this. We know that in the 100s BC the Greek preface to Sirach mentions the Law, the Prophets, and "the other writings," but it doesn't say what those other writings were.  Luke 24 mentions the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (24:44).

If you ask an actual scholar of Second Temple Judaism, they will tell you that the general consensus is that the edges of the canon remained fuzzy at this time in its third section, "the Writings."  There's actually no evidence for another legend, that the OT canon was set in stone at Jamnia in around AD90, but even this legend supposes that the precise contents of the canon remained fluid at the time of the New Testament, some 400 years too late for Grudem.

No reputable Dead Sea Scroll scholar would say that the Essenes did not consider a book like 1 Enoch to be Scripture.  And if Jude 14 were talking about a book in the canon, Grudem would absolutely be touting the verse as proof that Enoch wrote 1 Enoch and that 1 Enoch should be considered Scripture. To try to argue that Melito of Sardis didn't think the book of Wisdom was Scripture is obviously special pleading because it doesn't work for Grudem.

And while the NT does not quote any of the apocryphal books as Scripture, they use them.  No one interested in the truth (rather than just trying to justify what you already think) will conclude that Jesus in Matthew 11:28-29 is not comparing himself to wisdom in Sirach 24 and 51 or that Hebrews 1:3 is not an allusion to Wisdom 7:26 (Romans 1:21ff also has very similar themes to Wisdom 12-14).  And Hebrews 11:35 is likely an allusion to 2 Maccabees 7.  By far the Bible the early Christians used, even Paul, was the Septuagint, and even Grudem acknowledges that the Septuagint included these books (57 n.7).  I suspect he had to add these notes in later editions because someone pointed out he'd missed a few things.

I can't see how anyone can actually read the patristic literature and not conclude that the fathers quoted books like Wisdom similarly to how they quoted the rest of the Old Testament.  It is true that Jerome classified them as part of a "second" canon (deuterocanonical), not as authoritative as the first. So the Council of Trent in 1545 did arguably elevate their official status in response to Luther. But part of acknowledging this fact is also to recognize that Luther himself demoted their status from what they had been from almost the very beginning.

The status these books have within most of Protestantism seems almost certainly less than the status they had from the very beginning of Greek-speaking Christianity.  If we have to choose between the two statements, it is more accurate to say that Luther took the books out than to say that the Catholic church added them in.  The middle way is to go with Jerome.  From almost the beginning, they had the status of a kind of "second canon," of more status than Luther gave them but less than the Council of Trent.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Seminary Post Today

There are weekly posts from Wesley seminary professors here.  Here is my post for this week:
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A former professor at IWU used to say that some of the commands of Scripture were for "one time" (go sell everything you have), some were for "that time" (women veil your heads), and some were for "all time" (love your neighbor).  This way of sorting out how to apply the Bible to today will probably stick in your head long before anything else I have to say in this post.

The problem is of course sorting out what is what.  Although many Christians think they apply everything in the Bible directly to themselves, even the Amish do not go and sell all they have and give to the poor.  Most of us don't greet our brothers with a holy kiss.  Most of us don't stone disobedient children.  Whether we will admit it to ourselves or not, all of us are selective (appropriately) in what we apply from Scripture--we just may or may not be consistent in how we select.
A starting point is to recognize that almost everything in Scripture--if not everything--was at least "that time."  The question is not whether a text in the Bible was for "that time" or "our time."  The question is whether it was just for that time or for that time and our time.  Even the prophesies of Scripture were primarily for the people in front of the prophet and only secondarily to us.  There may be exceptions, but they are exactly that--exceptions.
For this reason, it is very important for us to focus on the "all time" principles of Scripture. For example, Jesus and pretty much everyone else in the New Testament boiled down all moral requirements to "Love God and love neighbor."  Any specific statement in Scripture that you might be tempted to use in a way contradictory to this love command is not "all time," and these two commands themselves can never contradict each other if understood correctly.
Let me give you another example that gets closer to the chase.  In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Christians argued from the Bible that abolition was not biblical.  Does not Paul tell slaves in 1 Corinthians 7:21 not to worry about being a slave?  Does not 1 Peter 2 encourage slaves treated unjustly that they are being like Christ when they suffer under it?  Does not Colossians 3:22 tell slaves to obey their masters?
By contrast, those who argued for abolition argued not so much from the specific "that time" commands of Scripture but from the bigger principles. If in Christ there is neither slave nor free, then wouldn't a world in which slavery is abolished be more like the kingdom than one with it?  And why would we want to wait until the kingdom if we could move in that direction now?  What would a master who truly loved a slave as him or herself do?
You won't be surprised to know that I believe the issue of women in the church and the home is playing out a similar dynamic today, where those who focus on one verse in particular are missing the bigger picture of what the kingdom will be like in regard to men and women. But that is not my point.  My point is that the authority of Scripture is invested in the whole canon and in the broad principles of the whole more than in any one individual verse.
Every individual verse contributes to that whole, but we are prone to mistake the "that time" for the "all time" if we don't process the individual verses in the light of the rest.  In fact, it would be interesting to see if the more detailed we get with the biblical text, the more likely we are to get into "that time" territory.  Evangelicals have developed a complex process for moving from that time to this time in general. It involves figuring out the points of continuity and discontinuity between the specific original context of a text and our context today. This is not only a task that begs for great expertise but it is a spiritual task that Christians should do together more than as lone ranger believers.
It also seems common for individuals to read a text more "spiritually" when we get down to individual verses and texts. God might make a verse come alive in a way the biblical author never intended and tell you to move to Florida. It would be hard to deny that the Spirit speaks this way regularly. The problem is knowing for sure when it is the Spirit and not something else. Impressions beg for confirmation from fellow Christians, from spiritual common sense, from long-standing Christian understandings, and of course from the other parts of Scripture.
So always be open to the Spirit speaking to you directly through a verse. Be ready to work hard together in the application of individual passages today. But always look for the "all time" in the text, the big principles.  It is ironic on the deepest levels that some use the Bible as a tool for evil. The Ku Klux Klan comes to mind, whose membership was filled with good church going people and even pastors.
The cure is the "all time" of Scripture.  Seek it, learn how to know it, and always submit to its authority!

Monday, August 20, 2012

A New Kind of Methodism (Black and Drury 3-4)

I'm dawdling through Black and Drury's new history of the Wesleyan Church.  Last week I commented on how good the first two chapters are. Today I want to continue my applause into the third and fourth chapters.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the period right before the Civil War.  The stories of a few key individuals are given, not least Adam Crooks who went to pastor an abolitionist Wesleyan church in North Carolina at the time. That is chapter 4.  A group of people against slavery in North Carolina called up to the Pennsylvania-Ohio conference asking for an abolitionist pastor and he volunteered.

The church he built now sits on the campus of Southern Wesleyan University, my alma mater.  It has bullet holes and the memory of people like Micajah McPherson who was hanged to within an inch of his life for his opposition to slavery. This heritage stands in sharp contrast to the silence of the Wesleyan Church during the civil rights era, when standing up for equal rights for African-Americans would have been much easier.

So abolition was one of the founding distinctions of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843 when it started. So was opposition to the episcopal form of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a format Wesley himself resisted.  A memorable line on p. 37 is that the founding convention believed that, "If John Wesley were still alive, this was the kind of Methodism that he would endorse."

They adopted a presbyterian model of church government, with some control in the local church (like the congregational approach) and some in the broader church (like the episcopal approach). Two other key elements of the founding church were total abstinence and opposition to secret societies.  The latter prohibition was a matter of great debate over the course of 4 years but was finally adopted.  The former perhaps had a good deal to do with the influx of Roman Catholic (e.g., Irish) immigration that was taking place at the time. The temperance movement would only gain strength in America over the rest of the 1800s until it culminated in Prohibition.

1848 is seen as a crucial year in the history of the fledgling church. Not only was this the year that Adam Crook's church was dedicated, but it was in this year that the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, hosted Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott for the beginning of the women's suffrage movement in America. This was also the year that an article on entire sanctification was put in the WM Discipline, the first group among the Methodists to have such a statement in its Articles of Religion.

Once again, Black and Drury have done an excellent job of making a distant past come alive, despite  names we may never have heard of.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

2b Revelation cont (bibl. theol)

... continued from yesterday
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What did the New Testament authors now understand these Scriptures to be?  2 Timothy 3:16 of course is the classic verse on the topic: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."  However, there is usually not a little assumption involved with the way this verse is understood, indeed an incredible lack of self-awareness.

For example, since the Protestant Reformation, there has been the unjustified assumption that this verse only refers to the literal or plain sense of an Old Testament text. [4]  But even the barest look at the New Testament reveals that the "God-breathed" or "inspired" meaning of Scripture for the New Testament authors was often something more than literal. [5] So Paul in Galatians 4:24 hears an inspired allegorical truth in the story of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis.  The inspired truth he argues for is based on a highly figurative meaning.

This verse thus cannot be used to argue for the form of inerrancy that was promoted in mid-twentieth century neo-evangelicalism.  Responding to the modernist challenges of its day, the fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism of that period was highly literal and historical in orientation, even scientific. But the New Testament authors themselves were just as likely to hear an inspired meaning that was figurative or out of context (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:9-10).

So Hosea was not predicting an event in the life of Jesus when he spoke of how God called his son Israel out of Egypt (Hos. 11:1).  In fact, Hosea talks about how God's son then went on to serve other gods (11:2), absolutely not a reference to Jesus. The inspired meaning that Matthew 2:15 hears in this text is thus not the historical meaning of the verse but a more than literal one.

In this case, we need to speak of two moments of inspiration.  The inspired meaning many New Testament authors heard in the text of the Old Testament was an inspired meaning the Spirit was giving to them.  This second inspiration need not contradict the first, but it was often distinct from the first. This is a practical issue even today.  The inspiration of the biblical texts is only as effective to me as my understanding.  If God does not illuminate me, then God's voice in the text falls on deaf ears.  Similarly, the Spirit can speak to me in an inspired way even when I am misunderstanding the biblical text.

We will move forward in our understanding of revelation if we recognize the fundamental polyvalence of language, the fact that the same words are susceptible to multiple potential meanings.  It is only in specific contexts that we can know which meaning is intended. Context is everything.  Hosea 11:1 had one meaning when Hosea originally prophesied it. It took on another when Matthew 2:15 related it to Jesus' exit from Egypt. I feel quite confident that at some point since the Civil War some African-American preacher has preached from Hosea 11:1 in relation to the post-slavery period, urging his or her congregation not to be like Israel after its liberation from slavery. We believe the first two were definitely inspired, and I have no problem believing the third one was as well.

This flexibility of language means that we have to think of inspiration as something the Holy Spirit is actively engaged in even today.  The individual books of the Bible reflect moments of inspiration as God walked with his people in the focal part of human history, the time immediately preceding and following the coming of Christ. The New Testament books reflect inspiration in the reading of the Old Testament books, often in ways that were distinct from the original meanings of those texts. But if that inspiration is only a thing of the past, then how can I be sure I know what God wants me to do today?

The books were first written to them, not to me. That means that their first meaning was a function of their ancient contexts.  How should I then connect them to my world?  Shall I follow a complicated system of finding points of continuity between that time and this time, looking for the fulcrum points in Scripture from which I can integrate the rest?  I hope to do some of that work in this project. It seems completely legitimate.

But the Spirit surely has also inspired individuals and communities of faith to hear God's authoritative direction directly from the words of Scripture. The problem is certainty.  How can I know for sure when I have heard God?  How can I know for sure when my church or denomination has heard God?  How can I know for sure that I have applied the biblical text correctly, even if I have done my exegesis very carefully and accurately?

I think we inevitably end up with a more robust sense of how God has spoken to us through the church, especially in its formative years.  Despite the incredible diversity within Christianity, we share a lot of beliefs and practices in common.  For example, while there is a good deal of disagreement on baptism, it is clear that groups that do not baptize at all are out of sync with most of historic Christianity. Similarly, Christians have commonly believed since the early 300s that Jesus was fully divine in the same way that God the Father is divine.  An individual or group might try to use a passage or verse in Scripture to try to argue for something different, but it is surely significant that most Christians throughout history have held these sorts of understandings in common.

Another key insight is to recognize that this entire way of talking about revelation focuses on the head, on understanding... [continued next weekend, perhaps]

[4] 2 Timothy is only referring to what we call the Old Testament since the New Testament was not fully written or collected at the time.

[5] I may from time to time use the notes of this project to distinguish the Wesleyan holiness tradition that is my own heritage from mainstream neo-evangelicalism and other Protestant groups.  Along with its sister Pentecostal tradition, holiness preaching often was typological and "spiritual" in its early days in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Thus while mainstream Protestantism and evangelicalism has historically fixated on the literal or plain sense of Scripture, the methods of applying Scripture often used by holiness and Pentecostal preachers were by contrast much more like those of the New Testament authors themselves.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

2 Revelation (biblical theology series)

Last week, as shadow writing to my review of Grudem's Systematic Theology, I at least started my own biblical theology.

1 Introduction to Biblical Theology

For at least this week, I continue with this post on revelation.
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2 Revelation
From Text to Scripture
What did the biblical texts think they were?  This question, at least initially, is a question of genre.  It is also a question whose answer no doubt changed over time.  When Paul wrote his letters, he surely thought he was writing letters, not Scripture.  It is also true that he believed himself to have authority to make commands on behalf of God to at least some of his audiences.

Perhaps the most interesting exchange along these lines is when he processes divorce with the Corinthians.  He makes a distinction presumably between what the Lord Jesus said while he was on earth and Paul's own sense of things. [1] In the one case, Paul was relaying what "not I but the Lord" said (1 Cor. 7:10, NRSV).  In the other, he relayed what "I and not the Lord" said (7:12). But he concludes the chapter with his sense that "I think I too have the Spirit of God" (7:40).

Paul considered himself an apostle (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:1). He believed he had more authority than your average Christ-follower. But there is no evidence in any of his writings that he saw the gift of prophetic speech--bringing God's will to bear on a contemporary situation--as something restricted to the first century.  His words are something a pastor today might say when presenting what she thinks is God's will: "I think I too have the Spirit of God."

It is thus after the fact that Paul's authoritative letters to specific churches became recognized as Scripture. [2] The prophets of the Old Testament spoke to Israel with a similar authority, although probably presented with even more confidence.  They strongly believed that they were bringing God's voice directly to bear on their immediate situations.  Their individual oracles were then later collected and perhaps in some cases extended to give words to Israel that reached beyond their lifetimes.

If one accepts the prevailing theories of sources behind the Pentateuch and historical books, their materials began in part as various stories within Israel--for example, an epic in the southern kingdom of Israel's prehistory. Some of these individual stories were etiologies, explanations of why Israel did or didn't do various things (e.g., why they didn't eat the sinew of the hip, Gen. 32:32). Nothing keeps us from believing by faith that the core legislation of the Pentateuch goes back to Moses at the time of the exodus from Egypt. [3]

In the prevailing theories, these sources were edited together into their current form in the period after the exile.  It seems quite possible to believe that the Pentateuch was mostly if not completely in its current form when Ezra went to Israel from Persia under King Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:14). From that point on it took on the status of law, while before its contents seem largely to have been ignored (e.g., 2 Kings 22:13).

The historical books, the so called "deuteronomistic history," may have reached a form something like its current one by the end of the exile.  Although many, many psalms reach back into the time of the first temple, the book of Psalms was almost certainly assembled into a form more like we know it during the second temple period as part of temple worship.  They served then a function similar to what they do now as catalysts of our praise and thanksgiving, as well as vehicles for us to bring our sorrows and pains to God.

By the late second century BC, the preface to the book of Sirach testifies to the three-fold form of what we call the Old Testament: the Law, the Prophets, and the other writings.  Luke 24:44 similarly divides the Scriptures into the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.  The contents of the final section may still have been a little fuzzy, but the idea of "the Scriptures" was clearly in place at the time of Jesus.

What did the New Testament authors now understand these Scriptures to be...

[1] I say "presumably" because some think Paul may be referring to a word from the risen Lord rather than Jesus while on earth. However, given that we have Jesus tradition about divorce in the gospels, this approach seems less likely to me.

[2] 2 Peter 3:16 seems to indicate that by the time of 2 Peter, Paul's letters had already reached the status of Scripture. There is disagreement over the dating of 2 Peter, with most scholars thinking it is a sort of "testament" written to bring Peter's voice to the late first century or early second century church. However, most evangelical scholars do not accept the possibility of pseudonymous writings in the New Testament at all, since they find it difficult not to conclude that lying would inevitably be involved. Those evangelical scholars that accept the possibility do not think deception had to be involved but that it is simply a question of genre, such as in the case of a parable.

[3] I say "by faith" because archaeology has left us with no ancient trace of Moses from his own time. We only have the Pentateuch itself, which has led certain "minimalists" to deny he ever existed.

Friday, August 17, 2012

2 Grudem: The Word of God

Last weekend I started blogging through Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology both as a Wesleyan-Arminian and as a Bible scholar.  This week I continue my summary/evaluation with chapter 2: "The Word of God."
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Summary
In chapter 2, Grudem identifies several different ways in which God has spoken, several different paths through which the "word" of God has come.  His list includes:

1. Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1; Rev. 19:13)
You can see hints of him trying to downplay this one without downplaying Jesus. "This usage is not common" (47). It's an implicit put down to theologies that emphasize Jesus as God's Word as central more than the Bible as God's word (e.g., the theology of Karl Barth, the most significant theologian of the twentieth century).

2. The speech of God to the creation in the Bible as the word of God (e.g., 33:6)
Here Grudem is setting up for the Calvinist idea of God's decrees, God's commands that order the creation.

3. Words God says to people in the Bible (e.g., to people)
Here he gets a little into the question of whether human words can be perfect and he predictably believes they can.

4. God's words he speaks orally through humans (e.g., on the lips of a prophet)

5. God's words spoken through humans and written down (i.e., in the Bible)
He speaks of the advantages of getting the words written down: more accurate preservation, opportunity for repeated inspection, accessible to more people.

The focus of his systematic theology is on #5: the Bible.  Perhaps someone told him he had missed something, because he has a tiny, tiny footnote (50 n.1) on "general revelation" or what is sometimes called "natural revelation," revelation through the creation.

Evaluation
It is not so much that Grudem's breakdown here is wrong as that it is anemic and implicitly circular.  For example, the worlds of the Bible were oral cultures, yet Grudem's thoughts in #5 are typical of someone from a literary culture.  Were the words of the Bible really accessible in written form to hardly anyone until after the invention of the printing press in the late 1400's?  No, only to the elite in written form, since hardly anyone could read.  His analysis thus betrays at more than one point an unreflectivity, an inability to see one's own paradigmatic assumptions.

God had been speaking for a very long time before a word of the Bible was written down and presumably continues to speak in countless contexts today outside the Bible.  Here is another point Grudem seems to de-emphasize by only alluding to it.  He mentions that God speaks to individuals but his discussion is focused purely on the Bible.  Is he afraid to say much about the fact that God can speak to you or me today, a word from the Lord to me or you today?

The underlying goal of his analysis is to set up the written Bible as the focal word of God. Certainly, the Bible is the place we should begin to seek God's voice.  Where else would a Christian go to hear God's voice more readily than Scripture?  Would we find God's voice so clearly in nature or in prayer?  Of course, to turn Grudem's own words in a different direction than he does, if God were to speak to you genuinely in nature or in prayer, that speaking would be just as authoritative to you as any word in the Bible.  The problem is more to be able to confirm that it is actually God speaking to you in those venues. God's word is God's word if it is God's word.

However, this is a question of method from where we sit.  It is the question of where we should start to hear God's voice.  Where can we, where we sit today, most easily access God's will?  Where is God's voice most readily available to me today?  Surely the Bible is the answer!

But also from the standpoint of God, surely all of his words are equally authoritative.  Reflect on any inner struggle you might have at this comment.  If God speaks through nature, that speaking is as authoritative as him speaking through Scripture because God is God.  There is no way this statement cannot be true if God is the ultimate authority. If this causes any inner conflict, then you are not fully capable of distinguishing God the person from God as you have constructed him in your mind in the Bible.  You are in danger of idolatry.  You cannot distinguish between God as real and your ability to know God.

Grudem again is not fully able to read the books of the Bible in context, so he tends to see them as a deposit of truth and to miss the thousand year period of their assemblage and the thousands of years of their relative inaccessibility.  Taken in their plain sense, they are individual moments in God walking with his people, speaking at specific times and places. Secondarily, since they were written, the Spirit has also used them as a means of grace, a sacrament of transformation. Neither of these natural functions of Scripture exactly constitutes a deposit of revelation. It is no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation came after the invention of the printing press.

To see the books of the Bible as a singular deposit is to read and project a perspective on them that is different from their own intrinsic categories.  As an example of listening to what the "word" is on the Bible's own terms, behind some of the New Testament's idea of the word of God is arguably Jewish speculation about the divine logos.  God's word in John 1, Hebrews 4:12, arguably Colossians 1, was God's will in action.  Hebrews 4:12 is God's judging word that discerns the heart and dispenses judgment appropriately (cf. Wisdom 18:15) and does not refer to Scripture directly. John 1:14 perhaps implies that the image and will of God became present among his people in the person of Jesus like the glory of God in the wilderness sanctuary.  It ultimately refers to Christ (as Grudem acknowledges) and not to Scripture.

We seem on an idolatrous trajectory if we do not place the books of the Bible as God's words within the context of an overall story of God speaking.  We make the Bible an end-in-itself and the focus rather than the God who spoke, speaks, and will speak, most centrally through Christ.  It doesn't matter that the Bible only refers to Christ as the word relatively few times. This is Grudem's implicit circularity. Assuming that the Bible (rather than Christ) is the central revelation, he determines the central revelation through the number of times the Bible uses "word" in this way. This is the circular fallacy, assuming one's conclusion in one's argument.

But how can anything supersede Christ as God's supreme revelation to the universe?  The Bible has been a sacrament of God's speaking to those who could read in history or who knew some of its content orally or through stained glass. Methodologically, it is our starting point today, we who are privileged to be literate. But God has spoken far more in history than in the Bible and his central speaking to the universe is surely in Jesus Christ.  Any other view of Scripture verges dangerously on idolatry.

God "spoke" the worlds into creation. God spoke and continues to speak to the hearts of all humanity in general through his Spirit.  God spoke to Israel through the prophets and through the Law.  God spoke on earth through Jesus.  God spoke to the early church through the apostles.  God spoke and continues to speak to the church through his saints. These speakings are far more oral than literary and far more "soulish" than cognitive.

Grudem's approach to God's speech is thus anemic also because it focuses on knowledge rather than what God's word does.  As a true heir of Rene Descartes, Grudem assumes that humans are primarily "thinking things." But this is only the surface of our humanity, and God's words are more to our hearts than our heads. The most important revelations of God are transformations in our attitudes and lives, with our heads singing the descant.

A couple other critiques. One is that, in his unreflectivity, Grudem does not take into account the genres of ancient literature.  He has a "what you see is what you get" reading of the Bible that inevitably imports all the assumptions of what he sees rather than the criteria of the audiences for whom the books of the Bible were first written. For him a quote is a quote, when it might have just as well been a paraphrase.

Finally, words don't have to be incorrect because they are human words, but they are subject to certain limitations and finitude. As Joel Green says in Seized by Truth, there is an inevitable limitation that comes from shoving a rich life experience into a string of words.  It inevitably limits the perspective.  It inevitably makes the presentation partial.  It makes it finite in some ways, imprecise even if accurate.

However, human language can compensate by going poetic and figurative.  We can point to profundity by metaphor and non-literal language. Against these sorts of considerations, Grudem's outline of words seems like something a high school student might write. There is more to revelation than is dreamt of in his philosophy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Psalm 11 Translation

Psalm 11
[To the leading musician, a psalm (attributed) to David]
11:1 In YHWH I have trusted.
     How will you say to my soul,
     "Flee, bird, to your mountain"?
2 For, behold, the wicked bend [their] bow;
     they prepare their arrow on the string
     in order to shoot secretly the upright of heart.
3 For [if] the columns are thrown down,
     what will the righteous [person] do?
4 YHWH [is] in the temple of his holiness;
     YHWH [is] in the skies of his throne.
     His eyes will see;
     his eyelids examine the sons of Adam.
5 YHWH will examine the righteous one,
     but the wicked and the one who loves doing wrong, his soul hates.
6 Rain down snares on the wicked,
     violent fire and sulphur
     and tempest, the portion for their cup.
7 For the Righteous [one], the LORD, loves righteousness;
     the upright person, he will look on his face.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Objectivity and God's Thoughts

1. All truth is God's truth.
Assuming that everything God thinks is true, then it is a tautology to say that "All truth is God's truth."  If something is true, then it is obviously what God believes.

2. Most of the time, believing the truth does not require irrational faith.
This one is more debatable. Some would disagree. Certainly the evidence doesn't always point to the truth.  Also, I'm not suggesting that the truth is always understood precisely or literally.  I'm simply saying that it seems dubious to suggest that God has, in most cases, rigged the world to look like the false rather than the true.

3. Therefore, the more objective we are, the closer we are likely to come to God's thoughts.
And this includes the more objective we are about the Bible.  In theory, objectivity about the world shouldn't lead in a different direction than objectivity about the Bible, and vice versa.

All truth is God's truth.

Calculus is a method, not a reality

Just sayin'.

In one of the more important breakthroughs of my life, it occurred to me the other day that calculus is not really a deeper understanding of reality.  It's a method for approximating values so close that you can figure out what they actually are.  It's a way of tricking the math into telling us exact figures no one was able to figure out until the 1600's.

So differential calculus tricks math into telling us the slope of a tangent line to some other function, its instantaneous rate of change.  Integral calculus tricks math into telling us the area under a curve, the sum of all the infinitesimal rectangles under it.

But it's all a trick to tell us a reality we already knew about, we just didn't know what its value was exactly.

I thought you'd want to know.

Book Review: Story of Wesleyan Church

Read the first two chapters of Bob Black and Keith Drury's new The Story of the Wesleyan Church.  I am not disappointed, and I had high expectations.  These are good writers.  History should be interesting but so often is not (most of the earlier versions of this history are torturous).  Black and Drury have done a great job.

The first chapter was amazing to me.  I glaze over at the beginning chapters of most American histories with their tales of Native American migrations and distant figures of no direct impact on my life.  This book begins in medias res, with a dramatization of the founding of the new denomination in 1968, followed by a flashback to Wesley at the end of the chapter.  Brilliant!

There is so much mediocrity, all around, everywhere.  This is excellence!

Chapter 2 deals with the origins of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in the abolitionist movement.  I continue to process what I think of the abolitionist movement.  I'm obviously on board with their values. But I also think some of the abolitionists were extremists.  Gladly, I don't get that impression of the founders of the WM church.  For example, Luther Lee only joined the movement after Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a mob.

I am sympathetic with the early attempts of the Methodists (and the Congress) to do away with slavery gradually. But I am also sympathetic with those who finally gave up on gradualism and decided more decisive action needed to happen. I admire Orange Scott for taking a stand in the way he did and hope I would have done the same.

A couple of applications. One is that civil disobedience is no disgrace. Sometimes I feel that Wesleyans today can't tell the difference between US law and God's law, as if breaking the speed limit was like bearing false witness. Getting arrested for protesting against discrimination fits well with our heritage.

The second is a warning.  Standing against sin, as it is often preached today, is not the same spirit as standing against slavery.  Those who stood against slavery were standing up for people.  It's not the same as protesting against liberalism or homosexuality.

So my take away so far:

  • I'm proud that we stood for unity, merger, and coming together in 1968.
  • I'm proud of Wesley and Asbury's innovation to accomplish the mission, working around the respectable rules of society.
  • I'm proud of their optimism about what God wanted to do in people's lives, assuring them that they are right with God, delivering them from the power of evil over them.
  • I'm proud of the abolitionist heritage.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pastor Deneff, Harry Potter, and Nay-Sayers

Got home from Bible study in time to see the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Throughout the entire movie, no one believed that the evil Voldemort was back.  Harry Potter was mocked as a fool, punished for being a liar. At the very end, the Minister of Magic and his retinue see Voldemort and in shock exclaim, "He's back!"

So Harry is vindicated. Standing behind the minister is the older brother of Harry's best friend Ron. If you read the novels, you'll know what the movies only hint at, that Percy is a jerk who thinks he's better than everyone else. He is a leader who prides himself on how much more he knows about everything and about how much more virtuous he is than everyone else. He is always ready to give advice to younger students who might want to follow in his footsteps.

In the final scene, the self-righteous Percy is confronted with the fact that in fact it is he who has been wrong all along.  He has maligned his parents when he was in fact the loser, and they the righteous ones.  He is the one without insight, without discernment.  I immediately thought of something Steve Deneff said in his sermon this morning.

The Percy type never admits they were wrong. They don't apologize. What they usually do is go on to be vociferously wrong again... on the next issue.

1 Intro to Biblical Theology

I'm committed to blog through Grudem, but I have at least toyed with writing a shadow biblical theology alongside my reviews of him. I'm doubtful I can keep it up because it's not a priority and I don't know if anyone would be interested in publishing it. But I was flowing this morning, so here is my shadow introduction:
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Introduction
Theology is the study of God. Anyone who has an opinion about God is a theologian, but some study God more extensively and can bring countless voices from the past to bear on the subject.  Systematic theology the organization of Christian belief into an overall system according to some organizing principle. You can also present theology from a historical perspective, how it has developed over time, historical theology.

Biblical theology focuses on the theology in the Bible. Most Christian traditions look to the Bible as the starting point for thinking about God and derive the key content of theology from the Bible. To be sure, they can process what they find there in different ways, but the Bible is still usually the starting point.  It is possible to have a philosophical theology that is so oriented around contemporary categories that the Bible is largely peripheral, but such an approach will surely tend to be rather nominally Christian from a historic standpoint.

At a point in history when we are more aware of how to read the biblical books in context than ever before, biblical theology has frequently become a collection of the individual theologies of the individual authors or bodies of literature in the Bible--Pauline theology, deuteronomistic theology, etc. Then perhaps some token collection of common denominators may appear at the end.

This situation, in effect, is a logical consequence of the Protestant drive not to let any vantage point beyond the books of the Bible themselves be the fulcrum from which the teaching of Scripture is integrated. This perspective can lead, on the one hand, to a denial that such extra-biblical mechanisms are actually in play.  On the other hand, it can lead to a purely philosophical basis for theology that is not concerned about historic Christian traditions.

However, it is my contention that if we are to consider historic Christian positions as valid, we will not only have to put our faith in a genuine progress of understanding within the pages of Scripture but also in the developing understanding of the New Testament within the first few centuries of the church. Whether we realize it or not, we integrate the parts of Scripture from certain fulcrum points in the Bible, understood in a certain way. Because we have to pinpoint these center points from the outside of the Bible looking in (after all, the New Testament books themselves largely don't reference each other), the identification of such fulcrum points is an extra-biblical task to a significant degree.

In the pages that follow, I want to sketch out a systematic biblical theology that listens to the individual theologies of individual authors and bodies of literature but that is organized from the standpoint of what we might call "consensus Christianity," the commonly agreed, orthodox perspectives of Christians throughout the centuries. Since I am in the end Protestant, I hope you will also allow me to do just a little constructive theology, critique and synthesis of traditional Christianity in the light of our contemporary situation.

Inevitably, the best way to apprehend what I am saying here is by observing individual examples. The result would be an orthodox organization of Christian understanding formulated out of the materials of Scripture, in dialog with contemporary concerns and issues. This is the task of this book.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

1.2 Grudem: Introduction to Theology

Now finishing up my summary evaluation of the Introduction to Grudem's Systematic Theology.  Posts so far include:

0 Reasons for the Review
1.1 Definitions in Theology

Now the rest of chapter 1:
________________
Grudem identifies two assumptions behind his book: 1) the Bible is our only absolute standard of truth and 2) God exists and is who the Bible says he is. He allows for modification or deeper confirmation after pursuit of those assumptions, which at least seems to imply that he is not a pure presuppositionalist. Presumably evidence would play some role in the potential modification of his starting points. This methodology seems very sound from a standpoint of Christian faith. Why would a person with faith start anywhere else than with the presupposition of some form of faith?

His basic reason to study theology would seem to be in fulfillment of the Great Commission of Matthew 28 where Jesus tells his disciples to "teach" the things he commands. I find his exegesis here anemic, not least in the fact that the Great Commission is not a command to evangelize in the way we normally think today but a command to "make disciples," which is much more substantial than having someone sign a card or pray a prayer. It is something far more extensive than a moment in time and teaching is part of it. Of course this wasn't even Grudem's point so I'll move on.

Theology overcomes our wrong ideas.  It helps us make better decisions on new issues that arise. It helps us grow as Christians. All good stuff.

He addresses two objections to theology (or rather the form of his theology): 1) conclusions are too neat to be true and 2) the choice of topics dictates the conclusions. I suspect that these are criticisms he has heard of his approach, and I suspect I will have similar critiques of his approach, although my hunch is he has flattened out the objections. I suspect I will conclude that his theology is two-dimensional and lacks a certain profundity befitting God (which he might summarize as #1), and I suspect that there will turn out to be not a little circularity in starting with his conclusions (which he might summarize as #2).  We'll see.

His section on how to study theology is very good for the most part, from my standpoint.  Yes, we should study theology with prayer, with humility, with rejoicing and praise. One of the strengths of his book is that he ends each chapter with a hymn and verses to reflect on (even if the verses may turn out to be shallowly chosen and interpreted). Yes, we should study theology with reason and with the help of others.

As I said in the last post, I consider Grudem's book to be a systematic biblical theology.  So his method involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages of Scripture on a topic. This is exactly what I do when formulating a biblical theology. My critique will not be here but, I suspect, in the lack of sophistication with which he 1) interprets individual passages and 2) maps them to each other.

Take this dictum: "We are free to use our reasoning abilities to draw deductions from any passage of Scripture so long as these deductions do not contradict the clear teaching of some other passage of Scripture" (34). This is of course a form of a long standing rule that says that "Scripture interprets Scripture."

In this age of reflection, however, there is more going on in performing this statement than the Reformers certainly understood, and one wonders if Grudem really understands either. First of all, those who have used this concept largely did not understand how to read words in their full socio-cultural context.  Words have meanings in contexts, not in some abstract theological bubble.

You cannot interpret the words and significations of Matthew in one context by reference to the way Isaiah used words in another context. You can integrate the two together from some third standpoint, letting each stand on its own, but you cannot change the meaning of Matthew on the basis of Isaiah or vice versa.  Yes, God is the same, but he reveals himself in the categories of his audiences, not in absolute categories that we would not be able to comprehend.

As is often the case, the simple dictum, "Scripture interprets Scripture" is a shorthand for a more complex process: "When applying a biblical text, we must process it in in terms of fulcrum points elsewhere in Scripture and fundamental principles that have been identified over the centuries as the Spirit has inspired the communion of saints (i.e., the Church) reading Scripture.  For ethics, the fulcrum point is the 'law of love,' found repeatedly in Scripture, not least in Matthew 22:37-40. We can identify numerous other fulcrum points on issues of theology. For example, the book of Hebrews provides the fulcrum point on sacrifice, and Leviticus must be appropriated in its light, although the meaning of Hebrews cannot change the original meaning of Leviticus, which was a function of words and significations at its time of origin. The decision to use Hebrews as the fulcrum point necessarily comes from a third perspective outside of the biblical texts themselves."  Grudem's approach lacks this level of sophistication.

Thomas Nelson pulls Barton book

I read today that Thomas Nelson has pulled David Barton's book on Thomas Jefferson because of factual errors in it: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/08/09/158510648/publisher-pulls-controversial-thomas-jefferson-book-citing-loss-of-confidence#more

Of course we all suspect that TN has pulled it because of bad press, but given that evangelical historians (who actually have a degree in history) are declaiming the book, that's probably a good thing.  We all know that people of all stripes, both liberal and conservative, rally to people and books that say what they want to hear.

But I don't live around liberals and I don't come from a liberal background. I get riled up when people in my circles make God look stupid. There are such things as experts, and they are to be listened to by those who aren't.

Friday, August 10, 2012

1.1 Grudem: Definitions in Theology

My series begins, summarizing and evaluating Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology from a "biblical" and WA (Wesleyan-Arminian) standpoint.

0 Reasons for the Review
_______________
Review of Chapter 1: Introduction to Systematic Theology
Definitions
As you would expect of an introduction, this chapter involves basic definitions, assumptions behind, rationale for, objections to, and preparations for the study of systematic theology. Grudem's definition of systematic theology is "any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?" about any given topic" (21). I personally would much rather call such things a "biblical theology" and thus think that Grudem is off to a dubious start.

Systematic theology is the organization of Christian belief into an overall system according to some ideological organizing principle. Since the Bible is not arranged ideologically, the organizing principle inevitably is governed from outside the Bible. The closest one might come to an organizing principle that correlates roughly to the biblical structure would be a narrative theology that organizes Christian belief in terms of the general flow of the biblical story as it appears to us. However even here, since the books were organized not by the biblical authors themselves but by later Jews and Christians, even this narrative organization is governed from outside the Bible itself.

Systematic theology is a broad category with different possible ideological organizing principles. I suppose the elements of a narrative can be treated ideologically, but narrative theology is probably best thought of as something different. The way Grudem speaks of philosophical theology makes it sound secular and "other" (21), although it seems that any system that is ideological will inevitably be philosophical in nature.  Nevertheless, I suppose there is use for a category that uses a philosophical organizing principle that is not traditionally Christian.  Constructive theology is similar to philosophical theology understood in this way since it especially engages and attempts to synthesize the insights and challenges of contemporary thought with traditional Christian thinking.

What I call a biblical theology can also be organized systematically, so that you have a systematic biblical theology. This is what Grudem wants to be. He also equates systematic theology with dogmatic theology (25, n.7), although I would rather say that dogmatic theology is a form of systematic theology that is organized in accordance with some Christian authority, such as the Roman Catholic Church.

Historical theology is something different, a presentation of theology in terms of his historical development. Grudem correctly relates that biblical theology is currently used in the guild of individual biblical authors: Pauline theology, Matthean theology, Lukan theology, and so forth. I prefer, however, to buck this trend and use the term biblical theology to refer to canonical theology on some level. The Bible is not one book, and thus any "biblical" theology inevitably involves a move away from the theology of individual biblical authors into some organizing principle governed from outside of the texts themselves. Accordingly, an Old or New Testament theology must inevitably move beyond the theology of individual authors and thus beyond the texts themselves.

Grudem defines a doctrine as "what the whole Bible teaches today about some particular topic" (25). Inherent in this definition are some of Grudem's fundamental confusions. The books of the Bible were not written to today but to ancient audiences. "The Bible" is thus an understanding of the individual books that someone (he, me, the church) constructs or has constructed out of diverse texts.  Hopefully this task is done in a way that respects and fits with the biblical texts themselves but it is an extra-biblical task.  Grudem's definition thus amounts to "doctrine is a Christian position on a particular topic formulated in dialog with the individual texts of the Bible with a view to living in the world today."

This reformulated definition seems a fine way of thinking of doctrine, especially if we recognize the role the church and the Spirit have played in that dialog with Scripture.  A doctrine is a Christian belief on a key topic of faith.  By calling it a "Christian belief," I'm suggesting that it is something with more weight than a specific individual and should have more weight even than a particular group at a particular point in time. When we speak of doctrine, we are hopefully dealing with central beliefs held by large numbers of Christians over some period of time. Some would go further to define a dogma as a belief that has, at the very least, been held by most Christians over most of church history...

Thursday, August 09, 2012

An Insight on what "Evangelicalism" Is

Before I go back to sleep, I thought I'd share an insight I just had on defining evangelicalism today. I'm a Biblehead by trade and so I've only become engaged in definitions of fundamentalism and evangelicalism because of my social location. I have a hard enough time reading the books I'm interested in let alone books like Marsden's, Fundamentalism, or Bebbington's, The Dominance of Evangelicalism.

However, this can be an advantage too. Because of my interests as a Biblehead, I know a few things both about hermeneutics and history.  So I have come into conflict from time to time with the Marsden-Noll paradigm concerning fundamentalism, as well as with my sense that evangelicalism is a movement that arose in the 1940s. I haven't had the time to engage these pillars on a scholarly level but as I have encountered their paradigm I have tried to map it to my own.

The insight I just had is that a key difference in my way of looking at such things is that I believe (i.e., it is my impression that) the Noll-Bebbington series focuses overly on continuity in what it calls evangelicalism. Bebbington thus helpfully identifies four features: 1) focus on the Bible, 2) focus on the cross, 3) focus on conversion, and 4) focus on activism. The problem is that the ideological challenges of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in my opinion, make the neo-evangelicalism of the 1940s something that should be treated more as a new entity than one in continuity with Edwards.

This is, I believe, a persistent problem with historical perspective.  What, for example, is the real impact of pre-revolutionary America on us today?  It is interesting to be sure.  It may have great local significance in some places. But the impact of so much pre-US history is a mediated impact. It impacts us indirectly because it impacted something else that has impacted us more directly.

We can find inspiration from Jefferson or Madison. We can make them directly relevant to us if we want. But that is us making them relevant.  Their real relevance is in the institutions they established that have continued to today.

So evangelicalism today must be defined not in terms of Edwards or its history--this is the etymological fallacy, the fallacy that mistakenly thinks that what something has meant in the past somehow affects directly its meaning in the present.  This is a clear fallacy of meaning.  The meaning of words and actions is a function of their use and significance today, plain and simple. The past has led up to that use and so can provide insight. But it cannot control or dictate what words or actions mean today.

So the evangelical movement that arose in the 1940s was a unique cocktail in the history of the world. It must be defined socio-culturally as much as ideologically. It was, as all such movements are, a response to the circumstances of its day. It no doubt involved continuity with some language and identity from the past.  But it must be understood primarily as a reaction to both modernism and fundamentalism in the post-WW2 era, not as the heir to Edwards or Spurgeon.

0 Getting ready for Grudem...

I had some "in between" time yesterday and plowed through the first chapter of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology.  Thus I start what I hope will be a year long weekend series summarizing and critiquing his theology. The rationale is its influence. Now almost twenty years old (1994), this book seems to be a standard for fundamentalist America and, indeed, is probably the standard theology book available in Spanish.

This is problematic for me on two fronts. First, it is problematic for me since I am a Wesleyan-Arminian. When there is a great resource, people will use it.  And this is a great resource. That means it will have what you might call "accidental influence." If a person has a firm theology in some area that disagrees with it, a person will simply disagree on that point. But if a person has no opinion on a particular issue or is undecided, they are likely to be influenced when there may actually be another position more consistent with their base theology. In effect, good resources from other traditions create traditional hybrids and mutants often without the user even realizing it.

This is particularly problematic because, on a second front, Grudem is a fundamentalist as I define one. A fundamentalist, as I am defining it, is a person who engages the modern world--history and science in particular--from a posture that seeks to defend and maintain as much as possible a pre-modern view of the world. Evangelical thinking, in this regard, is not always entirely different in kind, more in degree. Evangelical thinkers are less pre-modern, less unreflective, more willing to engage and take seriously the canons of contextual, historical interpretation as well as the canons of modern science.

Fundamentalist thinking is thus heavily "presuppositional" in nature, heavily deductive in orientation. It is generally not willing to modify its starting assumptions in the light of dissonant data. Rather, it applies its intellect to fitting the data into its initial, "fundamental" categories. It is thus inherently less objective, less truly interested in the truth, even while ironically touting quite vociferously that it is all about holding to the truth. But what it means is that it is vigorously interested in maintaining inherited traditions about what is true.  In practice, it is interested in finding possible ways to maintain its starting assumptions, not in determining the most probable interpretation of the evidence.

Since presuppositions are often caught rather than taught, this means that a book like Grudem's can unwittingly infect its reader with questionable assumptions. Thus a person in the Wesleyan tradition, which historically has always affirmed women in ministry, can find themselves questioning it after reading Grudem. They may come to Grudem affirming women in ministry as a stand alone issue.  But if they inadvertently absorb Grudem's fundamentalist hermeneutic, they may find themselves questioning our historic position without fully realizing why.

It is for these reasons that I have decided to engage his book. My intention is to provide a resource on the web for students forced to read his book that will both summarize his key positions and provide some key questions that can be raised about some of them. This is particularly true for individuals in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition who might find themselves at a non-Wesleyan seminary.

However, I also wish to engage Grudem as a biblical scholar. The fundamentalist biblical paradigm is fundamentally incoherent because it claims to be based on the Bible yet its Bible is largely a construct, a projection of a somewhat traditional theology on the biblical texts. It thus deconstructs from its very foundations.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How to Create a Fundamentalist

I was reflecting this morning that the formula for creating a fundamentalist Christian is actually quite simple and predictable.  I've tried to think of a picture for what I'm thinking here--I know one will come to me.  I've thought of vampire bites or movies where if you get scratched by the alien you will eventually turn into one.  The best I've come up with, though, is rather arcane.

The formula for creating a fundamentalist is like a chemical process where, if certain catalysts are introduced into the system, the process goes a different direction.  Alternatively, it's like replacing one gene in the sequence that results in a mutated product.  Basically, a fundamentalist is a pre-modern interpreter of the Bible who has been confronted by history and biblical scholarship in a certain way that creates an adverse reaction.

Christian fundamentalism is largely a twentieth century phenomenon.  It is a defensive reaction to Enlightenment challenges to a pre-modern view of Scripture. A pre-modern view of Scripture is one that largely reads the Bible out of context.  It reads it as a single book with a single author (God) to a single audience (me, understood as all humanity). It organizes the whole text into a single story with a single message, a fairly unified theology and ethic.

A Christian can do just fine with this hermeneutic.  In fact, most have throughout history.  And living in the bubble of IWU for so many years, I was content for most Wesleyans to be in this category.  They believe things that are true.  They live the way they're supposed to.  Just, from my perspective, they didn't realize that what they were believing and living was largely a theological overlay on the real Bible.

But I am increasingly realizing that this state is easily morphed into a fundamentalist hermeneutic.  All you have to do is bring history and context into the chemical process in a confrontative or combative way.  Or, you present modernist views as hostile to God, the Bible, and Christian faith.

Pre-modern + historical/contextual challenge of God, the Bible, and faith =
fundamentalism or faith crisis

My increasing feeling is that this chemical reaction is catalyzed so easily and unthinkingly that it is no longer safe for me to just to let the pre-modern view stand.  The proper reaction is:

pre-modern + clarification of true structure underlying understanding of God, the Bible, and faith 
continued faith with clarified underpinnings

For this reason, I hope to blog through Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology on weekends for the next year.  The goal is to clarify where he "fundamentally" goes wrong, as well as to give an Arminian response.

Great Time with Adjuncts for the Spanish MDIV

Today begins the final day of our retreat with our Spanish MDIV adjunct faculty. It's been a very valuable time together, I think, to share the crazy traditions and innovations of Wesley Seminary's MDIV and brainstorm for improvement, especially in our Spanish version. Lots of great thinkers and practitioners here. It's been a good time for everyone to get to know each other better.

Today we're going to work on contextualizing the final two courses: Congregational Formation and Congregational Relationships.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Daniel 12:2-3 and Resurrection

It was 10 years after finishing my doctorate that my dissertation was published.  Trying to beat that pitiful record with the research I did on Jewish traditions about afterlife and resurrection during my 2004 sabbatical. I have a number of "chapters" I've presented here or there already but they need reformulated and edited.

I'm dividing Second Temple Jewish literature on the subject into 4 streams and trying to propose a somewhat developmental hypothesis. But I've decided to complete the writing in part by going source by source. The chapter on the stream that did not accept a meaningful afterlife is largely finished, so I turn here to one of the earliest sources in Jewish literature that holds to a meaningful afterlife, Daniel 12.
______________
Although others have been suggested, Daniel 12:2-3 is the only passage in the Old Testament that all agree points to a meaningful life after death.  The point at which the historical account jumps to resurrection is somewhere in the years 167-164BC, during the Maccabean crisis. Then, like Mark 13:24 or Matthew 24:29, the account seems to jump to the final days of history in its current form. [1]

The conflict reaches a climax.  There is a time of crisis such as the world has never experienced before. [2] Then Israel ("your people") will experience salvation. What follows seems to be a partial rather than general resurrection of the dead. "Many" of those who sleep in the dust arise either to reward or punishment. Some of these rise to everlasting life and some to everlasting contempt.

It is tempting, as with 1 Enoch 22, to see the criterion for such resurrection in terms of those who have died without receiving justice in this world.  What determines who is awoken and who is not?  In 1 Enoch 22, it depends on whether the righteous have experienced their deserved reward in this world and similarly whether the wicked have received their just deserts. Daniel, however, does not give a clear rationale for the selection, although 12:3 may point to the basis for the righteous. Those who led many people to righteousness, a group called "wise," will shine like the stars forever.

Again, there is disagreement about whether this is now a third group of resurrected or whether this verse refers to those just mentioned who rise to everlasting life. Does Daniel here give us the criteria that has determined the reason for resurrection? It is tempting to fill in the rationale for resurrection with the rationale in other Jewish literature. In 2 Maccabees, for example, it would seem to be those who are martyred exactly for keeping the covenant who are going to be resurrected. Is that what Daniel means when it speaks of leading others to righteousness?

The text is similarly ambiguous both about the state of the resurrected prior to and after resurrection. Those who rise have been "those who sleep in the dust of the earth" (NRSV), an image of death that Paul also uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 1 Corinthians 15:18. Does Daniel mean to imply that the dead are not conscious in the time between death and resurrection? Similarly, we are told nothing of the fate of the wicked dead.  They rise to everlasting contempt but nothing is said of what punishment or judgment they face.

Finally, it is uncertain how to take the image of the wise shining like the stars. It is a simile to be sure, they shine "like" the stars.  They do not literally become stars.  But how like the stars do they become?  Do they return to the earth for eternity or do they spend eternity in the heavens, like the stars...

[1] Although in the case of the gospels, N. T. Wright has argued that what follows is a highly poetic prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem.

[2] Imagery that Mark also applies to the time around the destruction of Jerusalem (13:19).

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