Saturday, September 29, 2012

7 The Sufficiency of Scripture

Continuing my weekly series reviewing Grudem's Systematic Theologyhttp://cafetutorials.blogspot.com/2012/07/christian-theology.html

This week is chapter 7, "The Sufficiency of Scripture."
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Summary
Grudem defines the sufficiency of Scripture as follows: "The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly" (127).

The sufficiency of Scripture for Grudem means that we focus our search for God's words to us on the Bible alone (128) and have confidence that "we will be able to find what God requires us to think or do" on all our doctrinal or moral questions (129).  This sufficiency is now complete, although it unfolded in stages.  So at the time of the death of Moses, Grudem believes the first five books of the Bible were sufficient for God's people at that time (130).  No further central redemptive acts have occurred since the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ (and the unpacking of these events in the New Testament).

Grudem gives several practical applications that come from the sufficiency of Scripture:

1. We should be encouraged that everything God wants to tell us to think or do about an issue is found in Scripture (131).  It may not always speak directly to our questions, of course, but it will at least do so indirectly if it is a matter of concern to God.

2. We are to add nothing to Scripture and to consider no other writings of equal value to Scripture.

3. "God does not require us to believe anything about himself or his redemptive work that is not found in Scripture" (132).

4. "No modern revelations from God are to be placed on a level equal to Scripture in authority" (132).

5. "Nothing is sin that is not forbidden by Scripture either explicitly or by implication."

6. "Nothing is required of us by God that is not commanded in Scripture either explicitly or by implication" (133).

7. "We should emphasize what Scripture emphasizes and be content with what God has told us in Scripture" (134).  There are many topics that receive "relatively little direct emphasis in Scripture" (135), and while the Bible may have things to say about many of these things, these are not the areas that Christians should be focusing on.

Evaluation
The idea of the sufficiency of the Scriptures--like the clarity of Scripture--flows directly out of the Reformation and Martin Luther's debates with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).  Luther believed rightly that the Roman Catholic Church had added a number of doctrines and practices that are not clearly taught in the Bible.  The Protestant dictum of "sola scriptura," "Scripture only," was thus a battle cry meant to peel back these accretions, things like purgatory and requiring priests to be celibate.

The place of my own tradition--the Wesleyan tradition--in relation to sola scriptura is a little ambiguous.  Perhaps prima scriptura, "Scripture first," would be a little more accurate description of the practice of John Wesley, the father of Methodism.  He is often said to have operated more in terms of a "quadrilateral" consisting of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, with Scripture primary.  Nevertheless, the sufficiency of Scripture is taught in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican tradition from which Methodist churches like mine emerged, and the sufficiency of Scripture is in the Articles of Religion of my own Wesleyan denomination. (They are also implied by the Westminster Confession of the Reformed and in Cornelius Van Til's four characteristics that Grudem is building on)

Do I believe that the Scriptures are sufficient?  Absolutely I do, and especially in two ways.  Let me start with the easy one.  The Scriptures are entirely sufficient for any matter of ethics because all of God's expectations are summed up in "Love God and love neighbor," where love of God means that one is completely surrendered to his will as you know it, and love of neighbor includes living lovingly toward one's enemies.  The rest is working out the specifics.

The specifics are where Grudem and I no doubt will get into some disagreements, because it seems inevitable to me that many of the specific commands of Scripture were contextual and situational.  Nor do I think it will be always easy to hone in on specific answers to ethical questions.  In a complex world, love of neighbor can be a complex matter to work out and the Bible may or may not give much help.  What is that verse about stem cell research again?  I strongly suspect that Grudem's idea of finding answers in Scripture will often turn out to be just plain bad interpretation.

Secondly, I believe that Scripture contains "all things necessary to salvation," as the Thirty-Nine articles read.  I would distinguish what God requires of us for salvation from the truths about how salvation works, with God judging us according to our (God-empowered) response to the light we have.  But the fundamentals of how salvation works are even then quite sufficiently laid out in Scripture: God's loving grace, Christ's death, and my faith, all clearly there in Scripture.

But the Protestant sense of sufficiency goes well beyond what I just said.  For example, the sense that the Thirty-Nine articles have is that "whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man or woman that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." So if the Bible doesn't require celibacy--or complete abstinence from alcohol--then no denomination should either. Groups that forbid having organs in worship because the Bible doesn't mention organs are ruled out of bounds.

As common-sensical as this sounds, the matter may be a little more complicated when we get into the details.  Where, for example, does the Bible prohibit polygamy?  Don't go for "the two shall become one flesh," because Jacob became one flesh with two wives and two concubines.  The Old Testament freely allows polygamy (check out the rule in Deuteronomy 21:15-17), and the New Testament never explicitly prohibits it.  I think it assumes monogamy in 1 Corinthians 7, but never commands it.  No doubt Grudem thinks he can prove it from Scripture but, then again, he practices strange magic.

Similarly, it was about 400 years before most Christians believed in the Trinity in its current form.  The main competition, Arianism, believed Jesus was the first of God's creation, the most exalted of all beings, but not "of the same substance" as God the Father.  The key is that Arians made their arguments from Scripture just like their (winning) opponents did. Sure, we can read a statement like "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and fill it with our Trinitarian assumptions.  I think God is fine with us reading it that way now.  But it is not at all clear that John was saying anything related to the Trinity originally.

Although I don't want to get into the weeds, I would claim that when the Protestant Reformers (and when Grudem) speaks of the sufficiency of Scripture in matters doctrinal, they really mean the sufficiency of Scriptures as interpreted once the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the first five centuries were over.  Basically, the Scriptures are sufficient for Christian doctrine if they are interpreted the way they were once the theology of common Christendom was established.  But one at least might argue that the Reformers did not actually peel back doctrine all the way to the New Testament church but back to the interpretations of the Bible that became dominant by around the year 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, when the Nicene Creed was finalized.

Friday, September 28, 2012

What would you like a post on?

No post this morning... except this one ;-)

What kinds of things do you like me posting on?  What kinds of posts would you like to see going forward?  Any questions you'd like me to dig around on?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Messianic Secret

One of the features of Mark's Gospel is the fact that Jesus keeps his identity as Messiah a secret.  The demons recognize him as the Holy One of Israel from the beginning but he silences them. But even near the end of his time on earth, when his disciples finally acknowledge him as Christ, he tells them to keep it a secret. It is an issue that's been around for a century: Why does he keep it a secret?

William Wrede famously suggested in 1901 that the reason Mark has Jesus keep his identity a secret is because Jesus never actually claimed to be the Messiah. His suggestion was that the early Christians found themselves in the awkward position of believing Jesus to be the promised king when he himself had never claimed that himself. The solution was to argue that Jesus had known he was the Messiah but had kept it a secret.

There are, however, two strong historical arguments that Jesus did in fact believe himself to be the Messiah. The first is that he designated twelve disciples. [1]The tradition may vary a little on the precise names of the twelve, but all the layers of tradition consistently give the number as twelve. This is true from Paul (1 Cor. 15:5) to John (e.g., 6:70; 20:24) to the Synoptics (e.g., Mark 3:13-19). The number is surely symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. And since Jesus does not include himself among the twelve, he is surely the king of the tribes.

Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem seems another strong indication he thought himself king. His entrance at the beginning of Passion Week seems deliberately calculated to echo Zechariah 9:9.  Jesus comes riding into town on a donkey, with the crowd laying palm branches down before him. Certainly there are other possible explanations. Some might say this story is a later invention created from certain verses in the Old Testament. Another might suggest that Jesus was simply mocking the pomp of Herod Antipas' supposed entrance to the city.

But the connection to Herod is highly speculative--Luke is in fact the only Gospel that says he was even there. And in this case it seems far more likely that Old Testament Scriptures would be used to enhance a historical event rather than to invent one. Surely the most likely historical scenario is that Jesus' entrance to Jerusalem on this occasion was memorable. And the fact that Mark, the earliest Gospel, doesn't make the connection with Zechariah, suggests that he did not invent the donkey to make it look like Jesus was fulfilling the Scripture in Zechariah, that Jesus was implicitly claiming to be king.

I might mention a third item of interest.  The Gospel of Mark seems to connect Jesus' baptism with the beginning of Jesus' messianic activity.  The voice from heaven in Mark speaks only to him: "You are my beloved Son" (1:11), where Son of God is a royal title, the title of a king. We get the impression that something changed for Jesus at the baptism. Was it even at this point that Jesus in his human understanding realizes that he was the promised king?

So if Jesus did understand himself to be the promised Messiah, why didn't he publicize it?  A strong possibility is that, at the very least, Jesus had no intention to lead an armed revolt against the Romans. That is of course how the crowds would have understood Messiah.  If Jesus had gone around claiming that he was the coming king, then all the low life of Galilee would have grabbed their swords.

Indeed, it does not even compute for Peter that a messiah would die.  The Messiah won't die.  He'll win.  He'll kick the Romans out of town and restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6).  In a sense, Jesus wasn't the messiah they were looking for.  It thus made perfect sense for him to keep his destiny close to his chest.

But surely the crowds suspected it anyway.  Indeed, although Jesus also tries to keep his healing ministry somewhat low key, those he heals don't listen to him when he tells them to keep things quiet (e.g., Mark 1:44-45).  Jesus seems to be waiting for God's timing.  He tries to keep his activities and destiny hush hush because he knows the timing the crowds would want.

[1] So E P Sanders, Jesus and Judaism.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Christian Vote Matrix

If you want to decide who to vote for as a Christian mathematically:

1. Go through the list and decide between Obama and Romney on that issue.
2. If one issue is more important to you than another, double or triple that vote.
3. Add up the totals.  That's who to vote for.

I did this in a half hour this morning, so obviously it can be improved... I've tried to word things in fresh ways, rather than using the catch phrases of the respective parties.

1. Moral Issues: Do you think that the federal government should enforce and implement Christian values that are specifically Christian (e.g., no gay marriage)?  If yes, one vote for Romney.  If no, one vote for Obama.
2. Moral Issues: Do you think that the government should be involved in helping those who currently do not have the means to take care of themselves (e.g., those in poverty, certain elderly)?  If yes, one vote for Obama.  If no, one vote for Romney.
3. Moral Issues: Do you think that monetary wealth is the same as personal property and thus that taxing is stealing if such monies are not used to benefit you personally without your permission (one vote Romney) or do you think that economic systems channel monetary wealth in different ways depending on how they are structured and thus that it is appropriate to distribute monies more evenly throughout the system (one vote Obama)?
4. Economy: Do you think that austerity measures and low taxes are more likely to grow the economy and thus help more people (one vote Romney) or stimulus and selective taxes (one vote Obama)?
5. Foreign Policy: Do you think Obama or Romney is more likely to facilitate greater long term peace in the world?
6. Foreign Policy: Do you think an Obama or Romney administration is more likely to see people come to Christ around the world in the long run?
7. Education: Do you think that the overall educational system in America will improve more under Obama or Romney?  Part of this equation is whether you think that the overall education situation will improve more if opportunities for private education are increased (Romney) or whether more attention needs to go to the public school system (Obama).
6. Judges: Do you think that Supreme Court judges need to be appointed who will eventually vote that Roe vs. Wade was inappropriate because the federal government was intruding on an issue that is more properly an issue for the States to decide (vote Romney) or do you think judges need to be appointed who will continue federal priority over the positions of individual states on these sorts of issues (vote Obama)?
7. Immigration: Do you think that law-abiding individuals (apart from their illegal status) who have lived in the US for decades, especially Latinas/os, should be given an opportunity to become legal?  If yes, one vote Obama.  If no, one vote Romney.
8. Abortion: Do you think that the law should do everything within its power to discourage abortion, including requiring intensely physical examinations (then one vote Romney) or do you think it is better to focus on preventing pregnancies and promoting adoption among those who might otherwise have an abortion (then one vote Obama).

Addendum: I have tried to word these in a way that, no matter which way you went, you could be expressing Christian values in your choice.  Here's the most important question of all for pastors out there: Would Christians who go both ways on the choices above feel comfortable in your church this Fall?  If not, are we not harming the church?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Catholic Catechism 3: Jesus' Birth, Life, Death

Continuing my take-away from our Monday reading group going through the Roman Catholic Catechism to compare it with Wesleyan theology:

Week 1: Introduction and Revelation
Week 2: God the Father

This week's reading of the catechism was over Part 1, Section 2, chapter 2, articles 1-4.  This is over most of the second part of the Apostle's Creed, through Jesus' death.
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Most of this section is common Christianity.  There's also some pretty good biblical scholarship that felt very familiar to me.  My real transition toward scholarship took place in the late 80s and early 90s.  I guess the Catechism was written in the 80s, so the approach to Christ that focused on titles was popular.  Think James Dunn's Christology in the Making.

This chapter sets out the doctrine of Christ held by all orthodox Christians, claims that steer away from the classic heresies.  Jesus was fully and truly human, so no Docetism.  Jesus was not two persons joined together, so no Nestorianism.  But Jesus had both a human and a divine nature, so no Monophytism.  He had a genuine human will despite having a divine will as well, so no Monothelitism. Jesus wasn't a physical body with a divine soul, so no Apollinarianism.

Most of the theories of atonement are here.  There is Jesus' death as a sacrifice and satisfaction.  There is Jesus' death as a substitution.  There is Jesus' life as a moral example.  The Catechism even interprets Jesus' fulfillment of the Law as him keeping the Law perfectly, which isn't what Matthew 5 means in my opinion.  Matthew 5:17 is interpreted by the examples in the rest of the chapter.  Fulfilling the law is playing it out in the light of the love command, being complete like our heavenly Fathers is complete (5:48).  Going the whole way, not just half way.

There are of course some elements that are weird to Protestants.  Once you understand it, we don't have a problem with calling Mary the "Mother of God."  It simply means that Jesus was always God, even in the womb (so no adoptionism). But the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary will be weird to most Protestants--the idea that even throughout the birth process her physical virginity remained intact.  Protestants feel free to interpret the New Testament in its most natural sense, namely, that Mary went on to have more children that were Jesus' biological brothers and sisters.

Our group suspected that the RCatholic aversion to Mary having sex was similar to the way some Protestants feel about Jesus having a wife, that having sex would somehow make Jesus less pure or perfect.  It's a "sex is dirty" subconscious thing. But since having sex isn't dirty in the slightest, there's no need for Mary to remain a virgin forever, even if she were without sin, which Protestants generally don't believe either. Also, we don't say Hail Marys, although we occasionally like them in football.

The tradition that Peter was specifically the rock of the church is also not crucial for Protestants. We are free to follow the historical evidence wherever it lies, which is that the church at Rome was likely there decades before Paul, let alone Peter ever got there. Having said that, I am sympathetic to the suggestion of Brown and Meier that Roman Christianity may have been more "Petrine" in flavor than "Pauline." They are Roman Catholic New Testament scholars. If Hebrews was written to Rome, it along with Romans supports this theory.

But despite these minor exceptions, the overwhelming majority of these 70 pages or so was pretty much the same as what Wesleyans and Protestants believe. We're even celebrating Advent more and more, and I preached an Epiphany sermon once at a Wesleyan Church on the text of the wise men, so we can check that one off the list...

Monday, September 24, 2012

Institutional Solidification (30s/40s): Black and Drury

The review reaches chapters 11-12 today from Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan ChurchSo far it's been:

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)
Chaps 5-6  The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8  Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church
Chapter 9   Multiple Ministries
Chapters 10-11 Roaring Holiness 20s

And now chapters 12 and 13.
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Chapter 12
The Pilgrims seemed resistant to centralization, but the Great Depression was the kind of crisis that facilitated the move to one General Superintendent.  Seth Rees died (1933) and Walter Surbrook took over.  It would push Finch out (the man who had so successfully raised money for himself and missions), first out of head leadership and eventually out of the denomination.

In a denomination everyone would consider extreme today, he was even more extreme.  The leaders of the church would push him out of control of the Colorado Springs Bible School and he would leave the denomination to form another that would split into another.  He is a great example of the paradox that was the Pilgrim church.  It was formed by so many mergers and yet so many of these groups were just as quick to pull back out.  The New York Pilgrims, for example, would pull back out in the early 60s over things like wedding rings.

In retrospect, you have to wonder how much damage to the kingdom went along with the good these groups were doing.  How many people they brought to faith left just as quickly in bitterness because of the legalism, "twice as much a child of hell as before."

But the Pilgrim church, and to a lesser extent the Wesleyan Methodists, were growing significantly because of 5 things: 1) revival meetings, 2) camp meetings, 3) Sunday Schools, 4) Church planting, 5) Bible schools.

I was with my mother this weekend and we read this chapter together.  She actually has some candlestick holders that were Walter Surbrook's, bought from his daughter at an auction at Southern Wesleyan.  In the 1930s, Frankfort Pilgrim College closed for a time sending my grandfather Harry Shepherd elsewhere.  First, he taught at an early attempt to start a Bible college in Kernersville, North Carolina (it didn't take the first time--this attempt was by a former president of Central Wesleyan). He pastored a couple churches (at the same time) in Virginia.  Then he taught a year at Kingswood in Kentucky.  Finally he would pastor some churches in southern Indiana before Frankfort reopened in the late 30s.  My father's father also pastored Pilgrim churches around Indiana in the 30s, as he had in the 20s.

The story of the Storey's in the Philippines--the death of his daughter from drinking from a river and their participation in the "death march" led by the Japanese is also one well known to my family.  My mother was a student at Frankfort when they returned after the liberation of their prison camp and my mom recalls how they led a joyful procession to downtown Frankfort.  My grandfather retired from teaching when R. K. Storey was later president of Frankfort.

My sister Juanita was a missionary to the Philippines later in the 70s and married Eduardo Garcia, son of Saturnino Garcia, the first General Superintendent of the Philippines.  And I have childhood memories of Flora Belle Slater and Daisy Buby, a couple of lifelong missionaries who only bring a smile to my face in retrospect.

Chapter 13
In the 40s, the Wesleyan Methodists went to a single General Superintendent in the person of Roy Nicholson, whom I remember from my days at Southern.  At the last General Conference, Lee Haines remarked that he seriously regretted recommending only one General, but those were days before jet setting and serious delegation.  He appears to have been the voice of wisdom in stopping more legalistic districts from having a higher standard than the denomination as a whole on wedding rings and such.

There have been several moments of clever politics and hard decisions in the denomination. One was over wedding rings where, after legalistic groups had fought over and over to prohibit members from having them, the leaders put a stance against wedding rings in a section called "Special Directions."  But the ruling thereafter of the leaders was that this section was not binding on members, only a recommendation.  It was that same section that would later have positions on not going to movies and such, which even denominational officials tended to ignore.  At the General Conference before last, they finally removed the special direction on buying on Sunday.

It's no skin off the Free Methodist's nose, but the Wesleyans have almost merged with them so many times.  More on this to come.  Also, more to come on the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the late 40s.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grudem: Necessity of Scripture 2

...continued from yesterday
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Not-necessary
Grudem does not consider the Bible necessary 1) for a person to believe God exists or 2) to have a moral conscience. He simply doesn't believe this level of knowledge is sufficient to save a person. By contrast, Hebrews 11:6 came to mind: "Without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him." Can a person who, to the best of their understanding, loves God and loves neighbor be saved through Christ, despite not knowing about him?

I personally, coming from the Wesleyan-pietist tradition, find it hard to see God consigning to hell those who never had a chance, those who do not have the privilege of having the Bible or its message. It is an extension, on the one hand, of the fact that I don't believe in deterministic predestination.  On the other hand, it is an extension of my belief in prevenient grace, that God gives some light to everyone in the world. Christianity otherwise seems incoherent.

So my sympathies here are the logical conclusion of my own Christian tradition's core values, although my own tradition has not necessarily been consistent on the topic.  It is a hope based on big principles in Scripture like the fact that God looks on the heart and wants everyone to be saved. In other words, it comes from an understanding of God's fundamental nature as love. If God consigns the vast majority of humanity to hell for an ignorance that is no fault of their own, it is hard to imagine how he can be considered loving in any normal sense of the word. Similarly, if God consigns people to heaven primarily on the basis of cognitive knowledge, he seems rather shallow.

That is not to say that there are not difficulties with this position. What then am I to do with Romans 10 and the evangelistic enterprise of the early church--or of my own church? It at least helps to realize that words like "gospel" and "evangelism" have been skewed somewhat in their meaning. Once again we see partially why those in Grudem's circles have been scrambling in the face of books like Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel and to fight N. T. Wright's version of the new perspective on Paul. It's easy for them simply to decry those like Wesleyan-Arminians with a different theology.  It's another to find some of their own supposed biblical foundations pulled out from under them.

The gospel in Paul is the good news that Jesus has been enthroned king (Rom. 1:1-3) after God raised him victoriously from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-4).  The gospel in the Gospels has a slightly different focus but it is compatible.  The gospel in the Gospels is the good news that God's kingdom is returning to the earth (Mark 1:14-15), with the resultant good news for the oppressed (Luke 4:18).  Surely the good news includes the whole story, including Jesus' death and the implications in salvation, but the focus is on the reign of God and Christ.

When the early Christians preached the good news (euangelion), they were primarily preaching the lordship of Jesus and the kingdom of God. True, Jesus' atoning death was part of that message (1 Cor. 2:2).  If God's reign is soon coming to the earth and if my sin stands in the way, then Christ's death for my sins is a major concern, and Christ's death is part of the good news.

There is a connection between the rise of modern evangelism and dispensationalism.  In the late 1800s many Christians became convinced that Christ was about to return. At the same time, 2000 years of intervening history was ignored and they saw themselves as the early church of Acts.  Pentecostalism recovered speaking in tongues, as in Acts. While the early church saw the mission to get the good news to the ends of the earth as already accomplished (Col. 1:23), the world had gotten bigger and the reset button was hit on the idea that Christ would return after everyone had heard. Thus the rise of modern missions.

In the early church, the setting was similar but slightly different.  They also, including Paul, thought the Lord would return to earth very soon.  They were preparing the way for this Day of salvation and wrath by preparing everyone for the Lordship of Jesus. They were following the ideal course.  Certainly it's good to be ready for the king's arrival, to have your house in order before he arrives. It thus makes absolute sense to spread the good news of Christ's kingship and the good news of potential salvation.

I won't pretend that this broader understanding of evangelism resolves all the tensions with Romans 10. I'll only point out that the tensions are with other Scriptural principles, not least that God is love and wants everyone to be saved. Paul gives the most normal path in Romans 10, the one built off the fundamental metaphor of the messenger who brings good news from afar that a new king has been enthroned. In this metaphor there is a messenger (like Paul) who brings the good news that Jesus is king.

Is there another option he uses before the messenger arrives?  The path of the patriarchs?  The path of Job?  The path of the Old Testament heroes of faith?  The path of the child or mentally challenged person who does not understand?  I sure hope so.  It's hard to see how Christianity's fundamental claims about God's nature don't disintegrate otherwise.

I end with a final note on the idea of conscience. I do not think that Romans 2:14-15 is about some universal conscience we all have.  Like N. T. Wright and others, I believe the Gentiles in this passage who have the "Law written on their hearts" are Gentile believers who have received the Holy Spirit (cf. Hebrews 10:14-18).  Good thing too, because cultural anthropology has observed that there is very little in the way of a universal conscience around the world.

Most parents protect their children. Most cultures think it wrong to randomly kill someone in your own group. That's about it and there are some "deviant" cultures even on these. The idea of there being a specific moral law built within us doesn't seem to pan out very well in reality. It's a Christian tradition that I'm not sure has much biblical support.

The conscience in the New Testament is one's awareness of sin (Hebrews 10:2-3), which depends on one's understanding and thus one's training. A Jew should be aware of what sin is because they have been taught revelation in the Scriptures. However, a person's "sin knower" can also malfunction (Tit 1:15).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Grudem: The Necessity of Scripture 1

Continuing my weekly series reviewing Grudem's Systematic Theologyhttp://cafetutorials.blogspot.com/2012/07/christian-theology.html

This week is chapter 6, "The Necessity of Scripture."
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Between last week and this week, I've done a little research on where Grudem gets his "four characteristics of Scripture" from.  Obviously there's no verse in the Bible that says, "Here are the four characteristics of Scripture."  This is the slightly insidious quality of Grudem's approach whereby he thinks he is simply following the Bible when actually there are Christian traditions significantly guiding his interpretive wand.

In this case, it is the Reformed tradition.  The four characteristics of Scripture are a Reformed interpretation of the Westminster Confession (1646).  I don't know if Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) was the first to summarize its position on Scripture in this way, but one article started me in that direction. To reject some of his theology is thus to reject a particular Christian tradition, not to reject God or the Bible.

Here is what he means by the necessity of Scripture: "The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God's will, but it is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God's character and moral laws" (116).  In a footnote, he explains that a person can hear about this message orally, but that "these oral communications of the contents of the Bible are based on the existence of written copies" (116 n.1).

This seems a rather peculiar doctrine. What, for example, was the fate of Christians in the decades between Jesus' resurrection and the first bits of the New Testament?  The gospel had a fundamentally oral character during that time.  Here we once again see the embarrassingly literary orientation of Grudem (and perhaps the later Reformed) view of the Bible. No wonder Van Til hated Barth, who pulls down the curtain of such a post-printing press charade.

Barth rightly recognized that Jesus was the consummate Word of God, Scripture the witness to Christ as the word of God, and Christian preaching as a word giving witness to the witness of the Word of God. Grudem's approach, by contrast, can't see the history of revelation prior to the 400s when the Bible and Christian theology finally became a written package with an orthodox message. He is a typical pre-modern who can't see the historical development that produced his reading of the Bible.

We also see here why this sort of Reformed folk have been scrambling over the New Testament interpretation of the Old.  If we read the Old Testament inductively, we realize that the Old Testament books on their own terms did not have an understanding of Christ sufficient for the knowledge Grudem needs them to have had.  When New Testament authors see Jesus in the Old Testament, they are largely reading the Old Testament spiritually and figuratively rather than literally.

Genesis in context knows nothing of a coming Messiah, nor does Exodus, Numbers, or Leviticus. [1] The Historical Books don't want a king in the first place and then already have one. When early Christians saw Christ in the Psalms and the Prophets, they were again largely seeing spiritual meanings in words that had other original meanings. The messianic psalms were originally royal psalms, for example. And in so far as some passages may look to a future king, they understand only that Israel will one day have a Davidic king again.  They do not look for God to come to earth. The key text in relation to Jesus' death, Isaiah 53, would not have been understood by anyone to foretell the Messiah's death until after the fact, and of course this is a key element in Grudem's understanding of the gospel.

All that is to say that Jesus was a massive upgrade from anything anticipated by the Old Testament read in context. The Old Testament Scriptures meet Grudem's standard of necessity only when they are read through New Testament eyes.  They would not guarantee any Old Testament saint salvation on Grudem's terms. And of course we look forward to see what he will do with children who die before they reach the supposed age of accountability invented to circumvent such problems.

Necessary
Grudem sees three ways in which Scripture is necessary: 1) It is necessary for a knowledge of the gospel, 2) It is necessary for maintaining spiritual life, and 3) It is necessary for a certain knowledge of God's will.

It is surprising to see someone who used to be involved in the charismatic movement have so little room for direct revelation. What if Jesus were to appear in a dream to someone deep in a Muslim country but who had never seen a Bible or heard of its contents? Is it impossible for such a person to be saved since he or she does not have the written word?

Indeed, even Grudem's key Pauline text, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17) is not a reference to Scripture but to preaching about Christ.  There is no scriptural text in Acts 17 and 1 Thessalonians has almost no Scripture. We can wonder if Paul used Scripture in his preaching when speaking to Jews, but probably didn't so much use Scripture when speaking to Gentiles who weren't associated with the synagogue.

The gospel was the good news about real events that had just taken place in history.  It was "live."  Scripture was brought in secondarily.  The living Jesus was the main event, not a book.

Is the Bible helpful for spiritual life?  Absolutely.  I consider it a sacrament of revelation, a divinely appointed meeting place.  By all means, eat the word for your nourishment.

Can God speak to you directly?  Absolutely.  Can God nourish you through other books?  Absolutely.  God can do whatever he wants. Again, it is fascinating to see how Grudem has chucked this part of his charismatic heritage.

Again, the word of God in Scripture is not primarily a reference to Scripture.  The "word become flesh" in John 1:14 is Jesus, and the background for this word is not the written word but the Logos of Hellenistic Judaism.  The word of God in Hebrews 4:12 similarly is not the Old Testament or the written word but this same logos which is the will of God in action in the creation. This fundamental and pervasive inability for Grudem to read the Bible in its historical context is embarrassing.

The necessity of the Bible for certainty in knowing God's will runs into the problems of the previous chapter. The Bible does not come inserted on our hard drives. It is an object of interpretation.  We have to define the words. We have to fit all the words together. We have to work out the potential difference between "that time" and "this time."  We have to do it.

Grudem's reading of Scripture is that of a pre-modern who can't see himself in the mirror.  His Reformed tradition has already done the defining, the joining, the time-shifting for him and he doesn't even know it.  The clarity he sees--and the certainty he sees--is the clarity of his tradition. His Bible is as certain as attending a Reformed church and the assumption that the people here are elect.  Walk down the street to the 40 other denominational churches reading the same inerrant Bible and we'll see how certain and clear it is practically speaking.

Part 2 to come...

[1] The wonderful Genesis 3:15 was originally about why snakes and humans don't get along. I omit Deuteronomy so as not to get into debates about what Deuteronomy 18:15 was originally about.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy Friday and Jesus' Fake Wife

Sitting at an airport on my way to visit my mother in Florida.  She broke her pelvis a few months ago but has now been home for about two weeks.  My sisters have done a fantastic job of being there through the trial and she is doing very well as such things go. We're very thankful to God for the way everything has played out.

Since I need to be grading... here is something much better than anything I would have posted today.  Mark Goodacre has posted a quick paper written by Francis Watson showing how some clever forger likely created the fragment about Jesus' wife that has been in the news.

Fun!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Brothers and sisters" in translation

I had an "I'm stupid" a-ha moment a week or so ago in relation to the use of "brothers and sisters" to translate the Greek word "brothers" in the New Testament.

Ever since the TNIV, I've been explaining to others that versions like the NRSV, the NLT, the TNIV, and now the NIV2011 only used "brothers and sisters" when they thought Paul already included them.  So when Paul tells the brothers to flee sexual immorality in 1 Thessalonians 4, he was surely not letting the sisters in the congregation off the hook.

That's all true, but I (stupidly) just caught on that this is not just a dynamic equivalent translation.  It actually can be justified grammatically.  Up until recent days, when you were speaking or writing to a mixed group of people in a gendered language, the convention has been to go with the masculine plural ending.  This has previously been true, for example, in Spanish.  If you were speaking to a group of men and women, you would normally say "amigos" and use the masculine plural ending.  You have to pick a gender, so up until recent times you would have naturally used the masculine for a mixed group.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.  It would be normal for a Greek speaker to address a mixed group of men and women with "brothers," fully including the women in the masculine plural ending.  The implication is that in an age where it has become appropriate to be explicit about references to women in one's language, the best translation of "brothers" actually becomes "brothers and sisters."  This is not just because they are implied in Paul's meaning.  They are implied grammatically as well.

So I repent of my stupidity.  Brothers and sisters actually becomes a more accurate translation, and versions like the ESV actually turn out to be inferior translations in this regard.


How will Mitch Daniels do...

I personally like Mitch Daniels. He certainly did well for Indiana budgetarily and has managed not to get caught up too much in the shifting Republican scene of the last four years, the waves that ousted old school Republicans (Lugar, me frankly) or shifted you toward libertarianism to survive (Pence?). 

However, I have wondered how well he'll do as President of Purdue.  I saw a sign of someone at Purdue protesting his appointment.  It said something like, "What experience do you have for this job?"

Being a university President is very much about raising money.  Being a successful politician certainly gives a person a lot of experience in that area.  So Daniels may do very well at that piece of the puzzle.

Daniels has been involved heavily with WGU, the online university (from out of state ;-) that he has promoted on television.  One perk for IWU of his Purdue presidency is that we don't have the governor of the state promoting competition with us. ;-) Whether he will push online education at Purdue is an interesting question. The president of the University of Virginia went majorly cross-ways with her university over this issue.  Daniels is somewhat mild mannered, so it's hard for me to see him being heavy handed with this, although I can see him pushing Purdue in the MOOC direction.

I suspect that working with faculty in shared governance might be a bit like working with a legislature run by the opposition party.  An adversarial college president's days are numbered, but Daniels doesn't seem of that ilk.  These last few years of course he's had a Republican legislature, but he did have some strong resistance at points from the minority Democrats. That is the kind of experience that does prepare a person to be a college president.

Purdue is an engineering school. That might fit with Daniels.  I think in these shifting educational times, having a sense of utilitarianism in knowledge is necessary.  Will this subject help students get a job?  Here is where it will be interesting to see how Daniels does.

Part of a good university is also an element of truth for its own sake, the love of knowledge.  The university that will do well in the future, by contrast, is the one that focuses on truth that will get you a job.  But hopefully they will never abandon the liberal arts entirely.  My knee-jerk suspicion is that Daniels probably wasn't a big friend of the arts or other life-enriching-but not-essential elements as governor (I could be wrong but he racked up a surplus while cutting education significantly).

If he can keep the liberal arts healthy while focusing on the utilitarian subjects that are already Purdue's specialties, he might just do well as its university President.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Coptic Mention of Jesus' Wife

A fragment in Coptic seems to mention Jesus' wife: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/us/historian-says-piece-of-papyrus-refers-to-jesus-wife.html?_r=1.  Everyone else in my blog circles is mentioning it, so I thought I would too.

How does this affect me as a Christian?  Not at all for pretty much every reason.  First, it dates from the 300s, so it does not likely shed any light at all on the historical Jesus.  All it tells us is that some Egyptian Christians in the 300s thought Jesus had a wife, which is interesting in its own right.

But more interesting to you is probably the fact that, while there is no evidence that Jesus was ever married, I don't think it would matter one iota to Christian faith if he had been.  Jesus was fully human, so I think it's fair to assume that he had sexual desires.  I can't think of a single theological issue with Jesus being married, except that children would have been really theologically complicated.

Surely the knee jerk offense some take at this suggestion is some latent sense that sex is dirty. Since it isn't--and since the Bible seems silent on the issue--I can't see any biblical or theological problem with this thought experiment that, alas, is forever a thought experiment.

Catholic Catechism 2: God, Creation, Sin

Continuing my take-away from our Monday reading group going through the Roman Catholic Catechism to compare it with Wesleyan theology:

Week 1: Introduction and Revelation

This week's reading of the catechism was over Part 1, Section 2, chapter 1.  This is over the first line of the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in God the Father."

I once again didn't see much in this section of 58 pages that stood out to me as horrendously problematic for Wesleyan theology.  We would consider a few things strange.  But in general, Roman Catholics would more have a problem with us than we with them.  Here are some notes.

1. For the bulk of this section, Wesleyans would either strongly agree or not really care.  For example, Wesleyans accept the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds (although not necessarily the anathemas at the end, 192-94).  Wesleyans believe in the Trinity (232-67). Wesleyans believe that God's nature is love (221).  

2. To be sure, a Wesleyan who quoted 2 Maccabees in defense of creation out of nothing would get a strange look.  But Wesleyans do believe God created the world out of nothing.  I actually don't think we have a clear statement on the topic, but I don't know any Wesleyans who don't think so, if they've even asked the question.

3. Wesleyans don't venerate angels (352).  We don't think a lot about their names or ranks, by and large.   As a reminder, veneration is not the same as worship for Roman Catholics.  I suppose if a Wesleyan venerated angels, we would  think they were weird and a little out of kilter.

4. Wesleyans don't have a dog in the filioque debate over which East and West divided (246).  RCatholics believe the Spirit proceeds from the the Father and the Son, while the Orthodox believe the Spirit comes from the Father.  Most Wesleyans have never even heard of the debate.

Indeed, there is both a blessing and a curse that I grew up with almost no sense of these Christian debates.  The blessing was that I at least think I was less encumbered when studying the Bible to listen to it on its own terms.  Wesleyans, for good or ill, have a lot of the Baptist "freedom of conscience" in their blood.  The curse is of course that Wesleyans are probably "soft heretics" on a lot of issues without realizing it ;-)  ... and susceptible to foreign influences.

5. One such issue is the question of free will.  In practice, most Wesleyans may be "Pelagians" or at least "soft Pelagians" without realizing it.  Technically, Wesley believed in total depravity like Calvin and the Reformed, meaning that none of us can do any good at all in our own power, nor are we morally free in any way by nature.  Roman Catholics, by contrast, don't believe in total depravity.

However, RCatholics and Wesleyans have the same view practically in terms of how freedom ends up.  Roman Catholics officially believe that original righteousness, something God added as a gift to original humanity (donum superadditum), was lost in the Fall, but that humanity remained partially free by nature.  Wesleyans believe that, although we are technically depraved entirely by nature, God's prevenient grace empowers humanity to be able to "sign up" for more grace. We thus end up having free will.

Thus in the end, Wesleyans end up with the Catholics as "synergists," individuals who believe that human will and divine will work together toward moral choices.  While we are closer to Calvinists in what's under the hood (in using the language of total depravity), when you close the hood the car looks far more like the RCatholics than the Calvinists on this question.  Like I said, most Wesleyans in our history have pretty much looked like Roman Catholics on this issue.

By the way, my sense of Paul is that it is not human nature that is fallen but that the world as a whole--and the flesh which is a part of the world--is under the power of Sin since Adam.  We thus do not sin genetically or naturally but because our flesh is weak and in our default situation we lack the power to overcome temptation.  The Spirit, by contrast, gives us the power to overcome the power of Sin.

6. Most Wesleyans would look at you strange if you articulated even a Methodist view of original sin in relation to baptism.  Methodists, along with the RCC, see infant baptism as cleansing the original sin of Adam.  Wesleyans functionally don't associate any guilt or need for cleansing on our part because of Adam's sin.

7. Most Wesleyans also don't care whether you believe the soul is created at birth (RCatholics) or whether the soul is passed down genetically (Wesley).  Some Wesleyan thinkers are even willing to explore the possibility that the soul is somewhat of a metaphor for the part of us that transcends death.  We thus don't have an official dog in that race.  Most Wesleyans do take the idea of the soul literally, but we have no official position on the issue.

8. Wesleyans find the idea that the Virgin Mary was born without sin (immaculate conception) weird (411).  We believe Jesus was without sin and wonder why, if Mary had to be without sin for Jesus to be without sin, then why didn't all the women back to Eve have to be without sin too.  Surely the RCC has an answer but our group doesn't know it.

So Mary was really, really cool.  We're okay with that.  But if she stole some cookies as a child and had to ask forgiveness for it, we're okay with that being true too (not with her stealing them, mind you ;-).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Roaring Holiness 20s: Black and Drury


Today chapters 10-11 are up in Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan Church. So far it's been:

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)
Chaps 5-6  The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8  Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church
Chapter 9   Multiple Ministries
_______________
Chapter 10: Firm Foundations
This chapter deals with the first two decades of the twentieth century.  For the Wesleyan Methodists, the most important events were the founding of three more colleges--what would become Southern Wesleyan University where I went in South Carolina (1906) and the school in Miltonvale that eventually merged with what is now Oklahoma Wesleyan University.  Finally, what is now Indiana Wesleyan University was founded in 1920.

The group that would become the Pilgrims was much more entrepreneurial, and thus a little chaotic.  God's Bible School continued to serve them but it was non-denominational. As chapter 11 will say, "Starting a Bible college was something lie starting a camp meeting" (147).  I counted 9 Bible schools that the "Pilgrims" started in the first 30 years of the decade, including Frankfort that my family was associated with (1927).

The International Apostolic Holiness Association (IAHC) that became the Pilgrim Holiness Church was an association of holiness churches until 1913, when they voted to become a denomination, an official church body.  Interestingly, one of the factors may have been the desire for clergy to be able to get discounts on trains--which they couldn't do if they were just ministers in a movement (119).

This group grew from about 2744 members to 22, 444 by 1930, remembering that members were only those who were willing to keep all the rules, not those who attended. The Pilgrims didn't keep good records, unfortunately and predictably. Missions was a huge thing.  They had two general leaders in the 1920s, both of whom had to raise their own salary of $2500.  I smell big conflict coming.  Finch, the missions general was raising lots of money for missions and his salary with ease.  The other guy, not so much.

Chapter 11: Holiness and Roaring 20s
Mark Noll considers holiness and Pentecostal groups to be quientessential fundamentalist groups, with one of their defining characteristics being a sectarianism that led them to sequester themselves.  I'm waiting for some church history PhD to give him a good academic slapping.  The Fundamentals were written by people like J. Gresham Machen who left Princeton and founded Westminster.  The origins of fundamentalism are in the Calvinist elite that trace their lineage in New England back through slavery sympathizers to Jonathan Edwards.

I reject this heritage, just as I only will wear the label "evangelical" uncomfortably as somewhat of a foreign term to my tradition.  I have a strong hunch that some of this history is an attempt for more educated, higher socio-economic "evangelicals" of the 1940s to distance themselves from my admittedly less educated holiness and Pentecostal type. But we didn't start fundamentalism and it influenced us from the outside.  By the way, Pentecostalism grew out of the holiness movement, initially adding tongues onto entire sanctification as a third work of grace.

It's not that the few Pilgrims and Wesleyans who were paying attention to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy didn't side with the fundamentalists.  Timothy Smith in fact speaks of "the great reversal" where my tradition ignorantly moved a little away from social justice because of its association with the "social gospel" of that time (134), moving away from its roots. But in general, groups like the Pilgrims and Wesleyans "weren't directly involved because those battles were not being fought within their own communions" (130).

One interesting development was the prohibition of tobacco in the WM Church in 1927 (the Pilgrims had always prohibited it).  Those who already smoked were given a grandfather clause allowing them to continue to smoke.  I remember a pastor friend of mine from North Carolina talking about a member of his church that liked to boast that he could smoke outside the church under the grandfather clause.  Another development was a strong ethos of "storehouse tithing."  To help solve financial problems, a strong emphasis was put not only on giving 10% of your income to God, but specifically to your local church.

I close with some of my own history.  Both sets of my grandparents were Pilgrim Holiness preachers.  My mother's father married my grandmother in 1923.  He had previously been a Quaker preacher but ended up with the Pilgrims.  She would have been part of the Holiness Christian Church that joined the Pilgrims in 1919.  I have a PDF of a handwritten history from her about the purchase of the Frankfort campground which became the location of Frankfort Pilgrim College. My grandfather, Harry Shepherd would teach there his whole life (more to come).

Similarly, my father's father and mother became converted at a tent meeting in Delphi, Indiana in 1921. He would plant and pastor Pilgrim churches his whole life, in fact not going with the merger in 1968.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

God's Speakings 2: the Old Testament

On Saturdays I've been critiquing Grudem's Systematic Theology.  On Sundays I've been giving my own biblical theology.  So far I've blogged:

Chapter 1
Introduction to Biblical Theology

Chapter 2: Revelation

2a From Text to Scripture
2b NT Understanding of Scripture
2c God's Speakings before Scripture

Now this post: God's Speakings in the Old Testament
________________
... At each point, God seems to refine the understanding. God reveals himself as YHWH, as the "I AM," at the burning bush to Moses.  God gave the Law to Israel with Moses.  How extensive that Law was in relation to the current contents of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is debated. Certainly the Historical Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings do not indicate that much of the Pentateuch was followed (or mentioned) until almost the end of the monarchy under Josiah--some seven hundred years after Moses. Most think that the Book of the Law discovered in the temple at that time was some form of Deuteronomy.

Until the time of Josiah, YHWH seemed to be worshiped everywhere.  Gideon, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha--they all make altars to YHWH all over Israel.  Not until the time of Hezekiah and Josiah is there a real concerted effort to make sure that sacrifices are only offered to YHWH in the temple, as Deuteronomy implies. Elijah's zeal was that Israel not worship the other gods, but we have no record of him ever visiting Jerusalem. That emphasis came with Hezekiah and Josiah.

What was God's speaking in the Law?  Yes, it codified certain basic moral expectations such as not murdering or stealing.  The most important was to love YHWH and not other gods, as well as to love our neighbors.  All the ethical rules of the Law boil down to these two, according to Jesus.

Of course there were many laws that had to do with God's unique relationship with Israel. As Christians, we believe that God did a special "case study" with Israel, that he piloted a relationship with it that embodied on a racial scale his desire to have a universal and individual relationship with humanity in general.  Much of the Law was thus God meeting this particular people where they were at. Circumcision, a practice Israel did not invent, became symbolic of participation in the special relationship.

In those days everyone offered sacrifices. Perhaps there was some universal trace in that practice of humanity's sense of needing to address the disorder of the world and humanity's frequent "sinfulness" in before God, its tendency to do things that it knows aren't right. But perhaps laws such as those in Leviticus are even more so God meeting Israel where it was at.  Hebrews in the New Testament will see all the sacrifices of the Old Testament as symbolic pointers toward the ultimate reordering of the universe in Christ.

Some of the laws--particularly the food laws--were reflections of Israel's sense of the order God had placed in the world.  There were certain types of things in the sea and the air that reflected that order and were "clean."  Others didn't fit the categories and were unclean. The prohibition not to eat pork probably, like circumcision, set Israel apart from the surrounding peoples who herded pigs. In the New Testament, when God was now more explicitly seeking a relationship with the whole world, these "works of Law" became obsolete, never having been able to make an Israelite truly right with God in the first place.

The evidence of the Historical Books leads us to believe that the Law as we know it was not fully known or much used until the time of Ezra in the 400s after the exile. At that point, what may have largely been oral tradition among the people and only known in some written form to certain elite becomes a real standard for the Jews of the south. Even then, perhaps it would not be until the rise of the synagogue and the democratization of Judaism in the Greek period that the Law would really trickle down to the people.

However, in the time of the kings God raised up the prophets of the Old Testament to make it clear to Israel what it meant to love YHWH and love one's neighbor.  God's favor on the disempowered, the poor, widows, orphans--social justice--is a consistent theme.  The tendency to think that sacrifices in themselves take care of things--with no necessary change of heart--is also indicted.

These "oracles" were delivered orally, but perhaps also written down (Isaiah 8:1, 16).  At some point, perhaps even after the prophet was gone, they were collected and arranged.  Many think that those who preserved these prophecies sometimes also continued the legacies of a prophet by extending his message to situations during and after the exile.  It is often suggested that Isaiah 40-66, which never mention Isaiah or say he is their author, are an extension of Isaiah's legacy to the time just before and after the end of the exile.

By the time of Christ, the "Law and the Prophets" could be mentioned as a shorthand for what we think of as the Old Testament Scriptures.  The precise content of the "Writings," the third section of the Jewish Bible, was not fixed at the time.  The Writings begin with the Psalms (cf. Luke 24:44), which probably reached something like its current form in the worship of the second temple after the exile.  Chronicles repeats much of the ground of Samuel and Kings but now from the perspective of a time well into the post-exilic period when the temple is the center of power and people.

We see certain developments in Israel's understanding of God in this phase of Israel's history. One of the most noticeable is a sense of "the Satan," one of the servants of God whose job is to test the loyalty of the earth. We see him behind the scenes in Job, given permission to test Job by bringing trials. If you compare 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 you'll see that the second attributes the temptation of David to Satan, while the first attributes the temptation to God.

Even more significant is the rise of resurrection understanding in Daniel 12:2-3, the only undisputed reference to a meaningful afterlife in the Old Testament.  While the dating of Daniel's prophecy is debated, the predicted context of Daniel 11 is the Maccabean crisis of 167-64BC.  It was this crisis and the things that ensued in Israel that created the New Testament context of Jesus perhaps even more than the Old Testament books themselves.

So we see in the pages of the Old Testament a piloted relationship of God with a whole people that took many, many centuries.  Although we now have the witness to that relationship at our fingertips in the books of the Old Testament, the relationship was experienced as much more slow moving and oral in nature. Much of the Old Testament reflects God meeting Israel where it was at.  Some of it reflects Israel relating back to God in song and poetry. Meanwhile the prophets more than anyone served as reminders of God's core values, getting us ready for Christ...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grudem: The Clarity of Scripture

Continuing my weekly series reviewing Grudem's Systematic Theologyhttp://cafetutorials.blogspot.com/2012/07/christian-theology.html

This week is chapter 6, "The Clarity of Scripture."
_______________
Summary
Grudem builds to this definition of the clarity of Scripture (perspicuity is the more technical term): "The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God's help and being willing to follow it" (108).  He rejects a more limited understanding of clarity, one that believes that the Bible is primarily clear in relation to "all things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth."  He doesn't think the Bible itself sees it this way or puts such a limitation on clarity.

Back up to the first section of the chapter.  Here he quotes a few verses where some teaching seems clear.  Deuteronomy 6:6-7--teach the commandments of the Law to children.  Psalm 19:7--the testimony of the LORD makes the simple wise.  Jesus talks to some of his enemies as if it is their problem that they don't understand, not the fact that Scripture is ambiguous.  Paul writes to Gentiles about Jewish Scriptures and assumes they can understand. So on these paltry instances ripped from their contexts Grudem supposes that pretty much every word of the Bible is clear.

In a second section, he links the clarity of Scripture also to one's spirituality.  So while the Bible itself is written clearly, "it will not be understood rightly by those who are unwilling to receive its teachings" (108).  In his fourth section, he expands on reasons why people misunderstand.  One is a lack of faith or hardness of heart.  For certain, in his mind all disagreements are our problem, not a problem with clarity.

In the end, his fifth section suggests two reasons for disagreements: 1) we are trying to conclude on an issue on which Scripture does not take a position (and therefore on which we shouldn't) or 2) we have made a mistake in our interpretation (we left something out or we have a spiritual problem).

He ends the chapter by clarifying what role biblical scholars (i.e., people who know Greek and Hebrew for him) might then play:
  • They can teach.
  • They can explore new areas because new issues arise.
  • They can defend the Bible against attacks.
  • They can supplement the Bible with other things like church history.
They don't have the right to decide for the church what is true and false doctrine.  That's for the "officers of the church" (111).

Critique
The idea of the clarity of Scripture goes back to the Protestant Reformation and, indeed, Martin Luther himself.  Luther debated Erasmus (the key figure behind the Greek text of the King James Version) over whether the Bible was clear enough for individual believers to understand it properly or whether people needed the Church to interpret it for them.  Luther argued that Scripture was clear. Erasmus that it was not.

To hear the issue posed this way often evokes an immediate response--of course I don't need someone to tell me what the Bible means!  But the actual history of the last 500 years tells a definitive answer.  History smashes Grudem's wishful thinking to bits and gives the debate far more to Erasmus than to Luther.  At least on the details, the Bible has been read in so many different ways that it's ridiculous.  In fact there are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 distinct denominations.  Either Grudem is embarrassingly wrong about the clarity of Scripture or perhaps only one of these tens of thousands of groups is God's favorite and the rest of us are hell bound.

I belong to a small church in the Methodist tradition and I did sincerely marvel once in my teens at how amazing it was that I just happened to be born into the church that had everything right.  What were the odds, I thought.  A year or two into seminary I shifted my perspective.  I began to talk about how my tradition sees things, interprets the Bible, in contrast to other traditions.  At one point such talk of tradition so annoyed a family member that she stopped me and said, "Stop talking about our tradition.  We just read the Bible and do what it says!"

Grudem would disagree.  Those who are predestined and are spiritual see the clarity of Scripture, even down to many details.  Au contraire.  I would assert that truly spiritual people will believe exactly the opposite.  They will recognize that there are equally spiritual people in almost all if not all of these tens of thousands of groups.

There are Roman Catholics who are just as spiritual as Grudem.  There are Methodists who are just as spiritual as the most spiritual Lutheran, who is just as spiritual as the most spiritual Baptist, who is just as spiritual as the most spiritual Assembly of God person.  This is because God is primarily interested in people's hearts, not their understanding.  Otherwise he would correct all the spiritual people who don't agree with me.

Grudem's handful of verses are pretty thin.  The ones in Deuteronomy and Proverbs have to do with knowing and doing the laws that God gave to Israel.  It's hard to know which laws in particular are in view.  Certainly keeping commandments like not stealing, killing, or committing adultery could result in a not too insightful person living a wise life.  But that's light years from what Grudem is arguing about the clarity of Scripture.

It highlights the "proof-texting" dimension of his entire theology--you rip some words out of context and read them in a way that seems clear to you (because of the tradition you're in and not acknowledging).  Jesus does sometimes come across rather strongly in some of the passages Grudem mentions. But what we find is that we are not only hearing Jesus in the Gospels. We're also hearing the gospel writers' presentation of Jesus.  It is at least possible, especially in Mark, that part of what we are hearing is not Jesus' harsh tones but the disciples' own frustration at themselves for not initially getting it.

So why do people disagree about what the Bible means?  The main reason is that it was written to people who lived 2000-3000 years ago whose world was drastically different than ours.  Indeed, someone from Africa is more likely to read the stories of the Bible with the right socio-cultural connotations than someone from North America. It is almost a joke that Grudem would think he's going to pick up on all that just out of the blue.

That's not to say that God can't and doesn't speak clearly to people through the Bible, especially godly people.  But in such instances they're normally hearing a direct word from God, not necessarily what those words meant originally.  I agree with his implication that a scholar is not necessarily more gifted to hear God in Scripture than anyone else.  I agree with him that the church is where God helps us know how to apply the Bible to today.

Scholars are part of that equation, but being a scholar only means you're more likely to know the original meaning, not what God wants for the church today.  To be a scholar of the original meaning of some part of the Bible, 1) you must know the original language of that part.  2) You must know the historical-socio-cultural background that informed the meaning of that part, the "language games" that gave meaning to those words at that time.  3) Certainly an expert should know the history of interpretation, because you would imagine after hundreds of years of scholarship, most of the possibilities are out there and a lot of non-starters have already been weeded out.  4) And of course, you need to know the rules of exegesis and how to read the Bible inductively.  This involves how to do historical research and how to follow a literary text.

Grudem isn't such a scholar, period.  In my opinion, he lacks spiritual discernment as well.  It's possible he's a nice guy, just not someone who should be allowed to teach theology.

Friday, September 14, 2012

"You can't kill them all" and other foreign policy proverbs

Some thoughts as relevant now as 10 years ago when we were getting ready to launch the war on Iraq.

1. You can't kill them all.
Think Vietnam.  They keep coming and coming and eventually you just have to go home.

2. Genocide isn't polite.
Don't find yourself celebrating at the bar with Satan after all the _____ are finally dead.  Jesus certainly won't be celebrating with you.  How many do you have to kill before you are the bad guy or at least as bad as the people you're trying to "punish"?

3. Pull out the plank.
Most of us don't set cars on fire.  But I have to smile when I hear Americans wishing those Muslims would all die.  Wait, isn't that what some of them are saying about us?  Same heart.

4. Not everyone's stupid.
Most Egyptians went to work today.  Educated Egyptians would like the idiots out in the streets to go home too.

5. Hit the right target.
Don't hit people that didn't hit you.  Don't invade Iraq when a group hanging out in Afghanistan attacked you.

6. Don't stomp on an anthill.
It just makes the ants you didn't kill angry... and stirs up those who weren't.  After 9-11 we had the sympathy of the world.  After Iraq...

Flashback to Dead Poets...

I was reminded of this scene today.  Most excellent!

 

Mark's Themes 2

continued from Wednesday
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... Although we have to remember that Papias himself may have his own agenda in the way he presents this information, it is striking that this statement probably comes within 50 years of Mark's writing.

We get the impression that Mark doesn't necessarily present all the events of Jesus' ministry in order. We wonder if Mark is, in part, a collection of individual stories that were circulating especially in early Christian preaching, including the preaching of Peter. Of course we should also be very careful to let the Gospel of Mark itself have the deciding vote.  If this tradition seems to fit, great.  But if it doesn't, Mark itself should have the upper hand.

However, in my opinion, the above description seems to fit Mark's structure fairly well.  We can discern a basic outline to the book.  There is some structure to some smaller collections of stories. But much of Mark seems to be one story after another. If all we had were Mark, we would probably think that Jesus' ministry took place within the space of about a year, since only one Passover is mentioned. John, of course, gives us the impression it was more like three years.

Despite this somewhat loose structure, we can discern some clear themes that run throughout Mark. One is the sense that Jesus kept his identity as messiah somewhat hidden during his time on earth. The second is that the disciples didn't really get the nature of his mission.  The third is then that Jesus' mission on earth was to suffer and die for the world.

The Hiddenness of Jesus' Identity 
One of the distinctive features of Mark is the extent to which Jesus tries to contain his fame.  For example, in Mark 1:44 Jesus tells a leper he healed not to tell anyone.  It doesn't work, of course.  The leper tells everyone, and Jesus soon can't enter villages publicly because of the crowds. In chapter 2, a crowd is so thick in a house in Capernaum that some people actually dig out a hole in the roof to let a paralytic down for Jesus to heal.

It makes sense that Jesus would try to keep his healing activities under wraps.  After all, we see happen in the Gospels exactly what Jesus was trying to avoid.  He is mobbed and has to spend most of his time out in the countryside. By the way, this is a reminder that Jesus played it by the human rules while he was on earth. He did not use divine omnipotence to get everything he wanted. Indeed, he may not yet have known how much power he actually had...


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paul's Old Testament

I thought I would give a "Tale of Two Old Testaments" by posting the version Paul might say with historical footnotes.  What do you think?
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God created the world in such a way that his eternal power and divinity should have been apparent to everyone, even now (Rom. 1). [1] However, when Adam sinned, the power of Sin entered the world. The creation became a slave to corruption (Rom. 8). Death entered the human race because of Adam's sin (1 Cor. 15).  We all sin now like Adam did and we all die now like Adam did because of the power of Sin over the world (Rom. 5). [2]

God called Abraham to begin the salvation of the world.  Abraham is the father of the circumcised and the uncircumcised, of the Jew and the Gentile (Rom. 4).  Before he was circumcised, Abraham is the father of the Gentiles who become right with God on the basis of their faith in him.  After he was circumcised, he is the father of Israel who remains true Israel when they have faith in God. Their "works of Law," meaning the things they do that separate them from Gentiles (circumcision, food laws, sabbath observance) cannot earn them a right status before God on the Day of Judgment.

Great honor is due the Jews because God gave them the covenants, the temple, the promises (Rom. 9). The revelations of the Scriptures were given to them (Rom. 3). But none of these things in themselves are sufficient to give them a right status with God on the Day of Judgment, which is a matter of God's grace.

The Scriptures witness to these truths, both the Law and the Prophets (Rom. 3). [3]  From Habakkuk 2:4 we learn that "the person who is righteous on the basis of faith will live." Joel 2 tells us that whoever calls on the name of the Lord (Jesus) will be saved. [4] We've already mentioned key texts about Abraham in Genesis.

God gave the Law to be a guardian to point Jews to Christ (Gal. 4), like a slave that watches over a child until it comes of age.  Israel was under that guardian until Christ came. The Law told Israel what God's righteous standard was, basically love. But Jews could not keep that standard because they did not have the Spirit. [5]

David is significant because he began the royal line that would lead to the Christ.  Jesus is the seed of David in fleshly terms. Scriptures foresaw that he would become Son of God also, passages like Psalm 110:1.

Other parts of the New Testament emphasize parts of the Old Testament that Paul does not so much focus on.  For example, the Gospels locate the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist against the backdrop of the exile.  John the Baptist is like the voice of one calling the wilderness to come home from the Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 40), although John is preparing the way for Jesus.

The very idea of the kingdom of God and the gospel news presumably come from Isaiah 52, which was also originally about the return from exile.  Isaiah 53 shows up in Acts 8 as a text foretelling the redemptive suffering of Jesus.  Matthew 2 alludes to the exodus in relation to one event in the life of Jesus and, like Joshua, Jesus does save his people.  He is the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5). He is a priest to end all priests (Heb. 7).

[1] Given what Jews likely believed at the time, Paul probably would have assumed that the world was created out of chaotic, pre-existing waters. But he doesn't say this anywhere.

[2] This is an expansion of the Genesis story. In Genesis, Adam and Eve would have died anyway if they had not had access to the Tree of Life. In that sense, death was not caused by Adam's sin but it was not prevented because of Adam's sin. The ground is cursed because of Adam's sin in Genesis, but there is no mention of the creation being corrupted because of it.

The curse of Adam plays no role in the rest of the Old Testament.  In inductive terms, Genesis 4 through Malachi say nothing of this sin or its consequences. If we did not have Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Christian theology would look significantly different in relation to Adam.

[3] Interpreted spiritually rather than literally.

[4] Originally a reference to YHWH, now strikingly applied to Jesus.

[5] This seems to be a rather unique perspective for a Jew to have. The default Jewish understanding was probably that it was quite possible to keep the Law to the standard God expected despite the fact that all humans had sin and needed God's grace and atonement in general.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Gospel Writers on Street Corners? 1

Jumping to the second chapter of my Jesus in the Gospels book.  This is on the special themes in Mark.
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A Difference of Eyewitness Perspective?
Each of the four Gospels tells the story of Jesus in a distinctive way, although the first three gospels tell the story similarly enough to be called "synoptic" gospels, gospels similar enough that you could put them side by side and compare them.  But from early on it was recognized that John went its own way. A Christian in the late 100s called it a "spiritual" gospel. [1] It is interesting to wonder how our picture of Jesus might be different if we didn't have John.

Sometimes people make sense of the distinct presentations of the Gospels with the picture of four people standing on four different corners of an intersection, describing what happened to cause an accident.  In this common sense scenario, each person sees something a little different because they are looking on from a different angle.  They are all describing the same thing, but their narratives are each going to be distinct.

There may be some truth to this scenario, but things probably are also a little more complicated. [2] It's true that, traditionally, Matthew and John were thought to be written by the disciples with those names. Mark's Gospel is traditionally linked to Peter, and it is often suggested that Luke did some serious eyewitness research, perhaps including Mary herself. I personally think that traditions like these have to be taken more seriously than many do, but I also acknowledge that such traditions regularly get a little mangled in process.  [2]

As we will see throughout our journey, Matthew and Luke probably used Mark as their main source.  The places where they differ from Mark are thus probably intentional and reflect special emphases they wanted to bring out more than differences in eyewitness perspective.  Matthew and Luke are then thought to have relied on yet another written source as well. So while eyewitness testimony may very well underlie the foundations of the Gospels, most of the differences more come from the editing of the Gospel writers in order to bring out special themes.

Although we don't know Mark's sources for sure, it's likely that he also is telling the stories of Jesus in such a way as to bring out some special themes. The earliest tradition, about Mark, from the early part of the 100s, is that

"Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements." [3]

The sense here is that the stories of Mark aren't necessarily in the order they happened. There is also the sense that Peter presented the stories in such a way that they would speak optimally to his audiences. Although we have to remember that Papias himself may have his own agenda in the way he presents this information, it is striking that this statement probably comes within 50 years of Mark's writing...

[1] Clement of Alexandria

[2] For a strong defense of the eyewitness basis for the Gospels, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

[3] Roberts-Donaldson translation currently, fragment VI.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Roman Catholic Catechism 1

The notorious Monday reading group decided to read through selections of the Roman Catholic Catechism this semester with a very interesting question--just how different is Roman Catholic belief than Wesleyan?  The hunch is that Wesleyans and Catholics agree on far more than most Wesleyans think.  I'm not sure what will come of it, but it's possible that Keith Drury will take the collective take-away and make it public in some form. I don't want to distract from that, but I may post some of my own thoughts as we go through, trying not to distract from any final product that may come out of it.

Yesterday we read Section One of Part One (see the link above).  Out of 47 pages, I only saw five disagreements, and I don't even consider most of these very significant (although they might be for a Roman Catholic, admittedly):
  • The Wesleyan tradition doesn't worry about apostolic succession (77), although Wesley would no doubt have preferred it. 
  • The Wesleyan tradition would not consider Scripture and Tradition of "equal" value (82), understanding that for RCatholics, Scripture is part of Tradition.
  • We wouldn't ascribe any special privilege to the Pope or bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in interpreting the Bible (100), although they are free to work out their salvation with the rest of us ;-)  To me, this is the most significant difference.
  • Wesleyans don't consider the Apocrypha to be part of Scripture. It's not that we consider them evil.  We just don't consider them Scripture.
  • Wesleyans don't have anything against Mary, but don't generally think she remained a virgin after Jesus was born and don't have a dog in the race that sees her as the most perfect embodiment of the obedience of faith (148).
The agreements and "likes" were much greater--basically everything else.  Here are some of the agreements that especially stood out to me:
  • I liked the fact that the purpose of doctrine was said to be love, not head knowledge for its own sake (25).
  • I like the sense that Christ is the supreme Revelation of God and that the Revelation has been unpacking ever sense (65-66).  Protestants and Catholics tend to disagree on the unpacking of that final Revelation.  Protestants tend to see Scripture as a somewhat definitive unpacking of that Revelation. Catholics see big T "Tradition" as the unpacking of Christ, with Scripture as the fountainhead and beginning of that Tradition (see above).
  • I like the openness to private revelation, with the distinction that it is not part of the "deposit of faith."
  • What do you think about this??? "All that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures" (107).
  • I enjoyed the four fold sense of Scripture, although it was made clear that spiritual senses don't contradict the literal (115-117). Of course many evangelicals insist on the literal or plain sense only, but the holiness tradition has generally been more open to "spiritual" readings, like charismatics and unlike mainstream Protestants. 
  • Faith is a "free assent" (150, 160), so Wesleyans are closer to Catholics on this one than they are to Calvinists.
  • Faith is both a gift and a human act--human will and divine will cooperate (155). Again, Wesleyans are closer to Catholics on this one than to Calvinists.
  • Faith is necessary for justification (161).
  • I love this: "Faith is a personal act... But faith is not an isolated act" (166).

Monday, September 10, 2012

Multiple Ministries: Black and Drury

I only read one chapter this week in Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan Church.  So far it's been:

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)
Chaps 5-6  The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8  Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church

Today, chapter 9
________________
I'll confess that I'm not 100% sure what to make of this chapter, mainly because I can't see beyond my own life's interaction with God's Bible School in Cincinnati, Ohio.  I grew up with quite a positive view of GBS, having a brother-in-law who taught there, as well as some extended family who attended there.  Then I went through a period of thinking it rather separatist and legalistic.  More recently I've picked up on a spirit of brotherhood and desire for broader engagement.

All that is to say that I'm not sure what to make of Seth C. Rees leaving the early version of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, soon for the Nazarenes, just as I'm not quite sure what to make of Luther Lee going back to the Methodists.  And how stupid of Martin Wells Knapp to deed GBS to God, creating legal problems after his premature death!  But what should we make of the fact that a number of very well known figures wandered through but didn't stay: Oswald Chambers, Lettie Cowman (Streams in the Desert)?  The Cowman's founded OMS.

Nevertheless, I resonate with the spirit of innovation that seemed to characterize the proto-Pilgrims.  They advertised revivals on umbrellas when the city told them they couldn't advertise.  They were quite disobedient to the city of Cincinnati--Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in at one point so they could bus in 30,000 poor children to a Thanksgiving dinner.  The Pilgrims knew no division between helping the poor and downtrodden and evangelism.

Some familiar Wesleyan Methodist features emerged around the turn of the century as well.  The YMWB I grew up with is one example--kids giving a penny a week for missions.  WMS, the Women's Missionary Society started about this time.  Both these elements of my childhood have been changed over time.  Predictably, the Wesleyan Methodists were strong supporters of Prohibition--along with most Protestants.  The anti-catholic/anti-immigration dimension to the movement thus peeks its head here.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

2c God's Speakings 1

Last week I didn't have time to post my own biblical theology thoughts to go alongside my review of Grudem's Systematic Theology.  Here is more from my second section on "Revelation."

2a Revelation (From Text to Scripture)
2b Revelation (NT Understanding of Scripture)

So here goes...
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God's Speakings
First, we must recognize that while Scripture is the first and best place for us to begin when we are looking to hear God's voice, God's revelation did not begin with Genesis and it did not end with Revelation.  On any reckoning, written Scriptures have existed for less than half of humanity's existence, and by most reckonings far less.  Christ, God's fullest revelation came even more recently.

Even then, this written revelation has only been available to the smallest portion of the world until recent times--most humans in history never heard of Christ.  And when you consider that the vast majority of people throughout history have been illiterate, the details of written Scripture have scarcely been available even to believers until recently. In short, if written Scripture is the only path to God, then the overwhelmingly majority of humanity has not known him.

Many Christians would reject the notion that God determines who will be saved and who will be damned.  Those Christians usually also reject the fall back position that God only determines who will be saved and that the damned are damned already.  Yet to believe that those who have never heard are inevitably damned is simply another form of that idea.  To be consistent, those who reject these forms of predestination should reject the idea that those who have never heard cannot possibly be saved.

The key is two-fold. First, one can be saved through Christ without knowing the source of one's salvation.  Secondly, God is far more interested in what is going on in our hearts than what is going on in our heads.  If God empowers those who have heard to be able to believe on him, then he can also empower those who have never heard to be able to respond appropriately to the light they have.

Revelation is not merely a matter of the understanding. It is primarily a matter of the heart. It is knowing God relationally far more than knowing God cognitively. A person can respond appropriately with his or her heart even if the head lacks accurate understanding.

Creation is the first revelation of God.  "And God said," Genesis 1:3 begins.  The result is that "The heavens are telling the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1).  Paul suggests that God's power and divinity are obvious to the world (Rom. 1:20).  Paul's sermon in Acts 17 implies that it is at least possible to find God through the stars and order of the creation (Acts 17:27-28).

We should not imagine that such knowledge of God is extensive from a cognitive point of view.  We are not really talking about the philosophical argument from design here.  We are talking about the awe of God captured so well as the psalmist is amazed, "when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established" (Ps. 8:3).

The stories of Genesis tell of God walking with various individuals who had no written word from God.  Indeed, they had little from God orally either.  We hear of Noah, then of Abram called from a foreign country. Abram came from a situation in which many gods were worshiped (Josh. 24:2). Presumably God spoke to more people and more often than the sparse indications of Genesis. Regardless of when it was written, Job is often thought to picture someone who was not an Israelite but who worshiped God rightly in his heart in the patriarchal period.

Abram knew God as El-Shaddai, "God Almighty," according to one strand of the Pentateuch (Exod. 6:3).  He did not know God as YHWH.  El was the king of the gods in the Canaanite pantheon, like Zeus in Greece.  Is it therefore possible that God met Abraham within his understanding, asking him to worship the highest God, without correcting his sense of the other gods (cf. Ps. 82)?  Melchizedek was also a priest of "God Most High," El-Elyon.  So here is God, long before written revelation, meeting godly people where they were at in their understanding.

At each point, God seems to refine the understanding.  God reveals himself as YHWH, as the "I AM," at the burning bush...

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