Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sermon Starters: Moving On

I almost gave a three-point devotional the other night (time constraints made it a four minute-er instead of a twenty, twenty-fiver. I'm sure they got the better deal). If I were to preach this, I would do it as a narrative sermon. I'd talk as if I were Paul (not in Wilbur Williams style--I'd use my own voice).

The point of view would be Romans 15, Paul's at Corinth at the end of his third missionary journey. He feels like his ministry in the east is done. He's now looking beyond Rome to Spain and in fact writes Romans as an introductory letter meant to present himself with a view to the ways some have criticized him while also hoping to secure a favorable base from which to begin a new mission (much as Antioch served for his first missionary journey).

Here were my three points from the devotional:

1. As Paul looked back, he had any number of successes to look back on. Philippians 3, as many of you know, is not primarily Paul looking back on his failures when he says, "forgetting what is behind and pressing to what is before." The first verses of Philippians 3 recount things he might boast about as a human being, including the fact that he was as blameless at keeping the Jewish law that a human could be (3:6).

Part of what Paul was leaving behind was anything that might be to his credit. We can't ride on our laurels to heaven. As you all would know that I don't find much room for eternal security in my understanding of the New Testament. The verse that weighs most heavily on my in favor of it is 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul wants to deliver a person over to Satan for the destruction of his body and salvation of his spirit on the Day of Judgment. Although I have not interpreted it this way, it seems at least conceivable that Paul, thinking the judgment would take place soon and within the near future, expect the man's body to be destroyed in the judgment while his spirit would be saved. This interpretation might reflect a kind of eternal security. I cannot imagine, however, that it is very attractive to anyone, including those who believe in eternal security.

In contrast, the vast majority of relevant passages--as well as the sociological context of the NT-- suggest a presumption and strong security for believers but not an absolute security. These passages suggest to me that the alternative interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5 is not correct.

The long and the short of this matter is that a) human accomplishments are but "dung" in the light of Christ and b) past spiritual victory is something God remembers and values (e.g. Heb. 6), but it does not provide absolute security in terms of ultimate salvation.

2. The main spark for the devotional was my current understanding of Paul's circumstances as he writes Romans. He has probably been imprisoned at Ephesus, during which he wrote Philippians. I suspect the governor expelled him from the city and forbade him to return. Many Jews in the city rejected him, perhaps even many who called themselves believers (Phil. 1).

We have no real sense of whether the Galatians accepted Paul's teaching that he wrote them. They might have, but we just don't know.

If indeed 2 Corinthians 10-13 give us the latest state of affairs before Paul came to the city and wrote Romans, then it is not at all clear that Paul had the full loyalty of the city when he was penning Romans. His last words to the community are anything but resolved from conflict.

In this context Paul writes in Romans 15 that there is no more room for him to minister in the regions of the east. He says nothing of spending months at Ephesus or Corinth. He's done.

Forgetting what's behind and pressing on, means all that's in the past. Sins, failures, struggles, painful situations--there all past and left behind in the light of our future with Christ.

3. So what really counts most is not the past, either its successes, pains, or failures. What matters is the upward call in Christ Jesus, the call to make it to the resurrection. Paul mentions this in Philippians 3. He mentions it in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul doesn't want to fail to get the prize after he has worked so hard. So he presses on for the mark of the upward call, to make it to the end.

So Paul is not done, even as he writes Romans. He plans to go to Rome and then to Spain. We don't know if he actually made it to Spain, but he did make it to Rome. Are you still pressing on?

Monday, July 25, 2005

Change or Die?

I'm behind on my reading. So what else is new? But I thought I'd make a few comments on what I hear people like Spong and certain "emergent" voices are saying about Christianity today. These are just some thoughts I have, nothing like a systematic tackling of the problems they are addressing.

My main impression is, good luck. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the criticisms and observations these guys are making are correct. But I don't see the death of Christianity in its older forms anywhere on the horizon.

Why? Because the most traditional and entrenched forms of Christianity and the most childlike of faiths are only as far away as the Sunday School nearest you. Generations of "enlightened," liberal seminarians have been emerging for generations. And let us not forget the oft cited legend of Voltaire predicting the death of Christianity within a generation--made in the late 1700's.

I'm not saying that the emergents aren't on to some things. I'm just saying that the emerging twenty-somethings of the sixties and seventies were on to some things too, as were the emergents of the twenties, or of the 1890 Methodists who had returned from studying in Germany. (By the way, I'll bet you that a lot of the emergent writers today don't "know" some of the things those 1890 emergents knew a hundred years ago--talk about how enduring emergent knowledge is)

What little I've read of the "hot" emergent writers doesn't leave me thinking, "Wow, I need to rethink my theology completely." If anything it's surprise that these guys actually think they're on to something new. I mean, really, Honest to God was written in the 60's, and it didn't stop the conservative resurgence of the 80's that I lived through. If anything, the current emergents are a lot shallower than their predecessors, although they dress better and are certainly more hip.

And look at how powerful conservative evangelical politics are right now--way more powerful than I can ever remember before--even during the Reagan years when I was at Boy's State and we were voting in school prayer. And this comes after the enlightened sixties and seventies! Indeed, the once having ruled enlightened emergents of those days are completely at a loss today at how the "assured progress" of those days doesn't seem to have any support among grass roots people today. They lost to their "conservative" children.

So what am I really saying? First, I'm not dismissing everything the "emergent church" is saying. I think they probably have some insights that the "masses" don't. However, it's almost embarrassing that some of them would think they're the first ones ever to have some of these insights. Frankly, I'm not even sure some of the ones touting themselves as post-modern even understand what the word really means. I'm waiting for the profound new idea that really leaves me thinking, "Wow, I've never thought or heard of that before."

And I'm wishing them good luck on changing the world. But I'll take that bet against Spong that Christianity is about to die if it doesn't change. I've been to Sunday School, and those impressionable little minds have the same visions of Jesus loving the little children of the world that I had as a child in the 70's.

New Team Blog

I've created a new team blog where all members of the team can make regular postings on issues of the Bible in addition to the ability to comment on individual posts as usual.

You can check the site out at


Novel Snippet Time 2

I especially enjoyed this paragraph today:

"Along the streets we met the usual men on their way to the fields outside the city walls. Paul walked at such a fast clip that I struggled to keep up with him. He was over twenty years older than me, a man of over fifty years, but I still struggled to match his pace when he was at full speed. Paul was the first to reach the top of the hill, soon followed by me. Normally we would have sung some hymns, perhaps the one Apollos wrote that I had put in the letter to the Colossians. Then there was a lovely new one Apollos had written about Jesus taking the form of a servant. But Paul was single minded in his intention this morning, and as soon as Aquila and Priscilla reached the top, he began to pray."

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Hermeneutics 5

5. Caution in the Direct Application of the Original Meaning
Most of our discussion so far has centered on the original meaning of the Bible. We have suggested that the pursuit of the original meaning is legitimate because 1) it is after all the first meaning God inspired, and 2) it provides depth and perspective in relation to any other meaning we might see in the words. But at the same time, a number of important considerations make it clear that we should not base our beliefs and practices today solely on the original meaning of a biblical passage.

First of all, we should admit up front that in a vast number of cases, we simply do not have enough information to conclude for certain even what the original meaning of a passage was in the first place. Consider 2 Thessalonians 2:5, where Paul reminds the Thessalonians of a discussion he had with them while he was still at Thessalonica: "Do you not remember that I used to say these things when I was still with you?" We would love to be privy to this information. But unfortunately, none of us are, for it was not written to us. We are not the "you" of this passage. 2 Thessalonians 2 remains an extremely difficult passage to interpret because we have insufficient data to determine its meaning with certainty. Basing the Bible's authority strictly on the original meaning is problematic in part because we do not know for certain what that meaning was.

Even more problematic than the information that we know we lack, is the information we do not know we lack. In other words, new discoveries have repeatedly cast new light on old questions in ways that revolutionize the way we look at certain biblical texts. For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 continues to transform our understanding of various parts of the Bible even today.

Further, with so many thousands of biblical scholars pouring over the text, the background literature, and the history of the Bible's interpretation, we constantly hear new perspectives on old questions. Occasionally, the waves of these discussions bring in new revolutions of insight--or at least trendy changes in interpretation. It is often difficult to know what trends will stand the test of time and which will pass quickly after they hit the shore. Thus while the original meaning is in theory a fairly stable meaning, we cannot always identify it with certainty. Surely we need some additional checks and balances in place as we try to appropriate it.

But secondly, even if we could know the original meaning with absolute certainty, a number of reasons exist for us not to assume that the original meaning will apply straightforwardly to today. Whether in terms of belief or practice, a direct application of the words to today can be inappropriate, even dangerous for several reasons.

1. The first is that simply doing what the ancient audiences of the Bible's words did, would not be "doing what they did" if its significance, connotations, and implications would be different today.

No one should assume that we are trying to "get out" of obeying the Bible with this observation. Indeed, in many respects working out the heart of biblical teaching today often requires us to be more exacting than the Bible itself was originally. Jesus' interpretations of the Old Testament in Matthew 5 often "fulfilled" the Old Testament by exacting a more thorough standard than the Old Testament itself. Yet it is equally clear that there are prohibitions and commands the Bible makes that would not make any sense in our context.

I mentioned some easy examples of this fact earlier. Take Paul's admonition to "greet the brothers with a holy kiss" in 1 Thessalonians 5:26 or his urging of the women at Corinth to have a sign of authority on their head when they prophesy "because of the angels" (1 Cor. 11:10). Greeting my fellow brothers at my home church just wouldn't do what it did two thousand years ago--the connotations are now vastly different in twenty-first century America.

And scholars do not even agree what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 11:10. I personally think Paul meant a woman should cover her head (not her face) with a veil when entering the spiritual presence of putatively male beings like angels and God. The authority comes from the fact that she is honoring her "head," her husband, as she is entering the presence of other "men." If I am correct, then you can see how foreign the logic of this passage is to anything we can easily relate to today--even among those who wear prayer bonnets or hair buns in lieu of this passage.

In other instances, we will have to "fulfill" the heart of Scripture by a greater strictness than the Bible requires. Thus the Old Testament freely allows polygamy (e.g., Deut. 21:15-17). Indeed, no passage ever complains about David or Solomon's many wives (except that they are foreign). And it seems very unlikely that Ruth was Boaz's first wife. A wealthy, older man like him at that point in Israel's history probably had more than one wife long before Ruth came into the picture.

The New Testament does seem to assume that a person will have only one wife (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:2), but no passage in the New Testament explicitly prohibits polygamy for an ordinary person. 1 Timothy and Titus come the closest when they insist an overseer or deacon must be the husband of one wife (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6). Indeed, these two books may mean something even stricter than monogamy--they may mean one wife during the course of a whole lifetime. But if we base our practices on the Bible alone, we have no clear prohibition of polygamy anywhere in the entire Bible.

However, in Western culture, polygamy seems to us incompatible with the very essence of Christianity. Some of the reasons for this sentiment actually come from cultural misunderstandings of the biblical text, like the presumption that a person can only become "one flesh" with one person. Presumably Jacob became one flesh with both his wives and his two concubines as well. And Paul speaks of becoming one flesh with a prostitute with no sense that one has thereby entered a marital or monogamous relationship with her (1 Cor. 6:16).

No, the reason we should consider polygamy inappropriate for a Christian is because in our world it would inevitably bring an inequality between husband and wife that is ultimately unchristian. When the Sadducees tried to foil Jesus' understanding of resurrection, they presented him with a scenario in which a woman had become one flesh with seven brothers one after the other without having children (e.g., Mark 12:18-27). Whose wife would she then be in the kingdom? Jesus' answer was that there would not be marriage in the kingdom, and women will not be given to men then (Mark 12:25). The subordination of wives to husbands will not exist in heaven, and all individuals of both genders will stand on an equal footing.

It is possible that at various times and places on earth God has allowed Christians to be polygamous, but clearly such a practice is less "heavenly" than monogamy. In the same way, God has allowed Christians at times to consider wives subordinate to their husbands, but this set up is similarly less "heavenly" than marriages where both are on equal footing. Like God allowed for divorce in the old covenant, perhaps God has "winked" at less than the ideal at various times and places. But Westerners have no excuse to formulate the relationship between men and women on earth in these passing earthly terms--often based on certain conceptions of the body. And we should urge Christians from polygamous cultures to move in a monogamous direction. When it comes to issues like these, surely God expects a higher standard today in the relationship between husbands and wives than He has sometimes allowed at other times and places.

2. The second reason why we should be careful about applying the original meaning of the Bible directly to today is that God largely revealed the truths of the Bible within the paradigms and worldviews of the original audiences. The point was not the ancient paradigm, but what God was affirming by way of it.

We see that when Paul says he was taken up into the "third sky" in 2 Corinthians 12:2, the image is just like the Testament of Levi, where you go up through successive layers of heaven (or sky) until you get to where God is. When Paul says that every knee will one day bow before Christ, he formulates every knee in terms of how he pictured the world: "of those in the skies and on the earth and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10). When Genesis pictures the creation of the stars, it sees them in the sky (Gen. 1:14), which it also sees as an expanse between the waters of the earth and certain primordial waters above the sky (Gen. 1:6).

When Colossians discusses the respectable relationships of the household (Col. 3:18-4:1), it does so in the same terms that Aristotle did in his Politics. Paul and Timothy discuss relationships of husband and wife, fathers and children, masters and slaves--the three domains that Aristotle lays out as the relationships of the household. When Paul speaks of the husband as the head of the wife and calls for her submission to the husband, he says exactly what Aristotle laid out as the appropriate relationships of the home.

My point here is not to discount these passages, which I affirm as inspired, but to clarify exactly what the point of these passages was and what it was not. Paul's point in Philippians was not the structure of the cosmos, but the ultimate submission of the world to Christ. And Genesis 1 no doubt showed who God was in contrast to the gods of the other creation stories--more than giving us a slide show of the creation process. And the point of the household codes of Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter may have been much more about "having such good conduct among the Gentiles that although they might speak badly of you as if you were doing evil, when they see your good deeds they will glorify God on the day of His visitation" (1 Pet. 2:12). Ironically, to fulfill the purpose of this verse we would need to allow our wives to have equal value and freedom today--the opposite course of action from what fulfilled it then!

Because the inspired message of the Bible's books came in the clothing of ancient paradigms and worldviews, much discernment is necessary when appropriating the biblical text. Thus the Bible was not meant to tell us about how the brain works. Indeed, various parts of the Bible conceptualize the human make-up differently (e.g., Genesis differs from Hebrews). The process of appropriating the original meaning of the Bible will require us to discern what the inspired point of each passage was and what the ancient clothing was in which it was dressed.

3. The third reason we should be careful about applying the Bible's words directly to today is because in some cases the New Testament had not yet reached a "final answer" on certain beliefs and practices.

We have already mentioned the matter of polygamy. We might add to that list slavery. For example, it is not at all clear that Paul is asking Philemon to give Onesimus his emancipation from slavery in Philemon. The text never says anything like this. Indeed, Colossians--probably sent to the same destination at the same time--instructs slaves to obey their earthly masters and says not a word to masters about setting their slaves free (Col. 3:22-4:1).

The New Testament does not spell out the specifics of the Trinity or exactly what the divinity of Christ is. God worked out these understandings in the church in the centuries that followed. Indeed, on several issues the books of the New Testament have not yet reached a "final answer." Take the issue of earthly sacrifice. According to Acts 21, Paul goes to the temple to offer animal sacrifices to release certain individuals from a vow (21:26). But Hebrews tells of the end of all animal sacrifice in the light of Christ's once and for all atonement (Heb. 10:14). While God has made it immensely clear to us Christians that an earthly temple would be irrelevant, it is not clear that all the New Testament authors had fully come to understand this fact yet. In this case we now know that Hebrews gives the final answer, but other books in the New Testament may not be quite as far along in unpacking this implication of Christ's death.

4. A fourth consideration is that since each book has its own individual meaning, these books do not tell us how to connect their teaching to each other. The activity of creating a "biblical theology"--determining the general thrust of the Bible on a particular topic or issue--is a matter of us looking in from the outside. It is an extra-biblical task. It is the same with the task of applying the words to today. Since the books were written to them, the Bible itself does not tell us how these words might relate to us. Determining this relation is also an extra-biblical task.

Thus, whether we like it or not, we are the determinative moment in the synthesis and application of biblical teaching to today. The Bible itself, Scripture alone, cannot tell us these things. They are activities--synthesizing teaching and connecting worlds--that we do from the outside looking in at the texts.

Before we apply a verse like 1 Timothy 2:12 to today--"I do not allow a woman to teach or take authority over a man"--we have to connect it with other biblical teaching relating to women teaching men. Thus we will also need to consider the implications of Acts 18:26: "When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they invited him to their home and [they] explained to him the way of God..." We will need to consider the prophetic role Acts 2:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 11:5 describe for women. To be careful, we should not apply any one of these individual passages directly to today until we have considered all the others.

And as we have already mentioned, once we have constructed a biblical theology on this topic, we will need to consider the relationship between the biblical world and our world. We must find points of continuity and discontinuity between the two worlds and identify the flow of revelation in the church since. Only then can we be certain that we are playing out the teaching of the original meaning with God's blessing today.

5. A fifth and final reason for caution relates to any expectation we might have that the original meaning of the Bible will give us all the answers we need for our questions today. Unfortunately, the New Testament simply does not directly address many of the issues that are most pressing for our time. Although the concept of an abortion existed at the time of the New Testament, the New Testament does not address the subject. Any verses we might produce on the topic are only indirectly relevant at best. And where will we find verses on stem cell research or on removing feeding tubes from bodies that are brain dead?

Indeed, we will not find passages that directly address so many of the issues on which we most want a word from God today. The verses brought to bear on these subjects are often those most read out of context. This is not a point of despair. It is a point for the church to pray and take the responsibility that it has always had, but has often not wanted to take. It has sometimes been easier to pretend like there is an easy answer in a verse taken out of context than to do the hard work of "working out your [plural] salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). God did not stop speaking when he inspired the books of the Bible. It is the church's job to listen to what He is saying.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Hermeneutics 4

4. Many Books, Many Contexts
One of Martin Luther's principles in determining the meaning of the Bible was that "Scripture interprets Scripture." We can now identify this notion as "pre-modern" in the sense that it does not really understand how to read the words of the Bible in context. These books were written by different authors who each used words differently, indeed who wrote in three different languages. We should weigh Scripture against Scripture, but you cannot usually interpret the original meaning of, say, Romans, by looking at a book like Matthew. Each author had his own vocabulary and way of putting things, and any conception of inspiration that cannot accommodate this fact is inadequate.

For example, in Mark 7:12, Jesus says, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, [may I be accursed] if a sign [semeion] will be given to this generation." It is hard to find words in English to express the Aramaic expression that likely lies behind this statement in Mark. To say the least, it strongly denies that Jesus was willing to provide a sign to the crowds.

Now consider John 21:30: "Jesus did many other signs [semeion] before his disciples that are not written in this book." What are some of the signs recorded in John? Turning water into wine for a public wedding was the first (John 2). John mentions that Jesus did several signs in Jerusalem (2:23) before a second sign (4:54). In short, John tells us that Jesus not only performed signs; he performed so many miraculous deeds that "if every one was written, I do not think the world itself would have room for the books in which to write them" (John 21:25).

How do we fit these seemingly conflicting accounts together, if indeed we should try? Actually, while the flavor is in tension, these comments do not really contradict each other. Jesus clearly performed miraculous deeds in Mark as well as John. The principal difference is that Mark and John use the word sign differently. John used it of any miraculous indication that Jesus is the Christ. Mark used it as a kind of proof on demand, like jumping through hoops at the behest of those who doubt. In the end, it is only by taking the individual vocabulary and perspectives of the two authors into account that we are saved from a rather significant contradiction here.

In terms of the original meaning, the context of an individual book is that book itself. When Revelation 22:18-19 says that "if someone should add to the words of the prophecy of this book, God will add to that person the plagues written in this book," it originally referred only to the book of Revelation rather than to the whole Bible. The books of the Bible were not placed in a single book at the time Revelation was written. At that time each book (or sometimes groups of smaller books) circulated on its own individual scroll.

Indeed, it is not until the year AD 367 that we hear of someone even suggesting that the current list of books in our New Testament was the right list. Revelation was one of the books that early Christians debated over, in terms of whether it was Scripture or not. It was not until the 300's that this debate became somewhat settled. Before then, godly Christians legitimately debated whether Revelation was as inspired as other books like Romans. This information is not meant to call into question the inspiration of Revelation, but to show that these books were originally written separately from each other and thus originally meant to be read on their own terms.

The more we listen to each book, the more we will see the variety of the circumstances and perspectives in the Bible. In the same way that you wouldn't give the same advice to a serial killer and someone with a hyperactive conscience, so each book delivers a message appropriate to its circumstances and place in the flow of revelation. Indeed, we probably listen best to the text when we see some of these books in dialog with each other, even taking different sides on the same issues in a great debate.

For example, Deuteronomy 24:1 freely allows a husband to divorce his wife because she becomes displeasing to him. In contrast Malachi 2:14-16 inveighs against any man who might divorce the wife of his youth. Jesus will reinforce Malachi's complaint by forbidding men to divorce their wives for any old reason (Matt. 19:1-12). In this passage, Jesus considers the allowances of Deuteronomy as contrary to God's original intention (19:8). Here we have Jesus telling us that God allowed something to be in Scripture that was not God's first preference.

Let us also consider books like Joshua, where non-Israelites must be obliterated regardless of their disposition to Israel or Yahweh (e.g., Josh. 6:21; 7:12; 9:24), and Ezra, where Israelites are commanded to divorce their foreign wives and the children from such marriages (Ezra 10:3). These books at least seem to be in dialog with books like Jonah, where God freely forgives the atrocious Assyrians (e.g., Jon. 3:10), and Ruth, where a Moabitess is welcomed into the lineage of David (and thus Jesus; Ruth 4:18-22). Indeed, Jonah himself seems to espouse a perspective similar to that of Joshua or Ezra, a perspective that the book of Jonah itself condemns.

Our point is that listening to the books of the Bible speak, rather than forcing them to fit together on our terms, presents us with a better understanding of the whole truth more than if the books of the Bible simply gave us a monotone voice. Reality is probably too complicated to be summed up in such a simple schema.

Beyond dialog, we also observe a "flow of revelation" within and beyond the pages of the Bible. In Genesis, we soon realize that someone like Jacob (e.g., Gen. 31:34; 32:30) did not have nearly as good an understanding of God as Moses would (e.g., Exod. 6:3). Further, God presented the idea of monotheism more precisely in Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 44:6-20) than he did to Moses (Deut. 5:6-7; 32:8) or one of the psalmists (Ps. 82). When we get to the New Testament, we now understand that Jesus must be fit within God's divinity as Lord in some way (1 Cor. 8:6; Titus 2:13). We observe a clear development in understanding even within the pages of the Bible.

But even the New Testament did not resolve all these issues. Is Jesus to be worshipped (proskuneo) in the same way we might "bow the knee" to a king (cf. Matt. 2:11)? What does 1 Corinthians 15:28 mean when it speaks of the ultimate subordination of Christ to God the Father? Does Hebrews 1:8-9 make a distinction between Christ as God and the God? Was the fourth century Arius interpreting Colossians correctly when he argued that the phrase "the firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15) meant Jesus was the first thing God created? Yet John 8:58 seems to say that Jesus was the very same Yahweh who appeared to Moses at the burning bush. And the Lamb of Revelation 5:14 is worshipped alongside the One on the throne.

Christians discussed these kinds of questions for four hundred years before our current understanding was finally settled. And the church ultimately found that they had to resort to categories outside the Bible to resolve these issues. The Nicene Creed (381), which gives the position Christians have taken ever since on the Trinity, includes a good dose of somewhat philosophical language that the early Christians used to make the necessary distinctions that we continue to use today.

What we find is that far more than just the Bible alone is involved in the way Christians use the Bible. On the one hand, we would not even have a "New Testament" if God had not led the church to identify these particular books as authoritative Scripture. Before there was a New Testament, each of these books circulated somewhat independently of each other. It was through a process of dialog among Christians over several hundred years that these particular books finally became the unanimous collection of Scriptures--the canon--that all Christians now affirm them to be. It was in the church of the 300s and 400s that this process finally came to completion. It was not the decision of a political body, but something that "bubbled up" in the church.

This is a good point in history to reiterate and clarify that the Bible as Scripture is ultimately the possession of the church. By church here, I do not mean a political body, but all those who are truly Christians everywhere. The original meaning is important because it was the meaning God first inspired, and we can only add depth to our understanding of God when we know something about it. Yet as will become clearer in the final section, it is the Bible as the church has read it that has really stood at the heart of the way Christians have heard God's voice in its words.

Here is a moment of immense clarity. Words take on meaning when they are placed in a specific context. The result is that words can potentially take on many, many meanings. It is for this reason above all that there are over 20,000 different Protestant churches who claim to get their beliefs from the Bible alone. Clearly, far more important than the question of whether the Bible is inspired is thus the question of what meaning of the Bible is authoritative.

On the one hand, we can certainly argue that the individual, original meanings of each book were inspired and authoritative for each particular original circumstance. But in practice, the original meaning is not really what Christians have meant when they have claimed the Bible to be inspired and authoritative. In practice, Christians read these words through the eyes of the church. This is the meaning you get when you read the words in light of the orthodox beliefs and practices of historic Christianity. And of course, each Christian group has added its own unique beliefs and traditions to the "dictionary" it uses to interpret the Bible's words. The final section will explore what this point of clarity might mean for how we appropriate the Bible today as Christians.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Novel Snippet Time

Believe or not, the novel has made it into double digits. Here's just a snippet to whet your appetite (and/or keep at me so I finish it):

From chapter 3
Priscilla entered the atrium just moments after I did, her hair covered with a veil down to her shoulders. Her face was serious, but beautiful as always.

“I covered my hair just for you, Timothy,” she said with a smile.

For the first time, I saw the hint of a grin on Paul’s face as well.

“You know I think Apollos is right, Timothy,” Aquila ventured this time. “Aristotle would be proud of you.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sermon Starters: To Judge or Not to Judge

I'm supposed to speak on this topic Sunday night at College Wesleyan in Marion.

Here are my power point slides with brief notes:

To Judge or Not to Judge: That is the Question for Tonight

1. Some well known verses
Matthew 7:1-2:
“Do not judge, so that you are not judged judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

John 8:7:
“Let the one of you who is without sin throw a stone at her first.”

1 Corinthians 4:3-5:
“To me it is the least concern that I be judged by you or by a human day [of judgment]. I do not even judge myself. In myself I am conscious of no wrong, but I do not stand acquitted on this basis: the one who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, do not judge something before the right time, when the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make visible the motives of [people’s] hearts.”

What is the popular Christian conclusion:

You cannot make judgments about sin in the lives of others.
Assumption: Because all Christians have sinned and continue to sin, you cannot be critical of sin in the life of others without being a hypocrite.

2. Yet at the same time, consider these passages:
1 Corinthians 5:3-5:
“Although I am not present in body, I am present in spirit. I have already judged the one who has done this thing, as if I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you and my spirit are gathered, … deliver such a person to Satan…”

John 8:15-17:
“You judge according to the flesh; I do not judge anyone [now]. And when I judge, my judgment is true, because I am not alone. I judge with the Father who sent me.”

Look at how close these verses are to the very ones we saw above! How do we fit these statements together?

3. Making some important distinctions

o The Bible teaches that all have sinned.
o It does not teach that we should expect Christians to sin.

Anyone who has read much of my writing knows the kinds of things I will share here.

Notice that while
o Truth exists and
o Some things are right; some things are wrong,

Truth is different from
o Our attitudes toward the truth and others

o There is also a difference between motives, which are not seen.
o And actions, which are seen.

4. What we must do
o Submit to God’s understanding of right and wrong
o Through the power of the Spirit, live above intentional, conscious sin
o Love others, which includes a desire for them to do what is right and avoid what is wrong

5. What we must not do
o Think that we are beyond sin or take for granted God’s forgiveness
o Talk about the sins or faults of others behind their back for kicks or self-promotion
o Talk about the sins or faults of others to their face for kicks or self-promotion

Some lessons in projection:

“Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye and not recognize the beam in your own eye? How will you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when the beam is in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye” Matthew 7:3-5

“Therefore, you are without excuse, you who judge. For by the same standard you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, for you who are judging practice the same things.” Romans 2:1

6. Conclusions
1. God does not have a tolerant attitude toward intentional, willful sin. He is incredibly forgiving toward the repentant, but this fact does not negate his attitude toward sin.

2. God has already pronounced judgment on any number of sins (e.g., adultery). When the church disciplines such individuals (and it should be the church rather than individuals), it is not really making the judgment, but enacting God's judgment. It is standing with God. Such judgment is always done with the hope of redemption, not out of vindictiveness.

3. Christians and the church are not in a position to judge or discipline motives that cannot be seen in the light of clear action.

4. Any judgment passed by the church or Christian individuals that is not concordant with love is not Christian and is a problem in itself.

Hermeneutics 3

3. Different Kinds of Contexts
If context is everything, then it will be helpful to get some sense of the different kinds of contexts in which words appear and take on different meanings.

The Literary Context
One of the main contexts to consider when you are reading words is the "literary" context. The "immediate" literary context is a matter of the words that come before and after the verse or verses you want to interpret. Matthew 2:15 gives us a great case study both in what it means to read words in context and out of context.

In the literary context of Matthew 2, Jesus' family has gone down to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod the Great. Then after Herod's death, they return to Israel. Matthew 2:15 says that these events happened "so that it might be fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'" The literary context of Matthew leads us to believe that this event in the life of Jesus is the fulfillment of a prophecy from the Scriptures (which for Matthew are what Christians call the Old Testament). This is the meaning of Matthew 2:15 as we read it in its literary context.

What is so interesting about Matthew's statement is that he himself was reading Hosea 11:1 out of context. Hosea 11:1-2, the passage that Matthew quotes, reads "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called them, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals." When we read Hosea 11:1 "in context" by paying attention to the words that come before and after, we see that Hosea was talking about the exodus of Israel from Egypt rather than Jesus. Further, the words that follow 11:1 talk about how Israel disobeyed God by serving other gods--certainly nothing that could apply to Jesus.

Here we find the question of reading the Bible in context in one of its starkest forms. On the one hand, surely we value what God might have said through both Hosea and Matthew to their original audiences. After all, both books appear in a collection of writings Christians consider authoritative: the Bible. Yet at the same time, Matthew implies God can also speak through what we might call "spiritual meanings" the Holy Spirit might lead us to see in the words. Clearly such meanings may not necessarily have any real relation to what those words meant originally. Of course such meanings are only as valid as the spiritual insight of the person who hears them. Christians believe Matthew was inspired. The inspiration of other individuals today is less assured.

Beyond the immediate literary context is the broader literary context of a verse or passage, including the book as a whole. For example, some Christians take 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to mean that women cannot preach in church: "Let women be silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must remain in submission, as the law says. If they want to ask about something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."

But the broader context of 1 Corinthians makes it clear that whatever these verses might refer to, it cannot be spiritual speech like preaching. If anything, it must mean normal chatter or disruptive question-raising in the middle of worship. We know this because Paul assumes in 1 Corinthians 11:5 without even arguing it that women do pray and prophesy in church: "Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head." Since Christian prophecy is something you do in public worship, the broader context of the verses in 1 Corinthians 14 cannot refer to spiritual speech but to disruptive ordinary speech.

Another important literary context is the genre of the book we are reading. For example, the book of Revelation is an apocalypse, an ancient genre that no longer exists. When we compare Revelation to other ancient apocalypses, we realize that it both follows and differs from them in interesting ways.

In other apocalypses, a heavenly figure usually comes down to the person having the vision. The same is true of Revelation: Jesus appears to John. In response to the heavenly figure, the visionary usually falls on his face. Again, this is what happens at the beginning of Revelation. Even knowing this much about the apocalyptic genre raises the question of whether the scene at the beginning of Revelation is meant to be symbolic--a standard feature of the genre--or a blow by blow account of John's actual experiences.

What is interesting is that in the other apocalypses, the heavenly figure then tells the visionary to get up because only God is worthy of worship. In Revelation, Jesus does not tell John to stop worshipping him. Knowing this feature of the apocalyptic genre makes us immediately recognize one of the most important elements in the theology of Revelation: the worship of Jesus alongside God. Knowing the genre of Revelation immediately clues us in to this fact.

As you pursue the various genres of the Bible further, you will begin to see how the matter of genre might affect your perspective on any number of issues. To what extent, for example, were ancient biographies and histories exact in their presentations? Were authors permitted some license in the way they arranged and presented events? Should we even compare the gospels or biblical histories to the ancient genres to which they come closest?

How does the standard format of an ancient letter shed light on the meaning of the letters in the New Testament? Are there pseudonymous writings in the Bible, written under the authority of key figures decades or even centuries after their deaths? Reading 2 Peter as a testament meant to convey the aegis of Peter to a situation decades after his death will yield a different sense of its meaning than if you take it as a letter dictated by Peter himself in the late sixties of the first century.

Historical Context
The historical context is of course a knowledge of the historical background necessary to understand the original meaning of the words. As with the literary context, we might distinguish the immediate historical context or situation behind a book from broader historical background.

Thus the immediate situation behind the letter to Philemon is a slave trying to be reconciled to his master. Apparently Onesimus did something that greatly offended his master, Philemon. As was often the case, Onesimus sought out a go between: in this case Paul. Paul writes Philemon urging him to forgive and receive Onesimus back, while offering to reimburse Philemon for any money Onesimus might have cost him.

Yet we can also speak of much broader historical background. Thus Ezra was written in the Persian period of Israel's history, several centuries after the Assyrians had destroyed the northern kingdom. It was over a century after Babylon defeated the southern kingdom, destroyed the first temple, and took its intelligensia captive to Babylon. It was a half a century after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. It is against the backdrop of this broader historical background that Ezra himself comes to Jerusalem.

We can also speak of the social setting of a writing, which includes matters like whether the author and audience were likely rich or poor, educated or illiterate. We can speak of cultural matters like how marriage worked and whether people thought of themselves as individuals or formulated their identity more in terms of the groups to which they belonged. Did they think more in terms of honor and shame or in terms of individual guilt? All these factors affect the way we take the words of the Bible's books.

Take Jesus' answer to those who questioned him about paying taxes: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." We probably cannot understand what Jesus meant if we assume that money was as typical of Jesus' world as it is of ours. In rural Galilee, a village like Nazareth didn't even trade goods very much. They did everything themselves from making clothing to harvesting to making pots. The only reason they might need money was thus to pay some foreign power taxes, which must have been oppressive under Herod Antipas in Jesus' day.

So Jesus was not really saying, you should pay what you owe to Caesar and be a good citizen. Nor was Jesus dividing the world into things regarding citizenship and things relating to religion. Jesus was dismissing Roman coinage itself as irrelevant to God--what did a follower of God in Palestine have to do with such things. Caesar has lost his coin; give it back to him.

These are some of the dimensions that the question of context can have. When we are trying to read the books of the Bible for their original meaning, we will need to consider these kinds of factors. The more we dig into context, the more we become aware at how different these same words must have struck their original audiences from the way they tend to strike us. This fact does not mean God has not spoken or does not speak to us out of context. But surely our understanding will only gain in depth when we can better hear the words as well for what they actually meant when they were first inspired.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Dead Rover, Dead Rover

I have long thought that Karl Rove is a genius. I say that with admiration of his intellect, not his character. I say that with the admiration you might have for a clever adversary who outwits you.

Actually, I don't know for sure what I think about Karl Rove's intentions. I don't have a good impression of him at all, but I concede he might actually think he is acting for the good of the U.S.

I read a poll tonight that says about half the American people question Bush's honesty about now. I actually don't. I think he's incredibly honest, but incredibly misguided and naive. It's Cheney that I think of as a lying, manipulative snake.

I don't know to what extent Rove is a liar, but I do think of him as the most Nixonesk person I've seen in recent politics. Wasn't it Rove who in an act of true genius arranged to put homosexual unions on the ballot in states crucial to Bush's reelection. Because most people have trouble making distinctions, he knew the fervor against homosexuality would add momentum to Bush. In the free floating matching that is American think, Kerry automatically lines up with the pro-homosexual feeling regardless of what he did or didn't say about it.

What I find irritating about the Roves, Cheney's, and Clinton types is that they play the American audience as if we're stupid and Americans prove them right every time. With Clinton it was the numbers game. If I mention about thirty different statistics and throw a few thoughtful hmms in there, they'll buy it. Gore tried it, but he just didn't have the panash Clinton did.

I thought Cheney's false hurt over mention of his daughter's homosexuality was devious. He's not ashamed of her lifestyle and neither is she. What genius, though! Act like you're offended and all the parents out there who would be embarrassed to have the orientation of their child mentioned on public television will sympathize with you. Incredibly clever! It's the Rove maneuver. If the heat lamp is on you, create a diversion (heh, heh, Cheney did that with John Edwards so well, the snake--"here at this debate is the first time I've ever met you..." A bold faced lie)

And now, surprise, surprise, we find out that Rove "outted" Wilson's wife. Republicans are defending him as not having done anything illegal. I don't know whether he did or not and, really, that's not the issue. It's a diversion. Did he mess up her career and potentially endanger others for political gain? Yes.

What a clever beast! Wilson's wife was exposing the complete sham Bush's idea of Iraq getting uranium from Niger was. So Rove leaks (or draws attention to, if you want to go with one defense that he did nothing illegal) her identity to the news. I don't care whether it was illegal or not, it was unethical and dirty politics--especially when it turns out she was correct and Bush was absolutely wrong on the uranium deal. I remember thinking this was a stretch at the time, and I don't get daily briefings from the CIA. Maybe I should be president.

So hats off to you, Rove, for being a political genius. I'm not out for your blood, but you are a shameful man, a disgrace to President Bush. You're a man after Nixon's own heart.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Hermeneutics 2

This was originally posted on July 1, but I've moved it up to get the sequence.

2. Context is Everything
Words are incredibly flexible things. What I mean is that they can mean so many different things in so many different situations. What makes being fired different from getting fired up or firing a gun or lighting a fire? The context! To know what the word "fire" means, you have to know whether you are talking about your job, enthusiasm, a gun range, or camping.

The words of the Bible are no different in this regard. Why are there over 20,000 different Protestant denominations that disagree with each other yet claim to get their core beliefs from the Bible? It is this incredible flexibility that words have. If we are not aware of it, then we are bound to assume that the way we see the words is the only way to see the words.

An important distinction to make in this regard is the different between the original meaning of the words of the Bible and any other meanings we might find. The original meaning is the meaning these words had to the original authors and audiences of the books of the Bible.

What did Paul mean when he said a non-Christian might think people speaking in tongues were "out of their mind" (1 Cor. 14:23)? The word Paul used may have referred to the kind of things people were said to experience in a type of religion called a mystery religion. This example draws our attention to certain aspects of the Bible's original meaning. The original meaning of the Bible has to do with ancient audiences, and we do not automatically come equipped with anywhere near the necessary background knowledge to understand the words of the Bible as they were originally understood.

The idea itself of an "original meaning" is not without its complications. There were no doubt times when the original author of a book of the Bible had a different understanding than his audiences (all of the biblical authors were likely men). Further, some of the words of the Bible were spoken orally and only later written down. The words of Jesus can thus have slightly different meanings depending on whether we are thinking of 1) what he originally meant in whatever specific contexts he first spoke them and 2) the various connotations his words take on in individual gospel accounts. Further, it is certainly possible that God had meanings in mind for the words of which the original authors were not aware.

But in general, the difference between how the words might strike us and what the words originally meant is a valid distinction. For example, Judas was not the hero of the gospels, although someone might choose to read the story this way. I have heard of a certain tribe in Papua New Guinea that initially responded to the story of Jesus in this way.

Once we have established what the "original meaning" was, there are any number of interpretations of the Bible's words that differ from it. These other meanings vary from interpretations that are quite similar to the original meaning to interpretations that have little to do with anything the original audiences would have recognized.

For example, when I read about loving my neighbor, I am probably thinking things that are similar in spirit to the original meaning. But I have a strong hunch the specifics of loving my neighbor can be quite different today than when Leviticus or Jesus spoke of it (Lev. 19:18; Luke 10:27). On the other hand, countless sermons every Sunday morning do things with the Bible that may be true but have nothing to do with anything Moses or Isaiah or Paul would recognize. Indeed, you could argue that the most relevant of sermons often deviate the most from the original meaning, for the original meaning was most relevant to the ancient audiences--more than to us.

I submit to you three incontrovertible aspects of reading the Bible in context.

1. If we read the Bible for what it originally meant, it tells us it was written to someone else. The literal meaning of Deuteronomy or Romans or 1 Thessalonians requires us to recognize that none of the books of the Bible was strictly written to us. As Christians we believe these books are for us. But they were not written to us. Deuteronomy says, "Hear, O Israel" (Deut. 6:4). Romans says it was written to individuals in Rome (Rom. 1:7). 1 Thessalonians says it was written to the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1). No one alive today is one of those Romans or 1 Thessalonians originally addressed. Even modern Israel is not really the Israel of Deuteronomy 6.

2. The way the original audiences understood the literal meaning was a function of the way they used and understood words. When Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and the unjust in Matthew 5:45, the Galilean peasants understood rain as a very positive thing. Further, they had clear ideas of what it might mean to be just or unjust--definitions that came from their world.

When Genesis 1 speaks of waters above the sky (Gen. 1:6-8) and stars put in the sky (Gen. 1:14-15, it pictures a universe in which you go up through a layer of stars before reaching primordial waters above them. When Paul speaks of three heavens (2 Cor. 12:2), he thinks of three layers of sky as you go straight up toward God. These should not be problems for our faith in the Bible. It simply confirms that God is a God who speaks to us in ways we can understand. He does the same to us today in our categories, not in the categories through which our great grandchildren will view the world.

3. The ancient audiences of the Bible's words did not understand words or look at the world the same way we do. Indeed, they differed from each other in this regard.

The preceding examples make this point clear. I might return to the example of rain to make the point again (Matt. 5:45). For many years I did not understand the original meaning of God sending rain on the just because rain in my "dictionary" is not a good thing. "Rain, rain, go away. Please come back another day." I thought the verse meant that God even allowed bad things to happen to good people.

But attention to the words around Matthew's statement (the literary context) as well as to ancient Galilean culture (the social context) at this point in history (the historical context) shows me that this interpretation differs from the original meaning. Rain was a very good thing to farmers in a land that sometimes went without rain. The verse is about how God gives good things even to bad people. We read the Bible differently from the original meaning all the time in subtle ways like this all the time.

We should probably not assume that all the new meanings we see in the words today are necessarily less from God than the original meanings were. Indeed, unless God speaks through the words beyond the original meaning, most of us are in trouble a good deal of the time. Even scholars often disagree on the original meaning. Nevertheless, the first step toward a deeper and more mature understanding of the Bible is to recognize the crucial and determinative role that context plays in the meaning we see in it.

A Brief Guide to Biblical Hermeneutics

Well, I thought I might spin out a 25 page booklet or so on biblical hermeneutics. I don't know if it will go anywhere. This was originally posted June 26, but I've moved it up so that the sequence is together.

1. Before You Apply
"God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me!"

The spirit with which this statement is often uttered is right on target. If something is God's will and God's position on an issue, no human being can dispute it. The Bible allows for questioning, but if God has spoken about something, his answer is the final answer.

"I, the LORD, do not change!" (Malachi 3:6).

Again, the spirit with which I have sometimes heard this verse quoted is right. In a culture where change is often seen as progress and we see science and technology getting better and better, we can tend to dismiss the old as irrelevant or ignorant. Christianity bids us believe that God has known everything from the very beginning. He is not growing up or getting better and better. God has always been an omniscient authority.

At the same time, these verses are often quoted to reinforce biblical ignorance and to support positions that are not God's. For example, you do not really know exactly what God has said, unless you know why he said it. To take a good number of the Bible's statements as timeless absolutes is to ignore the meaning God originally meant for those words, and thus to ignore the true message God was trying to get across.

And while God remains the same, humanity does not and has not. The Bible reveals that part of the unchanging "nature" of God is to communicate and relate to the world in terms it can understand. We cannot listen to the Bible and not see God meeting different people and groups in differing ways over time. The same Bible that allowed divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 prohibits it in Matthew 19:7-9. The same Bible that involves stoning a man for violating the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) tells a different group not to let anyone judge them because they do not keep it (Colossians 2:16-17).

God is an "incarnational" God, a God who takes on the flesh of those to whom he wishes to reveal himself. The story of revelation is the story of God meeting people where they are, using categories they understand, "stooping to their weakness." It is why Solomon's temple was structured just like the other pagan temples of his day--God was saying something to Israel in terms they could understand.

I suspect that discerning God's voice is ultimately as simple as becoming a person "after God's own heart" and being in the center of his will. But a deeper understanding of the process of hearing God's voice through the Bible is surely nothing to scorn, and it may just save us from mistaking our thoughts for God's thoughts.

Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. With regard to the Bible, it asks how we get from text to life. This is our topic of conversation in the following pages.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Sermon Starters: Three Years in Fairmount

I'm preaching tomorrow at a little Methodist church just outside Fairmount, so I thought I would share my notes.

Three Years in Fairmount
Scripture: Luke 4:14-22

  • Bush's visit to Indianapolis
  • The precautions when someone important is coming to town
  • The helicopter that blissfully strayed into forbidden airspace
  • Important people can come from nowhere--James Dean, Dick Van Dyke
  • But you don't choose where you were born
  • Jesus chose Bethlehem in part, Nazareth in full, Galilee
  • These places have big churches now (aside on state of these Palestinian cities)
  • But back then they were no where
  • God choosing Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Chorazin... It's like God choosing to spend three years in Fairmount.

Point 1: God took time out for an old "friend": Israel

  • The movie Elf, the son interrupting the board meeting--even when you're working on big plans, some people are important enough to interrupt and spend some time with them
  • God was working on big plans, the salvation of the world, the final end to evil.
  • He took the time to come to Israel, the people with whom he had such a long relationship
  • The puzzling story of the Syro-Phoenician woman--God was focusing on Israel
  • Matthew 10--Don't go [yet] to the cities of the Samaritans and Gentiles
  • The woman who touched the hem of his garment, he stopped what he was doing
  • God is faithful to you all here today. He's not too busy with important things to take time for you. Sure there are terrorists blowing themselves up. God has the time to stop by Grant United Methodist Church on a Sunday morning just to let you know He hasn't forgot you. He has time to listen to your prayers and meet you in the singing. When you're in a relationship with Him, He's in it for the long haul--even when we aren't keeping up our end of the relationship.
  • Who do you need to stop and spend some time with... despite your busyness?

Point 2: God was most interested in those who had lost their way: the sinners

  • I don't know much about sheep, but I have been around some dogs that don't have much activity going on it their heads--the story of Happy and Princess running away in winter
  • The lost don't always realize they're lost.
  • Jesus didn't come to focus on the "righteous." I don't mean to negate my first point, but Jesus was as much on a rescue mission in Israel as on a visit to those who had kept in touch.
  • Story of two sons in Matthew 21. Ironically, the son who had been trying to be faithful, didn't accept Jesus in the end.
  • But the sinners did, toll collectors and prostitutes.
  • John Wesley talked a lot about God's grace that comes to us when we aren't looking for it. Chances are, if you're here this morning, you have done better at keeping up in your relationship with God than the prostitutes and toll collectors of Jesus' day. If so, I invite you to reflect and celebrate the times God was watching out for you and you didn't even know you were in need.
  • If you have family, friends, or know of people who need God's help desperately, but don't seem to want it. I invite you to revel in the faith that God is there with them, pursuing them, wooing them.
  • God won't let you face more than you can bear. If you are maturing, you should be able to bear more and bear the longer you walk with God.

Point 3: ... In Nazareth, Cana, Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum

  • Where are these places? Answer: no where
  • My son has no real understanding of space yet, he's five. Sometimes when I'm taking a short cut across the back roads of Indiana and all there is is corn field, he gets a little worried.
  • That's where these places were in Jesus' world. We all know of them today. They have big churches today. But back then, the idea of the messiah coming from Nazareth? Preposterous.
  • It was so preposterous that John the Baptist apparently had some second thoughts. He sends to Jesus to see if he's the one.
  • Jesus' response was to recap to John's followers the things we read in our Scripture today
  • the blind gained their sight, captives received liberty, the poor heard good news.
  • It must have been a real pain to live under the rule of Herod... taxation to build things when they were subsistence farmers... more on this
  • Jesus wasn't just interested in the spiritual. He was interested in their earthly existence too.
  • We all plan to be in heaven. But what "little thing" are you struggling with today?
  • The student who dropped the engagement ring in the snow... and couldn't find it for weeks. God cares about these kinds of things no matter who you are


  • Why Galilee? Many reasons. One was surely to show us how it's done.
  • Start where you are.
  • My supervised ministry in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. I haven't been back for over fifteen years, but it was where I was at the appointed moment and I ministered to those in a retirement home for three months.
  • How great is God's love for you?
  • Picture him being willing to spend three years in Fairmount.
  • Picture him being willing to spend three years at your house helping you with the details of your life.
  • Whatever you do, don't be like the places he went. Matthew 11 gives a stern rebuke to these very cities. Not only Nazareth, but Capernaum where he had lived for some time, Bethsaida and Chorazin where he had done most of his miracles. These cities rejected him.
  • Give God the place he deserves in your life--nothing less than the very center. You won't be disappointed!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Inerrancy, Wesleyan Style

I'am proud to be a Wesleyan for several reasons.

For example, Wesleyans have never fought over which way you should baptize. You can immerse, sprinkle, pour, do it to an infant, do it to an adult, or not be baptized at all. We were opposed to slavery when most other Christian groups were riding the fence and many preachers were members of the KKK. We were in favor of women voting and taking all roles in ministry a hundred years before secular feminism and long before it was the "in" thing to teach in American society.

I would put the Wesleyan stance on inerrancy in a similar camp. Now mind you, I am describing what I see--I'm not anything like an official voice of the Wesleyan Church. And, mind you, you usually can't really say that everyone in a denomination has a certain view on an issue. We've had a lot of growth from other conservative denominations who presume that because we look a lot like the churches they come from in so many ways, we are just the same. I want to make it clear that we actually are a little different in flavor from other churches that come close to us in some areas.

For example, it's true that most of our churches only practice adult baptism by immersion. Indeed, even some Wesleyans are surprised to find that you can baptize infants in our churches. Most Wesleyans do take standard fundamentalist positions on political issues, but our Methodist roots peek out here and there, leading some Wesleyans to emphasize social justice over the issues fundamentalists tend to focus on.

I would say that the difference between the Wesleyan Church and so many other conservative churches is our "flavor," our spirit. We have rankled over how to live in the past, things we used to call "standards"--should women wear jewelry, should you have a job on Sunday. But we have rarely rankled over the same ideas that some of the better known groups have.

In general, I would say that we are really neither fundamentalist nor evangelical in flavor, but pietist. I would describe pietism as an approach to Christianity that is far more interested in a person's spirit than their thinking. We did not fight the battles of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900's. Those were the battles from which the term inerrancy arose. Churches like the Southern Baptists or the Missionary Church have a very specific understanding of inerrancy. For them, the word evokes debates over whether the Bible contradicts itself on matters of history and science.

Wesleyans have never had these debates. When we were hashing out our current form, the two main groups from which we came discussed whether to put the word "inerrancy" into our official statements. One of these parent groups, the Pilgrim Holiness Church, didn't have this word in their statements. The other group, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, had only introduced the term into its statement in the 50's at the urging of a man named Stephen Paine. He was a scholar from Houghton College in New York who was tracking the fundamentalist-modernist issues.

Eyewitnesses have conveyed the process by which the term was introduced into our church statements. The Pilgrims had not been tracking the debate--they were more interested in putting statements on the end times (by the way, here is another issue where wisdom won out, the Wesleyan Church does not have a specific position on how the end times will happen. Most Wesleyans would be pre-millenial and would believe in a seven year tribulation, but all positions are possible for a Wesleyan, within the limits of basic orthodoxy). But who among us would want to say the Bible has errors? The statement was put into our Discipline as a vote of confidence in the inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of the Bible.

But we have never defined what inerrancy might specifically entail on the issues that gave the term birth. It is for us a very broad affirmation that God never makes mistakes and God inspired the whole Bible.

Why do I think this generality is a good thing? Because the whole fundamentalist-modernist controversy seems so confused in retrospect. While the fundamentalists opposed the modernist positions, they opposed them within the same modernist categories as their opponents. They defined errors in terms of modernist definitions of science and history when the Bible wasn't written for modernists. It was an anachronistic standard by which to define errors. Meanwhile, the Wesleyan tradition continued on its merry away, blissfully uninvolved in these controversies for the most part. It had a conservative confidence in the Bible without defining its meaning on modernist terms.

Take Harold Linsell, who wrote The Battle for the Bible. At one point he tries to harmonize the various gospel accounts of Peter's denial of Jesus. In the end, to get all the denials in the gospels in, he suggests that maybe Peter denied Jesus six times--three before the cock crowed once and three before it crowed the second time.

This is ingenious, but notice that Lindsell's suggestion doesn't actually match any of the gospels. Fundamentalists regularly end up making up their own, strange versions of the Bible's meaning in an attempt to fit things together. The problem is that Lindsell has created a fifth gospel that is actually none of the four that are actually inspired. His intentions are wonderful, but his effort and end product misguided. In the wrong hands, this approach can be dangerous because (like the Pharisees and the Judaizers) it pays more attention to the letter than to the spirit.

A Wesleyan would not usually worry about working out inerrancy in this kind of detail. Peter denied Jesus three times. Perhaps there is some way of fitting these things together, but the point of the incidence was not about the exact way in which the denials took place--it was the fact that he denied him (I suppose you could even debate whether this was even really a main point).

In this regard I like Asbury Theological Seminary's statement on inerrancy: "the Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms." The important question is thus, what was God affirming when He inspired this particular passage. Was the point of Philippians 2:10 that the earth is flat and that there are beings under and above the earth:

"So that at the name of Jesus every knee might bow--of those in the skies and on the earth and under the earth..."

No. The way of picturing the world is of course the way Jews in Paul's day pictured the world. The point God was making was not cosmology, but the fact that every living being that exists will bow before Christ. Am I surprised or disappointed in any way that God revealed this truth in terms that Paul and the Philippians readily understood? God forbid! How self-centered and narcissistic to assume He had to reveal on my terms when they were the original audience! No, I celebrate that God is a God who speaks, not above our heads, but in terms we can understand.

The fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy unfortunately is based on an incoherent understanding of language--one that the Wesleyan, "spiritual" sense of inerrancy thankfully by-passes. Because fundamentalism was a response to "liberal" challenges to the truth of the Bible, it had some basic sense of what it might mean to read the Bible for what it originally meant when it was first written. Meanwhile, my Wesleyan forebears were still reading the Bible in a "spiritual" way that, without really even realizing it, didn't pay much attention to the original meaning. They were interested in the spiritual message God intended the words to have.

But fundamentalists, since they were forced by the modernists to pay attention to the original context, tried incoherently to combine these two quite different ways of reading the Bible's words. They argued that the original meaning was the spiritual message for all time.

But these are two distinct meanings. There is the original meaning, the meaning these words had to their original audiences. Then there is any meaning God might have spoken to the later church or to individuals today through these words. The two are rarely exactly the same, for we don't view the world the way the original audiences did. If the words applied directly to us today, they would not have applied as directly to them. But since the Bible literally tells us these books were first written to them, they will not apply as directly to us today. The fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy is thus based on a fundamental confusion over how language works.

So as a Wesleyan, I think Asbury's very general statement of inerrancy captures our flavor well. If I am asked to bring my knowledge of the original context and meaning of the Bible to the word inerrancy, I have to get a little more complex.

If we are talking of the spiritual meanings God brings to the Bible, these meanings are of course immediately and directly without error. Anything that God has authentically revealed to the Church, to a specific church group or specific individuals, these meanings are of course without error.

In terms of the original meanings, we must look at all the books of the Bible as individual instances of inspired, inerrant revelation. The points that God was making in each case were without error for each particular context. The more we understand these moments of revelation in historical context, we realize that these moments are in a flow of revelation. God's message in Deuteronomy freely allowed for divorce and polygamy. There was no error made for that context. But Deuteronomy does not give us the final word on these subjects. We must thus understand inerrancy in terms of the place of each book in the flow of salvation history.

Further, much of the instruction of the Bible addressed specific situations and contexts. The passage of 1 Corinthians 11 on women's head coverings is so foreign to our culture that even scholars can scarcely agree on exactly what Paul meant. And greeting the brothers with a holy kiss just wouldn't come across the same way at my home church that it did in ancient Thessalonica. We must therefore understand inerrancy also in terms of the specific contexts and situations that each book originally addressed.

God is a God who takes on the flesh of those to whom He speaks. He did it as Jesus; he did it in the original meaning of the Bible. Each book of the Bible in its original meaning is an instance of God meeting a particular group of people with just what they needed, meeting them where they were at in their contexts and understandings, stooping to their weakness to move them in the right direction.

So I welcome those who feel a kindred spirit in our Wesleyan churches. But if from time to time you find some flavors that don't look Baptist, it's because we are really more pietist in our roots than fundamentalist. We may use some of the same words, but they don't always have the same exact connotations as they do in other traditions. The end result often looks similar, but it is a different spirit that is much more open than closed on matters like these. As John Wesley once said, "If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand."

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Faith and Reason

Faith and Reason
It would be unwise to think any of the three great monotheistic religions had a single perspective on reason or the relationship between faith and reason. Within each we find varying approaches to the role of reason in religion.

Thus we find the Muslim thinkers Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Through them the works of Aristotle were actually saved from oblivion. St. Thomas Aquinas appropriated Aristotle for Christianity by way of their influence. And let us not forget Moses Maimonides, who did the same for Judaism in the twelfth century. All these medieval philosophers drank heavily from the philosophical thought of Aristotle and promulgated it in the three great monotheistic religions.

On the other hand, in each of these religions we also find streams that have looked askance at reason in religion. The third century Christian Tertullian is well known for his dismissive question, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, or [Plato's] Academy with the Church?" In the nineteenth century, Soren Kierkegaard promulgated a proto-existentialist approach to religion that suggested faith was blind and that a faith that could be understood was no faith at all.

We find these same irrationalist streams in varying degrees in all three religions. In Judaism we might mention Kabbalah and mystical Judaism as less rationally oriented traditions. The more philosophical streams of Islam in the medieval were dismissed in the centuries that followed. The prevailing understanding of Islam today is that true affirmation of Allah as the only god (one of the five pillars of Islam) requires that a person not doubt but be unwaveringly certain in faith. This precludes the kind of questions that follow the evidence to any different conclusion than that which affirms faith as currently understood.

A recent wind blowing within Christianity has tendencies toward the temperment we have just mentioned in Islam. This wind, called "radical orthodoxy," rejects Enlightenment reason as intrinsically unchristian. Thinking about the world can only be called Christian if a Christian brings his or her Christian person to bear on that thinking. The result is that a project like this one, where we are attempting to look at religion from as an objective standpoint as possible, cannot properly be called Christian. A Christian cannot think Christianly unless a basic core of fundamentals are always presumed by faith in that thinking.

Can I satisfy the radically orthodox, particularly those of the Reformed tradition? It is doubtful. They will find my enterprise by its very nature unchristian, as will most Muslims who interpret the shahadah confession conservatively. Orthodox Jews will no doubt also shut this book out.

Why continue, since arguably these are the groups that most need this book? I continue because fundamental reason is so basic a part of human existence that it is impossible to deny it and remain sane. All these groups use reason to connect ideas together, and it is the same basic reason. There is a point at which a line of thought or evidence is so compelling that to deny it is to deny one's very existence in the world. This is the claim that Bultmann makes in the statements at the beginning of this chapter. I cannot make myself think that my car runs on magic.

I would identify the problem with the Enlightenment and with modernity as a problem of presuppositions. The eighteenth century David Hume defined natural and supernatural in a certain way and the logical conclusion was that miracles were an incoherent concept by definition. If the natural is that which occurs on earth as a result of a continuing process of cause and effect, then miracles cannot occur in the natural world by definition. They are events outside the normal chain of cause and effect.

Yet who made these definitions and presumptions about the natural world. They are presuppositions that in themselves are subject to scrutiny.

If I can call the reasoning of the Enlightenment a kind of "macro-reason," reason as it takes place on a large scale in consequence of certain presuppositions, I would call the reason I am proposing to use in this book "micro-reason." This is the reason that we all assume in our daily lives and normal way of going about things. This is a reason that works so well that despite its ultimate "truth," it works to say they are true.

These are things like the relationships between causes and effects. These are the existence of space and time. Something is itself, and is not literally something that is literally different from itself. We could hardly make it through an hour of living without acting on this assumptions.

I suggest the following model, whose application to life is so intuitive, so basic that we cannot maintain sanity without its acceptance.

Almost everything that we believe about the world and about truth consists of some combination of faith and evidence. Rene Descartes suggested that the only thing a person could not doubt was his or her own existence: "I think therefore I am." I think he was slightly wrong even here, for I could be a computer program. He would better have said, "I think, therefore something I am calling thought exists." Something exists--this is the only thing I think is a matter of perfect, 100% evidence.

All other beliefs are a matter of the combination of evidence plus faith. A completely irrational faith would be a belief for which there was no evidence at all. The only claim of this sort I can imagine would be the claim that nothing exists at all, the opposite of the only claim with perfect evidence. For all other claims there is some evidence, with the difference between that evidence and the belief being a matter of faith. Faith as I am defining it here is thus that component of belief that is not supported by the evidence but which is inferred by the believer.

Various beliefs we hold thus stand in varied combinations of faith and evidence. One belief I have is that the earth is round and that the moon circles the earth at some distance from it. All these things I believe circle around the sun in the course of an earth year.

On what combination of faith and evidence does this belief lie? I have never been to the moon. But I have been in a plane where all my senses told me I was far above the earth. I have been to Europe many times and the sun has behaved exactly as I was told in school. Indeed, I have never encountered any data that has seemed to contradict these beliefs I have.

Further, there are people I have seen on television who claim to have visited the moon or at least to have orbited the earth. I have mourned two space shuttle disasters and seen people on television who seemed to experience these events and mourn them even more deeply than I.

I have never known any person who seemed "to know things" who doubted these claims. In short, it seems that I have really good reason to believe that these things are exactly as I was taught. I would with good confidence consider someone unreliable in their thinking if they seriously doubted such things.

And yet it is of course possible that all these things are a hoax. Perhaps the earth is flat and all the space shots are elaborate hoaxes with actors. But I would say my belief in these things is more based on evidence than faith. For me to deny these things would be to move toward insanity.

Other beliefs perhaps consist more of faith than evidence. As a Christian I believe that the Spirit of God in the world is the same God as Jesus, but yet a different person from Jesus. I believe this idea by faith. But it does not make sense to me rationally. Indeed, I do not really understand what I mean when I make this statement, not really. It would be much easier for me to believe that what Christians call the Holy Spirit is really just the same God as God is manifested in this universe, not a different person in a Trinity.

For this claim, I would say that my faith far supercedes the evidence in this belief. After all, some would debate whether the evidence even predominates over faith in the belief that God exists at all. Whether that claim is the case or not, certainly this specifically orthodox Christian belief is far more a matter of faith than evidence.

We mentioned earlier in this chapter that the three classic tests for truth--pragmatic, correspondence, and coherence--still "work" in a postmodern age, especially if we make some postmodern adjustments. I propose that these basic rules of logical thinking are indeed so fundamental to human living that we deny them at the risk of our own sanity. I propose to use them in this book as we examine the thoughts and practices of various religions.

The pragmatic test is the test of whether beliefs "work." Clearly the idea of God works for more people on earth than those for whom it doesn't. If it didn't work for them, the majority of humans would surely stop believing in God. From a technical postmodern standpoint, this is the only real criterion of truth ultimately.

The correspondence test is the question of whether a belief corresponds to what we experience in the world. Does the belief that God is good correspond to what we see in the world, where "good people" (as each religion defines them) suffer? This so called "problem of evil" has always been at issue in Christianity, and its force became critical to Jews after the Holocaust. We probably will acknowledge that a good deal of faith is required when it comes to accessing the views of all three monothestic religions on this particular subject.

The coherence test is the question of whether a belief is coherent, whether it has internal contradiction. We are suggesting in this book that the postmodern context reveals that any belief--except for the denial of existence itself--can be made coherent by adjustments in the relationship between faith and evidence. If we suppose enough by faith, then we can make any amount of evidence, no matter how little, coherent with our beliefs.

The key distinction I am making from previous discussions of faith and rationality--what makes this book aftermodern--is that I am not pitting faith against reason, but faith against evidence. Microreason is involved in all sane thought, in all thought that is functional in the world.

Yet from a postmodern perspective we must make logical room for things that are "insane" to us currently. All systems of thought, all individual paradigms and larger worldviews, involve some degree of incoherence from the standpoint of evidence and perhaps even micro-reason. Even micro-reason, while it works on a universal scale so far as we can tell, is ultimately a matter of faith, even though it works and thus passes for a pragmatic epistemology.<11>

However, as we have also suggested, there is also a Bultmann point for anyone who is sane. There is surely a point for all of us where the evidence could speak so strongly against a belief that we could not affirm it and remain sane. And while all systems of thought must allow for some degree of insanity, there is surely a point at which the insanity so dominates that a system of thought no longer can work for a person.

In the following pages, I propose to examine the various claims of the major religions of the world to measure the various relationships between faith and evidence in them. Chapter two broadly considers the coherence of fundamentalisms of all religions. The main focus is on the idea of grounding one's beliefs in a scriptural text.

Chapters three through five will then survey respectively Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their various varieties. Chapter six then looks at other forms of religion in the world today, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and secular humanism. The final chapter then asks where we are and where we might go as a planet in relation to religion.

<11>It is insane to exercise faith toward that which contradicts micro-reason when we are dealing with deductive matters where all the data is included and self-contained. We can only maintain coherence in such cases by exerting faith that the very axioms of all thought are in fact mistaken. With inductive matters we can maintain coherence by asserting that we do not in fact have all the data before us and that the faith conclusion is a matter of that unobserved data.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The (Non) Essence of Post Modernism

As you might expect, my passion for grinding out a book without guarantee and that I probably couldn't finish in time anyway has quickly burnt out. But I'll leave you with the gist of what I envisaged the rest of the first chapter to look like.

The (Non) Essence of Post Modernism
There is a good deal of confusion, I would say, about what post-modernism is. The main reason is that it really isn't something, rather than is something. Post modernism simply means after modernism. Properly understood, it is not a new thing. It is a reaction to an old thing: modernism. For this reason, you can only really define postmodernism properly by first defining modernism and then deconstructing your definition. [I'm having fun now--I would write more clearly if I ever really intended on publishing this].

So what is modernism? Modernism is characterized by the quest for objectivity in the pursuit of knowledge. Spock is the quintissential paradigm of a modernist, for he is completely objective in his thinking--emotions do not cloud his judgment.<7> Science is the god of modernism, for the typical modernist thinks of science as completely objective, the leaders and trailblazers in the quest of truth. Modernist truth seekers are aware of their biases, and they rid themselves of them.

So what would a pre-modern thinker be? A pre-modern thinker is someone who is unaware of the influences, prejudices, and biases that affect the way they think and view of the world. Such individuals assume that the way they see the world is the way the world really is without even realizing or taking seriously other possibilities.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of a Persian king who asked two groups of people what they did with their dead. When the Greeks said they burned the bodies of their dead, another group called the Callatians were horrified. So then the Callatians were asked what they did with their dead. "Why we eat them of course." Herodotus concludes that "Custom is king over all." This is a standard relativist position taken by Herodotus: every group assumes without argument that their way of doing things is the right way.

But modernism is not relativist when it comes to truth. A modernist might assume that matters of art or religion or ethics are relative--no religious idea is any more or less correct than any other. But science is not relativistic for the typical modernist. Science is about absolute truth.

Now enter the period "post" modernism. In various ways and to various degrees, "post" modernism is about the death of objectivity, the recognition that no one is, in the end, completely objective, not even Spock. For some, postmodernism is the death of truth all together. But ironically, such individuals still have written books and taken positions on various issues. Nevertheless, individuals like Jacques Derrida and Paul deMan have done us a service by showing us just how unstable the meaning of words can be. In an analogous way, Michael Foucault has shown us the degree to which power is involved in our understanding of what is true. And Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have shown that science itself is subject to social trends and has a significantly random dimension to it.

These individuals have given modernism its share of shock therapy. After the smoke has cleared, we still find that people try to communicate with each other with reasonable success. People still step out of the way of moving traffic (at least the sane ones do). And I just got a new cell phone that does things cell phones didn't do two years ago. Richard Rorty has penned the phrase "pragmatic realism." After we have got the point of the radical postmodern thinkers, reality still works.

As we begin to think about the role that reason and thinking might play in religion, I suggest the following perspective on the matter of truth. As we will see in the final section of this chapter [or actually, won't see, since I don't plan to write it now], various religious perspectives differ on whether in fact religious belief involves anything but irrational faith. Nevertheless, I hope the following perspective is so intuitive to you that you will find nothing objectionable regardless on your perspective toward faith and reason. My sense is that some ideas make so much sense to the way we live in the world that we can hardly object to them without negating our very existence, the fundamental ways in which we operate in the world.

First, it seems beyond debate that the situation of our birth and upbringing has a significant effect on how we view the world. Can we really deny that it is much more likely for a person born in Iran to be a Muslim than a follower of the gods of the ancient Druids? Is it more likely that a person born in the American Bible belt will be a Christian or a worshipper of the ancient Babylonian god Marduk? It seems to me that a person would be insane to deny that a person's religious and other beliefs are seriously affected by their situation in life and the possibilities of his or her environment.

Second, it seems beyond question that to be objective, a person needs to know all the "facts." Otherwise you cannot be certain that you are putting the data together correctly. But it is even more certain that no human being alive today knows all the "facts" of reality. In many of the religions of today, the only person who knows all the facts is God, variously conceived. The implication is that because only God is all knowing, only God is truly objective. We will talk about how the Scriptures of various religions might relate to the knowledge of God in the next chapters [except that we won't, because I don't plan to write them].

Therefore, to varying degrees, my perspective on the world is a function of my situation and the "facts" I know. It is helpful at this point to draw a distinction between "facts" and the glue by which I connect those facts together. Most people today would again be very comfortable with saying that they experience things in the world that are real. Sure enough, most of us also believe in hallucinations. A person sees a mirage in the desert. Someone else takes acid and sees elephants.

But I am very comfortable with the idea that there is a computer in front of me and that I slept in a bed last night and that a dump truck rear ended my van about a month ago. These are things I am calling facts or the data of the world. Sure, it is possible that I am really a computer program from the 23rd century and I only think I am a real person. But nobody really lives that way if they are at all close to normal. Even schizophrenics believe the outside world is real (with a lot of other things added in). Reality works.

Yet the glue that joins these facts together in our heads are interpretations. I do not experience the law of cause and effect. I only see my son fall down after his shoe runs into the crack on the sidewalk. The facts are the hitting of the shoe and the falling down. The glue of cause-effect is a matter of my brain.<8>

This distinction between facts and interpretation is very significant. It is the difference between the account of an eyewitness and what we call circumstantial evidence. If I find a cookie smear on my youngest daughter's face and a crumb trail from the cookie jar, I might conclude that she had just had a cookie. But this is an interpretation of the facts. It is possible that someone framed her by smearing the cookie on her face and planting the crumb trail.

Therefore, because no human today knows all the facts, because interpretation is involved in almost every significant act of knowing, we can reformulate the pre-modern, modern, post-modern paradigm into something more useful as we begin to look at the rationality of religious beliefs.

First, all humans are at the same time a mixture of pre-modern and modern in their beliefs. That is to say, we are always at the same time to varying degrees both aware and unaware of certain facts, and we are always at the same time to varying degrees both conscious of the influences at work in our interpretations and yet also unaware of other possibilities. This observation to a large degree reveals that terms like "pre" and "post" modern are not very precise. It would be better to speak of degrees of reflectivity and unreflectivity in conjunction with varying combinations of faith and evidence in our views and understandings.

Second, it is entirely reasonable to believe that "truth" exists, especially if we think of it in pragmatic terms. Certain understandings of the world "work" better than others. I am free to believe that I can fly. But this belief probably won't work very well, especially if I jump off a tall building. The language and paradigms by which I describe reality will always have a strong element of contingency and subjectivity. This language is a construct of human ways of thinking and speaking. But we can still very plausibly believe that the reality we describe in various ways is real and that our varying descriptions of it "work"--albeit some more effectively than others.

Some have called this perspective "critical realism." It is a belief in reality and of truth while also acknowledging that the way we describe that reality will always have a high degree of subjectivity to it. The way I describe a tree will depend on where I am standing in relation to it, just as someone describing it from another vantage point will reflect their situation. But in theory we are both describing the same tree, and the tree is real.<9> Of course in practice we are partially blind people describing a forest, which makes things a little less certain than a single tree.

Therefore, I suggest that the most basic criteria of truth continue to be useful even after modernism has been dethroned. These are the coherence test for truth, the correspondence test, and the pragmatic test. The pragmatic test is of course the one that is most appropriate to a postmodern world: does a certain belief work. From a pragmatic perspective, we can say that all the gods that people believe in are "real" in the sense that the belief in them does things. The idea that large trucks hurt when they hit you "works," even if I am really in computer matrix or program.

The correspondence test involves more faith, for it presumes that there is a world outside of myself and that my apprehension of the world through experience is real. While these things are ultimately unprovable, they make sense and "work." Most sane people operate on these assumptions every moment of their lives. It thus works to ask questions like whether a person named Jesus actually existed or is simply a legendary figure. Despite Wittgenstein, I would say it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether a God exists independently of this universe, our minds, and language games.

Finally, the coherence test works in the sense that we all understand the idea of contradiction. We all understand that if I am literally here, I cannot be literally across the room. Further, religion can create coherence when its claims are apparently incoherent by recourse to faith. In the final section of this chapter I will set up a "postmodern" model of coherence. Since every belief apart from belief in existence itself involves some degree of faith, any belief system can be considered coherent by recourse to that part of its belief that lies outside the evidence.

If I were to finish this chapter, I would write on the relationship between faith and reason, citing the various approaches that various thinkers in the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have taken (e.g., Tertullian, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Mishnah, Maimonides, Koran, radical orthodoxy, etc...). My operating model, however, is one that sees belief as varying combinations of faith and evidence. I follow a modified Descartes in claiming that existence itself is the only belief that involves no faith.

It is thus always possible to be coherent in one's belief by recourse to some sort of faith in the face of whatever evidence. However, not all acts of faith are as believable or practically possible as others. Bultmann is ultimately right that most modern individuals could not look at many aspects of the world in the same way as their religious forebears even if they wanted to.

The rest of the book aims to analyze the varying combinations of faith and evidence necessary to believe various claims made by the three great religions. Chapter two would analyze Judaism, starting with a discussion of fundamentalisms of all types and the dynamics of Scripture centered religions in general. Judaism itself is of course a religion of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.

Chapter three would then discuss Christianity in its many forms and then chapter four chapter Islam in its many forms. The final chapter would then aim at bringing together the findings of the book as a whole, suggesting the overall relationship between various forms of religion and rationality.

But I don't think I'll ever write any of this...

<7> I want to thank the late Stanley Grenz for this wonderful illustration, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 5. On a personal note, it frustrates me deeply to realize that I have read this entire book and don't remember doing it. I see that I have underlined things to the very end of the book, yet I have no recollection of what it says or even of reading it.

<8> Students of philosophy will recognize my train of thought as a presentation of Immanuel Kant's epistemology.

<9> With these descriptions of the process of knowing, I am not saying that religions all describe the same reality from different vantage points, although this is one position a person might take on some aspects of religion.
three criteria of truth