Monday, October 31, 2005

Why it begins, but doesn't end, with the Bible

In my wishful summary of the Wesleyan Church, one of the characteristics I mentioned was "catholic in spirit, but all discussions begin with the Bible." The inference was that while they begin with the Bible, they can't end with the Bible.

At first hearing, this statement sounds wrong, even heretical. But it is not a matter of should, it's a matter of "can only be this way."

The only way that a discussion could end with the Bible was if we were only talking of one statement in the Bible. For example, Leviticus 19;19 says not to wear cloth of mixed thread. It is conceivable that you might begin and end the discussion of cloth-wearing right there.

But when we are talking about the Bible as a whole--and that's the way people refer to the Bible in these contexts, "What does the Bible say...?"--it is impossible for the discussion to end with a single verse unless that single verse is the only statement on that topic. In this case, I think Leviticus 19:19 may very well be the only verse on wearing mixed threads. Yet do we really think God forbids us from wearing polyester? There must be something beyond Leviticus.

In the end, there are two reasons why reading the Bible in context demands that discussions do not end with the Bible:

1. Because the task of fitting together teaching in the Bible is something we do from the outside looking in. The Bible itself does not tell us how to fit James and Romans together. We must therefore settle the question of justification by faith or works beyond the pages of the Bible as we look on both of these books.

2. Because the task of relating what God said to various ancient contexts to what God would say to our context is something we do from the outside looking in. The Bible itself does not tell us what a "holy kiss" might look like in our world or for that matter whether "living good lives among the pagans" today would involve wives calling their husbands masters (1 Pet. 3).

Of course most Christians mistake the joining together and time bridging activities they do--sometimes as individual thinkers, sometimes as a part of a particular Christian tradition--for the Bible itself. They dub something the "biblical view" when it is in fact a product of their own paradigms. In either case, whether a person is conscious of it or not, the discussion rarely if ever really ends with the Bible.

But all discussions should begin with the Bible, for it is a sacrament of revelation and the "deposit" of the foundation of the apostles and prophets. It gets the greatest weight in the great discussion, even if the final touches were and are being put on in the church of the ages. We are simply suggesting something akin to what has been called Wesley's quadrilateral, which takes tradition, experience, and reason into the equation.

This is a call for greater maturity for modern evangelicalism. Rightly recognizing developments in the medieval Roman Catholic Church that had little to do with the foundations, the reformers rightly championed a movement "back to scripture." But in the end, the idea of sola scriptura ultimately threatens orthodoxy by denying authentic developments in the church of the ages. It is a recipe for cults and 10,000's of Protestant denominations as each group sews Scripture together and proclaims their own Frankenstein the meaning of the text alone.

I cannot predict what will happen to evangelicalism in the future--religious belief is persistent and generally ignores truth when it is paradigmatically inconvenient. On the other hand, I see strong signs that many evangelical thinkers are becoming more honest in their exegesis. And as they are, they recognize that we will need a bit of the church beyond the Bible to remain orthodox. This is the "catholic in spirit, while all discussions begin with the Bible" that I mentioned in that previous post.

At least that's the way I see it...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Fireside Romans Chats: Romans 2

I did a little analysis on Romans 1:18-32 in conjunction with my exploration of homosexuality and the Bible, so I will skip it here and move to Romans 2 (these fireside chats are all making their way slowly to my other website,

Romans 2 presents two big questions to me:

I. What does Paul mean when he says that "The hearers of Law are not justified before God but the doers of Law will be justified. For whenever Gentiles who do not have Law do by nature the things of the Law, these although they do not have Law are Law for themselves, who demonstrate the work of the Law written on their hearts, and their conscience gives the same witness and either condemns or defends between their own reasonings on the day when God judges the hidden things of mortals according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

This is a puzzling statement, for Paul seems to imply that a Gentile might be found right on the Day of Judgment because they keep the Law adequately "by nature." On the one hand, it is clear enough that Paul is telling a person who might be self-righteous because they know the Jewish Law that they have no more leg to stand on than a Gentile who is good by nature. But does Paul really mean to say that a person might be justified because they keep the Law by nature? Isn't this the same Paul who will conclude both Jew and Gentile under sin in 3:9? Isn't this the same Paul who concludes both Jew and Gentile under a curse in Galatians 3:10-11?

We can find at least four answers to this question out there:

1. Paul is talking about a Gentile Christian, not a Gentile in general.
This is an attractive solution but not one that really fits Paul's comments. Paul is talking about a person who would do "by nature" the things of the Law without knowing the Law. In Romans 8 Paul will talk about a person doing the things of the Law by the Spirit but not by nature.

2. When Paul says all have sinned, he doesn't mean all individuals but all races: both Jew and Gentile.
This is the Krister Stendahl argument. Stendahl believes that Paul thought some Jews and Gentiles did keep the Law adequatedly enough in the face of God's grace to be justified.

Certainly this is the view that fits best with Judaism at the time. Indeed, I have expressed elsewhere here that Paul's view that all have sinned and are sunk is peculiar in Judaism, leading some scholars to suggest he either misunderstood Judaism or deliberately misrepresented it. The Jews believed that all had sinned and that it was only by the grace of God that justification was possible, but God's grace had made provisions for sin in repentance, the sacrificial system, acts of righteousness, etc... And for Jews, it was not a matter of "getting in" or earning salvation of some sort (when there was a belief that something was coming from which to be saved--not all Jews expected a soon coming cataclysm). For Jews being the people of God was a matter of staying in, not getting in (E. P. Sanders' famous description).

In that sense, Paul's discussion of righteousness in Romans 2 is closer to mainstream Jewish understandings in some ways than Romans 3 is. I like to call the standard of justification in Romans 2 "Jewish Standard Righteousness," and it was something a person might theoretically attain.

But in Romans 3, the measure is "Absolute Standard Righteousness," a measure by which no human could possibly stand before God. It is by this standard that Paul says "by works of law no flesh will be justified before God" (3:20). So taken straightforwardly, the comments in 3:20 and 2:14-16 seem to contradict each other.

3. And so some scholars believe that Paul does in fact contradict himself.
Some would say that in Romans 2 Paul is talking like a normal Jew, but in Romans 3 he has upped the standard so he can argue that justification only comes through Christ. Sanders argues that Paul basically knew that Christ was the only way, and so finds a way to argue why Christ is the only way. But Sanders doesn't think Paul's arguments proved convincing.

4. In Romans 2, Paul is building an argument that is not finished until we get to chapter 3.
By far the most plausible interpretation to me is that in Romans 2 Paul is simply not finished with the argument. In Romans 2 he is talking street level, on terms everyone agrees. He is exposing a basic hypocrisy among Judaizers, those who insist Gentiles keep the Law in order to be justified. Paul's argument is that there are plenty of Gentiles who are as righteous as any Jew.

But in Romans 3 we will find that God has introduced into the equation a factor much more important than law-keeping. The argument is not complete until we get there.

II. A second and more minor question is who the individual is of whom Paul says, "If you call yourself a Jew..." (2:17)? Is this an ethnic Jew or a "conservative" Gentile?

The most obvious answer to us is that it refers to a person who is an ethnic Jew. I think that 2:25 does indicate that even if such a person started out as a Gentile, he has now been circumcised. But there are questions like this one in various Roman writings that lead us to believe that this phrase could be used of Gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism (e.g., Epictetus), and we know from Dio Cassius the historian that some wealthy Romans dabbled in Judaism. If Paul is picturing a Gentile proselyte to Judaism as he says these things, perhaps the enigmatic, "robbing of temples" will prove to make more sense.

Friday, October 28, 2005

What I want Wesleyans to Emerge As...

You can't really boil a church like mine, the Wesleyan Church, into a simple list of characteristics. There's far too much variety. So when I put down three characteristics I hope will be true of the Wesleyan Church of the future, I am neither giving you anything like a full picture of what we currently are or of what we will certainly be. I am pointing out some elements that are in the mix of our background that I think are key strengths and that, if I could create a self-fulfilling prophecy, is what we will look like in the days to come.

The three things I love about the Wesleyan Church:

1. We are pietist, not fundamentalist.

We are not really a church that feels like it has to resolve all the tensions in our faith or nail down all the details of the "right" way to do things. We follow the Spirit in the Bible far more than the letter in our interpretations. We don't argue over baptism, communion, or inerrancy, and we take as our watchword and song the words of John Wesley, "If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mine." Bottom line: Faith first, truth second. Don't get the wrong impression--we do believe in truth and we are interested in it. But it's more important to us that you have your heart straightened out than your head.

There's room for mystery in the Wesleyan world because, let's face it, God's really bigger than anything our feeble minds could capture or fully nail down.

Quote to hang it on: "If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand."

2. We are catholic in spirit, even though we start every discussion with the Bible
We didn't come into the world through a pure Protestant lineage. At the beginning, most Anglicans did not consider themselves part of the Protestant movement, and the Methodists from whom we emerged, emerged themselves from the Anglicans. And who wants to be defined by being a "protester" anyway? The protest is over already.

It's true that we are not Roman Catholic. We don't feel bound to later developments in the Roman church like the celebacy of clergy, purgatory, the infallibility of the pope, or abstinence from birth control. But we don't hate or fear Roman Catholics either. Every tradition has its blind spots, and the Roman Catholic tradition is no exception. But if we take into account the sheer numbers of Roman Catholics, surely there are way more "born again" Roman Catholics with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ than there are people who attend a Wesleyan Church somewhere.

I would like us to say we're more truly catholic than the Roman Catholics! We're radical catholics! For example, on baptism, most Wesleyan Churches baptize like the Baptists. But we're catholic, "universal" enough to allow for every other way of baptizing except one that would say you are automatically saved with baptism or automatically not saved if you're not baptized.

And we say, "The body of Christ" in communion and let you decide whether you believe it's just a remembrance or actually becoming the literal body of Jesus in some mysterious way. The only views we don't allow are those that would say you are automatically saved by taking communion or automatically not saved if you don't take it.

I suppose you might call such a catholic spirit a "generous orthodoxy" that emphasizes the core of the apostle's creed and is very flexible on most of the things that divide the body of Christ into denominations.

We also affirm a lot of things that aren't clear in the original meaning of the Bible. For example, the existence of a New Testament as a collection of authoritative texts came hundreds of years after the books were actually written--and we accept the New Testament. We believe in the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ even though these positions weren't fully hammered out and agreed on until the fourth and fifth centuries. We believe you are conscious between death and resurrection and that Christ's death was the end of all animal sacrifice--we believe these things even though these views are only expressed in a small part of the New Testament. They were solidified in the church that followed. And we affirm most those parts of the Bible that looked to the day when there would be neither male nor female. And that's where the church is headed too, even though some parts are stubbornly resisting :) But I know where God is taking it...

After we have noticed these things, all such discussions begin for Wesleyans with the Bible. They do not end there because the message of the books must be joined together (something we have to do from the outside looking in) and the gap must be bridged between that time and our time (something we have to do from the outside looking in). Wesley's hermeneutic was a kind of "quadrilateral" that took into account tradition, reason, and experience after starting from the Bible. But we are a people of the Book and we cherish it as a sacrament of revelation, the place God has deigned to speak, God's Word.

Quote to hang it on (the Pilgrim Holiness motto): "In essentials unity, in non-essentials charity."

3. We are Wesley-an.
Wesleyans do not worship John Wesley by any means, and we don't we limit ourselves to the boundaries of his way of thinking. But at the same time, we recognize that God said a lot of true things through this man. There are things Wesley understood that the church could sure benefit from. Here's a couple important ones:

1. prevenient grace: God's interested in you before you even know He's there. He's working on your behalf even when you couldn't care less.

2. victory over temptation: Wesley rightly understood the biblical texts to affirm victory over sin and temptation. Like the New Testament, we recognize that it is possible to "fall away," "become a cast away," etc. The New Testament affirms the importance of faithfulness to God and His holiness.

3. God wants everyone to be saved and gives everyone a chance. By God's power, everyone could in theory come to Christ. Not all will, but in some way God gives everyone a chance.

4. Holistic mission. God calls the church to work for the salvation of the world on every level. This commision includes not only the spiritual salvation of all but ministry to the poor and disempowered of the world.

Quote to hang it on: "To spread scriptural holiness throughout the land."

So this is the Wesleyan Church I belong to:

1. Pietist, not fundamentalist
2. Catholic in spirit, starting with the Bible
3. Wesley-an

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Non-Afterlife in Intertestament: Tobit and 1 Esdras

It is my sense that either Tobit or 1 Esdras was the first book of the Apocrypha to be written (1 Esdras is actually not considered Scripture by the Roman Catholics, although it is by the Orthodox tradition).

1 Esdras
The circumstances behind the creation of 1 Esdras are unknown, although I find attractive the idea that it may have been some form of early, abbreviated translation into Greek of the end of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. For those of you who aren't acquainted with this book, it is basically a Reader's Digest version of Ezra and Nehemiah that has survived because of an extra story about Zerubbabel in Persia, a contest among body guards about what the greatest thing is. By and large it is a straight translation (with a little rearrangement) of the end of 2 Chronicles, the bulk of Ezra, and a brief extract from Nehemiah.

So this dates 1 Esdras at the earliest to the second century BC or perhaps even later when the Writings portion of the Jewish Scriptures were being translated into Greek. Like Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, 1 Esdras has no mention of the afterlife. The addition of the story of the three bodyguards does not include any such mention.

Tobit was written in either Hebrew or Aramaic (Aramaic fragments dating to about 100BC have been discovered at Qumran). It gives us no indication of the Maccabean crisis, so was probably written before 167 BC. I believe it the earliest book of the Apocrypha and would date it to the third century BC (200's).

While Tobit places an emphasis on the importance of burying the dead (cf. Antigone), it is doubtful that it envisages any substantial life after death. It rather seems somewhat "Greek" in its conceptions.

Thus Tobit 5:10 (does not survive in the five Qumran fragments, so the following is from the Greek of Sinaiticus, the longer version of Tobit generally thought to be more original. The manuscripts Vaticanus and Alexandrinus to not have the majority of this verse). This is Tobit speaking to the angel Raphael, although he doesn't know it's Raphael.

"I lie in the darkness as the dead who no longer behold the light."

Although Tobit is not entirely consistent, the book has a roughly "deuteronomistic" conception of justice: "Those who practice truth will be prospered in their works" (4:6: Aleph, B and A are similar)... "almsgiving saves from death and by it one does not enter into the darkness" (4:10: B and A, Aleph has a lacuna here).

Another relevant comment is made in 3:6, where one Hebrew fragment of Qumran preserves the word aleph-pe-resh, "dust." The Greek reads, "command my breath [pneuma] from me so that I may be released from the face of the earth and I might become earth... release me into the eternal place" (Aleph, B and A agree). Overtones of Job in this passage. Eternal place here probably does not mean heaven, for Tobit knows nothing of it. It seems a metaphor for the end of conscious existence.

There is nothing in the above passages to lead us to believe that Tobit believes in a personal, conscious afterlife. The emphasis of Tobit on the burial of the dead could suggest some mindless lack of peace in the underworld if one is not buried, but this idea is nowhere articulated. It is equally possible that it is a matter of shame--how shameful to allow a person's dead body to lie unburied and what a shame to you for your parents or kin to lie unburied. By constrast, how honorable to bury the dead. When the honor shame dimension is taken into account, the burial of the dead element does not clearly point to any real conception of the afterlife.

The biggest candidate for a reference to the afterlife appears in 13:2 (Greek texts mostly agree):

"Blessed be the living God forever and His kingdom, for he afflicts and shows mercy. He takes down to Hades below the earth and He himself leads up from the great destruction."

This passage actually appears in one Qumran fragment (4Q200) in which the reference is to Sheol and mention is made in the next verse to the "deep" (tehom). In my opinion, however, this passage is like I see Isaiah 26. The idea of coming back from the dead is a metaphor for the return of Israel from the "dead" as a nation. It is a resurrection of the nation rather than of individuals. In my opinion, imagery of this sort may very well have served as the seeds of later, personal understandings of resurrection. In any case, the verses right before and after point toward this interpretation. It is only because we have resurrection so firmly ingrained in our worldview that we would think this verse is about personal resurrection. The image of return from the dead here seems once again reflective of Greek myths such as those relating to Orpheus or Hercules. I would therefore date Tobit to the Hellenistic era.

Thus, if these interpretations are correct, then neither Tobit nor 1 Esdras reflect any belief in the afterlife. Tobit seems not to hold to a personal, conscious afterlife, while 1 Esdras simply makes no comment on the subject.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Non-Afterlife Odds and Ends

My intention is for this entry to serve as a running list of psalm references that may seem relevant or come close to being relevant to the discussion, but that do not contribute much or do not contribute anything to our understanding of the afterlife in the psalms.

Psalms 7:5
Hebrew (7:6): "... let the enemy pursue my life [nephesh] and overtake [it]. And let him trample my life [chay] to the ground and let him cause my glory to lie in the dust."

LXX (7:6): "then may the enemy pursue my life [psyche] and overtake [it] [Greek lovers, two juicy optatives of wish here] and may he trample my life [zoe] into the ground and let him lodge my glory into the dust."

Not really relevant, except that it has overtones of "dust to dust" (cf. Eccl. 3:20). No sense of afterlife is herein indicated, but none is clearly denied either.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Afterlife: Psalm 6

Psalm 6:4-5:

Hebrew (5-6): "Turn, LORD; deliver my life [nephesh]. Help me because of your faithfulness [chesed]. For in death there is no remembrance of you, in Sheol who will praise you?" [the last phrase is really neat--who will "throw" to you, an idiom for giving God thanks and praise]

LXX (5-6): "Turn, Lord, rescue my life [psyche]. Save me because of your mercy. For in death there is no one who remembers you, and in Hades who will confess you?"

It seems impossible to know the original context, date, and other particulars of this psalm. Many commentators think of it as a "psalm of sickness" (although it is one of seven penitential psalms of Christian liturgy). Yet to me the psalm seems more about fear because of enemies than sickness.

While some argue for a dependence of the psalm on Jeremiah, others argue that the turns of phrase are traditional enough formulations that no literary dependence can be proved. The author of the psalm clearly connects his (likely a he) sickness with God's anger.

By the way, I do not personally believe we have enough evidence to know whether David himself authored a psalm such as this one. The titles came later than the composition of the psalms themselves, and the expression they use ("mizmor ledavid") is itself a bit odd. I'm sure it can be translated something like "a psalm [attributed] to David." But it does not seem to me the most natural way to say a psalm of David.

In the end, it does not seem that we can date this psalm with any certainty to before or after the exile or or link it to the temple or determine any of these things we would like to know. Its presence in Book 1 of the Psalms may indicate an earlier rather than later date and in principle I am not opposed to it coming from David's mouth.

The most straightforward way to take this verse is that the psalmist does not believe that the dead are conscious of their shadowy existence. The dead do not "remember" God, and they do not "throw praise" His way. So the author asks God to rescue him from death, and affirms in faith that he will (6:9).

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Afterlife Snippets: Introduction

I'll try to post a more interesting entry by Monday, but you may find me doing some sketches on the afterlife here for a little while. I have a proposal for a book in relation to my Fulbright research that I have floated with a couple publishers. Both felt I would find a publisher for it, but claimed their dockets were full. Perhaps they were being straight with me.

But I feel a weakness of the proposal as it stands is the fact that the sample chapter is merely the introduction rather than one of the more substantive chapters. I find myself unhappy with the material I wrote in Germany (I actually spent half my time there finishing the Philo book, frankly). So I need to carve out a little time to write a more substantive chapter that I'm happy with before I send the proposal to another publisher--at least that's how I feel. And this blog is the place where I find it easiest for me to write small pieces that quickly add up.

The sample chapter I have chosen is tentatively titled, "From the Psalms to the Sadducees," and its unifying feature is a tradition in Second Temple Judaism that does not envisage any personal, conscious afterlife. My goal for these snippets is to write or proto-write (since I am at home and can't footnote very well) portions of this chapter that in a month or two I can combine to become the sample chapter. Routledge is currently my next publisher target.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Fireside Romans Chats: Romans 1:16-17

More on Romans:

To me these are the key verses of Romans that are particularized at least in the first 11 chapters.

"For I am not ashamed"--honor/shame language we often pass over but that meant something in the first century. Hays thinks Paul may be echoing some OT passage like Isaiah 50:7-8 where the prophet says "I know that I shall not be ashamed because the one who justifies me is near" (Echoes)

"of the gospel"--the good news, as Wright points out, is the good news about what God has been doing for Israel and the world through Christ (What Saint Paul Really Said).

"for it is the power of God to salvation"--Salvation for Paul primarily refers to something that will happen most literally on the Day of Judgment when we escape God's wrath revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of humanity (cf. Rom. 5:9)

"to everyone who has faith, the Jew first and also to the Greek"--We remember that the verb to believe, (pisteuo), is simply the verb form of "faith," (pistis). The Jew first and also to the Greek reminds us that Romans is all about Paul's defense of God justifying the Gentiles by faith. His basic argument is, that's how Jews are justified too.

Therefore, Romans 9-11, which talk about the ultimate salvation of the Jews vis-a-vis the Gentiles, are not a diversion but the very climax of the first part of the letter and the playing out of this principle.

"For in it the righteousness of God is revealed"--the overwhelming majority of Romans scholars now see the righteousness of God in reference to God's righteousness in this phrase, although some connect it more to God's covenant faithfulness to Israel (Wright, Hays) and others to God's universal action to justify the world (Kaesemann, dead now about seven years or so). I've mentioned at least one Psalm Hays thinks Paul may have in mind. The second half of Isaiah is also replete with parallels between God's righteousness and His salvation (e.g., 42:6-7; 46:13; 51:6; 56:1; 59:16; etc...).

This doesn't mean that righteousness for humans isn't a part of Paul's thought or even less does it mean that righteousness for humans isn't a part of the Christian theological equation. Here we are merely asking what Paul is likely to have meant by this phrase, and here the case seems fairly well stacked toward God's righteousness.

"out of faith into faith"--difficult phrase. There seem to be two main interpretations: 1) that it is intensive a la NIV: "by faith from first to last"; 2) that there is some sort of progression here, from x's faith leading to y's faith. The majority position here is "starting from God's faithfulness and leading to our response in faith" (Dunn, Hays, etc...). Here we reference the first part of Romans 3 and the faithfulness of God mentioned there (e.g., 3:3), along with the sense that the righteousness of God is related to His faithfulness.

Some, however, (e.g., Douglas Campbell) would argue that it is "from Christ's faithfulness to our faith response." Possible, but I'll leave it at that.

"As it is written, 'The one who is righteous on the basis of faith will live.'"--Habakkuk 2:4. Hays thinks Paul may have understood this as a prophecy about the Messiah: "The Righteous One will be resurrected on the basis of His faithfulness." It just doesn't seem to me that we have enough evidence to conclude this idea with any certainty at all, although it is possible. I personally take the "on the basis of faith" passages more with Dunn in Romans and Galatians as references to the basis by which humans are justified before God.

An Interesting Distinction

I had one of those "aha" moments while reading a response from my Asbury Romans class. I know that at some point during my education I started reading the words of the Bible differently, trying to read them in context, but I can't fully remember how I read them before. Sometimes I find words to express the difference.

A couple of conversations with students both at IWU and at Asbury have clarified yet another way to conceptualize the difference between:

pre-modern vs. modern
as Scripture vs. as contextual texts
with universal application vs. with local application

Here it is: my students at Asbury and some here come to the text asking "What is true?" not "What did Paul mean here?" For example, when it comes to a question like, what did Paul mean by the phrase "the righteousness of God" in Romans. 1:16, I ask, "What specific meaning or meanings did Paul understand by these words?" But my students come to the phrase asking, "what is true about the righteousness of God?" So I say something like, "Given the background of this phrase in Judaism, Paul was almost certainly thinking about God's righteousness rather than human righteousness when he used this phrase." The student says, "Both are true, maybe the text means both: God's righteousness and a righteousness from God."

I'm not sure I'm presenting the distinction very clearly. I've been working with an anonymous IWU student (you know who you are) on N. T. Wright's view of justification in Paul. The student frequently wants to approach this question as "What do Christians believe about justification?" But that's not the original meaning question and that's not how Wright is approaching Paul. The question Wright is asking is how did Paul use this word, with the question of what we should believe about justification being a slightly different one. We find many theological meanings that are fine theology, but they're not the way Paul put it. They may not contradict Paul, but they are not Paul in the same way James is not Paul.

So I find the way IWU professors and the evangelical milieu uses Scripture is in this pre-modern way. They are looking for absolute truth in the words--the "biblical" perspective on whatever issue. I am not saying that this is bad. What I'm pointing out that Paul did not originally understand himself to be writing for all times and all places. Originally, his words had specific meanings in the light of specific situations... When Christian communities use the words of the Bible as the source of their beliefs, most of the time they are working out modern theology and speaking far afield of what Paul originally had in mind.

Well, enough of that...

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Wesleyan View of Communion

Sunday night the 16th I'm supposed to give a brief summary of the Wesleyan view of communion. My first thought was, "What is the Wesleyan view of communion?" And, after all, there are all kinds of ways you could approach it: a) what is in the Wesleyan Discipline, our manual of identity, 2) what was John Wesley's view, 3) what view do the people in the Wesleyan pews have of communion, or even 4) what view do I want the Wesleyans to have (my view) and how can I manipulate the church into adopting it by presenting it as our position to people who don't know what it is :) Of course that's not my style... (until they elect me to some office--just kidding).

Wesleyan Discipline
If we have an official view, it should be found here. Here's what we find:

"We believe that the Lord's Supper is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ's death and of our hope in His victorious return, as well as a sign of the love that Christians have for each other. To such as receive it humbly, with a proper spirit and by faith, the Lord's Supper is made a means through which God communicates grace to the heart" (paragraph 242).

Here are instructions to ministers (aside from how often it is to be done [3 months] and that you can't use fermented wine :):

"It is expected that Wesleyan ministers shall carefully admonish the people that only those who are in right relations with God and with their neighbors should come to the Lord's table, and that others should come only if in so doing they are expressing repentance and seeking forgiveness" (para. 5605).

Let me mention some scattered comments in the Wesleyan liturgy (Ha--don't shudder, ye Wesleyans, for that is what it is!) that seem pertinent:

"You who are walking in fellowship with God, and are in love and harmony with your neighbors; and you who do truly and earnestly repent of your sin and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from this time in His holy ways, draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort; and meekly make your confession to Almighty God (para. 5615)."

"we commemorate the suffering of our Lord"

The above are if communion is part of a service. What follows pertains to if it is the whole service:

"giving it to his disciples as a means of remembering Him until He comes again, and as the seal of the new covenant between God and man" (sic: 5635)... more comments on contrition.

"We come today to remember once again how Christ obtained our salvation. And as we do, we ask that the Holy Spirit shall search our hearts..." [more comments on contrition]

"You who are walking in fellowship with God, and are in love and harmony with your neighbors; and you who do truly and earnestly repent of your sin and intend to live a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from this time in His holy ways, draw near to God..."

"we may become partakers of His body and blood..."

So what is the Wesleyan position on communion? I discern two main functions here:j

1. Rememberance of Christ's atoning death and

2. "means through which God communicates grace to the heart"

As far as I can tell, there's a strong element of "penance" in the Wesleyan liturgy, probably the only place in our worship that targets this part of Christian worship and life. Functionally, the Discipline gives the impression that this is the primary function of communion for us--a time to hit the reset button on your relationship with God.

This is the way I remember communion. Ironically, some people don't even come to communion because they aren't sure they're right enough with God to escape His wrath (now I'm talking more about things I heard about in college). They think of 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul's comments that some people had died from partaking of the Lord's Supper unworthily. But these mis-impressions of the Lord's Supper are dreadfully unfortunately, for the better view of the Lord's Supper is that of the second, namely, as a means of grace.

Of course not all Wesleyans experience communion this way. Coach Drury remembers thinking of it as a kind of "passion play," retelling the story of Christ's death and celebrating our atonement. That's a whole lot better! And yet, is there even more....

John Wesley
No one would be surprised that in addition to the rememberance, Wesley considers communion a means of grace. The language of the shorter service in the Discipline reflects this idea too, but I would suggest the idea is underdeveloped in actual practice. If we really believe that communion is a sacrament, then we believe it actually can do something to you. In some mysterious way--not just some banal you think about it, you repent, you commit more--but in some mysterious way, partaking of this spiritual food makes it more likely that you will come closer to God than you were before.

The Wesleyan View
So let me declare by fiat :) the Wesleyan view of communion. It seems to me it is two-fold.

1. In remembrance, we watch the passion of Jesus played out before us. We focus on its atoning significance and thus appropriately reflect on our own sin. Taking communion is thus a declaration of our desire to be in communion with God and our neighbor. We repent of our sins and hit the "reset button" on our justification.

2. It is a means of grace, by which God mysteriously draws us closer to Him and makes His prescence and grace known to us. The person seeking God should "put themselves in the way of the means of grace," and this is the most significant one on this score.

What I'll Say:
1. Introduction (what is the Wesleyan view...)

2. The two functions mentioned above

3. How often: "at least" once each three months, the Discipline says. We do it every week in the "cathedral service" at College Wesleyan.

Then I'll try to challenge them that these kinds of services don't have to be "empty" ritual or "vain repetition" any more than the "liturgies" they do three times a week at the PAC or the "old fashioned fifties liturgies" they do at some of the Wesleyan churches in the countryside. The Nicene Creed can bless someone as much as singing the hymn "Hallelujah, I have found Him."

Fireside Romans Chats: Romans 1:3-4

I'm writing a few short snippets on Romans for an Asbury online class and thought I would share some of them with you. The following are some comments on the meaning of Romans 1:3-4:

For a number of reasons, scholars generally believe that Paul is alluding to earlier Christian tradition in Romans 1:3-4. One reason for thinking Paul is citing earlier tradition is the odd vocabulary and turns of phrase he uses that he uses nowhere else even when he is saying similar things:

1. Except for 2 Timothy (which rightly or wrongly most argue to be pseudonymous), Paul nowhere else refers to Jesus as the Son of David.

2. This use of flesh is not his most usual--more often than not he speaks of flesh as the foothold of sin in a person's body, especially when it is in contrast to spirit.

3. He nowhere else uses "appointed" or "Son of God in power" in this way, although he makes analogous comments elsewhere in relation to Jesus getting the title "Lord."

4. "Spirit of holiness" is completely unique to this passage, as he simply says "Holy Spirit" elsewhere. This seems to be a Hebraism found in the Hebrew of Isaiah and certain Psalms.

When you add to some of these verbal aspects the structure of the statement (relative clauses with parallel affirmations, etc...), it seems more likely than not that Paul is alluding to something he didn't compose but that the original audience knew.

The parallel between body and spirit seems to form the heart of the contrast between verses 3 and 4. Verse 3 presents Jesus according to the flesh; verse 4 presents Jesus in spiritual terms. The parallel is not exact, for the Spirit of holiness is surely a reference to the Holy Spirit rather than Jesus' spirit (and it seems highly anachronistic to see this in some Trinitarian sense since Christians would not start thinking of these issues for at least another hundred years later).

Dunn and perhaps most would see in these verses reflections of a "two stage Christology." The first is the earthly phase: "Son of David." But when Christ rises from the dead, he is enthroned "Son of God in power." The normal use of "appointed" implies that Christ attains a new "state" that he did not have in the "Son of David" phase. However, the qualification "in power" may imply that he was Son of God before--just not Son of God in power.

In NT Survey classes I sometimes point out that the early Jewish Christians got a lot more in a Messiah than they bargained for. They would have been content with a human Messiah who kicked the Romans out of Israel and restored their kingdom. What they got was a cosmic Lord of the universe who reigns over the cosmos.

The appointment/enthronement of Jesus as Son of God in power is attested at several points in the New Testament. Acts 13:33 is a noteable parallel where a sermon considers Christ's exaltation to God's right hand to be the place where God declares Christ "Son." Hebrews similarly at 1:5 locates the designation of Jesus as Son of God to the point of his exaltation. We find also in Acts and Paul indicates that Jesus most meaningfully receives the title "Lord" at his resurrection (e.g., Acts 2:35; Phil. 2 in the hymn; Rom. 10:9).

Some scholars think that the phrase "in power" is a Pauline addition to the pre-existing formula (e.g., Fitzmeyer). Others disagree (e.g., Dunn). I can accept it as original and pre-Pauline because the two statements are not exactly parallel anyway.

Dunn argues that the way the comment "on the basis of the resurrection of the dead" is worded points to a pre-Pauline origin, because it is worded in terms of the general resurrection rather than Christ's specific resurrection. Paul connects Christ's resurrection to the general resurrection of all as well, but by his time they are clearly understood to occur in at least two distinct phases (see 1 Cor.). Originally, Dunn suggests, the first Christians would have seen Christ's resurrection as the immediate or at least very near commencement of the full blown final resurrection of the dead. The pre-Pauline formula would thus embody what we find in Matthew 27 where the resurrection of certain saints of renown occurs in the context of Christ's death--an indication of the beginning of the general resurrection.

But other commentators (e.g., Fitzmeyer) think that this phrase is similarly a Pauline addition to the formula on the basis of Paul's focus on resurrection. If forced to conclude, I would go with Dunn, since the expression does not seem to be Paul's normal way of referring to the resurrection.

This has been a brief fireside chat on Romans.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Denominations: To Be or Not to Be

I've been picking up on a real trend against the very idea of denominations of late. It seems to me that this feeling is particularly strong among emergents, but I know boomers too who are changing their church signs from "Wesleyan Church" to "Community Church."

I think I know at least in part what these trends are reacting against, and I think it is in part the same reason why "religion" has become a dirty word. For all intents and purposes, denominations used to think that their group alone had the truth. If pushed, they might admit that some people from other denominations might make it to heaven. But obviously these distant others didn't quite have things right. Either they didn't have enough "light" and were just ignorant, or they were perverse and wilfully believed the wrong things. This mindset also witnessed the countless founding and refounding of endless splinter groups who finally had the "true" variation on the parent theme.

But it's hard to hold to this philosophy if you actually know a few Christians from some other groups. It's hard to be quite so anti-catholic if you know a few spirit-filled catholics who nevertheless look at things differently than you do.

The problem as I see it is that if churches simply become islands of the universal, invisible church, there is no telling what they will become. I see two main alternative paths:

1. They will move increasingly toward the common denominator of all Christians out there. This has already happened to a large degree. The current evangelical non-denominational church is an baptistified Arminian-flavored mix with little attachment to historical orthodoxy but a fairly conservative Republican politic. The Bible is a controlling factor, but (as I have often argued) as somewhat of a mirror--the group finds in the words what it thinks it should find.

A non-denominational "core" tends to water down the flavors of Christendom to a blase, pretty tasteless mix.

2. It will slip back into ideosyncratic individual groups--this time without any denominational organization--each of which thinks it has the truth.

I have some thoughts on the "bastion of truth alone" concept of churches, Christian universities, seminaries, etc... the idea that individual churches should just follow the truth, that we should forget denominations but let them all just be Christian churches. This is the idea that Christian colleges, Christian seminaries, that they should just be Christian colleges and seminaries untied to denominations, that they should just be Christian and follow the truth.

The main problem I have with this approach is that it is exactly the philosophy that led to the splintering of Protestantism into ten thousands of denominations with that "truth." Non-denominations like the "Disciples of Christ" or the "Church of Christ" or the "Church of God, Anderson" sure have particular ideas and traditions like denominations that actually call themselves denominations.

Or, alternatively, this is the path that Harvard and Yale took back when they were church schools. The naked quest for truth without any traditional mooring almost always walks right out the door of Christianity.

So what do I advocate? Denominations as sociological groups with traditions that recognize they are just a small piece of the Christian puzzle. Does the Church of the Brethren want to foot wash? Great! Do it, maybe even require it of your churches--I'm fine with that as long as you acknowledge that this tradition is something God has given to your group and that it doesn't make you any more Christian than groups that don't foot wash--you're the "feet" in the body of Christ.

So Wesleyans don't drink. Does the Bible forbid drinking? Of course not. Are there Christians who drink in moderation who are just as spiritual as teetotaling Wesleyans? The correct answer is, "Of course there are" (visit England some time). Is it still legitimate for Wesleyans to say, "It is part of our identity not to drink"? It is, as long as we don't think we are better than other Christians for it. We are the liver in the body of Christ, the Nazirites of Israel. :)

As I see it, Christianity is a lot more potent and alive with diversity of this sort, with denominations that have traditions and are to some degree constituted as sociological groups. Do I think that Wesleyan theology is more accurate than Baptist theology? I do, but I don't think I'm more spiritual than a Baptist, and I suspect there are elements of Christian theology that they do better than Wesleyans do. Could we really capture the whole of God without some degree of paradox?

So I celebrate denominations. Are there too many? Sure. I would love to see Wesleyans and Free Methodists and a few other churches become a single church, for a start.

Do denominations take themselves too seriously? Sure.

But I think if we can see our denominations as "specialists" within the body of Christ, then Christendom is the richer. And if we don't band together in some way, then we will get a whole lot less done in the world for the kingdom.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Paul and Sexuality

I have some impressions of what I might conclude if I did a more thorough study of Paul and sexual sin, but I've never actually done it. I thought I might blog in brief on the subject.

The point of real exploration is not so much about what acts Paul considered to be inappropriate as why he considered them to be so. To the extent to which such perspectives are unexpressed in the text--indeed, Paul himself may not have been completely aware of the forces on his thinking--to that extent this is an exercise about which our conclusions will remain somewhat uncertain even after we have explored all the evidence we have.

Additionally, it is not clear to me that it is Paul's underlying thinking that gives us the meaning of these texts as Scripture. That meaning seems to me something the church discerns from the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the more we know, the freer we are to make good choices.

I might begin with 1 Thessalonians 4:3: "This is the will of God, your sanctification, for you to abstain from porneia." The crucial question here is what exactly Paul means by "porneia." The meaning of porneia for Paul was obvious to him. Perhaps it was obvious to the Thessalonians as well. I have suggested elsewhere that Leviticus 18 perhaps gives us the best summary of what Paul included in this word.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul does give us the flavor of what porneia is. He equates abstaining from porneia to "each of you possessing your own vessel in holiness and honor" (4:4). He equates this comment with "not possessing it with the passion of desire like the Gentiles who do not know God also do" (4:5) and "not to offend and defraud your brother in this matter." The words used in this last statement have overtones of "taking over" (hyperbaino) and "taking more than your due" (pleonekteo). In short, I think Paul must primarily have either adultery or sleeping with someone promised to another in view.

By the way, this word does not refer exclusively or even primarily to pre-marital sex, as the KJV translation "fornication" is sometimes taken. It probably includes pre-marital sex, as one possible interpretation of this passage indicates.

I believe the following statement to be true: There is no act of sex outside marriage that Paul does not consider to be sin. But what is interesting is that Paul, and all the other biblical writers, do not argue that such sex is sin because it is outside marriage. In other words, biblical authors argue that various kinds of sex outside marriage are sins, but they never argue that they are sins because they take place outside marriage. They do not argue that a person can only have sex within marriage and that any sex a person has outside marriage is a sin, although this is what their position amounts to. Rather, they argue that specific types of sex are sins and they do this with nearly every specific type of sex other than the act of sex within marriage. This is a major difference between Paul's sexual paradigm and the current evangelical one.

Let us go through the various sexual sins that the Bible discusses to demonstrate this claim:

1. Sex with a Prostitute (1 Corinthians 6)
I start with this category because Paul's comments on this issue are instructive. Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that they should not join their "members" to a prostitute. The reason is that they defile the body both of Christ and of themselves. Here we note that Paul does not say that the act of sex defiles because it is sex outside marriage. It defiles because of who you are becoming "one flesh" with.

Note the distinction: Paul does not argue that you shouldn't have sex with a prostitute because you have become one flesh with your wife (and Paul's arguments are male-oriented). This would be the way a contemporary evangelical would argue the prohibition. Rather, Paul argues that you should not have sex with a prostitute because you become one flesh with her! (and she's "icky")

2. Adultery
Adultery is consistently understood to be a sin in the Bible. However, the Bible never says that it is sin because any sex outside marriage is a sin. In the categories of both Leviticus and the New Testament world, adultery shames the husband of the wife with whom a man sleeps. Adultery is thus argued to be wrong because it is shameful and has incredible social consequences. The woman seems to get a raw deal here--the ancient world didn't speak of committing adultery against a wife. Adultery seems to have always been formulated as an offence against a man.

In Leviticus 18, almost every act prohibited follows the pattern Do not uncover the nakedness of x (a man) by sleeping with y (a woman who stands in some honor-shame relationship with x). The NIV, as many translations, has eliminated the honor-shame language of nakedness. Again, in none of these places does the text locate the problem as one of sleeping outside your marriage. The problem comes from who you are sleeping with and, thus, from the fact that you are shaming some man.

And here we remind ourselves again that God has moved His church to a more perfect understanding of so many of these things. So I can reiterate that I think the current evangelical way of arguing these things is possibly the way God wants us to argue them. But in the ancient world, adultery was understood as the shaming of a man by lying with his wife. In that sense, the OT would not have defined what Judah does with Tamar in Genesis as an act of adultery. Tamar is of course his daughter-in-law, and she dresses as a prostitute because Judah has not had his youngest son go in to her to raise seed for her dead husband (long story). She gets pregnant from her father-in-law. The Genesis story treats her as righteous in her actions.

What is interesting is that Judah is not condemned in the story for visiting a prostitute, which would not have been considered adultery in his day because he was shaming no man by sleeping with one. We remind ourselves that Paul prohibits sleeping with a prostitute in the NT, but such a prohibition was not on the books (there were no books) at the time of Judah. But this act would not have been classified as adultery even in Paul's day. Paul considered it sinful and defiling, but would not have called it adultery.

Jesus' words in Matthew 5 and 19 are thus shocking, because he suggests that a man commits adultery against himself when he divorces his wife. Normally, divorcing your wife would not be considered adultery. But as usual, Jesus is being provocative. A man who divorces his wife, in effect forcing her to marry another man (how else would she survive?), causes her to commit adultery against himself. Jesus' words set in motion a process that reaches full bloom with us, for we rightly believe that a man commits adultery against his wife when he sleeps with anyone but her. But I do not think you will not find this concept clearly articulated anywhere in the Bible.

Homosexual Sex
A previous string of entries have made it clear that Paul considered the act of sex with someone of the same gender to be shameful and defiling. What he nowhere argues, however, is that the act is defiling because it is outside marriage.

Premarital Sex
I believe it was the assumption of Paul's world that a woman should be a virgin when she marries. He never argues this, but he assumes it throughout 1 Corinthians 7. It is so deep an assumption of Paul's world that he doesn't even think to argue it. As far as a man is concerned, what avenue of sex is there outside marriage that Paul would allow? He prohibits sex with a prostitute, sex with someone's wife, homosexual sex, etc... What is left?

Paul implies that pre-marital sex is inappropriate in two ways. First, he says it is better to marry than to burn (with passion). This statement appears in 1 Corinthians at a place where Paul is arguing that celibacy is not for every man. He argues that if you cannot control your passions, you should marry. Second, this argument is similar to what Paul has said in 1 Thessalonians 4: don't possess your vessel with the passion of desire. Pre-marital sex implies an inability to control your "passion" and "burning."

In Paul's day it "defrauded" the father and perhaps appointed spouse as well. It also cheapened the virgin, making her an object of shame. Couples who cannot wait for marriage today often experience a similar shame and compromising of value in the church today as well--which is in continuity with the biblical world.

I add this section at the request of a colleague. As far as I can tell, there is no biblical passage that addresses this topic. Some use the passage about Onan in Genesis, but it has nothing to do with it. Onan was required to raise seed for his dead brother and he didn't. He was more than happy to have sex with Tamar, but not willing to climax with her so that she would get pregnant, even though that was his duty. He didn't want the rights of his own first born to be assigned to his dead brother. In short, this passage is about a whole lot of things that aren't masturbation.

I doubt very seriously that any biblical author would have considered maturbation under the heading of "sex," so in some ways it doesn't fit in this discussion. Paul might address it under the "passion of desire" clause.

So under the "I too have the Spirit of God" category, let me suggest a few things:

1. What makes masturbation dangerous and sinful for a Christian is what you are thinking. Are you lusting after someone? Then it comes under the Matthew 5 heading--don't do in your mind what you shouldn't do in real life. Ask yourself, "How would this girl react if she knew I was thinking this?" Lust cheapens the person you are lusting after. I have known guys who have claimed not to lust while doing this, and I believe it is possible. God is ultimately the judge of intentions (1 Cor. 4). Sometimes we feel like we have to be able to catch those who are lying or rationalizing, but no one ever fools God. He is the judge.

2. "Moderation in all things." That's the Golden Mean. A man's body has a cycle like a woman's--it just isn't tied to a regular sequence of days. Let's say about every three weeks or so the male body gets to a certain point where thinking is not involved.

Well, enough on that... Run away...

So we can add these individual prohibitions and come to the conclusion that "sex is only appropriate within marriage." That is the current evangelical position. But notice that Paul did not formulate it the way we do. Paul prohibited all the various avenues of sex outside marriage. Our formula is much simpler and reaches the same conclusion: Christians should only have sex within marriage. I think God has helped the church progress in this formulation, for it treats the woman equally to the man in every way, and I'm convinced that this is God's way.

Hermeneutical Epilogue:
To wend my usual wares, I make my usual observations:
1. To read the Bible the way we know we need to read it, we must often go beyond what it actually says and means. The Bible alone could be used to support a world where a man can sleep with someone who isn't his wife without committing adultery.

2. Christians extend the biblical meanings in this way all the time. Although there is no passage anywhere in the Bible that says "Do not have sex with anyone but your spouse" or "It is a sin to have sex with anyone but your spouse," most Christians would insist it does say this. This is the implication of the biblical teaching, but the Bible nowhere says this.

3. It is the "Bible-as-churched" that is authoritative for Christians, not simply the original meaning. It is the meaning these words take on when we bring a "Christian dictionary" to bear on them, and this dictionary is the dictionary provided by the communion of saints through the ages, in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Such a dictionary is usually in continuity with the original meaning, but it is usually a little different and often quite different.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Bush's Supreme Court Pick

I read an MSNBC article today about Miers, Bush's newest Supreme Court pick. It was about how frustrated conservatives were about the pick, since they know so little about her legal philosophy.

I found the article both encouraging and frustrating at the same time. I found it frustrating because it spoke of conservatives as a single, monolithic body. It glided quite subtly across, what I believe, are different kinds of conservative. So I sensed at least three types of conservative in the course of the article:

1. strict constructionists when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, like Clarence Thomas.
2. Gary Bauer was mentioned, who would be the religious, Dobsonian wing of conservatism.
3. small government capitalists, economic conservatives, almost libertarians.

These are not necessarily the same person! I have deep issues with how Christians in category number 2 so mindlessly glide into the other two, indeed into 4. Republicanism in general. So someone opposes gun control because they're anti-abortion. What sharp minds the typical American has!

So while I don't know what Miers will be like, I am at least hopeful. I figure if Clarence Thomas doesn't like her, that's a relief. As far as I'm concerned Thomas represents a legal philosophy that has no spirit--I'll call it zombie jurisprudence. The "prepared" conservative jurists the right wanted him to pick to me are as bad as any liberal judge "making law from the bench." The difference is they allow inhumanity because of lack of law or immoral law.

As far as Bush's spending, my main problem is with the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done about that now. The financial levee on that one broke when Bush invaded. I suppose in theory I prefer smaller government to bigger, but the ideal size for me is whatever is necessary for government to do what it needs to do. I think New Orleans should be rebuilt smartly. A good president would find ways to do it without breaking the bank. And since I have no idea how to do that, Bush and I are on about the same level.

As far Bauer, Dobson, and friends, Dobson has hesitantly endorsed Miers. That works for me for now--mostly because of the hesitancy. If he endorses her hesitantly, then maybe she's my kind of moderate conservative. I'll call it a "Methodist conservative" for now. That's probably about where I am.

Time will tell...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

CV ("Canonical Version): Psalm 97 (that's 98 to you and me)

A Psalm for David

Sing to the Lord a new song, because the Lord has done marvelous things. His right hand has saved him, and His holy arm.

The Lord has made known his salvation before the Gentiles; He has revealed His righteousness. He has remembered His mercy to Jacob, and His truth to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Shout to God, all the earth, sing and rejoice and sing psalms. Sing psalms to the Lord on the harp, with harp and the voice of a psalm, with metal trumpets and a horn trumpet. Shout to the Lord before the king. Let the sea and its fulness be shaken, the inhabited world and those who inhabit it. Rivers will clap with hands in one accord; the mountains will rejoice. For He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the inhabited world in righteousness and peoples with straightness.

Now how do you think Paul would have read this psalm? Hays suggests we might have it in mind as we read:

"I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who has faith--to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faithfulness leading to faith, as it is written, 'The person who is righteous on the basis of faith will live.' For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of humanity..." Hmmm.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Mapping Sin

This is a short entry on levels of sin in the life of believers. I proceed from several preliminary presuppositions:

1. Before we come to Christ, all sin may as well be the same--"All have sinned and lack the glory God intended them" (Rom. 3:23). "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). "Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" (Rom. 3:9).

2. After we are justified by grace through faith and have received the Holy Spirit, intentional sin is avoidable (1 Cor. 10:13). We never lose to temptation but that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we might have overcome it.

3. Related to the above, all intentional sin is unjustified. Even if we allow for levels of sin after faith, all intentional sin damages our relationship with Christ and endangers our ultimate salvation.

4. Sin in the life of a believer can break one's relationship with Christ, a teaching that permeates the New Testament (e.g., Mark 3:28-29; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 9:26-27; Heb. 10:26; 2 Pet. 1:10; etc.).

Now to address matters of sin's intensity. Ethicists talk in general of four ethical domains: acts themselves, motives behind actions, consequences of actions, and the character of the person doing the action. Let us briefly consider how these domains relate to the intensity of sin in the life of a believer.

Intention is the primary ethical domain of our day. The Wesleyan tradition in particular places such primacy on intention that we hardly even mention or account for the biblical category of unintentional sin. Our theologians believe, however, that unintentional sin must have atonement just as intentional sin must. But the general sense is that Christ's blood takes care of our unintentional sin as we maintain an attitude of repentance and alignment with God's will.

We might similarly mention the Old Testament category of corporate sin. There is a place within Christianity for corporate confession of sin in addition to our confession of any individual sin.

However, it seems common sense to us that intentional sin is more serious and more damaging to our relationship with Christ than unintentional sin. Of course inintentional patterns with which we do not deal can become matters of intention. We might also mention that intention can be matters of comission and omission. One might split hairs and argue that sins of omission are slightly less serious than sins of comission, but I will not argue it.

I believe the biblical way of dealing with sin indicates that, on the whole, intentional sin is more damaging than unintentional sin (although see below under "The Act Itself"). And while parts of the OT consider corporate sin just as damning as individual sin, the traditions that emerge after the Babylonian captivity move somewhat away from this idea (Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:2-4). I would argue that individual sin is thus more damaging to a person's relationship with Christ than corporate sin.

Without much substantiation, I would suggest that motive remains the most important factor when it comes to the relational damage caused by sin. The stronger one's motives are in contradiction to God, the more damaging the sin is to one's relationship with God.

A person might thus sin unintentionally despite good motives, for motive is not the only domain of sin.

Under this heading I want to consider the matter of trajectory. In what direction were you headed when you sinned? Did you sin while running toward Christ or while running away from him? I would again submit as a matter of common sense (and thus we'd better be careful) that sins committed while running toward Christ do less damage to your relationship with him than sins committed while running from him--even if they are the same exact act.

Here we consider the distinction between a single act of sin and a matter of habitual or a lifestyle of sin. This is of course my understanding of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. The types of people that Paul has in mind are repeat offenders, not those who sin once or twice and then repent. This is the "dog returning to his vomit" principle.

So I believe Paul would have considered a person with a lifestyle of a particular sin to be in greater danger of losing out on salvation than a person who sinned once and repented. Similarly, Hebrews does not threaten its audience because of one sin, but because of the fact that "the water has often given drink to the land" (Heb. 6:7) and the sin has been done not only willfully but it has continued (Heb. 10:26, present tense; cf. present tense of 1 John 3:9).

The Act Itself
It is in this category where we find unintentional sins. These are sins even if one's motives and intentions are not intentionally bad or harmful. There are, for example, duties I have toward my wife--largely because of the consequences of failing at them. I may not intend to miss our anniversary, but I have sinned against my wife if I miss it because I have failed at a duty. There are other things that are sins in themselves because of the consequences. I may not intend to hurt anyone if I were to drive drunk, but if I run over someone unintentionally, I have still sinned, despite my intentions.

The Bible also has a category for sins that are not sins because of consequences; they are just sins in themselves without clear rationale. This is the most difficult domain for the modern mind to fathom. How can an act be sinful regardless of intention or consequence? This domain seems the one dominated by matters of holiness, purity, and impurity. A person under the old covenant became unclean just by touching something that was unclean.

Uzzah is immediately struck dead despite the fact that he is only trying to steady the ark--a good intention. We immediately try to rationalize why God would do such a thing. But ultimately, he is an unclean person touching something that is holy. His intentions did not matter. The same was the fate of any animal that might touch Mt. Sinai while God's presence was on it.

Rightly or wrongly, the classic study of these matters is Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger. She has suggested in great detail how we might understand the purity codes of Leviticus in the light of these kinds of things. Her famous definition of uncleanness is aptly summarized in the saying "Dirt is matter out of place." She proceeds to suggest ways in which we can understand the various food laws and restrictions concerning blood in terms of "matter out of place."

Things in the sea should have fins and scales. Therefore eels are out of place in the sea and accordingly unclean. Things on the land should walk, not crawl. Therefore snakes are out of place and accordingly unclean. Birds should fly, so birds that cannot even lift off even a little bit are out of place and accordingly unclean. Pigs are the provenance of other peoples with their other gods and are thus out of place in Israel and accordingly unclean (cf. the Egyptians finding the Israelites unclean because they were shepherds; Gen. 46:34)

Given our cultural glasses, we try to come up with consequences that might explain these rules--trichinosis in pork, for example. But it seems rather that the acts themselves were considered defiling regardless of intent or consequence. The New Testament changes some of the purity rules with regard to food, but not with regard to sexuality. My hunch is that part of the reason for this retention is because sexual matters involve significant consequences beyond matters of clean and unclean.

Since "act alone" sins are difficult for us to get our heads around, we tend to consider such sins less damaging to our relationship with God than those that involve motive or consequence. This is the position I find myself wanting to take. Yet I must acknowledge that the OT sometimes treats such sins even more seriously than intentional ones. Sometimes such acts, regardless of motive, evoke the most devastating responses from God's Holiness. Such responses are often portrayed as impersonal and unstoppable forces (plagues of serpents and after censuses, the destroyer in Egypt). This is food for thought and for the examination of our cultural common sense.

I think our general common sense is that consequence does not determine the intensity of our sin actions. If I try to kill someone and fail, have I sinned less than if I try and succeed?

However, it makes sense to us to see consequence as one of the two greatest factors in why God commands or prohibits something in the first place (the other being matters of purity and impurity). Does this explain why 1 Corinthians 7 prohibits a divorced woman from remarrying (1 Cor. 7:11) while allowing a divorced man to remarry (1 Cor. 7:27--read something other than the NIV)? Was it because the consequences in the ancient social structure were greater when a woman remarried than when a man did?

I might add that, from a John Wesleyan perspective, the intensity of sin is different in relation to each other than in relation to God. If I cause the death of someone else because I chose to drive without having nearly enough sleep, it likely is a far greater sin against my neighbor than it is against my relationship with God. God looks on the heart; humans on the outward consequences (isn't that what Jesus said? :)

Again, briefly, some thoughts for your consideration, critique and correction...