Thursday, June 28, 2007

Paul 3.8

The next Lord's Day, the word of prophecy came to Lois again: "God has set apart Timothy to go with Paul and Silas to do the work of the ministry." The entire assembly said the "Amen."

And so moved by the Spirit, Silas, myself, and the elders of the assembly, including Lois, laid our hands on Timothy and prayed that he might be filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered for ministry. He of course was already baptized and had received the Holy Spirit. But now we prayed that he might have a special anointing to be a servant of the gospel as Silas and I were.

God did not dissappoint us. Timothy rose from prayer emboldened and ready to fulfill the commission of our Lord as he told the disciples in Galilee to go into all the world preaching the good news.

"I want to be circumcised," Timothy told the assembly. This was a difficult request for me. The issue of circumcision had been one of the contentions of the letter I had sent to the very churches of this region of Galatia. I had told them that they would fall from God's grace if they submitted to circumcision.

"You do not need to be circumcised to be saved, Timothy. God has granted us all justification by our faith in what God has done through Jesus Christ."

"I know, my father in the Lord," Timothy replied. "But my mother is a Jew, and so I am a Jew by birth. All these years I have lived contrary to God's Law. Grant me that I be a believer justified as what I am, a Jew, rather than a believer justified as a Gentile."

I prayed and wrestled deeply with this decision for several days. And every day Timothy prodded me to allow him circumcision. Finally, I accepted that Timothy was a liability to the mission if he remained uncircumcised. It was not a problem for Titus, for he was not a Jew by nature. He was like the many uncircumcised God-fearers who had attached themselves to synagogues all over the world.

But Timothy was a Jew by nature, and so would be considered an apostate every where we go and fuel for those I was an advocate of sin. I admired Timothy's willingness to undergo this painful operation. We had it done the next day. Then seven days later, when he was mostly recovered, we embarked for Iconium and Antioch of Pisidia.

exerpts from mid-life crisis

I've had a nerd cult novel concept for some time now. It sounds really interesting in a paragraph, but gets mega-boring fast in the actual writing. But, it's for me, and I'm enjoying writing a bit in the now finally slow days of summer (although I was in a meeting from 8 till 2 today ;-(

But there are perhaps a few funny parts--or at least bizarre. I thought I'd post a couple excerpts, since I've not been making my daily quota here.
“But that’s impossible,” I insisted. “That’s what every math teacher in the world says. You can’t divide by 0. 0 never goes anywhere other than 0. It never moves toward 1 or anything else. Every time you add it to itself it still comes up 0.”

“Heard of God?” Agnew sarcastically replied. “Think maybe he can do some things your math teachers can’t?


Sure enough, it was no longer a Λ but had changed into a Δ.

“So now we’re going to make triangles?” I asked.

“I really thought you were smarter than this. Even I know it’s the Greek letter delta. It stands for change. We’ve already made reality. Now we have to make it changeable.”


I noticed that there were now two buttons. The p button was still there, but there was also now a button for infinity: .

Monday, June 25, 2007

Sacrifice as Mediation

This is part of the dictionary article I'm writing:
Theories abound to explain how sacrifice functions in religion. A key element in most of these is sacrifice as a mediating factor in the relationship between gods and mortals. Certainly sacrifice functions this way in the Old Testament. Yet within the pages of the Old Testament we find more than one sacrificial paradigm, and thus more than one perspective on sacrifice as an instrument of mediation between God and humankind.

On one end of the spectrum, embedded within the biblical narratives, are glimpses of Israel’s pre-scriptural past. We hear rumblings of child sacrifice (e.g., Ezek. 16:20-21; 1 Kings 11:7; cf. Deut. 13:2) and puzzle over God’s command that Abraham offer up Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19). We are unsure what is taking place when Zipporah touches Moses with the foreskin of her son so that God does not kill her “bridegroom of blood” (Exod. 4:24-26). Similarly unfamiliar is the strange ritual where Abraham cuts a heifer and a goat in two and lays with them an uncut turtledove and pigeon (Gen. 15:12-21). Then when he is sleeping, the LORD reveals the future and a flaming torch passes between the cut pieces. These obscure artifacts of Israel’s pre-biblical past play into the hands of sacrificial theories that connect sacrifice to human violence and the appropriation of divine power on the human plane (cf. 2 Kings 3:26-27). Sacrificial mediation in such instances has less to do with the person of God than with the intrinsic power of the sacrificial acts themselves.

In terms of mediating value, the two most important functions sacrifices can perform are 1) their function as gifts to God and 2) their function in expiating sin and uncleanness. Since all sacrifices and offerings involve the presentation of something to God, the gift aspect of sacrifice is perhaps its most fundamental characteristic. It is no coincidence that the most generic Hebrew words for sacrifice have the connotations of a gift: minchah, mattanah, and qorban.

As gifts, sacrifices perform the same meditating functions that gifts do between humans. Some are offered to secure God's favor, such as when Saul offers a sacrifice before going to battle (1 Sam. 13:9). Votive sacrifices and offerings are either offered when making a vow or upon its successful completion. Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter is such a sacrifice after he returns from a victorious battle (Judges 11:30-31, 39). The gift of a sacrifice can propitiate God's wrath toward an individual or a people. After the LORD sent a pestilence on Israel for David’s census, God’s anger is finally satisfied when David erects an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and offers burnt offerings there (2 Sam. 24:15-25).

In this same vein sacrifices are offered regularly to maintain God's favor and to give him thanks for good things. Such gifts function somewhat like the tributes one might give to a king for his protection and blessing. The gift of the firstfruits of harvest give God thanks for the way he has blessed the soil and look to future blessing. Sacrificial gifts thus mediate good relationships between God and humanity in ways that humans can easily understand.

The function of sacrifices in relation to sin and impurity is both one of the most familiar and yet most misunderstood. In general, sacrificial law was not designed to restore an individual's relationship with God for intentional sin, so called "sins with a high hand" (e.g., Num. 15:30-31). The chatta't or "sin offering" thus more mediated impurity and uncleanness than what we would consider "moral" sin, the distinction between the two being very loose in Old Testament times (cf. Lev. 4:2). A person "impaired" by things like childbirth, leprosy, or the inadvertent violation of a taboo might be restored to wholeness by way of this "purification offering."

The idea that the sacrificial animal substituted for the person sacrificing perhaps has some element of truth, but is prone to overstatement given modern debates about penal substitution. In the Day of Atonement ritual, we should probably think more of defilement being transferred from the community of Israel to the animal, which then takes that miasma out of the community and into the desert.

Modern notions of guilt seem anachronistic in relation to the Levitical system of Israel. The so called "guilt offering," the 'asham, functioned almost like a fine, a penalty offered because one has inadvertantly wronged God (cf. Lev. 5:14, 17). Yet even in this case, the amount of the sacrifice is not gradated in accordance with the level of the offense. It thus does not figure well as some kind of substitution for the offender.

In general, the mediation provided by these kinds of offerings had far more to do with cleansing impurity, as the verb kipper seems to indication, perhaps having a fundamental sense of wiping away...

Paul 3.7

The trip east was significantly more difficult without Titus. He was young and strong and without him Silas and I were forced to carry added weight. But like Abraham, I believed the Lord would provide.

After passing through the Cilician gates and spending a short time in Derbe, we arrived at the home of Eunice in Lystra. When the evening of the Lord's Day came on Saturday night, her house was filled with people from all over the city, both Jews and Gentiles. Eunice herself was a Jew, but her husband was a Greek and had not yet believed in the good news of Jesus the Messiah. We broke bread together and then after supper shared the one cup.

Then we met again in the morning at dawn to sing hymns to Christ. It was at that time that Lois, Eunice's mother, brought a word of prophecy to us. She told us that the Lord was setting apart her grandson Timothy for the work of the ministry, that God wanted him to go with us as we spread the gospel.

He felt the call of God as well, and his mother agreed. We were only worried to know what his father would say.

But then God worked a miracle. The next week his father Demetrius confessed Jesus as Lord and was baptized into Christ. He eagerly committed Timothy to the ministry.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Theology Sundays: All Powerful

The Apostle's Creed really has little to say about God the Father, except that He is "the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth." The Nicene Creed merely adds, "creator of all that is, seen and unseen." We have here no comment that God is all knowing, everywhere present, or that God is love or self-sufficient.

Divinity in the ancient world related primarily to two characteristics the gods had: power and immortality. The gods did not die, and they had a power that was much to be feared. When God tells Moses that He has made him "like a god to Pharaoh" (Exod. 7:1), God is saying that Moses has a power beyond the human that Pharaoh should fear. It is thus no surprise that the Apostle's Creed should mention that God is Almighty even though it does not mention many other attributes.

The fact that God is creator relates to His power. To say He is the creator of "all that is, seen and unseen" is to say that He holds authority and power over all things. The mention of unseen things makes it clear that it is not just the visible human domain that God rules. He rules over all spiritual powers that inhabit the space between earth and heaven, as they pictured the universe.

No one can question that God is powerful in the Old Testament. In the theology of Deuteronomy, those who serve God correctly do not suffer, although sometimes a group or family can suffer for the sins of their members. The deuteronomistic theology of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and other parts of the Old Testament holds that loss in battle or life can only occur because of sin. The assumption is that God can defeat any other god, so if Israel loses a battle, it is because someone has sinned.

But interestingly, the question of why God doesn't simply destroy all the other gods is barely asked. It is assumed without argument that He could (Ps. 82), but the question of why He doesn't destroy them isn't asked. He clearly wins every encounter. Dagon falls before the ark. Baal's servants look foolish and eventually, dead, before Elijah's God. But God only seems to encounter these deities when they come to him in the shape of interaction with foreign peoples.

The hardships of the Babylonian captivity weighed heavily on this deuteronomistic theology. The generation that suffered did not see itself suffering for its own sins. "Our fathers ate sour grapes but our teeth are set on edge," went their saying (Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2). Psalm 44 records their sense of loss, "All this has come upon us though we have not forgotten you... If we had forgotten the name of our God... would not God discover this?" (44:17, 20-21).

Israel returned from Babylon with some new elements in their understanding of God's relationship with them and the world. Between 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 we see the rise of the Satan as an agent of God who tests the loyalty of His subjects. Job now suffers not because of wrong he has done (as in deuteronomistic theology) but because his loyalty is being tested by the Satan in a wager with God.

The situation changes somewhat when Alexander the Great creates a world in which all peoples interpenetrate. Now Israel must take more seriously the relationship of God to the rest of the world. If there is only one God over all the world, then how is there evil in the world that resists His rule? The intertestamental period thus sees a number of new concepts emerge that will be foundational for the New Testament.

One is the proliferation of demonology. Now that the "gods" of the nations are no longer seen as gods, the language of demonology rises to take its place, grown on Greek soil. The next is the beginning of explanations of a "Fall." The community of 1 Enoch points to the offspring of the "sons of God" and the "daughters of men" in Genesis 6, from whose dead bodies the spirits of demons are born. By the time of Paul, Satan and Adam are recognized as the true culprits. Satan is no longer an agent of God but a more independent opponent.

Other circles, like that of Qumran, turn to concepts of predestination to explain God's sovereignty in the face of evil. Their small group becomes the only group that will be saved. Paul does not normally operate in the categories of the theology he expresses in Romans 9, but that chapter represents one path to explain the sovereignty of God in the face of apparent chaos and opposition in the creation. Everything that happens is orchestrated by God.

There is also the development of eschatology. The Old Testament by and large has no concept of history moving toward any particular conclusion. It looks rather to the resolution of whatever crisis Israel happens to be in at the time. To a high degree, even the Jewish writings of Jesus' day did not look for some cosmic resolution to the sin problem. They looked more to the restoration and political dominance of Israel.

However, certain apocalyptic movements such as Enochic Jews and Essenes did formulate Israel's "return from captivity" in more cosmic terms. The New Testament generally fits against the backdrop of this apocalyptic background. For Paul the resurrection will involve the liberation of an entire creation enslaved to the power of sin and elemental spirits (Rom. 8:19; Gal. 4:9). When Christ returns and all his enemies are finally put under his feet, "then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). God's authority and power will then be without question. Thus although God's enemies may still be kicking, God is still almighty and only allows them their current force. The entirety of Revelation portrays in the most vivid terms that God wins.

As Christians, we believe that God is fully powerful. Satan is a joke compared to His power. Gnosticism in the second century threatened the idea of God's complete power by suggesting that there might be other powers that God did not create, as well as that the materials of the creation might exist apart from God. The Christians of the second and third centuries emphasized the doctrine of ex nihilo creation in response to such Gnostic claims.

Christians thus believe that there is nothing in the creation, seen or unseen, that God did not create, even Satan. This of course raises the problem of evil, but Christians have answers to these questions as well, questions we will consider later.

But if God created the world out of nothing, then there is nothing about this creation that God does not have power over. You cannot lift 1000 pounds unless you are 1000 pounds strong. And so to create a universe out of nothing implies that there is nothing that God cannot do in relation to this creation.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Paul 3.6

Just before we were to leave the city, a man arrived from Antioch with bad news. Titus' father Jason had suddenly died. His mother had sent an urgent message with this Christian merchant that she and the family needed him to return to the city to help with the family.

Titus' face was downcast and torn. He recalled the words of Jesus about leaving one's father and mother for the kingdom.

"But God doesn't always call us to leave our families behind," Silas encouraged him. "You are young, and Christ surely will not return until the gospel is preached to all the nations. Go set your house in order. There will be a time when you will join us again."

Titus looked at me. I discerned that my opinion could sway him either way.

"Do what you believe God requires of you," I said. "If He calls you to go, he will send Silas and us another co-worker."

After two days of prayer and fasting, Titus concluded that God willed him to return to Antioch. So he did.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Book Review: Where is Boasting? (chapter 3)

I need to clean up my book list to the right. I've had the key chapters of Gathercole's book Where is Boasting? read for some time, but just haven't got around to summarizing and reviewing it here. Here chapters 3, 7, and 8 are of greatest interest. In chapter 1 Simon scans the lay of the land on boasting and establishes his primary debate partners (i.e., Dunn, Wright, and Sanders). In 2 and 4 he scans background Jewish literature on the topic of boasting. I may look at some of this material later in the summer if I have time in preparation for an intertestamental course I'm teaching this Fall at IWU. The real grist for me is in 3, 7, and 8, however.

Chapter 3: Jewish Soteriology in the New Testament
In this chapter Simon easily shows what is obviously the case: a good deal of the NT sees deeds as an element in the equation of final justification.

Matthew 16:27--"The Son of Man... will give back each person according to what he has done."

Gathercole remarks, "The recompense cannot be for individual deeds within the future kingdom" (113) and "election and grace are prominent in Matthew's gospel... Matthew still believed that salvation was God's gift."

John 5:29--"...those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation."

Gathercole: "the criterion for whether one is punished or receives life at the eschaton is the 'doing' of good or evil" (114).

John 6:29--"The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

Gathercole: "The 'work' required for eternal life... has been reconfigured and reinterpreted as believing in Jesus" (115).

James 2:14--"Can faith save you?" (final salvation) etc...

Gathercole: "works have a genuine instrumental role in eschatological justification for the believers James is addressing" (118).

Revelation 20:11--"The dead were judged according to what they had done."

Gathercole: "All are judged according to deeds without distinction... this is held together with a strong emphasis on election in the book" (119).

Parables in the Gospels
Simon points out here that the argument between the father and elder brother in the Prodigal Son or between day laborers in that parable is rooted in a "theology of recompense" (121). In other words, the categories of the debate are whether one should be rewarded strictly on the basis of what one does or not. Gathercole's point seems to be to show that the older perspective on Judaism is not completely wrong--at point is at least in part the question of works righteousness.

Commonality between NT and Early Judaism on obedience-based final salvation
A teacher of the Law comes to Jesus and asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The man suggests that keeping the two great commandments might do it. Jesus agrees!

Very interesting here is Gathercole's suggestion that the wording of the question in Luke 10:25 is an echo of Leviticus 18:5. Paul in Galatians denies that Leviticus 18:5 is the path to (initial) justification. Because of earlier observations Simon has made about Leviticus 18 in the Dead Sea Scrolls, he comes to question Dunn's claim about this verse that Jews at the time of Christ believed that "the law was given primarily to regulate life within the people of God" rather than leading to future life.

Romans 2
The bulk of the rest of the chapter deals with Romans 2, where Simon sketches out an interpretation similar to my own in many respects (and Hays). He disagrees with the idea that the possibility of a Gentile doing the law is merely hypothetical (126)--"some gentiles may even have defending thoughts on the Day of Judgment" (127). Gathercole concludes that Paul "affirmed the importance of final salvation according to works as part of his theology" (131).

However, Gathercole carefully qualifies this comment:
1. "The things of the Law" for Simon must refer to the law as a whole (127), not to those aspects that are specifically Jewish. He is hammering this because he will disagree with Dunn in Romans 3 that "works of law" primarily refer to boundary issues like circumcision and food laws. I'll wait to comment on Romans 3, but for now let me agree that...

2. the content of the Law is redefined (128), at least in Romans 2. In my view, this has to be the case because a Gentile by definition does not keep several aspects of the Jewish Law. Later in the chapter Simon hints at what he thinks this new definition might involve: "We can see a difference from works of Torah, as the obedience is Christocentric" (130). In this comment Simon is discussing Colossians 3:23-25, which speaks of working as if one is working for the Lord. Also Paul speaks of imitating Christ (132).

I would agree more with Dunn than Simon on this issue. Dunn, following a route that fits well with both Reformed and Wesleyan thought, would agree that "the Law continues to be normative for Christian life, though for the Christian it is in some sense divested of its ritual-ceremonial (or for Dunn, its 'boundary-marking') aspects" (131).

3. Fulfillment of the Torah is a by-product rather than the goal of Christian obedience (128).

I agree with Simon on this interpretation of Paul as well. This is the crucial difference between initial and final justification needed to understand Paul. Torah cannot result in initial justification, but keeping a modified Torah after justification is an expected consequence of the Spirit. The absence of such will prevent final justification.

4. To clarify this last point further, Paul has a "theology of divine empowerment" that makes Law fulfillment possible (132).

I might mention that the following comment probably reflects an ignorance of true Arminian belief: "Paul's pneumatology both in his self-representations and in his more programmatic descriptions of the obedience of Christians in general poses a particular challenge, as D. A. Campbell has already noted, to Arminian conceptions of libertarian obedience" (133). This comment, if directed at Arminian theology rather than its common practice, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding. (I'll wait to discuss Simon's understanding of Galatians 5:17.)

I agree with the bulk of what Gathercole has argued in this chapter. Two of his comments form an apt conclusion:

"Except at Qumran, there are no close parallels to Paul's theology of divine empowerment in Second Temple Judaism" (134).

Both traditions of early Christianity and early Judaism "share an elective grace and also assign a determinative role to works at final judgment" (135). The difference is in the framing of those works.

I might quickly mention one thing that Simon's work has reinforced to me. There is really only a hair's breadth between Wesleyan and Calvinist thinking here. Simon might as well have been laying the groundwork for a doctrine of Wesleyan sanctification. The difference is in the optimism of what divine empowerment can actually do in this life.

Chapters 7 and 8 to come...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Planet of the Apes Day

Anyone remember when Charleton Heston lands on the Planet of the Apes (which of course turns out to be Earth in the future). The highly evolved race of apes (which impossibly come from themselves--in the final sequence the father of the race turns out to be the child of future apes) cut open humans' brains and remove their thinking capacity.

That's how I feel today, like a human with my brain cut out.

There is some good news, which I'll share before taking a nap hopefully to reset my brain's hard drive. I've been desperately working on an article on mediation and mediators for the New Interpreter's Bible Dictionary with Abingdon. I thought it was due last Friday, but since I had been desperately trying to finish my dissertation index, I hadn't had a chance to get writing on it till what I thought was the due date.

Turns out it isn't due till July 15th. I'm going to bed now...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Does Education Make You Lose Faith?

Apparently not...

This study shows that the more education a person has after high school, the more likely they are to continue attending church and consider religion an important part of their life. So much for those who are afraid of people gettin themselves some learnin' from we "liberal" educators.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"mediator" in the NT

I'm amazingly behind (as usual) on a number of deadlines. My dissertation comes out with Cambridge University Press this year and I have been going crazy creating its index this last week and a half. I'm helping write some curriculum for the university. And I have a dictionary article on "mediator, mediation" due very, very soon for a Bible dictionary (predestined to be late, it seems).

Anyway, I thought I'd interupt Paul for a few days to process some things in my mind relating to this dictionary article. I thought I'd start by doing a mini-word study here on the Greek word for mediator, mesites. It occurs six times in the New Testament, three of which are in Hebrews.

The earliest two references appear in Galatians: 3:19 and 20:

Why therefore the Law? Because of transgressions it was added until the seed that was promised should come, [and it was] commanded through angels in the hand of a mediator. Now the mediator is not of one, but God is one.

The logic of this second verse has always been puzzling to me. It is generally agreed that the mediator here is Moses ("by the hand of Moses" from Leviticus is echoed here in "by the hand of a mediator). But the big question is, what is Moses mediating between!!!

I had somewhat given up on this argument. I figured it just wasn't very convincing to me. A mediator involves plurality and God is a singularity. Therefore, a directly delivered new covenant is better than a plurally delivered old one. Believe it or not, this seems to be the prevailing interpretation now, even among conservatives!

I've come to realize that there is another option (actually J. B. Lightfoot mentioned over 300 suggestions and that was in the late 1800's). This is an option that sees Moses mediating between God and the angels in the deliverance of the Law. The idea would be that the new covenant comes straight from God, while the Law was connected to the angels. Here we remember that Paul in Galatians also connects keeping the Law to the "elements," often translated as elemental spirits. The implications for Paul's theology of the Law here would be quite immense if this was what he was thinking!

In the light of Galatians 3, 1 Timothy 2:5 is almost ironic:

For God is one. One also is [the] mediator [between] God and mortals, [the] mortal Messiah Jesus.

6) ... the one who gave himself [as a] ransom for all, the witness to our own times 7) for whom I myself was appointed a herald and apostle--I am telling [the] truth; I am not lying--a teacher of Gentiles in faith and truth.

It is less ironic if Galatians means that Moses mediated between God and the angels. 1 Timothy only speaks of Christ mediating between God and humanity. It is possible that this first expression was some sort of pre-existing tradition adopted.

My sense is that we should understand this sort of mediator language against the background of ancient patronage, with Christ serving as a "broker" between God as patron and mortals as clients. It is very interesting that 1 Timothy places Jesus on the man side of the divide here, at least for the purposes of what is being said.

The fact that "I swear I'm not lying" is here seems to imply that this letter is not just for Timothy, for whom Paul would scarcely have to say anything like this.

Hebrews 8:6: "But not he has obtained a more excellent [sacerdotal] ministry, in as much as he is mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted as law on the basis of better promises."

9:15: "And for this reason he is mediator of a new covenant, in order that, [since his] death has occurred for [the] redemption of the transgressions in the first covenant, those who have been called might receive the eternal inheritance."

12:24: you have come "to the mediator of a new covenant, Jesus, and to a blood of sprinkling that speaks better than Abel's."

One question that occurs to me as I read these passages from Hebrews is exactly what Jesus is mediating. I have often taken these verses simply to mean that God introduced the new covenant through Jesus. But it occurs to me that mediation here should probably be understood properly, as Jesus' mediation between God and humanity. The specific type of mediation in view is priestly, and it is worth noting that priestly/sacrificial overtones are present in all three of these verses.

Summary: a mediator is a go between. In Galatians and 1 Timothy, there are no priestly overtones, but these may be significant in Hebrews (my jury's out). In 1 Timothy, I think the overtones are patronal. The word seems to have the least specific meaning in Galatians.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Paul 3.5

I had spent almost a decade in Cilicia trying to spread the good news of Christ, but with little to show for it. I went from synagogue to synagogue telling anyone who would listen that the Messiah had come. If I found any God-fearers in the synagogues, I tried to meet with them in their homes to teach them about the way. Few received the message.

God showed mercy on me in those days during a time of great discouragement. He took me up into the third heaven, into his very presence. There I saw and heard things that cannot be expressed in words.

We would not spend long in Tarsus. My brother refused to eat with us while we were in his home. But my mother and younger siblings were affectionate. I tried to persuade her of the good news to little effect. She cared little about such things. Her body was weak, and she longed to sleep whether she be raised or not.

The few believers in Tarsus still attended the synagogue, although they always shared a meal on the first day of the week. We met with them one Sunday and encouraged their hearts, urging them to share the good news with others more and more. Then we collected supplies to move on toward southern Galatia.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Paul 3.4

My heart began to quicken as we approached the eastern city gates of Tarsus. It was now several years since I had been home. My father was long dead, but my mother was alive. My elder brother now was the father of the family and she continued to live in what was now his household.

He of course did not approve of my messianic beliefs, but as family he would allow us to stay at his home. My father had not been particularly pious for most of his life. We were Roman citizens. My grandfather had made tents for Julius Caesar's army as he pursued Mark Antony across the world. In return he and his family was granted Roman citizenship.

We were also citizens of Tarsus, and as a boy I attended the gymnasium for some time. I learned Homer and the basics of rhetoric. Meanwhile I learned Hebrew letters on the Sabbath. We were one of the weathier Jewish families in the city at that time.

Then one year my father announced that we were going to go to Jerusalem for Passover. He had never been to the city and wanted to visit it before he died. The experience would change our family forever. My father returned from Jerusalem determined that we would follow the customs of our ancestors. He betrothed my sister to the son of a distant cousin in Jerusalem, and he sent me to learn the teachings of the Pharisees, since they were the most respected of all the Jewish sects in the city.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Theology Sundays: God in Unity

God is the unifying "character" of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, God is at the beginning and end of the story. Only Esther in its original form does not mention God. [1] Yet both Jews and Christians understand God to be behind its story, directing its course and vindicating His people. In the light of both canons, reading Esther as Scripture will presuppose God even though He is not mentioned.

The vast majority of the OT is henotheistic rather than properly monotheist. Henotheism is the belief that while many gods may exist, only one God is appropriate for worship. This God is not only the supreme God, but the God of Israel.

The NRSV captures the likely original of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 well:

"When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the LORD's own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share."

Here we have a picture of the highest God, El Elyon, whose proper name is Yahweh (LORD) apportioning gods to the nations. He assigns Molech to Moab; He assigns Dagon to the Philistines, and so forth. But then He, the highest God, assigns Himself to Israel. Here we have the acknowledgement that there are other gods, but the LORD is the highest God and the one that Israel is exclusively to worship.

This picture, however literally we are to take it, also seems to stand behind Psalm 82:

"God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: 'How low will you judge unjustly...'

"I say, 'You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals...'" (NRSV).

And of course this perspective might also explain the curious wording of a number of passages: "You will have no other gods before Me" (Exod. 20:3) and "Let us create humanity in our image" (Gen. 1:26). The vast majority of the OT would fall into this category. When we see Elijah contending with Baal or Hosea decries sacrifices to Asherah, the prophets seem to contend with real evil forces.[3]

It is really with so called "second Isaiah" (40-55) that we encounter language of "pure" monotheism for the first time in the OT:

"I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god" (45:5).

"Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you [Israelite] survivors of the nations! They [the nations] have no knowledge--those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save" (45:20).

"To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol? -- a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold..." (40:18-19).

Christians and Jews of course would no longer want to use the word "god" in reference to the evil powers mentioned in the OT. Judaism itself at the time of Christ seems to have gone several ways in its conceptualization of these powers. The one path is that of the book of Wisdom, which like Isaiah 40-55 denies any reality behind idols:

"A skilled woodcutter may saw down a tree easy to handle and skillfully strip off its bark, and then with pleasing workmanship make a useful vessel that serves life's needs... But a cast-off piece from among them, useful for nothing, a stick crooked and full of knots ... he forms it in the likeness of a human being, or makes it like some worthless animal ... (13:11-14)

"[he] sets it in the wall, and fastens it there with iron. He takes thought for it, so that it may not fall, because he knows that it cannot help itself... (13:15-16)

"he asks strength of a thing whose hands have no strength" (13:19).

Paul apparently takes another Jewish trajectory, one that perhaps stands in greater continuity with the OT. In 1 Corinthians 10:20 he suggests that the one who sacrifices at a pagan temple is sacrificing to demons.

It is thus legitimately Christian to reconceptualize the gods of the OT as demonic forces subservient to God. Christians and Jews affirm that there is only one God.

The NT does not question the unity of God. Thus 1 Cor. 8:6 gives a sort of early Christian "creed" when it states that "for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (NRSV). Likewise, Ephesians 4:6 affirms that there is "one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all." Even Jesus himself in Mark 10:18 alludes to the oneness of God when he responds to a young man, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, God."

These passages lead us to one of the central questions of NT Christology. The oneness of God is not in question in the NT. But these classical texts of God's oneness seem to affirm it in distinction from Christ. So there is one God in 1 Corinthians 8:6, yes. But Christ is distinguished from Him in a different category, "Lord." There is "one God and Father of all" in Ephesians 4:6, but distinguished from Him in the previous verse is the "one Lord" of 4:5. In this regard 1 Timothy 2:5 is striking, "there is one God, also one mediator between God and mortals, the man Christ Jesus."

Of course these verses only represent one side of the coin. We also have passages like Hebrews 1:8, where Jesus is addressed, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever." Similarly, Titus 2:13 speaks of how believers await the appearance of "our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." And while it is a matter of significant debate, one way to punctuate Romans 9:5 would render it, "Theirs [the Israelites] are the fathers and from them is the Messiah according to the flesh, [who is] God blessed forever, Amen." [3]

The Gospel of John of course is replete with statements of the oneness of God and Jesus as Son. We will discuss John's use of logos imagery in the next section, but we might at least note his comment that "the logos was God" in 1:1. When Jesus says that "before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58), he seems to equate himself with Yahweh at the burning bush.

Indeed, there are a number of places in Paul's writings where Paul relates the title "Lord" to Jesus by way of a passage that is strikingly monotheistic in the OT. When Paul, perhaps drawing on an early Christian hymn, tells of God giving Jesus "the name above all names" and then alludes to Isaiah 45:23, what name can he have in mind but Yahweh? [4] Romans 10:13 also relates Joel 2:32 to Christ as Lord. Both Isaiah 45:23 and Joel 2:32 are passages that strongly affirm that God alone is to be worshipped. To apply them to Christ is radical, for it implies that he is also worthy of worship, like God.

Larry Hurtado and others have drawn attention to the worship of Jesus in the NT implied in passages such as these. [5] For Hurtado, this worship of Jesus is in itself sufficient to speak of Christianity already having parted company from orthodox Judaism. He speaks of the "binitarian" form of early Christian worship.

The book of Revelation of course is striking in the way that the Lamb is worshipped alongside God. A standard feature of Jewish apocalyptic literature is that when an angel appears to a seer, that person falls down on his face. But then, there is almost always a "denial formula," where the angel tells the seer to get up because only God is worthy of worship. Amazingly, Jesus does not tell John to get up in Revelation. He receives John's worship!

This worship of Jesus alongside God has led Richard Bauckham to speak of God including Jesus within His unique identity. [6] Perhaps a better way to express this phenomenon is to say that to worship Jesus is to worship God. The NT seems for the most part to subsume the godness of Jesus within the godness of God the Father.

Thus, when we return to Hebrews 1:8-9, we notice that while Jesus is addressed as God, the author is using the language that Psalm 45:7 had earlier applied to the human king on his wedding day. Hebrews 1:9 goes on to draw a distinction between Jesus as God and Jesus' God: "therefore God, your God, has anointed you [as king]." Applying divine language to Jesus thus relates to his cosmic kingship. As in the OT, language of the king being God's Son is applied to Jesus in a significantly expanded way.

The NT draws extensively on Psalm 110:1 to speak of Christ's exaltation to God's right hand as cosmic king. We notice here again that there are two Lords in play: "the LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand..." Paul's use of Lord in reference to Christ sometimes seems to draw on both of these Lords! As we mentioned above, sometimes he clearly relates LORD passages in the OT to Jesus as Lord.

In the sections that follow, we will explore the relationships of Jesus and the Spirit to the Father within in the oneness of God. But it should be fairly clear from our discussion here that our Christian beliefs on these matters owe a great deal to the unfolding of God's revelation in the church in the centuries following the NT. It is perfectly appropriate for us as Christians to read the Scriptures with these beliefs fully intact. But the original meanings of the biblical texts themselves are far from clear on the relationship between the unity of God and the divinity of Christ.

[1] Deuterocanonical Esther, the Greek form found in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox OT, has remedied this problem with prayers to God.

[2] While the Dead Sea Scrolls have largely confirmed the text of the OT as it has survived in the medieval Masoretic Text, there are a few places where they have clarified places where the Greek OT, the Septuagint, varied from the existing Hebrew manuscripts. Deuteronomy 32:8 is one of those places where the DSS have confirmed that the LXX is more original than the MT.

[3] On balance, this rendering would be quite ununsual for Paul, as Titus is.

[4] Bauckham

[5] One God, One Lord

[6] Bauckham

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Acts and Entire Sanctification

I had a good conversation with one of my uncles on the phone today. He had read my paper for the church symposium and (being a smart cookie) had noticed footnote 6:

"An informal polling at the Salvation Conference of The Wesleyan Church two years ago yielded the striking result that not a single Bible scholar at Wesley Biblical, Nazarene Theological, Asbury Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan, Houghton, Southern Wesleyan, Bartlesville, or Bethany was found who understood the Spirit-fillings of Acts to be experiences of a second work of grace. In this conclusion Wesleyan Bible scholars have apparently come to agree with the virtually unanimous sense of biblical scholarship in general that receiving/being baptized with the Holy Spirit in Acts is an entry experience rather than a secondary experience subsequent to conversion. The turning point in Wesleyan scholarship might be marked from Robert W. Lyon’s 1979 article in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, “Baptism and Spirit-Baptism in the New Testament,” WTJ 14 (1979): 14-26. The best known scholarly monograph on the topic is James D. G. Dunn’s, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970)."

As I read the paper at the conference, I did not stop to discuss this comment. It was not of course the point of the paper or even in the main text. But I did pause after the sentence that inspired the footnote:

"So in Acts 8 when a group in Samaria have been baptized in water but have not received the Holy Spirit, Peter and John travel there and lay hands on them (8:10). Almost all Wesleyan Bible scholars today would see the problem here as the fact that these people were still lacking the most important ingredient in conversion—namely, they lacked the Holy Spirit."

I nervously paused as I read this comment, noting with my usual understatement that this comment was somewhat controversial, and then suggested I move on.

Why are these things controversial? Let me give a bit of the Wesleyan story.

1. The Wesleyan Church, despite its name, was not founded by John Wesley. Its identity, probably more than anything else, derives from the holiness revivals of the late 1800's. This is certainly true of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, formed around 1900.

And I would argue it is true of the Wesleyan Methodist Church that emerged from the late 1800's. As much as I like to boast over the social consciousness of the WM church's founding, these things were not the central identity of the church as it entered the twentieth century. After many of its founders returned to the mainstream Methodist church after the civil war, its surviving identity turned to other identity markers.

These identity forming traditions of the Wesleyan Church preached entire sanctification from the book of Acts, using the Day of Pentecost as the model for how to get sanctified. The thinking goes like this. The disciples were "saved" before the Day of Pentecost. Then on the Day of Pentecost they become "entirely sanctified."

So you see that when I suggest that I have not found any Bible scholars in The Wesleyan Church currently who equate the Spirit fillings of Acts with entire sanctification, I am making a startling claim. I am suggesting that somehow, perhaps unbenownst to anyone, one of the core features of Wesleyan identity has mysteriously vanished in the last thirty years without anyone hardly noticing!

Clarifications: It is very important to point out what is not being said here. I am not suggesting that the Bible scholars at our Wesleyan schools do not teach entire sanctification. At the Saving Grace conference of two years ago, I think some of our church leaders were surprised to find a good deal of enthusiasm among Wesleyan scholars for the doctrine of entire sanctification. That is not what is at issue here, although there are implications I will mention below. Wesleyan Bible teachers strongly affirm complete victory over sin!

The issue is whether we formulate our understanding of the process of becoming entire sanctified by way of the book of Acts and Pentecost or not.

A second clarification here is that I am speaking of Bible scholars, not theology scholars. We might find a number of theology scholars who associate the Spirit fillings of Acts with entire sanctification (e.g., Larry Wood at Asbury).

Third I have specified Bible scholars, not Bible teachers (although we didn't find anyone teaching Bible at the Wesleyan schools at the conference who understood Acts this way). We might find any number of non-Bible specialists teaching here and there in Wesleyan circles who still preach Acts this way.

I'm not being elitist here. I'm speaking of graduate level training in inductive Bible study method. And I am not suggesting that a person with a PhD in Bible can hear God's Word through Scripture better than anyone else. I'm suggesting they are more likely to know what the original meaning of the Bible was.

Of course that doesn't mean they're right on the original meaning either, of course. It just means they are more likely to be right on the original meaning, especially when they have a consensus on an issue.

So how did the association of entire sanctification with Acts disappear in The Wesleyan Church?

Scene 1: The generation of current Wesleyan grandparents.

I'm going to call this phase of holiness preaching the legalistic phase. Now let me be clear, I am not suggesting that all our grandparents were legalists. And I would also make a significant distinction between being strict and being a true legalist. To me this is a very important distinction!

But the doctrine of entire sanctification was strongly connected with standards for this generation--at least that's the way their children, the generation of current Wesleyan Boomer parents, perceived it.

Holiness was perceived to mean no jewelry, no movies, no smoking, long hair for women, no slacks or pants on women, no buying on Sunday, etc... Again, I am not commenting on hearts. For my purposes, I am describing how I think the Boomer generation, the parents of the current generation, experienced their parents.

At the merger, there was a "split" of sorts in this generation, the generation of grandparents. The more "standard oriented" holiness people didn't go with the merger. To remove oneself from the church required an identifying act. And since the "liberalization of the church" was the protest, those who withdrew from our fellowship effectively defined themselves around standards as the dominant lens for understanding holiness.

Those who didn't merge thus tended to be less committed to a standards understanding of holiness. Those who withdrew might say these didn't want to be different from the world. Those who stayed might say the differences from the world of this group were arbitrary rather than substantial. Those who withdrew might say they weren't fully committed to God or were rebellious. Those who stayed might say those who withdrew did not understand what true holiness was.

This was the conflict of the grandparents' generation over holiness.

Scene 2: Boomer generation, the parents of the current generation

This group wanted to have nothing to do with what they saw as the "legalistic holiness" of their parents' generation. In fact, they cared little about the message of entire sanctification at all because they associated it with standards, what they saw as bitter people squabbling over what so and so was wearing. They saw these debates as trivial and quite distracting from the gospel.

Here also there were two ways:

a. There were those who followed John Maxwell into battle. I would say these were largely the leaders of the church for the last decades of the twentieth century. "We need to save souls and stop arguing over petty things," was their sentiment. The previous generation was seen as dying small churches of old people with no message but a lot of bitterness and backstabbing. Where are the fruit of the Spirit in these so called entirely sanctified individuals?

This was the church growth phase of our church, a phase in which almost no attention was paid to doctrine whatsoever. It was all about numbers and evangelism. This generation group couldn't care less about the doctrine of entire sanctification.

In a now famous paper, Keith Drury with regret pronounced the holiness movement dead in the 90's.

b. There was another group among the Boomers and Gen xers like me. Following the lead of the J. D. Abbott trajectory, we reached out for respectability, for decency and order. We went to seminary, where we reached out to John Wesley to be thought intelligent and respectable.

They discovered that entire sanctification was supposed to be about "perfect love," not about earrings. And here's the surprise. Wesley, the originator of the doctrine of entire sanctification, never formulated it in terms of the book of Acts! In fact, although Larry Wood has argued that John Fletcher did with Wesley's approval, consider this quote from Vic Reasoner of Northwest Nazarene University:

"Wesleyan scholars such as Herbert McGonigle, Rob Staples, Kenneth Grider, Donald Dayton, George Allen Turner, Mildred Wynkoop, Kenneth Collins, Leo Cox, and William Greathouse have all concluded that early Methodism did not connect the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost with entire sanctification, as did the later American holiness movement."

("John Fletcher Revisited" )

The seminary Boomers found John Wesley's version of entire sanctification much more attractive than that of their parents, who for the most part didn't even realize the historical forces at work on their thinking (e.g., Phoebe Palmer). They thought they were just reading the Bible and doing what it said and were almost completely unaware of the historical factors behind how they preached these texts.

At the same time, this seminary crowd absorbed the evangelical method of reading the Bible in context, inculcated not least among Wesleyan leaders by the "English Bible" method of Asbury Theological Seminary, where the overwhelming majority of seminary trained leaders in The Wesleyan Church went for graduate studies.

At the same time that Larry Wood at Asbury was a lonely voice for the early Methodists associating Acts with entire sanctification, Bob Lyon at Asbury, following James Dunn, was using evangelical methods of exegesis to show that this was not the original meaning of Acts.

Melvin Dieter, at the Saving Grace conference of two years ago, made a plea for Wesleyans to return to preaching entire sanctification from Acts. He decried Lyon (and Dunn) for the damage they had done to the Wesleyan tradition. I understand and deeply appreciate what he was saying. Wesley and Fletcher may not have formulated entire sanctification by way of Acts. But it is so much easier to promote the doctrine from Acts!

Acts gives us a narrative to preach entire sanctification in the following way. The disciples were "saved" before Pentecost. But they were cowards and weren't fully committed. Look at how Peter denied Jesus. Look at how they all ran away.

Then they get entirely sanctified at Pentecost. Now look at the boldness! Now look how they are ready to die for their faith! How much easier it is to preach entire sanctification from a concrete, experiential narrative in Acts rather than from the heady theological arguments of Wesley!

3. The current Wesleyan generation.
The current generation of Wesleyans by and large know little of the "legalism" of their grandparents' generation. It is funny to them, if anything. Yeah, "Sister so and so"doesn't wear make-up. Look at that facial hair! Can I just pluck a few of those for you?

But they don't have the bitterness of their parents' generation. Some of them are actually excited about Wesley's ideas of full salvation. They don't associate holiness with earrings or Wesleyan wads.

What about Acts? Ironically, the postmodern age re-opens the door a little to preaching sanctification from Acts.

The evangelical/Asbury/boomer scholar asks this question:
"Did Luke have entire sanctification in mind when he wrote Acts?"

I think the answer to that question is clearly "no." I mean, does he mention it? Look up "entire sanctification" in your concordance for how many times that phrase appears in the book! Does Luke say anything about removal of the carnal nature? For that matter look for the phrase "sinful nature" in Greek even in Paul's writings--you won't find it! Does Luke say anything about victory over inbred sin? Put it this way, "Would the book of Acts be worded the way it is if a holiness preacher had written it?" I think the answer is pretty clearly no.

But the holiness preacher was not asking the question I have above. They were asking this question:
"Were the disciples entirely sanctified on the Day of Pentecost?"

Now that's a very interesting question! I think I'm inclined to say they were, even though this is not a question Luke was meaning to ask or answer!

The holiness preacher, like the biblical authors themselves, placed the biblical text within an overarching story of salvation they to some extent brought with them to the text. They were not, like the evangelical scholar, trying to find it in the original meaning of the text. True, the holiness preacher intuitively drew many of the elements for that story from the biblical text. But they did not look at John for the contextual meaning of John or Luke-Acts for the contextual meaning of Luke-Acts. Rather, they drew elements from these books to tell the single, overarching story of the disciples, not the particular stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

So they were not asking what Luke's theology of Pentecost was, like the evangelical scholar of today does. They were constructing (without knowing it) a theological story of the disciples. They were hearing the Word of God in dialog with the words. In this sense they were preaching a theological parable by way of the biblical texts. This parable was not exactly the story of the "historical" disciples. Nor was it exactly the original meaning of the biblical text.

But this does not mean that the story was untrue, any more than the Parable of the Prodigal Son is untrue even though it is not a story that actually happened!

So were the disciples "saved" before Pentecost? I believe they would have gone to heaven if they had died then, just as Abraham.

And were the disciples "entirely sanctified" on the Day of Pentecost? I bet they were, even though I don't think Luke would know what you were talking about. And I'm not sure I would say the same thing of the Christians in Samaria, or Cornelius, or Paul in Acts 9, or the people at Ephesus in Acts 19, although it's possible.

The doctrine of victory over sin is not dead. The fallow ground of the Boomer field is ripe for planting. Actually, I have a twisted sense of relief about some of this story. I remember thinking as a teenager, "Wow, how unlikely is it that I would just happen to be born in the Christian group whose theology was all right!" I mean the statistics against that are staggering!

Now I think we were mostly right! And I'm releaved that since I think I can identify some blind spots to our tradition's history, the statistics are much better in my favor! ;-)

Paul 3.3

The Holy Spirit then make it very clear to me who I would ask to accompany me on the next mission. Silas was a Greek speaking Jew who agreed with me that the Jerusalem letter was a step back rather than forward for the gospel. He was better suited than Barnabas to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.

Then Titus, if he could join us, would be an excellent assistant. We would use him not only to help carry our supplies, but after the letter to the Galatians it had become clear to me how helpful it would be to have a secretary around to draft letters. I had hopes that Titus might be able to do this for the sake of the gospel.

Both Silas and Titus were excited at the idea. And Titus' father, Jason, was honored to see God's hand on his son's life. We took a couple weeks to gather supplies and then headed north toward my home country of Cilicia and the city of Tarsus.

The trip from Antioch to Tarsus took a little over a week and was a fairly easy journey. We crossed through the familiar Syrian Gates of Mt. Amanus and northward to Issus, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persians for good. From there the trip to Tarsus was a leisurely trip across the lower plain of Cilicia.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Paul 3.2

But the real disagreement started when Mark arrived from Jerusalem. Barnabas wanted to take him with us, at least to Cyprus.

"Cyprus is only the beginning of our mission," I argued. "We need helpers who will stay with us beyond Galatia and on into the west. Mark will no doubt leave us again as soon as we leave for the mainland. Titus would be a much better helper on our journey. He will stick with us no matter how hard the journey or persecution."

"I don't think it wise to have a Gentile as one of our assistants," Barnabas responded. "With Titus in our company we will immediately face obstacles with the synagogues. Mark is a law observant Jew and would put no stumblingblock to our ministry. He has great potential! And now that Jerusalem has officially opened the door to the Gentiles he will not shrink from ministry to them."

This comment angered me. "The gospel does not need cowards. The work to which God has called us will involve great opposition. What will Mark do when they come after us with stones? Will he run away, like he did the night they arrested Jesus?

"And this letter," I continued, "you know that it only threatens to divide the sacrificed body of Christ. It is so hypocritical when none of the apostles keeps the purity laws well enough to trouble about these sorts of things.

"I fear that Mark is simply a pawn of Jerusalem, sent to hold the gospel back. I will not take him with me," I said.

"If Mark is a pawn then I am a pawn, Saul," Barnabas fired back. "If you will not take Mark, then I will not be going with you either. You are not wise in your zeal. You bring all those around you into unnecessary danger. You are not the only one who would die for his faith. But there is no honor in a death before its time."

It became quite clear to me that Barnabas would be just as much a hindrance to the mission to which God called me as Mark would. Barnabas would not disregard the judgment of the pillars, and I didn't consider it of God. I needed co-workers who had no reservations about God's full acceptance of the Gentiles, clean or unclean.

We agreed to go our separate ways in peace. Barnabas and Mark would return to Cyprus. Meanwhile I would have to find a new coworker and assistant.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

3 A Second Journey

It was not long after we returned to Antioch that Barnabas came to me. He believed we should revisit the churches we had founded on our first journey. We would strengthen their faith and share the "good news" of the Jerusalem letter.

I agreed, although I was far more interested in the churches of Galatia than those on the island of Cyprus. Most of the believers on Cyprus were Jewish believers. And I wanted to go further west to preach the gospel in places it had not yet reached.

At the same time, Barnabas and I still disagreed about James' decision. "What is it that the Lord said to the Pharisees," I reminded him. "'It is not what goes into a person that makes you unclean.' Doesn't this mean that Jesus declared all foods clean?"

Barnabas was open to being convinced, but he insisted we must obey the authority of the apostles.

"Am I not an apostle too," I pleaded with him. "Are you not also an apostle? Didn't the Lord himself appear to you in Jerusalem, sending you to proclaim the good news?"

"But the Twelve have a special authority beyond ours," Barnabas believed. "You have forgotten your place, brother Saul. You never knew our Lord Jesus in the flesh as the others. And it was not long ago that you were 'exiled' in Cilicia. You have really spent very little time with the community of faith. You've spent most of your time as a believer isolated and alone."

Monday, June 04, 2007

Ecclesiology Conference

Friday and Saturday, The Wesleyan Church had a conference in Indy on the church. It was a very packed schedule of speakers and respondents with almost 100 attending.

Joe Dongell of Asbury Seminary is an incredible mind and heart. He and John Drury win my "smartest presentations" award, the ones that provoked the deepest thoughts for me personally. Joe investigated the word pastor in the NT and found consistent connections with teaching the flock. He suggested that Wesleyans needed to return to "word-bearing" as the focal role of the pastor.

John Drury explored how the relationships of the Trinity might inform how we are the church. Very interestingly, he pointed out distinctions in the three referents "people of God," "body of Christ," and "temple of the Spirit." One thought that relates to membership planning is "particularism" of the people of God (and here I'm Schenckifying his deeper thoughts) as seen, for example, in Israel. Israel was not the whole world and yet God had a particular relationship with them.

Frank Robinson of California captured our popular imagination with tales of healing and rising from the dead today. Why dont we see more miracles in America? They're happening elsewhere?

Jerry Pence, one of our three general superintendents, asked how we might think of Wesleyan worship. He had some thought provoking questions on Wesleyans as orthodox, Protestant, Arminian, evangelical, Wesleyans.

Bud Bence discussed Wesley's eccesiology and argued that it was very practical and driven by his doctrine of salvation. His default was a very high church, but those impulses were always subordinated to his drive to save souls.

I argued that many of the aspects of the NT that we have generally taken in reference to us as individuals are actually oriented around corporate Christian bodies and only secondarily around us as individuals. I wish we had been able to have public discussion time because I really don't know what the specific reaction to any of these papers was, including my own.

Then Tom McCall, a Wesleyan who teaches theology at Trinity, talked about the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and he applied it specifically to The Wesleyan Church.

These papers, the responses and mp3's of the presentations should eventually make their way to

Perhaps the issue that was in the back of many of our minds at this conference was the coming discussions over membership requirements that will almost certainly take place next year at general conference. I think the question might be rephrased, "Within the universal church, what is the identity and purpose of The Wesleyan Church?"

I have two thoughts here:
1. First, The Wesleyan Church is not the universal church. It would be both silly and unwise to pretend like our identity is simply that of generic Christianity. Membership identity in a denomination is not a question of "What is a Christian?" or "What does the Bible require of a person to be a Christian?"

Most of those who frame membership requirements in this way reflect fundamental blind spots in the way they think. For one, the Bible did not set down its requirements with a view to 21st century America and the broader world. Its books addressed various contexts in the ancient world. To think our membership requirements would simply be a mirror of what the Bible required them reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the contexts of biblical instruction.

Secondly, to make the identity of The Wesleyan Church into "every church"--as if we obviously would only require what God requires of every Christian, the lowest common denominator of all Christians--is to insist that the ears be the eyes be the feet be the nose. We can look at the history of churches this last century and see two consequences of this line of thought: 1) either the denomination in question starts to think its members are the only ones going to heaven and it alone has the truth or 2) toward a blase grey melange of generic identity that really has no clear identity. The current non-denominational church is a mixture of both of these, 1) a melange of evangelical grey that 2) thinks it alone has the truth (in contrast to, say, Catholics and non-Calvinist groups).

2) This leads to number two. Denominations do a service to the body of Christ when they do "their thing" well. The Amish do forgiveness well. The question we Wesleyans need to be asking as we look to our denominational identity and our membership requirements is "What do we do well?" Optimism of grace comes to mind, victory over sin as a doctrine, social compassion was mentioned in my small group at the conference.

I've of course already written on this, so I close with two links:

What is a Wesleyan:

What is a Wesleyan university:

Paul 2.11

I left the meeting with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I had gained a powerful weapon with which to squash any who would tell the Gentiles they must be circumcised. In addition to my own authority in the Lord, I could now refer also to the decision of the apostles, if I so wished.

Yet I resisted imposing the holiness codes of Leviticus on the Gentiles, just so that they could eat with those of us who were Jews. Silas, one of the brothers who had attended from Antioch, was also disturbed by the letter James had drafted for the Gentile churches. He was one of those who had stood by me in the controversy with Cephas.

"What do you think of this letter?" he asked me on the journey back.

"The churches to which I minister will never see or hear of it from me," I said with a smile.

"Amen," was Silas' only reply, with a grin on his face as well.

As for Barnabas, I was uncertain. There were still some tensions between us. I believed it was time to follow up with the assemblies God had founded through us in Cyprus and Galatia. The question in my mind was whether this great man of faith was becoming a stumblingblock to the Gentile believers. God had done such great things through him among the Gentiles. It would be a shame for him now to stand in God's way!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Theology Sundays

1. A Christian Biblical Theology?
At first glance, the idea of a biblical theology might seem pretty obvious. You just collect the teachings of the Bible and there you have it. Many Christians today use this kind of language. They speak as if the biblical teaching on so many subjects is a fairly straightforward thing--the "biblical perspective."

However, it does not take long to realize that a good deal of what passes as a "biblical" perspective is really a "Christian" perspective. For example, there is no "biblical" perspective on abortion. The topic is never mentioned anywhere in the Bible. And the virgin birth plays no role in the writings of Paul, John, or the vast majority of the New Testament. But it is immensely important for Christian theology.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers drove us back to the Bible, even to "Scripture alone," in their attempt to prune Christianity of beliefs like purgatory and practices like the celibacy of the clergy. But they apparently did not realize how much of fundamental Christian belief crystallized after the New Testament period. Like so many Protestants today, they did not realize how much of what they called "biblical" was really "Christian."

Another feature of the Reformation was Luther and Calvin's insistance that we read the words of the Bible literally. [N] From the very beginning, many Christian thinkers had interpreted Scripture in other ways as well. From Paul to Augustine to the medieval church, Christian thinkers often found meaning in Scripture through allegorical interpretations. But when the Reformers insisted on literal interpretation, they opened a can of worms they scarcely could have imagined.

Reading the words of the Bible literally eventually led Christian interpreters to read them in their original contexts. The biblical books say they were written to ancient audiences. Reading them literally requires us to ask what those words meant in their original settings in history. So it is not at all likely that any ancient Israelite would understand the "we" of Genesis 1:26 as a reference to the Trinity, a doctrine that was not solidified until AD325 and even then only officially. The "literal" context of the "we" in Genesis is the ancient near east, where something like the divine council of Psalm 82 would be far more likely.

The end consequence of the Reformation drive to Scripture alone, read only literally, was ultimately the divorce of the Bible and Christian theology. [N] Bible scholars came to study the original meaning of the varied books of the Bible. We might have a book on Pauline theology, assuming that his theology was consistent on some basic level. We might have a "Deuteronomistic theology" of the book of Deuteronomy, perhaps also including the so called "Deuteronomistic history" of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. But finding a unified theology of the Old Testament or an extensive unity in the theology of the New Testament has proved more difficult than the Reformers ever imagined--at least when you follow their charge to literalism through to its logical conclusions.

But all is not lost. We have seen in recent days a slow hedging on the insistence of a fully literal approach to biblical theology. [N] It is not that we must forget what the literal meaning of the biblical books is. But the onset of postmodernity has allowed for greater freedom to organize and appropriate those literal meanings in ways that actually go well beyond the biblical texts themselves.

For example, it is perfectly legitimate for a biblical theology to assume that the canonical books of Christendom are the group of books on which a biblical theology is based. This may seem obvious to those who are Christians, but there is nothing about the Bible itself that demands we focus on these particular books. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that we should look at the entire religious context of early Christianity even beyond these books, arguing that the very notion of a biblical theology is incoherent. [N] The time is ripe for us to acknowledge that our focus on these biblical books is a Christian approach, a focus that is perfectly legitimate for a Christian, even though it does not derive from the Bible alone.

Once we have acknowledged that we are constructing a Christian biblical theology, we have little reason to worry about the eccentricities and overreactions of the Reformation. Why not approach the biblical material from a systematic perspective, even though such a perspective is not intrinsic to the biblical texts themselves? We would not thereby ignore the literal, original meanings of these texts. But we would be free to organize them in a Christian way that is not the way they organize their own thought.

Finally, there are a number of issues where the biblical texts themselves have not reached a final answer on an issue, at least when they are each read literally in terms of their original meanings. The Trinity would be a case in point. Arius was quite able to argue from the biblical texts for an understanding of Christ that we now consider to be heretical. Even today, many splinter Christian groups with off center beliefs sometimes make ingenious arguments for their ideas from the biblical texts themselves.

Why not organize the biblical material on the presumption of basic Christian orthodoxy? In our exploration of God in the biblical texts, why not assume him to be omniscient, even when Genesis does not always portray him this way? Again, we need not skew the original meaning even though we are organizing and prioritizing the biblical thinking from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.

For our purposes, a Christian biblical theology is a systematic presentation of biblical thought organized and synthesized from the standpoint of orthodox Christian belief. It is a biblical theology in the sense that the materials are the actual meanings of the biblical texts. But it is Christian in the sense that it 1) limits itself to the books of the Christian canon, 2) organizes that material according to the categories of systematic Christian theology, and 3) prioritizes and synthesizes that material from a standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.

2. The Christian Canon
Before we begin to systematize biblical thought, the first question we must ask is what books constitute the Bible. From a Christian standpoint, the answer with regard to the New Testament is fairly straightforward. Since the fifth century after Christ, it has been the overwhelming consensus of all Christendom that the books of the New Testament include the following: four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the book of Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1-2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation. We accept these as the New Testament canonical basis for a Christian biblical theology, believing by faith that the Holy Spirit led the Church to consider these books the canon.

The matter of the Old Testament is more complicated, since there is no consensus on the precise boundaries. Certainly there is agreement on sixty-six of these books. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant would all accept Genesis through Deuteronomy as the Law. In the Christian partitioning of the Old Testament, Joshua through Esther we might call "historical books." [N] Christians often refer to Job through Song of Solomon as "poetic books," although of course there is much poetry in the prophets. [N] Then Christians generally refer to Isaiah through Malachi as "prophetic writings." [N]

Roman Catholics and Orthodox of course agree that all of the above are in the canon, although they would include as well books Protestants commonly call the Apocrypha. For Roman Catholics, these include Greek expansions to Esther, additions to Daniel, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Judith. The Orthodox would add 1 Esdras. Here we have debate. On the one hand, there seems little doubt but that the consensus of Christendom for a thousand years was that these books were at least "deutero" canonical. [N] In other words, they were viewed to have at least a secondary level authority to the "proto" canonical books we mentioned above.

For this reason, it appears that both Luther's excision of them completely from the canon, as well as the "promotion" of them by the Roman Catholics at the Council of Trent in 1545, were both modifications of the prior position of the Church. A number of Protestant arguments against any relevance at all for them seem disingenuous. For example, although the Jewish canon at the time of Luther may not have included them, it seems quite possible that more than one Jewish canon existed at the time of Christ. Thus Jude seems to consider 1 Enoch, probably part of the Essene canon, as Scripture. [N] The canon that we currently call the Jewish canon, may very well have been more the canon of the Pharisees and their heirs than the definitive canon of Judaism at the time of the New Testament.

Similarly, a number of New Testament books seem to engage these books in the Roman Catholic canon, even if they do not cite them as Scripture. Matthew 11 seems to draw on material from Sirach 24 and 51. Romans 1 and Hebrews 1:3 both seem to draw on the book of Wisdom. Hebrews 11 probably alludes to a story that is most clearly told in 2 Maccabees 7. In short, Luther's concerns about these books seem anachronistic from a historical perspective. A more appropriate Christian perspective would be to consider these books deuterocanonical. They may provide generative ideas for Christian thinking, while not being fully authoritative.

So it seems appropriately Christian to focus primarily on the books commonly agreed on by all, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox. Yet it also seems appropriately Christian to engage with the deuterocanonical books as well. With the limits of the canon identified, we are ready to address the actual content of the Bible.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Paul 2.10

Finally, James rendered a decision.

"Brothers, the elders and apostles have prayed and thoroughly discussed this important matter. As Peter has said, God has already shown us both in Scripture and with Cornelius that He has mercy not only on His people but also on the stranger in our gates. Clearly those Gentiles who are baptized in the name of Jesus can be saved.

"Yet we who are Jews must also follow the Law. As the prophet says, "I, God, do not change." God chose Israel to be His people out of all the nations of the earth. He gave Abraham the sign of circumcision. He gave the Law to Moses. Jesus' death does not nullify the Law or the Prophets for us Jews.

"Although it is not a problem for those of us who are here in Jerusalem, God's favor on the Gentiles has created problems for Jews in the Diaspora. For example, how can Jews share the Lord's Supper with unclean Gentiles?

"So after much prayer and fasting, the apostles and elders have come to a conclusion. We will send a letter to all Gentile believers. Barnabas and Saul will take it back with them to Antioch and from there it will be distributed to all converts from the nations.

"If the Gentiles will abstain from foods that make us unclean--meat that has been sacrificed to an idol, any meat that still has blood in it, especially meat that has been strangled, and of course if they will give up their perverse sexual immorality--if the Gentiles will do these things, then we will be able to eat at table with them."