Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lectionary Thoughts: Philippians 2:1-13

The BCP epistle reading for today is Philippians 2:1-13:

Therefore, if you find any encouragement in Christ, if you find any motivation by love, if you have any fellowship because of the Spirit, if you have compassion and good will toward me, make my joy complete because you have the same perspective and the same love. Be one in your spirit and attitude. Consider the welfare of others above your own, rather than operating with selfishness or arrogance. Operate with humility instead. Each person should consider the interests of others above their own interests.

Here is the attitude you should have--the attitude Jesus had.

Although he had the authority of God,
He did not exploit equality with God.
But he emptied himself,
And took on the status of a servant.

He became like ordinary mortals,
And when he had the shape of a man,
He humbled himself
And obeyed even until they killed him--on a cross no less.

Therefore, God exalted him even more,
And conferred on him the highest Name of all.
One day, at the Name this Jesus now has,
Every knee will bow... (those of heavenly beings, earthly beings, and the dead)
... and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
(which will bring glory to God the Father).

So, my beloved ones, just as you have always obeyed in the past--not only when I have been there but even more now that I am away--with fear and trembling, work together to make sure you all are saved in the end. For God is the one who is working among you to accomplish his will and what pleases him.

This is truly one of the greatest passages in Scripture! And while the "hymn" itself is a treasure mine of Christology, Paul's point is that Christians are to live together in the church with the same sacrificial mentality that Jesus showed when he was willing to lower himself to the status of a slave and to die on a cross.

Believers are to have this same attitude of love toward one another as well and are to work together to make sure that no one among us is lost in the end.

Collect of the Day:
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant to us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Friday Review: Seized by Truth

And so we reach the final chapter of Joel Green's book, Seized by Truth. This chapter deals with the question of the authority of Scripture.

He introduces the chapter expressing legitimate questions about Wesley's Quadrilateral--whether in fact it is an accurate description of Wesley's hermeneutic. In this chapter Green means to articulate an appropriate expression of the authority of Scripture at the beginning of the third millennium.

First he unfolds three crises in the use of Scripture in the church. The first is a crisis of function. Although gobs of people affirm the authority of Scripture, that affirmation seems to have little impact on life. Among his observations, he notes that "Affirmations of the trustworthiness of the Bible (a) entail no guarantees regarding the faithful interpretation of Scripture, (b) extract no commitments from persons regarding fidelity to the witness of the Bible..." (147).

A third aspect of the drive to affirm statements (like inerrant) is a tendency to "reduce the witness of Scripture to its propositional content" (148), which is a serious impoverishment of the more dominant narrative and poetic dimensions to Scripture. In this section Green dialogs briefly with the hermeneuticians Gadamer, Hirsch, Ricoeur, and Vanhoozer. From these four Green distills that "the stable factor in the alchemy of interpretation is the text, but, rather than grasping the text 'as it really is,' we construe texts always in relationship to the person engaged in the process of reading" (153).

A second crisis is a crisis of relevance. The biblical guild seems to inevitably get enmeshed in description of the original meaning when what God's people want is a prescription (154). Here Green refers to Barth's phrase of the "strange new world of the Bible." But Barth of course did not mean the historical foreignness of the text. He meant its theological authority over us.

The final crisis is a crisis of authority, the tendency of our culture to resist any authority over ourselves as autonomous individuals. We are in control of our destiny and the idea that Scripture stands in authority over us is difficult for us.

As a remedy for these crises, Green suggests three further things.

1. The first is a recognition of the intrinsic authority of Scripture.
Green notes that the Bible rarely makes the kinds of claims to "truthfulness" and such that seem the centerpieces of our conceptions of biblical authority. The authority that Scripture intrinsically claims for itself is the authority to show us the "way to heaven," to use a phrase of Wesley's. Further, the normal operating mode of the Bible is generally to persuade rather than command us categorically.

2. The second is a recognition of the authority of the biblical narrative.
Here Green reiterates that far more of the biblical witness is in narrative rather than prose. Even the non-narrative portions of Scripture participate "in a more extensive, overarching narrative (or meta-narrative)" (165).

Of course Green is right here, and I have pointed this out on other occasions. What Green has not said is that this overarching narrative is not strictly a matter of the text but of us as individuals and communities of readers. The effect is to shift the determinative aspects of the Bible's authority to factors outside the Bible, something Green does not state.

Two final points are that biblical authority is invitation and grace. We are invited to become a part of the grand narrative of salvation as a gracious gift from God.

At the end of these five chapters, I find us much where we were when we started. The waters in which Green is swimming are the same as the ones I am. If I were to summarize Green's hermeneutic, I would describe it as.

1. The text of the Bible is the most stable factor in the equation of the world behind the text, the world in the text, and the world in front of the text.

2. This text, as a text, is characterized by polysemy, by a surplus of potential meaning.

3. We can practice all the existing tools of biblical studies, but to read the text of the Bible as Christian Scripture requires a conversion of our imaginations. We see the people of God in the Bible as the same people of God that we are. The Old Testament is our Scripture. The brothers and sisters of the NT are our brothers and sisters.

4. We read the Bible not so much for truth propositions but to hear God's gracious invitation to us. That is an invitation to see ourselves as a part of the same grand story of salvation of which the biblical individuals were also a part.

My critique of Green may not disagree too much with him, although perhaps by saying these things I work against the conversion of the imagination that he seeks.

1. I am more optimistic at our ability to approach the original meaning of biblical texts. I don't think that such a "converted mind" should ignore places where the original meaning differs from appropriate Christian ways of reading the text. These two should not be collapsed together.

2. The recognition that there is a metanarrative into which the biblical narratives and prose fits is to acknowledge that, ultimately, the text is not the locus of biblical authority after all. From a historical standpoint, we have a fragmented original meaning authority that an interpretive mind has to integrate before some sort of uniform authoritative voice can be heard. From a spiritual standpoint, it is the Spirit breathing through the text that speaks authoritatively. From the standpoint of the community of faith, it is the community of authoritative readers who steer the authority of the text. In each case, the locus of authority is some entity outside the text in dialog with the text rather than in the text itself.

In conclusion, this book is both 1) a great dialog with key hermeneutical trajectories at present and 2) it is indeed at the front of the wave. This book is more where hermeneutics is headed than most! It stops short, however, of where I believe things are headed, namely, to the rapprochement of Protestant and Catholic hermeneutics.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Philosophy in a Christian Liberal Arts Curriculum

IWU faces its 10 year accreditation visit in three years, so we are doing the usual revisiting and reassessment of our general education curriculum. Here there are a number of terms and concepts that are often thrown around as if they are synonymous. But are they?

Is a general education curriculum the same as a "liberal arts" curriculum? Does a liberal arts curriculum constitute a "foundation for all the majors"? Is a liberal arts curriculum about being an "educated" person? a "cultured" person? To what extent does it have to do with life skills (instrumental value) and to what extent is it about truth as an end in itself (intrinsic value)? Are the liberal arts necessarily connected to the traditional subjects of the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music)?

Here are my working categories for the components of the "general education" core curriculum at a college grounded in the liberal arts:

1. components relating to "liberating pursuits"--this is the way IWU's own David Riggs has described the essence of a liberal arts approach to learning. The idea is that such learning "liberates" us from the shackles of ignorance, vice, delusion, and so forth. It enables us to be fully human.

2. components relating to "a cultured, college educated" person--this relates to knowledge valued particularly in the "Western" tradition without which a person in the West would not historically be considered an educated person.

3. the broad equipping of a person to function effectively in the 21st century world--this relates to awareness of the world beyond the Western world, a person who is generally based in such a way that they could function effectively in any other discipline, a base from which all other learning might proceed.

It is my contention that while there is significant overlap between these three centers, they each represent distinct aspects of a general education curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts. The introduction of the adjective "Christian" to the equation presents a new dynamic that significantly modifies and redirects the centers above.

My purpose in this post is to ask the place of philosophy in such a Christian general education curriculum grounded in the liberal arts.

1. In a non-Christian environment, philosophy stands at the very center of all "liberating pursuits." This is because philosophy asks the most fundamental questions without which the other disciplines never emerge from "the cave."

Without some sense of a philosophy of science, the sciences proceed without any sense of what they are really doing, like mice who do not know they are in an experiment of their own making. Without some sense of themselves, humans operate little differently from other unreflective animals. We do not fully exist until we define ourselves. And without an awareness that the world might be understood differently than we understand it, no one is truly free. The unexamined life is the life of one who is a slave to forces of which they are not even aware, forces that have mindlessly manipulated them into the blind positions in which they (don't) find themselves.

Philosophy thus stands at the center of the idea of "liberating pursuits."

The idea of Christian liberating pursuits introduces new dynamics that potentially challenge the place of philosophy at the center of human liberation. Now the motto must surely become "faith seeking understanding," and our sense of what constitutes meaning and individual significance takes on a particular form. A whole set of axioms and theorems are added to the operation of logic.

But the questions philosophy asks have not changed. It is only the presuppositions that inform the pursuit of the answers. And maybe, just maybe, God has already revealed some of the answers.

2. Certainly from a historic standpoint, there are any number of ideas and movements that should be a part of any curriculum informed by the liberal arts. An educated, cultured individual in the West should know who Socrates, Plato, and Nietzsche were and what their most signature ideas were. A college educated person should have heard of Kant's categorical imperative and should know what a utilitarian approach to ethics is.

Someone might object: "The importance we have placed on these names and ideas is an accident of history, even a construct of a particular time and place." No doubt there is an element of truth to this claim. However, if we are to follow through on this argument, then why even speak of "liberal arts," since the notion derives from the Greco-Roman world and has historically been the province of European civilizations? The very word "renaissance" implied the intention to return to the pursuits of this world, and the great universities of the late middle ages were founded under these ideas.

It is certainly in keeping with the fundamental ideas of "liberating pursuits" to move well beyond European interests (#3). To allow ourselves to be enslaved to a particular cultural tradition would be to deconstruct the fundamental idea. However, it would be equally myopic to claim that any other cultural milieu has had a greater effect on the overall look of the world today, for good or ill.

The scientific revolution that has made the world into what it is today came from Europe, and it developed in conjunction with the ideas of the liberal tradition. Democracy is not the dominant mode of human culture. It was the European Enlightenment that brought this form of government into contemporary dominance. Similarly, it is the "Western" world that has brought into dominance a focus on the rights of individuals, an orientation around equal justice for all, and a sense that truth should not be truth for groups but for individuals. These ideas are ironically in peril even in American culture today. We ironically have followed the rightful idea of tolerance and openness to the ideas of others to the point where we run the risk of abandoning ideas that have made the modern world thrive.

Awareness of the persons and key ideas of this "Western" tradition is thus engagement in the most thorough engagement with the questions of humanity available to us. We run the risk of repeating the pitfalls of the past and missing out on the blessings of the present if we do not know these things and educate our successors in them.

3. Finally, as we have already said, we cannot limit ourselves to a knowledge of the European philosophical tradition if we want to rid ourselves of blind spots. Every true human is a philosopher, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that the ancient Greek Thales was truly the "father of philosophy." Any full pursuit of truth and true liberation must ask how other cultures throughout history have done philosophy and learn from them as well.

So what should a Christian general education curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts tradition look like in relation to philosophy? Clearly there can be no such thing as a liberal arts education without addressing the questions of philosophy. To remove it from such a curriculum is immediately to disbar the term liberal arts from use. Liberal arts without philosophy is not liberal arts.

However, Christianity clearly impacts the nature of philosophy on a fundamental level. My suggestion is a course something like, "Philosophy and Christian Thought." Courses in Bible and Christian theology probably stand even more centrally in a Christian liberal arts curriculum. But as far as a Christian liberal arts curriculum, "philosophy and Christian thought" would stand more centrally.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Is "Inductive Bible Study" Appropriate for Scripture?

I value the tools of inductive Bible study. I believe that I am a competent scholar of the original meaning of the Bible because Asbury Seminary equipped me with the tools of inductive study. Inductive Bible Study is the evangelical method of choice in relation to the Bible. Grant Osborne's The Hermeneutical Spiral is now a classic evangelical Bible method book, and its first section is straight inductive Bible study.

What is inductive Bible study? It is a "scientific" method for determining the meaning of a text. It asks, "What is the most probable original meaning of this passage given the way words work in historical and literary contexts?"

So what is the problem? It is three-fold:

1. We can observe that evangelical scholars do not actually practice what they preach with regard to inductive method. They regularly go through the motions of the inductive method. But when the data approaches certain "boundaries" (pre-suppositions, Hays and Duvall would say), they shift from the most probable interpretation of the data to a possible interpretation that fits with their evangelical faith.

Of course many evangelical scholars might deny this practice, but I observe it time and time again. Even Osborne's book exemplifies this practice. His presentation of inductive method in the first 180 is highly technical and scholarly. But as soon as he gets to biblical genres, his theological beliefs begin to color his presentation in a noticeable way.

2. The Protestant drive to read "the Bible alone," led, in the modern era, to an emphasis on the original, historic, literal meaning of the Bible as the locus of God's word in the Bible. Ironically, however, attention to the literal meaning of the New Testament leads us to the realization that the New Testament authors themselves did not practice inductive Bible study method. Rather, the NT authors regularly read the OT texts to various degrees metaphorically, allegorically, in short, not in terms of what it actually meant originally.

There is a kind of crisis in "biblical theology," which has historically been oriented around the original meaning. The book by Joel Green I've been reviewing is moving in the right direction (final installment on Friday). The driving forces behind his argument are 1) the polysemy of textual meaning coupled with 2) the impossibility of objectivity anyway, and 3) a conversion of ways of thinking to an orientation to hearing/seeing Christian meanings. His result is to argue that it is not necessarily the original meaning of the biblical text, arrived at by objective inductive study, that is the meaning of the Bible of interest to us as Christians.

But the question I find myself asking even after Green's book is whether he would allow that the most likely original meaning might find itself in serious tension with the "converted mind" of the Christian reader. I must admit that I ultimately find myself drawn back to the medieval multiple senses of Scripture--literal, figurative, allegorical, anagogical. I cannot deny the validity of inductive Bible study as a method for determining the most probable original meaning of a text. Yet I cannot deny with Green that this is not at all necessarily the meaning most important for the believer.

Reading the Bible as Scripture does involve a mind converted and oriented around Christian meanings, but there is no set rule as to what level of meaning it turns out to be. The IBS meaning is a valid meaning, and it is an important meaning in the "flow of revelation." But it is not necessarily the most important meaning for believers. This is a meaning that comes from a converted mind and the mind of the Spirit.

It will be interesting to see what happens to IBS in the days to come and what happens to evangelical hermeneutics.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

James 4

Where are the battles and wars among you coming from? From here: from your passions that battle inside you! You desire and you do not have, so you murder. You are ambitious and you are not able to succeed, so you war and battle. You do not have because you do not seek. You ask and you do not receive because you do not seek with the right desires--you ask so you can spend what you get on your passions.

Adulterers, do you not know that to be friends with the world is to be enemies of God! So whoever wants to be a friend of the world has proved they are an enemy of God. Or do you think that it is for no reason that the Scripture says, "The Spirit that dwells among us yearns with jealousy."

But he gives more grace. Therefore, it says,

God opposes the proud
But he gives grace to the humble.

Therefore, be subject to God. Oppose the Devil, and he will run away from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners. Purify your hearts, those who have divided loyalties. Lament, mourn, and cry. Let your laughter turn into sorrow and your joy into gloom. Be humble before the Lord and he will exalt you.

Brothers and sisters, stop slandering one another. The person who slanders or is critical of his brother or sister slanders and is critical of the Law. And if you are critical of the Law, you are not someone who keeps the Law but a judge. There is only one Law-giver and Judge who is able to declare salvation and destruction. Yet you think you are someone who can pronounce judgment on your neighbor?

Hear now, you who say, "Tomorrow and the next day we will go to this city and stay there a year, do business, and make a profit." You do not know what your life will be like from one day to the next. You are a mist that appears briefly and then vanishes.

On the contrary, what you should say is "If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that." But now you are boasting in your arrogance. All boasting of this sort is wicked. Pay attention: if someone knows the good they ought to do and does not do it, that is sin.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monday Thoughts: What Makes for Good Preaching?

Steve deNeff gave a great sermon again yesterday. The text was David and Goliath. Here are a few of the more striking thoughts I took from the sermon:
  • We all tend to identify with David, but most of us operate with an orientation to Goliath's standard of strength.

  • We often think we are David fighting in the kingdom of Saul when we fight like Goliath in the kingdom of David.

  • Goliath was not fighting David. He was fighting God.

  • Saul wanted David to fight with Goliath's type armor. David fought with God's type of armor.

  • What's in your armory? What are your rules of engagement?
Now here is the meta-question I want to ask. Did deNeff get this wisdom from the biblical text or did the Holy Spirit bring it to him as a wise person as he read the biblical text?

I think it is clearly the latter. No doubt thousands of sermons have been preached on this text and hundreds of them have been sound. Yet I wonder how many of them drew out what deNeff brought this morning.

The Bible is a divinely appointed meeting place for us to hear God speaking. It is a sacrament of revelation. But it takes more than the words and stories of the Bible alone for the word of God to be preached and heard in Scripture.

1. It takes the Holy Spirit.
We used to call this God's anointing. The inspiration of the text will not reach the congregation unless the preacher and/or audience also receives inspiration from the Spirit. The Spirit can anoint anyone, and the Spirit can anoint the ears of anyone to hear a word from the most foolish of speakers.

However, I would argue that most of the time the Holy Spirit works closely with the natural gifts and wisdom of the human speaker. The Holy Spirit can speak through a donkey, yes, but usually He speaks through people like Paul who could speak even before they believed.

2. It takes wisdom on the part of the preacher.
God has simply blessed deNeff with great wisdom above so many of his contemporaries. Every Sunday morning God sanctifies those gifts and brings forth a word from the LORD. Certainly "out of the mouths of infants God perfects truth," but most of the time preachers are born rather than made (so also Augustine).

Most pastors will never be great preachers. They can improve to be sure. They can deliver God's word to be sure. But God has simply blessed some individuals with more wisdom than others. Without wisdom in the preacher, the Bible usually does not become Scripture in the mouth of the speaker.

If the preacher does not have wisdom by God's gracious gift, then the preacher must seek it out from others. God did not give us Scripture as an end in itself but as a sacrament in which we might hear God's voice through the Holy Spirit and His anointing of those to whom He has granted the gift of wisdom.

But the words of the Bible alone ensure that God's word is heard no more than if you were simply to read the words and sit down. Often doing so would not be too shabby in itself! But wisdom is a crucial thing--seek wisdom.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lectionary Thoughts: Matthew 20:1-16

The gospel reading for this Sunday in the Book of Common Prayer is the Parable of the Day Laborers. A man hires workers for a vineyard at various points throughout the day. He agrees on a wage with each before they work, the same wage.

At the end of the day, there are some who have only worked since late in the day, but they are given the same as those who have worked all day. Those who worked since the morning cry foul.

This is a parable that seems very unfair to Western sensibilities. We believe that a person should be paid according to the amount of work they do. In the parable, those who worked all day are paid according to the amount of work they do, but the landowner gives the other workers more than they have worked for. In short, this is a parable about God's mercy.

It is actually not too different from the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother in that story is upset because the prodigal son is getting much more than he deserves. In terms of Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees might have leveled this charge at Jesus for proclaiming God's forgiveness of toll collectors and prostitutes. The Pharisees had actually been following the Law for a long time. And now the wicked of Israel could just repent and join God's blessing on an equal footing with all those who had been striving hard for God's favor all this time?

These parables are all good news to the sinner. Indeed, according to Paul, the metaphor of working for our reward from God ultimately breaks down. We are all laborers who join in the work well late in the day. God has not been "fair" or "just" with us but has shown us great mercy in the pay He will give us on the Day of Salvation.

What is surprising is how prevalent it is that the human animal begrudges God's mercy and blessing to others. It is not enough for us to enjoy God's grace--we want it more than others. If we are not enjoying the prosperity of God's grace, we don't want anyone else to.

The Parable of the Day Laborers is comparatively kind to these "elder brothers" among us. But a quick look at Matthew 23:33 should sober us lest we suddenly realize that we have stopped working and may not even get our wage!

Collect of the Day
Grant us, Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that will abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What Wesleyans Mean by "Inerrant"

I thought I would repost this edited position piece I wrote a while back.
The Wesleyan Church has a number of reasons to celebrate its theological identity beyond its Wesleyan theology in general. For example, Wesleyans have never fought over which way you should baptize. You can immerse, sprinkle, pour, baptize an infant, baptize an adult, or even not baptize at all in a few cases. We were opposed to slavery when most other Christian groups were riding the fence, and many other preachers were members of the KKK. We were in favor of women voting and taking all roles in ministry a hundred years before secular feminism and long before it was the “in” thing to teach in American society—or even in broader Methodism!

On many issues, the typical Wesleyan looks a lot like conservative (even fundamentalist) believers in other churches. But there are some very significant differences in our attitudes on these same issues. For example, it is true that most of our churches only practice adult baptism by immersion. So imagine the surprise of some visitors in our midst to find out that we can also practice infant baptism if someone in our congregations desires it. Similarly, most Wesleyans do take the standard fundamentalist positions on political issues. But you will also find that our Methodist roots peek out here and there, leading some Wesleyans also to emphasize social justice over the issues on which fundamentalists tend to focus. Unlike many other denominations to which we are superficially similar, The Wesleyan Church is more generous in the spirit of its orthodoxy.

The Wesleyan Church’s attitude toward inerrancy stands in a similar vein. Certainly we have within our number individuals who have joined us from fundamentalist denominations with very specific understandings of this term. It would be easy to assume that we mean exactly the same thing that the Southern Baptists or the renowned “Chicago statement” means by the word. But as with other issues, our historic flavor is quite different from churches where this term has been very divisive.

The main difference between The Wesleyan Church and so many other fundamentalist denominations is the “flavor” of our spirit. In our history we have rankled mostly over how to live, things we used to call “standards.” Should women wear jewelry? Should you have a job on Sunday? At the same time, we have rarely rankled over the same ideas that have been hot issues for other groups. The biggest idea that we have rankled over is holiness, a topic scarcely noticed by most other traditions.

In reality, Wesleyans have neither the flavor of fundamentalism nor even broader evangelicalism. Rather, we are historically a revivalist tradition. Revivalism is an approach to Christianity that is far more interested in a person’s spirit than their positions. We did not join the battles of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900’s. Those were the battles from which the term inerrancy arose. Churches like the Southern Baptists or the Missionary Church have a very specific understanding of inerrancy that has come from these debates. For them, the word evokes debates over whether the Bible contradicts itself on matters of history and science.

Wesleyans have never had these debates. It is insightful to trace the history of the word inerrancy in the two parent denominations from which we come. One of these parent groups, the Pilgrim Holiness Church, did not have this word in their faith statements. The other group, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, had only introduced the term into its statement in the 1950’s, mostly at the urging of a man by the name of Stephen Paine. He was a scholar from Houghton College in New York who was tracking the fundamentalist-modernist issues.

As they came to the merging conference, the Pilgrims had not been tracking the fundamentalist debate over inerrancy. They were far more interested in faith statements on the end times. Here is another issue where restraint won out. The Wesleyan Church does not have a specific position on how the end times will take place. Again, most Wesleyans are pre-millennial and believe in a seven year tribulation. But within the limits of basic Christian orthodoxy, all positions on the end times are allowed.

When it came to inerrancy, the Pilgrims certainly did not want to vote in favor of error in the Bible! So they voted with the Wesleyan Methodists for the word to be in the new Discipline as a vote of confidence in the inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of the Bible. But we have never defined what inerrancy might specifically entail on the issues that gave the term birth. It is for us a very broad affirmation that God never makes mistakes and God inspired the whole Bible.

The vast majority of Bible teachers in the Wesleyan Church think this generality is a good thing. In retrospect, history has helped us to see certain aspects of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early twentieth century with greater clarity than the participants in it did at the time. For example, in the process of opposing certain modernist positions, fundamentalists inadvertently adopted the same modernist categories as their opponents. They defined errors in terms of modernist definitions of science and history, when the Bible was not written for modernists. It was an anachronistic standard by which to define errors. Thankfully, our lack of engagement with these controversies largely kept us immune to this side effect at the same time that we had full confidence in the Bible.

Harold Lindsell, author of The Battle for the Bible, has inadvertently given us some great examples of this side effect while in fact defending a fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy. At one point he tries to harmonize the various gospel accounts of Peter’s denial of Jesus. In the end, to get all the denials of the gospels in, he suggests that maybe Peter denied Jesus six times—three before the cock crowed once and three before it crowed the second time.

This is ingenious, but notice that Lindsell’s suggestion does not actually match any of the gospels. Fundamentalists regularly end up making up their own, strange versions of the Bible’s meaning in an attempt to fit things together. The problem for Wesleyans is that Lindsell has created a fifth gospel that is none of the four that are actually inspired. His intentions are wonderful, but his effort and end product misguided. His “high view” of inerrancy ironically leads him to disrespect what the Bible actually says, to change all the gospels to something that fits with his idea. The fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy tends to pay more attention to the letter than to the spirit of the text.

A Wesleyan would not usually worry about working out inerrancy in this kind of detail. Peter denied Jesus three times. Perhaps there is some way of fitting the specific denials together. But the point of the incidence was not about the exact way in which the denials took place. It was the fact that Peter denied him three times.

Asbury Theological Seminary, which is one of the preferred seminaries of The Wesleyan Church, has a helpful statement on inerrancy: “the Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms.” The important question is thus, “What was God affirming when He inspired this particular passage?” For example, was the point of Philippians 2:10 that the earth is flat and that there are beings under and above the earth: “that at the name of Jesus every knee might bow—of those in the skies and on the earth and under the earth”?

No, this was not the point Paul was affirming in this passage. The way he pictures the world here is the way Jews in Paul’s day pictured the world. The point God was making was not cosmology, but the fact that every living being that exists will bow before Christ. We should not be surprised or disappointed in any way that God revealed this truth in terms that Paul and the Philippians readily understood. To do otherwise is to assume that God had to reveal on my terms, even though He spoke this word originally to them. Rather, we celebrate that God is a God who speaks, not above our heads, but in terms we can understand.

The fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy uses the lens of our modern debates over science and history to interpret truth that God revealed in the categories of its ancient audiences. Rather than tell the modernists of the early twentieth century that they were applying the wrong standard to the Bible—an anachronistic one—fundamentalists of the day tried to read modern categories into the biblical text. These were concerns that did not even exist at the time the books of the Bible were written.

Meanwhile, our Wesleyan forebears were still reading the Bible in a “spiritual” way. This is the way that most Christians throughout the centuries have read Scripture and, indeed, is the way the New Testament authors read the Old Testament. Without even realizing it, they did not pay much attention to the differences between the biblical world and ours. They were interested in the spiritual message God intended the words to have for us. They were not focused on fitting stories together or making sure the words of the Bible could be defended in the light of modern scientific theories.

The distinction between the original revelation to the ancient audiences and how God wants us to hear Him speaking to us through Scripture today is an important distinction when defining what inerrancy might mean. The original meaning of the Bible is rarely exactly the same as the way we read the Bible today, for we do not view the world the way the original audiences did. If the words were in our categories today, they would not have made sense in the categories back then. And since the Bible literally tells us these books were first written to them, we should expect the biblical categories to reflect those of ancient times more than they reflect ours. The fundamentalist approach to inerrancy thus tries inadvertently to have a meaning that fits equally well within both ancient and modern categories.

The idea that the Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms captures the Wesleyan sense of inerrancy well. Certainly God’s word could never be in error. The challenge is in determining what the Bible affirms rather than in acknowledging its inerrancy. Certainly when God’s Spirit truly reveals something to an individual through the words of Scripture, this affirmation will be without error. And anything that God has authentically revealed to the Church, to a specific church group or specific individuals, is an affirmation without error.

The situation is a little more involved when it comes to the original meanings of the Bible’s words. Wesleyans view all the books of the Bible as individual instances of inspired, inerrant revelation. The points that God was making in each case were without error for each particular context within a scope appropriate for their times and situations. The more we understand these moments of revelation in historical context, we realize that these moments are in a flow of revelation. God’s message in Deuteronomy freely allowed for divorce and polygamy. There was no error made for that context. But Deuteronomy does not give us the final word on these subjects. We must thus understand inerrancy in terms of the place of each book in the flow of salvation history.

Further, much of the instruction of the Bible addressed specific situations and contexts. The passage of 1 Corinthians 11 on women’s head coverings is so foreign to our contemporary context that even scholars can scarcely reach a consensus on exactly what Paul meant. And greeting the brothers with a holy kiss just would not come across the same way in our churches as it did in ancient Thessalonica. We must therefore understand inerrancy also in terms of the specific contexts and situations that each book originally addressed.

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

Wesleyans welcome all those who feel drawn to us and find in our congregations a kindred spirit. But you may also find some Wesleyan flavors that surprise you from time to time. A fundamentalist Baptist will feel very comfortable worshipping with us most of the time. But occasionally it shows through that our roots are revivalist rather than fundamentalist. We use some of the same words as fundamentalist groups. But they do not always have the same connotations they do in other traditions. The end result often looks similar, but it is a different spirit that is much more generous on matters like these. As John Wesley once said, “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”

Appropriating the Bible

For what it's worth, I cranked out a few posts for a graduate class on appropriating the Bible.

If you would, wait about a week before you comment there, if you are inclined to comment. Let the class post this week. But feel free to post here this week. Next week, I'll slip the material back here by predating it and then delete the other blog.

There's much about these posts to debate. I would especially like to know what Green thinks of these entries, given our discussion of his book.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Grant Osborne on Inclusive Language

I continue reading in Grant Osborne's Hermeneutical Spiral for the advanced topics class I am teaching this semester. The chapter on syntax has a new section on the "inclusive language debate," particularly in relation to the TNIV. Apparently Osborne served on the committees that created the NLT, so he is very open to "functional equivalence" translation like these, although clearly he is okay with formal equivalence translations as well. He sees a role for both and passes on a nice spectrum chart created by D. A. Carson:


Of course the last two aren't really translations but paraphrases of the English.

The name that shows up over and over in this "excursus" is Wayne Grudem, who led a good deal of the charge against the TNIV. Osborne does not attack him at all, but by the time I was done reading this section, the magnitude of Grudem's lack of understanding of how language works was quite noticeable. This would then also include others who led the charge against the TNIV: R. C. Sproul, John Piper, James Dobson, etc... By the way, anyone who questions Grant Osborne or D. A. Carson's conservative credentials is psycho.

Here are some quotes from this section of Osborne:

"Spirit is feminine in Hebrew and neuter in Greek--should we translate 'she' in the Old Testament and 'it' in the New Testament? No one does so" (155).

"Do we 'change God's words' when we translate he as 'they' (so Grudem 1997:30-32)? If that were true, it would entail retaining every original word and syntax from the Hebrew or Greek, and the translation would be unreadable" (156).

"In terms of lexical [meaning] correspondence, we must realize that words do not have individual meaning but collational meaning, that is, they draw meaning from their relationship to other words in the sentence (e.g. make pancakes, make sense, make friends, make a place)" (156).

"Changing from the individual to the group or from the inclusive 'he' to a plural does not change the meaning in any way" (154).

The response of Craig Blomberg, another conservative evangelical, is also mentioned in an endnote. He mentions among other points that it is increasingly becoming correct grammatically to write, "anyone bringing their textbooks." I know I find myself writing this increasingly, although I usually then undo it since a colleague corrected me publically once for it in something I had written for a committee.

But of course English teachers do not create the rules and can only enforce them in their classes. "[S]tylistic conventions are determined by current consensus" (526, n.29).

I have put it this way--if we have to have the level of verbal accuracy in translation that Grudem, World magazine and others require, then shame on anyone for using English at all. To be consistent, we will have to ban all translations from use as the Muslims do the Quran. No translation can measure up.

Frankly, since all manuscripts differ from each other in some respect, we are lost if this is the case. We will all have to go back to the Greek tradition behind the KJV too on faith that somehow it was the Bible of the earliest Christians despite the evidence to the contrary. Surely God wouldn't have allowed the majority of Christians throughout the medieval period to follow a text that differed by as much as 5% from the original in its wording. And then we will all have to become Roman Catholic, for surely God would not have allowed the beliefs of the church to differ from the original for 1000 years either.

Or maybe the problem here doesn't have anything to do with the Bible but with typical resistance to the advance of God's kingdom because of deeply ingrained biases mistaken for God.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Book Review: Seized by Truth Chapter 4

Chapter 4 of Green's book is on "Methods" to read the Bible as Christian Scripture. This chapter gets a little more specific and concrete about what exactly we are looking at when we are looking at Scriptural reading, Green style. Further, some of our suspicions are confirmed.

I found p. 125 most revealing: "[N]o particular method can be identified as the correct one, nor can any method ensure a faithful reading of the Bible as Scripture. We are dealing here with a mysterious alchemy for which the biblical text serves as the single stable factor in an otherwise shifting equation. We can say, though, that any and all methods must be tamed in relation to the theological aims of Scripture and the ecclesial context within which the Bible is read as Scripture."

I largely agree with this statement, although I still suspect some differences between my thoughts and Green's. However, let me use the paragraph above to summarize chapter 4.

1. "the biblical text serves as the single stable factor in an otherwise shifting equation"

Over half of this chapter discusses the nature and limitations of the well known rubric "the world behind the text," "the world in the text," and "the world in front of the text" (see Randolph Tate's book on Biblical Interpretation that we use in our master's course at IWU).

The world behind the text is the historical background of the text. My sense has always been that Green is a little more pessimistic about our ability to identify the original intent of a text than I am. But he is correct that any appraisal of the world behind the text will be partial and affected by the perspective of the interpreter. Also he is correct to say that "it will often be easier to determine those interpretations that are insupportable or outside the boundaries than to authenticate or accredit another" (137).

The world in front of the text is the world of the reader. Green mentions some of the more vigorous reader oriented approaches and correctly indicates that these have no control to keep them from becoming pure mirror readings of the values of those reading the text. He prefers the kinds of reader-response approaches typified by Umberto Eco and Wolfgang Iser. The former looks for a reader who will sympathize with the author as they read. The second is known for his treatment of gaps in the text that the reader must fill in.

But Green opts for the text itself as the centerpiece of a Scriptural hermeneutic, "the single most stable factor." However, he makes it clear that the text alone does not constitute Scripture. Texts do not contain within themselves everything needed for their interpretation. For example, they often have a referential quality that requires us to look into the world behind them. But they are the starting point for interpretation: "The center of the interpretive process is the text, but the text is never alone" (123).

Green also reiterates some of what he has already said about Scriptural reading being a "ruled reading":

-- "a reading of the Bible as Christian Scripture cannot be sundered from the doctrine by which the church has its identity"

-- "a decision to read a biblical text as a constituent of the canon of Scripture predetermines the range of possible readings of that text" (122).

I have argued something very similar. My question for Green is whether he is setting limits for the appropriation of biblical texts or for what they meant originally. For example, it seems unlikely grammatically and especially in terms of the world behind the Genesis texts, that Genesis 1:1-2 implied ex nihilo creation, even though it is certainly possible to read the text alone in terms of ex nihilo.

So is Green arguing that despite what "Moses" might have had in mind, we need to appropriate these verses in terms of ex nihilo creation (as I do)? Or is he saying that by faith we must believe that ex nihilo creation was in fact the original intent? Or perhaps he is arguing something I could also accept, namely, that while "Moses" surely was not thinking about ex nihilo creation when he wrote this, God was.

2. Green gets a little more specific about method in the second half of the chapter. On a funny side note, I was having flashbacks of my interview at Asbury last year as I was thinking about the chart Green has on pp. 127-28. I was asked about my method of getting from text to sermon, and I said something about having all the tools at a conference table with each speaking as seemed appropriate to the topic at hand. I know that some found this answer rather vague, maybe even hermeneutically unsophisticated.

But it is not unlike the flavor of this chapter, which resists the sense that you can plug all the data into a methodological equation and arrive at a "tame" answer, like Osborne's Spiral that speaks of the sermon with the points to preach on the basis of a complex method.

Green discusses the tools of the interpreter in terms of text, cotext, context, and intertext. Items of concern with regard to the text include textual criticism, genre, limits of a passage, train of thought, and what the text is about in summary. Items of cotext have to do with the broader literary context in the book, important words and motifs that extend beyond the specific text before you, and the generation of interpretive possibilities.

The context for Green engages the world behind the text: socio-historical setting, cultural background, areas where the text stands in tension with its historical context. Finally, by intertext Green refers to citations and echoes of other literature, relationships with other books in the canon, and the relationship between the text and the creeds.

I still remain unclear as to whether Green thinks attention to such things will always result in a reading that does not stand in tension with other readings of Scripture. I did not find his section, "Criteria for Assessing Interpretations," very helpful when it comes to downright difficult passages. Perhaps he will shed further light in the last chapter.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

James 2

A translation of James 2:
My brothers and sisters, do not live out the faith that relates to our glorified Lord Jesus Christ with favoritism. Say a man with a gold ring comes into your synagogue with attractive clothing and a poor person also enters with sordid clothing. Say you look at the one with the attractive clothing and say, "You, sit here in this good seat." Then to the poor person you say, "You, sit there or sit at my feet." Have you not distinguished between yourselves and become evil in your judgment?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters, has God not chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the coming kingdom which he promised to those who love him? And yet you have dishonored the poor! Is it not the rich who are oppressing you? Is it not they who are dragging you to court? Is it not they who blaspheme the good name invoked over you in baptism?

Certainly you are doing well if you only satisfy the royal law found in Scripture: "You will love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show favoritism because of wealth, you are sinning and are guilty as a transgressor of the Law.

For whoever keeps the whole Law but ignores one particular area is fully guilty. The God who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." So if you do not commit adultery but you murder, you are still a law breaker.

So talk and behave as someone who is going to be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment will come without mercy to a person who does not practice mercy. Mercy takes priority over justice.

Faith and Works
What is the benefit, my brothers and sisters, if some should say that they have faith but do not show it in their deeds? Is it possible that such faith will save them? Say a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily bread. Then say one of you says to them, "Go in peace! Get warm and get fed!" Yet you do not give to them the necessities of the body. What is the benefit? So also faith, if it does not result in action, by itself is a lifeless corpse.

But someone with the right attitude will say, "You have faith, but I have deeds. Show me your faith that does not lead to action. I will show you my faith by my action." You have faith that there is one God? It is good to have that faith! But remember that the demons have that faith too, and yet they are terrified of what is to come for them!

Are you willing to learn, foolish person, that faith that does not lead to action is pointless.

Take Abraham, our father. Was it not his obedient actions that resulted in God's approval when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? See how his faith worked together with his actions? His faith became complete when it led to obedient actions. The Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham had faith in God, and it was reckoned to him as innocence." Thus Scripture calls him a "friend of God." See how a person is justified by actions and not by so called "faith" alone?

Similarly, did not the actions of Rahab the prostitute also result in God's approval, because she welcomed the messengers and sent them out a different way? The bottom line is that just as the body without the spirit is a corpse, so also faith if it does not lead to action is dead.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Classroom Snippets: Intertestamental in Nutshell

I've had a particularly difficult time staying on schedule in my intertestamental literature class so far this semester. I meant to finish an overview of the period today but I'm not even to the Maccabean crisis. Since we'll get to all these things with the literature itself, I'm just going to join the syllabus with our first actual reading on Friday (expansions of Esther and additions to Daniel).

But I thought I would blog here (and then email the class) the "on the test" notes, plus a little more. So here's a doubly abbreviated sketch of the history of the intertestamental period.

The phrase "intertestamental period" is actually somewhat vague. When did the OT end? Malachi is probably late 400's. Non-evangelicals would date Daniel to the early 100's. "Second temple period" is better, and scholars generally refer to "Early Judaism" now in relation to this period (as opposed to the older and skewed term "Spatjudaismus" or "late Judaism" of another day). By the way, we speak of Israelites before the captivity and Jews afterwards. Jew is related to Judah, which of course is the primary tribe to survive the Assyrian conquest in the late 700's.

Some dates:

586 -- Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians
538 -- Cyrus, king of Persia, allows Jews to return to Jerusalem if they wish
516 -- Temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel, beginning of the Second Temple Period

Of course the OT is not fully "cooked" yet at this time by any reckoning, conservative or otherwise. There is Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 1-2 Chronicles, and Malachi yet to be written at the very least.

In 539, the Persians defeat the Babylonians. The Persians will be the ultimate rulers of Israel until 332 when Alexander the Great takes over the region. We know very little about Israel during this period except:

  • The high priests seem to be the focal point of political power.
  • There are pockets of Jews in Babylon, Ecbatana, Egypt, etc.
  • A Jewish settlement exists in Egypt at Elephantine in the 500's and 400's. They build a temple (where sacrifices are offered) and have a military "base" on an island.
  • The Elephantine papyri are the earliest Jewish writings we have (in terms of copies... much of the OT is of course older). They are syncretistic.
In 332BC Alexander the Great takes over the world and the world is Hellenized. Older hard and fast distinctions between Jewish and Greek thought at the time of Christ seemed to miss the fact that the whole world was "Greekified" for about 300 years before Christ came, including Palestine. If it weren't for the Maccabean crisis, Israel probably would have blurred away into generic Greco-Roman.

Meanwhile Alexander endorses the building of a temple to Zeus at Samaria, dealing with one of the descendants of the Sanballat who opposed Nehemiah's reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem a little more than 100 years earlier.

After Alexander the Great died in 323, his generals vied for control of his conquered territory. For our purposes, the two most important heirs were Ptolemy, who eventually secured control of Egypt and Jerusalem, and Seleucid, who controlled Syria and the East. The Ptolemies would be in charge of Israel from that point until 198BC, when the Seleucids finally beat them.

We know little of the 200's for Israel, except that the high priests continued to be the chief political power. Events in Egypt are perhaps more significant. In around 250, the Pentateuch is translated into Greek at Alexandria. We also have a bit of "competative historiography" going on. An Egyptian named Manetho had written a slanderous version of Jewish history, with Moses ousted as the leader of a leper colony. In the late 200's, Demetrius the Chronicler and Artapanus will try to set the record straight.

Demetrius is the first datable Jew to write in Greek. Of course Artapanus' version was less than desirable. He has Moses being the one who taught the Egyptians their animal gods.

In 198 the tide changes, and the real background to the NT really gets going. The Seleucids now control Israel from Syria. Of course they don't enjoy the victory long, for the Romans subjugate them at the Battle of Magnesia in 190. They pass the pain along to Israel.

The next 20 years are some of the most crucial in the history of Israel. Jason and Menelaus will wrest the high priesthood from Onias III and go Greek. There will be a Greek gymnaseum in Jerusalem and the Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, will try to stop Jewish observance of the law.

But also during this time is the writing of Sirach and the flourishing of the Enochic Jews responsible for 1 Enoch.

Antiochus pushes just a little too far and the Maccabean revolt begins. He desecrates the temple in 167BC, setting up a statue of Zeus. This is the subject of Daniel 11.

The Hasidim resist valiantly, but die when Antiochus attacks on the Sabbath--they won't fight. The Hasmonean family, led by Judas "the hammer," Judas Maccabeus, are not such purists. Their guerilla warfare eventually convinces Antiochus that the fight isn't worth it.

Judas is killed in battle, but he has made some alliances along the way (e.g., the Romans). The Syrians confer the title "high priest" on his brother Jonathan. The Syrians are still in control, but they have given up on making the Jews stop observing their laws.

It is during Jonathan's time that the Jewish groups we know so well begin to coalesce. The Pharisees are perhaps the heirs of the Hasidim. The Sadducees are perhaps the priestly families who were removed from office just before the crisis and who remained out of office because the Maccabees now were the high priests. The Essenes were the heirs of the Enochic Jews. They continued to write books like Jubilees. A splinter group of them we call the Dead Sea sect would eventually make its way to Qumran along the Dead Sea.

By the time we get to Aristobulus around the year 100BC, these Maccabeans have taken on the title king. Till 63BC, they will enjoy the most independence Israel has had since before the Babylonian captivity. Of course they are still subjects of the Syrians, but they have a good deal of freedom. During these years many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written. 1 and 2 Maccabees are written.

In 63BC, a squabble between Maccabean brothers gets the Romans involved, and from that point on Israel is subject to the Romans. The Roman general Pompey takes Jerusalem and actually enters the Holy of Holies, perhaps to offer his thanks to Yahweh for victory. The Psalms of Solomon will invoke strong predictions of the Messiah who will stomp on the Gentiles probably with Pompey in mind.

In 40BC, the Romans let an up and coming by the name of Herod rule Judea for them. In 31BC, Augustus will become emperor. Herod "the Great" will start refurbishing the temple in 20BC. Just before he dies in 4BC, a child will be born in a little village called Bethlehem.

Monday, September 10, 2007

James 1

We dive into the first chapter of James tomorrow in General Epistles class. I thought I might try my hand at a somewhat "dynamic" translation:
James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are in the Diaspora. Greetings.

Whenever you chance upon different trials, my brothers and sisters, consider it to be pure joy. Do so because you know that the proving of your faith brings about endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, namely, that you become mature and whole--lacking in nothing.

And if one of you lacks wisdom in such a trial, ask from the God who gives genuinely to all and does not reproach someone for asking. Wisdom will be given to this person. But let them ask with faith and not be unsure if they really want the wisdom to endure through the trial. The person unsure in this case is like a wave of the sea driven by the wind and blown about.

Do not think that this type of person will receive anything from the Lord. These individuals have divided souls. They are unstable in all their ways.

But let the brother or sister humbled by trial boast in their exaltation. And let the rich who perecuted them boast in their humiliation, because they will pass away like a flower in a field. The sun rises with burning and dries out the grass and its blossum falls off and its attractiveness goes away. So also the wealthy will wither away in the middle of their pursuits.

Also blessed are those who endure another kind of testing, temptation. When they prove worthy they will receive the crown of life that has been promised to those who love God. Let no one say when they are tempted, "I am being tempted by God." God is not tempted to do evil things, and he himself tempts no one.

Rather, everyone is tempted by their own desires, as they are dragged away and trapped. Then when desire has become pregnant, it gives birth to sin. Then when sin is finished it gives birth to death.

Stop being deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters. Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or changing shadow. As he desired he has given birth to us through the word of truth so that we might be a certain first harvest of his creations.

You should know, my beloved brothers and sisters, that every one must be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. For the anger of a man or woman does not bring about the same kind of righteousness that God will show on the Day of Judgment.

Therefore, put off all dirtiness and excess of wickedness in humility and receive the implanted word that is able to save your lives. Become doers of this word and not just hearers who are not thinking straight. If someone is a hearer of the word but not a doer, this person is like a man who would look at his face in a mirror, the face of his birth. But then after considering himself and going away, he immediately forgets what he looks like.

So the person who glances at the perfect law of freedom and continues to look at it, this person has not become a forgetful hearer but a doer of deeds. This kind of person will be blessed in what he or she will do.

If people think they show proper due to God but do not restrain their tongue and deceive their own heart, their worship is meaningless. Pure and blameless worship before God our Father looks like this: looking after orphans and widows who are in distress and keeping yourself uncorrupted by the world.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Book Review: Seized by Truth Chapter 3

Chapter 3 of Joel Green's book discusses the "resources" necessary for reading the Bible as Scripture. He begins by reiterating the current conundrum we find ourselves in. Since Philip Gabler, the "father" of biblical theology, we have found there to be an "ugly ditch" between the Bible and Christian theology. The reason is a sense of the "historical rootedness of the text" and the "historical gap" separating us from the original author's and audiences (64). This is the gap that Green aims to nullify.

[As an aside, I came across some very interesting quotes in Grant Osborne's Hermeneutical Spiral this week that illustrate the situation Green is addressing. Osborne teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is a model card carrying ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) evangelical who affirms the inerrancy of Scripture.

Here they are: "Luther [in his conception of the clarity of Scripture] meant the final product (the gospel message) rather than the process (recovering the meaning of individual texts... In the last century, however... the need for hermeneutical principles to bridge the cultural gap was ignored... The principle of perspicuity [the clarity of Scripture] was extended to the hermeneutical process as well... Hermeneutics as a discipline demands a complex interpretive process in order to uncover the original clarity of Scripture. Again, the result is clear but the process is not..." (27).

This is a very fun passage for me. I do agree that finding the original meaning is hard work that often necessitates a high degree of skill and training. I have argued elsewhere that if the original meaning is what we must know to hear God's voice in Scripture, then most people are sunk. This claim leads me to affirm that there are other meanings to Scripture that are God's direct voice through the Spirit. This is something like the tact Green is taking, although he seems far less confident that we can know the original meaning.

I end my sidebar on The Hermeneutical Spiral with another quote that makes me smile given Keith Drury's frequent complaint as well that the requirement of such complex methods in effect establishes a new priesthood of the Bible--the Bibleheads--and bars the untrained from being able to hear the Word of God. So here is another quote from Osborne: The hermeneutical principles "are not restricted to any 'elite' but are available to all who have the interest and energy to learn them." So Osborne claims it isn't a priestly class because anyone can learn the methods of exegesis! Ha!]

Returning to Green, he suggests three aspects of reading the Bible directly as Scripture to us rather than to them in distinction from us.

1. To read the Bible as Scripture, we must be "ecclesially located," that is, we must read Scripture with the church. "The best interpreters are those actively engaged in communities of biblical interpretation" (66).

The community of the church has itself been formed by Scripture. We find ourselves in these texts, things we want to avoid and emulate. Of course, Green has already emphasized that theologically we must consider ourselves part of the same people of God to which the people of the Bible belonged.

Green recognizes, however, the danger that we will only find in the words a reinforcement of what we want to hear. We have to open ourselves up to being changed. I am unclear exactly how this is to take place in Green's view, unless it be through the Holy Spirit. To me Green seems vague on exactly how we are to lock onto the right meaning of the words for us. Perhaps more is to come.

The last part of this section repeats the fact that there are no neutral or objective readings of texts, particularly the biblical text. He distinguishes these illusions from free wheeling mirror readings, though. He prefers to speak of a certain self-reflectiveness instead of objectivity. We are open to change of our view and are reflective of the forces at work in our interpretation.

2. Reading Scripture is theologically fashioned. Green mentions three assumptions:
a. The Old Testament is part of the grand narrative whose main character is God.

b. There are "rules of engagement" with Scripture (80). This is very similar to what I've said many times in relation to the "rule of faith" and the "law of love." Any application of Scripture that does not cohere with these is an inappropriate application.

The potential difference between me and Green on this point is that I am not sure that he would acknowledge with me that sometimes the original meaning does conflict with these rules. He seems perhaps to avoid this part of the equation. Rather he seems to start with the "surplus of meaning" of the text itself, something I certainly agree with. Because of this surplus of meaning, sola scriptura can never guarantee a Christian reading of the text (81). Green makes this point with the Gnostics, who could have affirmed their particular doctrines no matter what scriptural texts were set as their boundary.

Green warns, however, that there is a give and take between the creeds and the biblical texts. So the saving function of Christ at his return is not clearly in the creed, nor is his earthly life between virgin birth and death. Nor do the creeds say anything about Israel. I of course do not restrict the "rule of faith" to the creeds but to the vaguer but broader "consensus ecclesiae."

c. Green then goes on to speak of the fact that we read Scripture in traditions as well. As someone in the Wesleyan tradition, for example, he finds salvation as the organizing principle of Scripture.

3. Reading as Scripture must involve critical engagement.

This is some of what we saw above. Reading the Bible in communities of faith cannot simply reinforce its own values uncritically. The solution seems to be a "range of conversation partners" (92).

Here are some of the characteristics of such critical engagement: cross-cultural, canonical, historical (so the original readers are part of the equation), communal, global, hospitable.

4. Reading as Scripture requires the Holy Spirit.

I have also accentuated this point as essential to the direct voice of God in Scripture. We look outside ourselves for interpretation if we acknowledge the Spirit's role (94-95). Because we affirm the Spirit's work in the past and the present, we are not skeptical or minimalist in our approach but we approach as believers (96-97). The Spirit of Christ points to the same Christ now as He did when the texts were written. And the Spirit joins us to the Christian interpreters of Scripture throughout history. Green affirms projects like Oden's Ancient Christian Commentary series and The Church's Bible by Robert Louis Wilken.

So you see many similarities between Green's hermeneutic in this chapter and my own. I would characterize Green's in this way:

1. The biblical text is characterized by polysemy, by a surplus of potential meaning.
2. The meaning that Christians are interested in is that which 1) is arrived at in the community of faith both local, global, and transtemporal. The dialog between us, along with a self-reflective and submissive approach to the words, makes this a critical reading of the text, although not an objective or strictly historical one. This reading in community also 2) takes place within the boundaries of orthodoxy, the rule of faith. Finally, it is a reading that 3) is thoroughly imbued by the Spirit.

If I am understanding Green correctly (and I welcome correction), the above description comes very close to my own hermeneutic. The difference, as I perceive it, is that I seem to have a greater confidence that we can and do arrive at original meanings that differ from the Christian readings above. I also think Green could be clearer on how this works with passages that we would not apply to today (like veiling women) or how we are truly to avoid a roller coaster of interpretations as the community of faith itself undergoes change.

The book is not finished though, there are two more chapters yet...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Classroom Snippets: Septuagint

One of the things that you either love or hate about my classes are the tangents. I consider them relevant most of the time--they are often on the checklist of things I want to have covered by the end of the class. And I almost always return to the official outline or overhead when the tangent is over--I could outline what I have said after the class and it would make sense.

But I imagine my tangents are a nightmare as far as taking notes. Frankly I doubt most students take notes on my tangents.

So I thought I would for today's intertestamental lit. class. I'll email this post to the class.

1. The difference between evangelical and non-evangelical reconstructions of OT history do not get stuck on every point. For example, I don't see people getting fired over the dating of Job. Similarly, I can't imagine why someone would argue over the idea that some person other than Hosea may have edited his prophecies into their current form even after he was dead. I have no horse in that race as an evangelical.

2. There are some flash points, however. Many evangelicals would get hot over the idea that the narrative framework of the Pentateuch might have come from some epic produced in the period of the monarchy. This doesn't seem as big an issue to me for the reasons I mentioned in the last post, but this is a flash point for perhaps most evangelicals.

However, the non-evangelical sense that some of the distinct parts of the book of Deuteronomy date from the days of Josiah is a major sticking point probably for almost all evangelicals. For example, this would include the idea that it was perfectly appropriate before Josiah to worship Yahweh in places other than Jerusalem. As evangelicals, we would much rather say that Gideon, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha were simply unaware of the rule only to sacrifice in the place where Yahweh would put his name. Also, we have great difficulty with the idea that the "prophet like me" of Deuteronomy is a reference to Josiah.

All of that was part of the outline of the class to give background to the intertestamental period both in traditional and secular mainstream versions.

3. The main tangent today was sparked by the simple words 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings. The tangent was that these books were only Samuel and Kings until they were translated into Greek in the late 200's or early 100's BC. Hebrew has few vowels that are written, so translation into Greek doubles the length. Scrolls were not infinite in length, so double the length on this scale requires a second scroll.

This of course led into relevant tangents about the Septuagint. It is apparently the first Scripture translated from one language to another. Why?
  • Because religions largely were not centered around writings at that time. The Hindu Upanishads may date from the 700's. There is Homer and the Enuma Elish and so forth. But these are not really normative texts in the way the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Koran are for the "peoples of the book." Indeed, as we saw above, the OT was not the center of Israelite religious life at all prior to the exile, whether by ignorance (evangelical) or because they didn't really exist at that time (mainstream).
  • Because prior to Alexander the Great, religions tended to be local. In terms of the sharing of culture and ideas, we surely must divide all of human history into the time before Alexander and the time after. It is the spreading of ideas and religion beyond local language that begins to call for the translation of Scriptures.
  • Of course the Jews in Egypt had been there since the 500's. They didn't know Hebrew any more. The Jews would not be able to read their own Scriptures unless they were translated.

I might add in closing that many purists only use the word Septuagint to refer to the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek as related in the Letter of Aristeas, a document we will read in the class ( Purists refer to the rest of the Greek Old Testament as the Old Greek translation.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Classroom Snippets: NT Referencing of the OT

One potential inconsistency in evangelical hermeneutics is that it differs from New Testament hermeneutics. So evangelical hermeneutics, following the canons of modernism, at least claims to be "inductive." Indiana Wesleyan, like countless other evangelical schools, has a "methods" or "skills" course of inductive Bible study in its curriculum.

And it seems completely appropriate for a Protestant institution to have these. The idea is to listen to the biblical text in context, to listen to what Paul or Isaiah was actually trying to say by looking at the historical and literary contexts of their words. If we are to look to the Bible as the source of our thinking, then surely listening to its words for what they meant originally would be the way to this source, right?

But this is not how NT authors read the OT. And we get into potentially sticky, even hermeneutically deconstructive wickets when our inductive listenings to the text come up with different interpretations than the NT authors had. One such place is with NT attributions of authorship.

For example, no inductive interpreter would conclude that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch. His name is nowhere mentioned in Genesis. Exodus through Deuteronomy talk about Moses in the third person--he did this, he said that--but are not worded as "I, Moses, wrote this..." The narration of Moses' death in Deuteronomy poignantly makes the point. Certainly God could have inspired Moses to write about his death... but if we read inductively and listen to the text, it just doesn't read like this. It reads as if someone is writing about Moses' death.

So what's the big deal? The big deal is that the NT speaks of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch. Now, I should point out that almost all the references Jesus makes in this regard are to Mosaic material within the Pentateuch rather than to Moses as the author of the whole Pentateuch. Most of the arguments I've read using Jesus to argue for Mosaic authorship fail to make this very important distinction. But there are a couple places where Jesus references the Pentateuch apparently in a way that connects the whole Pentateuch to Moses (Luke 24:27).

There are a number of possible explanations:
1. Somehow our inductive sense of the Pentateuch's authorship is wrong.
2. Jesus' and the NT attributions of authorship are simply ways of referencing the OT--the point is what they are saying by way of the Scripture rather than the author.
3. These are the assumptions of the gospel writers as they paraphrase Jesus rather than the way Jesus literally referred to the OT.
4. Jesus either was speaking in an incarnated way--using the categories of his audiences--or since he limited his omniscience while on earth, perhaps he was not aware that he was speaking culturally rather than historically.

Number 2 seems the most palatable all around. But let me end with a particularly difficult one.

If I approach Psalm 110:1 inductively, remembering, for example, that it is historically unlikely that David, the first king in his dynasty, looked to a time when Israel would long for a king. There do not seem to be any passages in the OT that, read inductively, expect a divine Messiah. Indeed the Jewish literature immediately prior to Christ seems to look mainly to a human Messiah rather than one from heaven.

In any case, Psalm 110 never mentions David. Inductively, an anonymous voice speaks of the LORD's appointment of a king, a Lord, to rule as God's representative on earth. Psalm 110 reads as a blueprint of military victory over the king's enemies. He is a priest like Melchizedek, who is not from the line of Levi.

Now at the time of Christ, authorship of this psalm was assigned to David, even though the psalm itself does not mention David (the titles are later and usually not considered inspired). So Jesus uses this Psalm to stump his detractors in Mark 12 and parallels. We have no substantial reason to question the historicity of this debate.

When you take David as the author of the psalm, the LORD can no longer speak to a king like David as Lord. Rather, Jesus takes the second Lord of the psalm to be the Messiah. He stumps his debaters by asking them how the Messiah can be David's son when David calls him Lord.

This is quite a sticky one from an inductive standpoint. Here are a couple options I can come up with:

1. The inductive interpretation of Psalm 110 simply isn't what God had in mind--whether David was speaking prophetically in ways even he couldn't understand or whether God simply wasn't concerned that the ancients read the psalm in context.

2. Jesus was winking. He was interpreting the psalm within the worldview of his audiences and having a little fun with them.

What do you think?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Fall Semester at IWU is Here!

The Fall semester here at IWU is upon us, which means a restructuring of Schenck Thoughts. I plan to make at least two posts a week, a main one on Monday and then some sort of book review entry during the weekend. "Classroom Snippets" will likely reappear as well from time to time.

What does the Fall look like for me at IWU?
  • In an hour I meet with my "World Changers" breakout group for the first time. This is normally a Friday discussion group I will lead in conjunction with our Freshman common course, World Changers. Two classes a week will be in mega groups and then Fridays in smaller enclaves with professors.

    Today we are beginning to debrief from a book that they read over the summer (and I finished an hour ago ;-)--Practical Justice. It is about ministering to the needy. Don't be alarmed. No objective person could think that this small hat tip to Jesus' focus on the poor will balance out the overwhelmingly Republican leanings of the university ;-)

    Actually, he critiques NPR as being too left in leaning... I found the book pretty balanced on the whole.
  • I'm teaching a general philosophy, general epistles (James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Jude), intertestamental literature (apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls, apocalyptic literature, etc...), inductive bible study method and
  • A special topics course--biblical hermeneutics. We'll be reading through Grant Osborne's mammoth Hermeneutical Spiral and Kevin Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in This Text?

  • On broader notes, I have two months to write a twenty minute presentation on "Hebrews and the Parting of the Ways" for SBL in November.
  • I have a contract now to finish the Greek textbook I have long envisaged (in fact wrote over a 100 pages at one time). It will give a pastor everything she needs in one semester and the scholar everything and more than she would have received in two. If I can deliver what I just said, it will be the best Greek textbook in existence :-) (that's what they all say...)
  • An MDiv is in the proposal stage at IWU. So far so good! I don't know what my role will be in the planning from this point forward, but the proposal leaves the summer with the potential to be the most practically beneficial MDiv I know (and we benchmarked a number of other institutions). It looks very promising at this point.

So let the games begin for what I hope is my best year of teaching yet!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Book Review: Seized by Truth Chapter 2

The second chapter of Green's book is "Aims and Assumptions."

In this chapter, Green urges that Christians should not take the position of so much modernist hermeneutics--the Bible was written to them. "We are listening in on an ancient conversation." Rather, Green argues that reading the Bible as Scripture requires us to see ourselves as the audience of these texts. Filled with the Spirit like those on the Day of Pentecost, we are empowered to hear the word rightly, prophetically. The Scriptures take on an immediacy, a capacity to speak clearly to us (33).

The rest of the chapter unfolds this adjustment by way of three headings:

1. Reading the OT as Christian Scripture
In this section, Green aims to reassert the status of the Old Testament "as a discrete witness irrespective of how New Testament writers might have understood it" (37). He points to 1 Peter 1:10-12 as the key to reading the OT, namely, as a witness to the coming sufferings and glories of Christ. At the same time, he denies those such as Francis Watson (and me) who think we can only see such things in the OT by using a new lens that is quite different from that of the OT itself.

He seems to argue that the text of the OT itself has a surplus of meaning that can accommodate Christian interpretations. I suspect the full explanation of what he is saying here is very sophisticated, so I will wait further clarification before I attempt to explain exactly what he is thinking. My impression is that Green's hermeneutic is averse to meta-discussions about it (a little like Barth). I would have to explain it in terms of my hermeneutic and thus I suspect Green (and Barth) would consider my explanations inaccurate to them from the very beginning.

2. "Conversion" to a New Way of Reading
Green suggests that we cannot read the Bible as Scripture without "embracing new patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and acting" (49). In that sense, only true believers can read the Bible as Scripture. This is quite different from the historical critical method, which one might argue is most objectively practiced by someone who has nothing to gain or lose from the result of interpretation.

In this conversion, we embrace the biblical story as our own (50). To make a comment from my own hermeneutic, Green is here setting up an overall story or text which consumes the biblical text itself. This is, in my opinion, what the biblical authors themselves did in interpretation and it is the stuff of pre-modern interpretation unknowingly. The text is taken up into this revealed story. I don't think Green would put it like this, but that is how I would describe it.

3. Reading Scripture as Our Mail
Here Green wants to overcome the often said dictum that in the Bible we are reading someone else's mail (51). Rather, with Robert Jenson and others, he argues that we must see the Christians of the first century as part of the same people of God that we are. If we are the same people of God, then their mail is in fact our mail as well (51-52). He references several books of the NT as already having a momentum toward catholicity.

I have brought up before the fact that the "you" of the Bible is not anyone alive today. Green argues that reading the Bible as Scripture must see us as the you it addresses. He invokes Umberto Eco's concept of the Model Reader. The Model Reader adopts the stance of the author in writing the text. This is a position of sympathy with the text that is not neutral but embracing.

There are some similarities between Green and Barth in this chapter, and Green himself points some out. And as I often said about Barth last year in our reading group, I'm not quite sure what he means. I need to see more concrete examples with specific texts. This chapter is like poetry and it says things we long to hear. But I want to see how it works...