Monday, June 30, 2008

Dunn's Partings Baur to Sanders

I'm skimming back through the revised edition of James D. G. Dunn's The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity. The preface to the second edition, as you would expect, catches up on developments these fifteen plus years since the first edition.

Dunn's main acknowledgements in this section relate to the work of individuals like Judith Lieu's Neither Jew Nor Greek, Daniel Boyarin's Border Lines, and the compilation, Ways That Never Parted. These are books on my shelf that, unfortunately, I've only dabbled in thus far.

But the basic thrust of these books is clear. It is anachronistic to speak of a hard and fast departure between Judaism and Christianity before the late 300's. Boyarin speaks of a partitioning rather than parting of the ways, by which he means that there were no hard and fast lines of orthodoxy at that time to decide exactly what was in and what was out.

Another good insight is that the term Judaism at the time of Christ did not refer to all Jews but to those who were particularly keen to follow the Law in the manner of the Maccabees. Similarly, Dunn wonders if Ignatius' Christianity might have been a similar subset of Christianity at the time.

But alas, this post was supposed to review Dunn's first chapter. Not much startling here. It is largely a review of the missteps of the last 100 years on the relation between Judaism and Christianity.

F. C. Baur: Baur of course famously applied an evolutionary model to early Christian history and the New Testament. Jesus represented some Hegelian ideal that was immediately corrupted by Jewish Christianity. Pauline Christianity came along with a purer antithesis, only to be corrupted again in the Catholic synthesis.

J. B. Lightfoot rightly trashed Baur's chronology by establishing the authenticity of seven of Ignatius' letters. In order for Baur's evolutionary scheme to work, he had to date them to the late second century. But interestingly, Lightfoot really only shifted the chronology earlier. His scheme was just as skewed in its perspective toward early Jewish Christianity as inferior to Paul and his supposed Jesus.

A. Ritschl added a middle ground between supposed Gentile Christianity and the Primitive Jewish church, namely, Hellenistic Christianity. This was the church of Stephen and the Hellenists.

But all of these had as their implicit agenda the distancing of Jesus and Pauline Christianity from Judaism. And the attitudes of so many German scholars went hand in glove with Nazi attitudes toward the Jews some forty years later.

Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer accepted the apocalyptic aspects of Jesus, but found his essence in his ethic. Rudolph Bultmann spent a mere 30 pages on Jesus in his 600+ page Theology of the New Testament, finding the essence of the gospel an existentialist message about authentic existence.

Dunn ends this chapter with what was in 1991 the maturing turn to Judaism as the background of the New Testament and Jesus. The third quest for the historical Jew was nearing its peak, with its emphasis on Jesus as a Jew. It left us wondering how a century's worth of such exploration had missed such a basic point.

The new perspective on Paul with its renewed understanding of Judaism was going strong and its detractors had not yet mustered their voice. It made us wonder how for so long Christians had misrepresented Judaism.

At the same time Jacob Neusner had brought sanity to the use of rabbinic material in the study of Judaism at the time of Christ. Once again, we wonder how Joachim Jeremias could miss so many obvious conclusions, seriously calling into question Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus.

More to come...

Good News for Separatists in Virginia

If the Wesleyan Church undergoes a major split in Virginia, there is good news today for any local churches who don't want to go along with the parent body. Anglican fellowships in Virginia that wish to remove from the Episcopal Church can keep their property because of a Civil War era law on the books.

The Wesleyan Church lost a good deal of property in its merger in 1968 when various groups declined to go along with it. Thereafter, the Wesleyan Church holds the title deeds to all its properties. But apparently in Virginia, that won't matter. Groups that wish to leave the church can apparently take the Wesleyan Church's property and run.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hurtado 2: "Forces and Factors" behind worship of Jesus

Chapter 1 of Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity is entitled "Forces and Factors." In this chapter Hurtado sets out four general elements in the equation of what he considers to be the unprecedented variation (he used to say "mutation" but apparently people took the word negatively) that took place within Judaism with the inception of Christian "binitarianism," the inclusion of the worship of Jesus within the worship of the one God.

Don't be off put by his language. Hurtado is actually quite conservative. The four key ingredients in early Christian devotion to Jesus are:

1. Jewish Monotheism
Hurtado's signature focus here is on cultic monotheism, that is, the exclusive worship of Yahweh in practice. Hurtado rightly recognizes that "the incorporation of Christ into the devotional pattern of early Christian groups has no real analogy in the Jewish tradition of the period" (31). However, I probably would see more precedent in works like Ezekiel the Tragedian, Life of Adam and Eve, and the Similitudes of Enoch than Hurtado does.

At the same time, Hurtado rightly criticizes Crispin Fletcher-Louis in his belief that Jews had a readiness to worship other figures alongside God (37). In particular, Hurtado does not believe Crispin considers carefully enough what kind of honor is being offered in these texts. Once again, Hurtado would say that cultic worship is not offered to any intermediate figure.

Hurtado also criticizes the following for not allowing for modifications to Jewish monotheism. Instead, he claims, these all do not "consider the possibility of significant reformulations and new adaptations of a religious commitment by adherents of a religious tradition" (45).

A. E. Harvey: Not until Ignatius in the early second century do we have the first unambiguous instances of Jesus being described as divine.

Maurice Casey: Casey believes it was impossible for Jesus to have been regarded as divine so long as Christianity was dominated by a Jewish religious outlook (43). Only in the Johannine community, when it was dominated by the attitudes of Gentile converts, was Jesus hailed as God.

J. D. G. Dunn: Hebrews, John, and Revelation may be comparable versions of speculations about divine figures in contemporary Jewish groups. Dunn's position here is of great interest to me, so you might expect to see me engage with his works on this topic later this week.

We can debate some of the details here, and I suspect we will as Hurtado's book goes on. But I believe Hurtado is certainly right about his fundamental claims. There is something unprecedented about early Christian devotion to Jesus and that the earliest Christians did not see their devotion to Jesus to contradict a strict monotheistic belief.

2. The Impact of Jesus' Ministry
In this section Hurtado makes what seems to me (and no doubt to almost anyone reading this) to be an obvious point. We can scarcely understand early Christian devotion to Jesus without taking into account the polarizing effect or outcome of Jesus' ministry (64). Hurtado in this section particularly takes on Burton Mack and others who have used Q to propose that earliest Christianity and the Jesus movement had none of the understanding of early Christianity.

I've alluded to this absurd suggestion before, indeed Wink brings it up in his recent book. I had a good laugh at his suggestion that although the simplest explanation is that Jesus, like John the Baptist and those after him, expected major events to happen in the near future, history is rarely simple. So he, like Mack, Borg, Crossen, and others, want to go with the more complex suggestion that Jesus differed with John the Baptist and the Christians that followed. And mind you, as Hurtado argues, leaving no trace in Paul or the Synoptic gospels of the kind of conflict that must have taken place in the supposed transition to what won out.

It is what it is. Wink and others want to distance Jesus from the Christianity that followed. Schweitzer was right on this score. You may not like this Jesus, but you'll just have to deal with it.

3. The Religious Experiences of the Earliest Christians
Hurtado's strength of taking into account the practice and experience of the earliest believers comes through here again. The vast majority of scholarly discussion talks only of ideas. I am utterly dumbfounded at any scholar who would take issue with a statement like this one: "it is clear that in the tradition that he [Paul] learned and circulated among his churches the resurrection appearances were the crucial bases for the faith that God had raised Jesus from death" (71).

Similarly, "there must have been some who experienced what they took to be revelations sent by God that convinced them that obedience to God demanded of them this cultic reverence of Christ" (72). Mind you, Hurtado remains thoroughly "objective" throughout this section. He does not validate their experiences or draw theological conclusions. He simply points out that no reconstruction of earliest Christianity that does not accept significant impact from Jesus himself and significantly formative "resurrection experiences" among the early Christians is worth a historical dime.

4. Interaction with the Greco-Roman World
Hurtado spends the least time in this chapter on this one. Basically, he recognizes that part of the formation of earliest Christian devotion will have taken place addressing the critique and opposition of both Jewish opponents and those in the pagan religious scene. The early Christians would have differentiated themselves from others in their environment while reacting to others (76-77).

Most likely more to come...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday Review: Wink's The Human Being

Since I posted yesterday I've raced through the rest of Walter Wink's The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man. I won't provide an extensive review but will try to capture the gist in a way that best serves the typical reader of my blog.

Understanding the title is understanding the book. "The Human Being" is Wink's rendition of the biblical phrase "the son of the man" and the book is an exploration of the significance of that phrase for us as pioneered by Jesus.

The phrase, "the son of the man" is indeed an enigmatic expression that biblical scholars have wrestled with for over a century. In the New Testament, it occurs almost exclusively on the lips of Jesus as a way (apparently) of referring to himself. It apparently was not, then, a title that the early Christians used of Jesus, for it appears nowhere in Paul or Acts or even the gospels as a confession of faith.

It does not get Jesus into trouble with his opponents. The general sense of current scholarship is thus that it was not a ready made Jewish category that Jesus or the early Christians appropriated. It does appear as a messianic type title in the Similitudes of Enoch, which Wink dates to the first century AD. He seems to believe that there was a parallel development in the use of the idea by the Similitudes and the later NT at around the same time (Matthew, Jude, Revelation) independently of each other.

Yet Wink does not think that the work of people like Barnabas Lindars to see in the phrase merely a circumlocution for "I" adequate. Nor does he find it as merely "the man" adequate--"Foxes have holes but the man [me] does not have a place to lay his head."

Rather, Wink sees "the man" as Jesus' references to true humanity. Here's where Wink's spirituality comes into view. Jesus, according to Wink, stands in a mystical tradition that first showed up in Ezekiel's use of the "son of man." In Ezekiel 1 God looks like a man. Here begins Wink's myth (a word he means us to take in a positive sense).

God is nothing other than the true Human. The problem for Wink is not that we are not divine. The problem is that we are not truly Human. God did not come down to earth and become incarnated as human. Rather, Jesus shows us how God, that is, the truly Human, can be incarnated in us.

The sayings of Jesus on "the son of the man" are thus sayings about the Human. To be sure, Wink does not believe all the Son of man sayings in the gospels are "true." By that he doesn't mean "not historical," for his paradigm does not connect truth to historicity. Thus there might be true Son of man statements that do not go back to Jesus and, conceivably, there might be untrue Son of man statements that do go back to Jesus.

Perhaps Wink's bottom line about Jesus is best captured in this sentence: "As bearer of the archetype of the Human Being, Jesus activates the numinous power that is capable of healing, transforming, or rebirthing those who surrender themselves to it" (256).

Wink is not an orthodox Christian by any means, but he is clearly a mystic with a strong pluralistic faith. This statement is indicative: "I want to worship the God Jesus worshiped, not worship Jesus as God" (259). When I say he is a pluralist, I mean that he does not in any way see the Christian path as the only path to God. For him, Jesus is the best archetype to express the common goal of multiple religious paths. For him, he cannot imagine God as impersonal. But he does not wish to consider any other religious path inferior to the one that resonates with him.

The book is filled with references to Carl Jung and tapping into the collective unconscious of humanity. He speaks favorably of Ludwig Feuerbach as a man before his time. Feuerback in 1841 famously argued that God was a projection of the best human traits we can imagine. Wink believes he was almost right. For Wink, God is The Human Being, what we all will hopefully become in the reality behind the second coming, the kingdom of God on earth.

But for Wink, God is not merely the sum of human projection. God is something beyond what we can consciously project. God is something our collective human unconscious has imprinted on it from the beginning of the human species. It is something beyond us that we hope to become.

I'll confess that I have great difficulty relating to this book. I appreciate Wink's mystical faith. Perhaps ironically, it reminds me of Barth, although Barth is thoroughly orthodox. But as my friends will know, I have difficulty relating to Barth too. :-)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

First Encounter with Walter Wink's The Human Being

As June comes to an end, I plow through the second book an independent study is doing with me: Walter Wink's, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man.

Wink teaches at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He is a different bird than I am usually around. Even in England I was not around his approach to Christianity. He is cut from a similar cloth to Marcus Borg in some respects, was also a member of the Jesus Seminar, although I take it his conclusions about Jesus are somewhat different from others on the seminar.

I wouldn't recommend his book for an evangelical but I would recommend it for someone thinking of throwing in the faith towel. In fact, I think I would rather someone in that situation read it before they would read Borg, although I'm not very far in yet in my speed read. One thing I want to be clear on, however, is that while neither of these men have a conventional faith, they have a very deep faith. These are two deeply religious men whose head simply isn't where most evangelical heads are. God judges the hearts, not me.

I was going to wait till tomorrow to blog on Wink, but he had some fascinating comments in his first chapter that I wanted to quote this morning. You will all judge them according to your theological/ideological perspective, but I reproduce them here for your reaction.

The "driving force behind this scholarly exertion [the quest for the historical Jesus] was a modern longing to be encountered by the divine... most scholars study the past in order to be change its effect on the present" (italics his, 9).

"No scholar can construct a picture of Jesus beyond the level of spiritual awareness that they have attained. No reconstruction outstrips its reconstructor. We cannot explain truths we have not yet understood" (11).

"The idea of history is our modern myth" (12).

"I privilege Jesus' critique of domination over all other viewpoints because, after a lifetime of study, I have found it to be the most radical and comprehensive framework for understanding what he was about" (14).

"I am concerned not so much with whether Jesus actually said something, but with whether it is true, regardless of who said it. If truth is our goal rather than historicity, then revelation is a far more appropriate category than facticity, for weighing the impact of Jesus" (15).

We "should not assume that something is true because Jesus said it... The church did courageously retain passages that were clearly disconfirmed, such as the second coming, Mark 9:1 par" (15).

"The myth of the human Jesus requires that Jesus must have made mistakes, have had flaws in his personality, sinned, and otherwise exhibited imperfect (that is, human) behavior" (italics his, 15).

But the statements that prompted me to post this morning were these, which I thought give a very interesting definition of objectivity in a postmodern age:

"The presence of a particular critical perspective does not spell the end of objectivity; we are still required to give warrants for our claims. Once one abandons the chimera of disinterestedness, however, objectivity is free to become what it should have been all along: just another name for simple honesty and the willingness, as Schweitzer demonstrated, to be changed by what we discover.

"I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censure it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, and cowardice. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating, until it wounds my thigh with "new-ancient" words. And the Holy Spirit is there the whole time, strengthening us both" (15-16).

Of course the definition of the Holy Spirit in his glossary is not exactly orthodox: "the power of transformation... That impulse of the psyche...


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Book Review: Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ

Larry Hurtado is known principally for one thing in the guild of biblical studies, namely, his work on the origins of the worship of Jesus among early Christians. His claim to fame up to this point has been his well known, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Although he is American by birth (in fact he comes from a charismatic background), he has taught at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland for at least the last 15 years.

It is fairly clear to me that the driving force behind Hurtado's long standing quest is Wilhelm Bousset's extremely flawed reconstruction of the development of early Christian worship of Jesus (Kyrios Christos, 1913). More than anyone else, Hurtado has thoroughly undermined Bousset's thesis, which was basically that the worship of Jesus was a phenomenon that didn't take place until Christianity came under the infuence of Greco-Roman religion. Bousset believed that the earliest Christians did not view Jesus as divine in any way.

I suppose we can appreciate the climate of Bousset's day by referencing another early 20th century work by William Wrede: The Messianic Secret (1901). In this book, Wrede suggested that Jesus had never claimed to be the messiah and that Mark's gospel was forced to explain how Jesus could have been the messiah if he never claimed to be the messiah. Wrede's answer was that Jesus had consistently told those around him to keep his messianic identity a secret until after the resurrection.

The "political" climate in 1900 was to distance Jesus from Christianity, to claim that Jesus himself was just as we would want him to be and that the problem was the corruption of his pure faith by what would become Christianity. Sound familar?

Of course there are other explanations for why Jesus might not have gone around publicizing himself as messiah, not east the fact that the Jews understood the messiah to be a military figure that would free Israel from Roman domination.

In any case, this post is about the introduction to Hurtado's recent Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. The title deliberately echoes the title of Bousset's book,
Kyrios Christos--Lord Christ. Hurtado's goal is to do exactly what Bousset did but to do it correctly. "In this book my aim is to offer a full-scale analysis of the origin, development, and diversification of devotion to Christ in the crucial first two centuries of the Christian movement" (2).

Hurtado has three basic claims to make in his book: 1) a noteworthy devotion to Jesus emerged phenomenally early in the circles of his followers, 2) that devotion had an unparalleled intensity for which there is no clear analogy in the religious environment of the day and 3) that referencing him as divine was expressed and articulated firmly within a context of Jewish monotheism.

One of the strengths of Hurtado's work is that he is primarily concerned with the practice of Christ-devotion even more than with the "creedal" or belief statements of the early Christians. For him, the real test for whether the early Christians considered Jesus divine was in their devotional practice, their actions in worship.

One section of his introduction has to do with addressing potential assumptions his readers might have. He wants to get the elephant in the room out into the open. For example, he confesses that he is "guilty of having Christian faith" (9). Yet he does not think his faith in Jesus as the Christ stands or falls on when the early Christians came to believe Jesus was divine. Clearly, he is at least trying to be dispassionate about his study rather than "cook the books" because his faith needs to come out with a particular conclusion on when the worship of Jesus emerged.

He also rejects out of hand (and knowing his conservative charismatic background, one can imagine that there is a good deal of personal story behind these rejections) both the liberal and conservative sense in the past that "the theological and religious validity of traditional Christian devotion to Christ would be called into question if it were really treated as a historical phenomenon" (5). The "liberal" has said in the past, if we can show that the beliefs and practices of Christianity unfolded in a historical process, it is false. The "conservative" of the past responded in kind--Christianity did not unfold in a historical process, it is true.

But Hurtado responds, "this devotion manifested itself within history and therefore, in principle, can be investigated in the ways we inquire about any other historical person, event, or movement" (7).

Hurtado also addresses what in the late 90's/early 00's has been called the "new religionsgeschichtliche Schule" (the new history of religions school). He refers here to the spate of studies engaging the question of Jewish monotheism including people like Jarl Fossum, Margaret Barker, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Richard Bauckham, Loren Stuckenbruck, Maurice Casey, etc. He will deal with some of them directly in chapter one.

For now he briefly summarizes Bousset's view as part of the earlier "history of religions" school. That school, based largely in Göttingen, Germany in the early 20th century, looked for the origins of Christian belief in Greco-Roman religion. By contrast, the so called new history of religions school (at this point I am doubtful that the label will stick) looks for the background (rightly) in Judaism.

Two points were key to Bousset's unfolding of early Christian faith: 1) the treatment of Jesus as divine was key to all subsequent developments and 2) this did not take place until the second stage of Christian development, which took place on Hellenistic Gentile soil. Hurtado strongly disagrees with the second point.

He sketches the basic contours of his critique of Bousset at the end of the introduction:

1. Bousset's thesis was based on a "son of man" Christology. In his view, "first stage" belief in Jesus saw him strictly having a future role in the judgment. It did not see him currently as Lord, which Bousset believed was a belief that emerged in a Gentile context.

Hurtado counters that we have no evidence of the earliest Christians using "son of man" as a matter of confession. In the gospels, only Jesus himself uses this title of himself and it does not create any controversy. It is never a creedal matter in the New Testament.

2. The idea that "Lord" emerged as a designation for Jesus on Gentile soil is absurd. After all, 1 Corinthians 16 uses the Aramaic marana tha (Our Lord, come) without need for translation. It does not arrive, as Bousset argued, from Greek mystery religions.

3. Bousset's distinctions between "Palestinian Jewish," "Hellenistic Gentile," and "Pauline" have long been debunked as simplistic. The classic work here is Martin Hengel's Judaism and Hellenism, which showed that Palestine had been Hellenized for 300 years before Christ from the time of Alexander the Great. The old Jewish thought/Greek thought has been passe for almost 40 years now. There were Gentile believers who were far more "conservative" than Paul and there were Jewish believers who were far more liberal than your average God-fearer.

So Hurtado's game begins.

Wednesday Update

The summer whittles away and projects inch forward at a snail's pace. Here's some miscellany this morning and then I will probably make myself post a review later today of the introduction to Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.

But first a couple things. First, Scot McKnight argues that James Dobson has skewed Obama's 2006 speech involving Christianity in the United States. Here's the link, which included the link to Dobson's site:

I don't know if Obama will be a good president or not (I don't think McCain will win, so brace yourselves if you are an anti-Democrat like most evangelicals over 40). But I continue to be embarrassed by the stupidity of the pseudo-Christian rumor mill, like that Obama must be evil because his middle name is Hussein or that he's Muslim because he attended elementary school in Indonesia and yet he's also a liberal Christian who hates whites. Wait a minute, don't those last two claims contradict themselves?

Basically, people are going to believe what they're going to believe. The reasons they give are seldom the real reasons. Maybe we can have a rational discussion here some time in the Fall before the election.

Second, I haven't stopped reading Metaphors We Live By. The most important chapter since I stopped reporting is chapter 6 on ontological metaphors. We had orientational metaphors in chapter 4 (things being up down behind, etc...). Ontological metaphors compare things to, well, things. The mind is a machine (Boy, my wheels are turning today) or the mind is a brittle object (I'm going to pieces).

A kind of ontological metaphor is the container metaphor that places boundaries around things. Are you in the race. He's coming into view.

It seems to me that Mary Douglas' view of purity fits well into this type of metaphor. She basically analyzes the clean/unclean legislation of Leviticus in terms of boundaries. Leprosy blurs the boundaries of in and out, just as blood outside the body does. Eels, snakes, and ostriches blur the boundaries of things in the sea, land, and air. I don't know if she's right, but it's a fascinating read.

Her famous, "Dirt is matter out of place," is a paradigm changer. Dirt in the yard is not unclean, but dirt on the living room carpet is. The difference is not a matter of the dirt but of the boundaries we draw around reality, what belongs where.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Rest of the "Bible as Truth" Section


Before we leave this discussion, we should point out a key conclusion we are forced to draw about the Bible as a source of truth. Far more thinking is involved in interpreting and applying the Bible than most people realize. On the one hand, the pre-modern interpreter is more known for what s/he does not think than for what s/he thinks, since this person is largely unaware of his or her assumptions. Unless the Holy Spirit is directing their thoughts, they will likely mistake their own voice for God’s.

Nevertheless, even the pre-modern ends up using a good deal of reason to fit the various parts of the Bible together. A person can believe that none of the parts of the Bible conflict with each other and still acknowledge that there are a lot of statements that at least seem to conflict with each other. Paul says, “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28, RSV). James says, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24, RSV). Neither Paul nor James tell us how to fit these seemingly conflicting statements together. That is to say, the Bible does not give us the answer for how faith and works go together. We have to reason out the answer ourselves or, more likely, rely on some Christian tradition for its answer.

In the previous section we discussed how to apply the verse, “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss” to today. It is important to point out that the Bible did not give us the answer to this question. 1 Thessalonians was a letter to ancient Thessalonians—God did not tell Paul to include a footnote on how to apply the truths of the letter to a different cultural context.

The long and short of all these observations is this: the fact that the Bible is God’s word does not in any way by-pass or remove the role that reason plays in coming to truth. We would certainly hope for the Spirit to direct our reasoning, but without reason we cannot come to any conclusion on what “the Bible” as a whole says or about how to apply such a conclusion to today.

Nor can we eliminate our past or current experiences from our engagement with Scripture. Our experiences shape the questions we ask and what aspects of the biblical text stand out to us. Our experiences create a sort of common sense that leads us to see some verses as clear and others as unclear. Our denominational backgrounds and the broader culture to which we belong serve as filters as well. We should try to be as objective as we can in relation to the forces at work on us, but Gadamer is surely correct when he sees us inevitably bringing all of our hermeneutical “baggage” with us to any text.

What we see is that the Bible is a unique source of truth for the Christian, but it does not by-pass the normal use of reason and experience. Even when I have a direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, I inevitably interpret it with my human reasoning. I not only have a finite perspective on the universe, but I have that perspective stuck within my head. The person who thinks that s/he simply reads the Bible and does what it says—God said it, I believe it, that settles it—is a dangerous person. For this person is vastly unaware of the forces at work on their understanding. They are wired to regularly mistake their own thoughts for the thoughts of God.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Bible and Truth

I am rewriting a section of a chapter in the philosophy textbook I'm working on. I posted a draft of this section back in winter, but I am unhappy with it. The purpose of this section is 1) to discuss the Bible as a source of truth while 2) giving a brief introduction to the philosophy of language.
Up until the early 1900's, a theory of language prevailed that we might call the "picture" theory of language. Take the following comment on words by St. Augustine in the early 400's.

"No one uses words except as signs of something else; and hence may be understood what I call signs: those things, to wit, which are used to indicate something else. Accordingly, every sign is also a thing; for what is not a thing is nothing at all" (On Christian Doctrine 2.2).

Here Augustine reflects the simplistic view that a word is a "sign" or cue in your mind the remembrance of some "thing." I see the word cat which cues in my mind the thing, a cat. The appeal of this view of language is that it seems to work on a very basic level. It evokes images of childhood and of learning a new language.

If we apply this view of language to the Bible, it leads to a sense that each word of the Bible points to a meaning. Understanding the Bible--indeed understanding any words--is simply a matter of knowing the right meaning behind each word, behind each sign in turn. With this view of language, it is easy to think that the meaning of the Bible is something anyone could easily understand, especially if you are using a good Bible translation with English words whose meanings you know.

However, a little reflection makes it clear that this view of language is inadequate. More than anyone else, the early twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) came to this recognition. Wittgenstein pointed out that the meaning of words is primarily a matter of how they are used, not of some fixed thing to which they point.

What Wittgenstein recognized is that we cannot know the meaning of a word like fire unless we know what language game a person is playing with it, what a person is "doing" with the word.

"Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a ruler, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screw.---The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects" (Philosophical Investigations 11).

These games connect to particular forms of life, the distinct contexts in which various words are used. For example, if we are talking about a firing squad, then the rules of the game tell a person to pull a trigger at someone in that particular context. The meaning of the word fire here does not correspond to some "thing." If we do not know the "game" an author was playing with certain words in his or her original form of life, then we cannot know the intended meaning.

It was following this general train of thought that Wittgenstein suggested, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him" (PI 229*). The reason is that we do not know the language games of a lion's form of life. We might be able to give approximate definitions for every word the lion said and still have no clue what he was trying to say.

We think of the answer General Anthony McAuliffe gave to the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, "Nuts!" The Germans knew what a nut was, but they could not make sense of McAuliffe's response because they did not know a particular slang American language game.

The implication for understanding the Bible is incredible. First, we recognize that most Bible readers approach it from within what we might call a pre-modern paradigm. A pre-modern paradigm, as it relates to texts, is one that reads texts from the standpoint of the reader's own language games and forms of life without realizing that the meaning of these texts was originally a function of differing ones. The text in question is not read in context but on the reader's terms.

A modernist paradigm for approaching the Bible thus attempts to read the biblical texts on their own terms. These were not originally one book from God to me, but at least 66 books written in three different languages over perhaps a 1000 year period. On the assumption that God meant their first audiences to understand them--a reasonable assumption--they must have been written in the language games of these ancient contexts.

Do human "forms of life" and accompanying "language games" exist that are common to all humanity? Probably. But they are far less common than most people likely realize. Some of the most exciting recent developments in biblical studies have to do with the social world of the Bible. These studies suggest a host of basic categories, such as what a person is, in which a modern Westerner could hardly read even a simple word like "I" with the same meaning as any of the biblical audiences.

We titled this section "The Bible and Truth" because the Bible is a major source of truth for Christians. But it is clear from this discussion that the topic is far more complex than most Christians imagine. The person who simply reads the Bible and does what it says, unless their thoughts are guided by the Holy Spirit, is more likely reading the Bible and doing what they think it says, given who they are. They are far less likely to be reading the text for what it really meant to Isaiah or Paul.

Scholars who believe God inspired the books of the Bible have spent a good deal of energy unfolding a method by which we might connect the worlds of the Bible with our world. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:26, Paul encourages the ancient Christians at Thessalonica to "Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss."* The meaning of this act in the form of life of the ancient Thessalonians was quite different from the meaning it would have in the Western world today.

We might consider fellow Christians family. We might give them a hearty handshake. But we would not be following this admonition if we literally did what it admonishes. The significance for us is simply not the same.

More recent days have seen attempts to move beyond a purely modernist approach to the Bible to one that returns to the possibility of hearing a more direct voice in the Bible's words. Because these attempts come after the era of the modernist approach, we might fittingly call them postmodernist paradigms. They are much like the pre-modern paradigm in that they are not primarily concerned with the original meaning of the biblical texts but with what these texts might mean for us today. The difference is that the post-modernist knowingly chooses this focus, while the pre-modernist is largely unaware of the distinction on a deep level.

Some postmodernist approaches to the biblical text do not leave it with any real voice at all. Purely reader-response approaches ignore any original meaning the words might have had and replace it with the way the words strike some particular interest group, such as certain feminist, liberation, or African-American readings of the text. These approaches often give the reader complete control over the Bible’s meaning. We will also discuss briefly the deconstructionist approach to language in chapter 17. It denies that words have any stable meaning at all—not even that of a particular reader.

However, other developments in recent years are more promising. The two horizons approach draws largely on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who pictured the process of understanding as a "fusing" of the "horizon" of the reader with the "horizon" of the text. In this scheme, Gadamer was largely unconcerned with the historical author behind a text.<1> A person might take into account historical features of a text, but the main goal is not to get behind the text to its history but to fuse your world with the text's world.<2>

Gadamer's approach to texts stands on the edge of the transition from modernism to postmodernism. On the one hand, he pictures understanding as a genuine engagement with the text as something other than yourself. On the other hand, he did not believe we could come to the text objectively. We have no choice but come to texts with all the traditions of understanding we bring with us.

In that sense, Gadamer's account of understanding finds it inevitable that a Christian will come to the biblical text with many Christian understandings in tow. Some who have pursued Gadamer's approach further have found this element in his equation very attractive. Is it in fact a good thing for Christians to come to the biblical text with certain Christian understandings in place? If Scripture itself can be ambiguous at points, is it helpful that Christians come to it with many beliefs and practices in common, things that presumably God has helped the church throughout the ages unfold?

For example, the belief that Jesus is fully God is a common Christian belief. However, it is not nearly as frequent or explicit a teaching in the New Testament texts themselves as we as Christians now see it to be as we read the biblical text through the eyes of Christian history.<3> In far more ways than we usually realize, our Christian glasses rightly influence the way we read the Bible.

Different Christian traditions will no doubt continue to combine these elements of the equation differently. But when we ask in what way the Bible might be a source of truth, our discussion points to three basic ways. First, the Holy Spirit can no doubt speak to us collectively and individually through the biblical texts. Some would put significant limits in how much freedom the Spirit has to vary from the original meaning.<4> But we can all surely agree that if we could be certain that the Spirit was speaking, that message would indeed be a valid source of truth.

Most Christians would also agree that the original meanings of the Bible witness to the ongoing speaking of God throughout biblical history. Each book in some way represents God speaking to each audience. It is difficult not to see a flow and progress of understanding when we look at the Bible in this way. The Old Testament books in general do not have as complete an understanding as the New Testament books. But we can see in each book a source of truth, many Christians would say an inerrant or infallible one, as it related to God's purposes for each original audience.

Finally, we recognize in the church throughout the ages a potentially rich, perhaps even essential, set of lenses through which to read the Bible. If the books of the Bible themselves have played into the hands of numerous competing versions of God's story, perhaps the version that Christians hold most in common is the version that sets the story straight.

<1> Talk Ricoeur here as well.

<2> Thiselton

<3> Take a statement like John 10:30, "I and the Father are one." We as Christian readers are prone to hear in this verse an affirmation of Christ's divinity like the Father. However, in context, Jesus is surely speaking of the agreement between him and his Father on this topic.


Friday, June 20, 2008

The Scripture Paradigm

I have some intuitions about the default paradigm Christians have with regard to Scripture, some of which I haven't fully been able to put into words. Last night in a grad class we spent a few minutes thinking about why, for example, it upset someone in a Bible study when the student told them that Paul's letters were written before the gospels.

Here are some of my intuitions:

1. Some people often link their faith to the version they grew up with.
So a 60 year old who has based his or her faith on the KJV finds it hard not to see modern translations as "cutting things out" of the Bible and thus angrily resisting them. Of course I don't have a problem with them continuing to use the "church's text," which the KJV reflects better than the other modern translations. But a minister should "add on" an understanding of how we got our Bible.

2. Some people have a "what you see is what you get" sense of the Bible. They don't like the suggestion that the "packaging" of the books might originally have been different than what it is. 2 Corinthians looks like a single book to me as it is packaged in my Bible. People get irritated at the suggestion that chapters 10-13 might come from a different letter.

Of course theories like this one are no priority to know whatsoever, even for a minister. But they're nothing to be afraid of either. I think I can preach 2 Corinthians better because I know a pretty good explanation for the sudden and suprising change of tone that takes place at chapter 10.

3. Some people see any approach to the Bible that views the books within a historical process as detracting from its "divinity," its inspiration. So to talk about situations that have affected the perspective, or talk of how Matthew might have edited Mark, or talk of the possibility that John or Revelation underwent stages of development makes it seem too human.

Does a person need to have a sense of historical process to hear God speak through the text? No, but I guarantee you that a good deal of the wild diversity of biblical interpretation comes from the countless ways that people try to create a singular meaning to these diverse texts by ignoring the likely historical processes underlying this text.

4. The Scripture paradigm which ultimately underlies what I'm trying to get out here is the default reading of the Bible as God's word to me--with little or no sense of what these texts originally meant.

So the authors are not authors but God's scribes. He told them what to write to me.

Last night I wandered off into a tangent and explored what this might look like with regard to Job. I suggested that, without thinking, it is probably natural for a person to assume that Job is the author. Job sits down and God tells him exactly what to write, in one sitting probably.

It's interesting how many of my NT survey students answer true to this question: T/F Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians from Thessalonica to us. The idea that it was written from Thessalonica doesn't raise any question because the Scripture paradigm is not wired to see 1 Thessalonians as a letter written to Thessalonica. It is written to us.

But of course we have no reason whatsoever to think that Job is the author of Job. I actually think Job is post-exilic in its current form, since it references the Satan, who appears in none of the clearly pre-exilic parts of the OT. What a book is about says nothing about when it was written. So the gospels were written in the last half of the first century, not at the time of Jesus.

And we have every reason to believe that, however inspiration works, it works through the mind of the human author to a significant degree. In fact, we even hear at a couple points that authors like Paul themselves used scribes, like Tertius in Romans 16 and, I think, Silas in 1 Peter. How else could we explain the conflicting use of words in different books. We can explain such things by recourse to differing styles of differing authors.

And I am not the immediate audience but, in terms of its original significance, someone listening in on an ancient conversation. And there is information I would have no way of knowing without education, like what the most likely meaning of Leviathan is. This requires a dip into Ugaritic literature. I can hear God speak to me through these words, but when I do I am usually not hearing the same meanings God spoke to them.

Many like Joel Green have been trying to work out what a second naivete might look like in which we hear God speak directly to us through these words. It remains clear to me also that the vast majority of Christians remain in a first naivete, which is not a problem until someone gets hurt.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Daniel Block on Husbands and Wives in Genesis

I find myself minutely distracted by a new book, Marriage and Family in the Biblical World. I don't really want to take the time to read it, but it's the kind of book I feel like I need to engage because it serves a complementarian agenda.

For example, Daniel Block of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes a chapter, "Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel." Then Andreas Köstenberger of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary summarizes his "take away" from Block in preparation for his chapter on "Marriage and Family in the New Testament." His summary reveals a clear complementarian agenda:

1. Genesis 1 indicates the ontological equality between men and women.
2. Genesis 2 indicates the differing role functionality of men and women, namely the subordination of the woman to the man.

Of course this schema raises all kinds of thoughts and comments in my mind.

First, this is simply the most acceptable fall back position for those who continue to resist the full new covenant functionality of women. A hundred years ago these same individuals would have likely dropped off number 1. That simply isn't acceptable today so they have accommodated the implications of the gospel just as much as they have to while remaining in the old covenant as much as they can get away with.

Let me be clear--these are godly and honorable men whom I respect. I believe their hearts are in the right place. But their position is simply the latest in a series of concessions to the increasing recognition of God's full empowerment of women in both identity and role. Everyone would now reject the position equivalent to theirs fifty years ago, when the Bible was used to keep women from working. Everyone would now reject the position equivalent to theirs a hundred years ago, when the Bible was used to keep women from voting. And soon Christians will reject out of hand their position that forbids women from certain roles of ministry and consigns them to an artificial functionality in the family.

I don't mind the angry protests these kinds of comments bring out. History doesn't care.

Secondly, this construction results from a harmonization of Genesis 1 and 2. If we go inductive, it is much more likely that these two chapters are two distinct narratives with two distinct representations of the male/female relationship. Chapter 1 makes no distinction between male and female in creation; chapter 2 does. These two accounts must be integrated, and the tactic of this book is only one way of doing so.

Thirdly, while I agree that Genesis 2 intrinsically places Adam in a position of superiority to Eve, Genesis 3--yet another story--considers subordination a consequence of Eve's sin. We thus find a tension on this issue within the narrative, one that must be resolved on a theological level, one that the text of the Bible itself does not resolve for us.

In the New Testament, 1 Timothy is only one voice on the appropriation of these narratives. There are others, including Galatians 3 and implicitly in other texts such as Acts 2. The kingdom trajectory gives us the key to prioritizing these contrasting presentations of the story--what is the truth that is being worked out as the kingdom of God approaches. From this perspective the argument of 1 Timothy, because it aligns itself with the old covenant, must be subordinated to the clear new covenant trajectory of Acts.

Although my comments here are only suggestive, they allude to the hard work of integration that is the task of the biblical theologian. It requires honest and deep engagement with the tensions and diversity of biblical texts due to their originally contextual and situational nature. Evangelical scholarship has a tendency to ignore such diversity and to harmonize it rather than resolve it.

But issues like these are too important for shallow engagement with the text or easy answers. The evangelical emperor is more dressed than he has ever been, but I still get embarrassed from time to time when he comes out in public.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Three Proverbs for the Day

I know I have some personality quirks. I won't share if you haven't noticed them. But there are also some things I think I get, too. I think I know when to shut up and when I'm bugging other people. I think I know when I'm rationalizing. I think I know when I'm presuming on other people or when I need just to say thank you and take a gift.

I know there are areas where I just don't get it--my friends and family could easily point these personality blind spots. By the same token, it's hard to watch other people be, well, stupid in their interpersonal relationships in areas where the right mannerism or course of action seems obvious to me.

Then there are children. I quickly looked for that book Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned in Kindergarten. What a great book! Share your toys, etc. Frankly, most people need to learn these things far more than to learn algebra. Reading and writing is important. But I would put basic interpersonal skills on a par with them. More people will grow up to be murderers than will ever use algebra in real life.

Don't get me started on how inefficient and ineffective I think the current American educational system is!

Anyway, I was trying to give my children some pointers on basic stuff today. If IWU has a seminary, there will be stuff in a congregational relationships course from people who know these things on an expert level. But today I offer these three basics in the form of American proverbs.

1. Winners train; losers complain.
For some reason people think that making excuses somehow changes things. The past is the past. It can't be changed. Maybe you have an explanation why it didn't go your way. Someone else didn't need an explanation because it went their way. They won; you lost. Get over yourself. Complaining is the sign of a loser. You weren't the best that time.

2. Shake it off.
Get up. Don't just lie there. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." "There's no crying over spilt milk." "It's water under the bridge." Shake it off and try again. Don't be a quitter. "You'll show them next time"... or the next time or the next time. Or at some point admit that they're better than you at x, y, or z.

3. Put up or shut up.
People who are the best don't need to tell anyone that they're the best. They know they're the best and others tell them so because they're the best. Bragging is a sign that you aren't actually as good as you're saying you are. "Pride goes before a fall." "The tallest nail is the first to get hit."

Or my own motto--"The truth doesn't care." It doesn't care about excuses or what people think. "It is what it is."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Four "Missing Pieces" in Use of Bible

I teach fairly often for the masters' program at IWU. Most of our current students are 1) people in ministry who 2) would not normally get seminary training. I believe the students in these classes are very representative of the preachers in America. Some are excellent; most are, as I've said, very representative.

I have been trying to put my finger on the key "missing pieces" in the Bible use of the average student I come across. I just turned in the grades for an online class today, so some of these are fresh on my mind. I have identified in my mind four key "missing pieces," each of which (why didn't I think of it before) corresponds with what I identify as the key skills of the hermeneutical process:

1. Corresponding to a "missing piece" in observation, pastors regularly read the biblical text not in terms of what it is actually saying but in terms of their own theology.

This is not necessarily bad in itself. The problem is not so much in the theological reading of Scripture but the failure to see the difference between that reading and the inductive observation of the text.

For example, one assignment in this recent online course was to identify the "key point" of Genesis 3. Almost everyone put "the fall of humanity." Now if by "fall of humanity" you mean the fact that Adam and his descendents no longer live in the Garden of Eden and do not live forever, that men have to work the soil for food, that women undergo painful childbirths and are subject to their husbands, that snakes do not walk and are the enemy of humans, if these things are what you mean by "fall," then okay.

However, this passage is very instructive in assumptions as well. For example, from an inductive standpoint, listening to the text of Genesis 3 alone, Satan is not mentioned and the snake is not equated with him. There is no mention of a sin nature or of the corruption of the creation in general.

Sin is not mentioned, nor disobedience nor condemnation. You will find no doctrine of universal sinfulness inductively in Genesis 3. These are all theological overlays first from Paul in Romans and Corinthians and then secondly by St. Augustine.

So from an inductive standpoint, we probably would not identify the Fall as a primary purpose of Genesis 3. But from a Christian theological standpoint, we probably would.

The first missing piece is the need for pastors to be able read the text for what it actually says rather than in terms of their own theological presuppositions.

2. Corresponding to a missing piece in interpretation, pastors regularly try to answers questions in the biblical text that the text itself is not trying to answer.

For example, no biblical text is addressing the question of abortion. From the standpoint of intepretation, we cannot ask this question of the biblical text. We can ask related questions that we then use to construct an answer to our question--when do the biblical texts seem to presuppose human life begins, etc...

The second missing piece is the need for pastors to be able to distinguish between our questions and questions that the biblical text itself was addressing.

3. Corresponding to a missing piece in integration, pastors regularly jump straight from a "pet passage" to today without taking seriously passages that stand in tension with the conclusion they wish to preach.

The biblical texts are very diverse in context and message. There is a tendency to flatten this diversity out in favor of our own positions and traditions. At the Wesleyan General Conference, for example, one pastor argued against buying and selling on the Lord's Day from Nehemiah. Another wanted to leave the question open because of Romans 14. A third missing piece is the need to be able to weigh Scripture against Scripture with the necessary sophistication given the diversity of biblical texts.

4. Finally, corresponding to a missing piece in appropriation, pastors regularly jump from "that time" to "this time" without any consistency. Without reflection, some passages are consigned to "that time" while others are directly applied to today. This is done without any developed theology of why one tact is taken with one topic and another with another.

The final missing piece is thus the need to be more aware of the forces that work on us behind the scenes in making these sorts of decisions.

All of this amounts to owning up to the charade of thinking we are just following the Bible alone. If anything, dare I say, the Bible probably plays the smallest role of all in what gets preached from the average pulpit in America each Sunday...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Top Five Church "Membership" Myths

1. The early church did not have church membership.
If I have to pick true or false, I pick false for this one. There were definite expectations of the small churches (40-50 would have been very large indeed for a house church) of the early church. They differed from assembly to assembly. Jerusalem assemblies were drastically different from the assembly at Corinth, for example. You could get kicked out, as 1 Corinthians 5 indicates, along with other passages.

2. Everyone who comes to my church should be a member.
If I have pegged myth #1 correct, then #2 is a myth too. The New Testament and later Christianity distinguish between those who have become part of the people of God and those who do not. This does not preclude a "seeker sensitive" add on for our times. After all, 1 Corinthians 14 speaks of unbelievers coming into the assembly.

But unbelievers are not a part of the body of Christ. They are not members of the church.

3. Membership should be restricted to what the Bible requires and forbids.
I'm going to say that this is partially true in one sense and yet false in other senses.

a. It is first false because the Bible was not written to address the 21st century church. Read it. It says it was written to people who lived 2000 to 3000 years ago. Their world was quite different from our world. Doing what they did then doesn't do the same thing now.

b. So we have issues that the Bible says nothing about. The Bible says squat about abortion--don't kid yourself with the obscure verses people use that had nothing to do with abortion originally. They had words for such things in the ancient world. They're not in the Bible.

But that does not automatically mean that abortion is okay. It's about time we grew up in our hermeneutic and became a little more mature than the blind application and voodoo interpretive methods most people use.

c. The third claim I want to make here is the most important under this point. It is a good thing for there to be pockets of Christendom with unique identities within the body of Christ. Reducing the universal church to one bland set of ideology and practice is tantamount to telling the whole body of Christ just to be an eye or an ear.

For one thing, we will never agree on a singular biblical theology. This is a pipe dream. This side of the kingdom of God, Christians will always have distinct perspectives on what God requires and what is true when it comes down to specifics. It was this way even in the early church, although Acts softens the disagreements in its presentation.

It enriches the church for us to hold the core Christian faith and certain core practices in common while being diverse in our more particular understandings and practices. It enriches the church for the Brethren in Christ to practice foot washing and for the Wesleyan Church to be teetotalers. It enriches the church for Reformed folk to emphasize the sovereignty of God, the Wesleyans to emphasize victory over sin, and the Roman Catholics to emphasize good works.

Our particularity is legitimate in at least two respects: 1) we have no real choice but to see certain things as we see them and 2) certain traditions of particular groups constitute identity and are worthwhile to affirm as who we are in the body of Christ.

d. In what respect, then, is this statement true? I would say that it would be magnificent if we had a way to affirm "membership" of our local congregations even when these individuals do not believe the way we do or practice Christianity the way we do.

In my perfect world, Wesleyans would identify core Christian beliefs and practices that we required of community members. We would say, we recognize you fully as a Christian like us, not one bit less than we are. You affirm the Apostle's Creed. You follow those of the Ten commandments continued by the New Testament as manifestations of love of God and neighbor. You are not Wesleyan, but you are fully Christian.

4. The particulars of the Wesleyan Church (insert your denomination) are what the Bible requires.
Give it up. This is naivete to the height. It is appropriate for us to have a unique identity, but let's not pretend for one minute that we are the little group that just happens to have all the right interpretations, beliefs, and practices. We think we have it right on a vast many issues where we think other groups have it wrong. But we are bound to have some blind spots somewhere.

And for now we are some of the Nazirites of the body of Christ--we don't drink. Let's not pretend that this question is as simple as "what the Bible says." The Bible bids us not to be drunkards and that's about it. It is perfectly legitimate for us not to do a whole host of things--or to do a host of things--that the Bible does not require us to do or not do.

So it is perfectly legitimate for us to have covenant membership, especially when we move beyond the local congregation to the leadership of the church both local and global. In fact, if we do not have such distinctions on these levels, we will melt away into non-existence or, like non-denominational churches, go with the mindless flow of our local attendees, all under the false pretense of just reading the Bible and doing what it says. Yeah right.

5. It is wrong for there to be denominations.
In many respects I have already addressed this myth throughout above. There were distinct idea and practice groups in the early church. The Jerusalem church had a different theology and practice than Paul's churches. Apollos probably gave different advice on certain issues than Paul did. John of Revelation would not have taken Paul's tact on meat offered to idols.

The late middle ages are a testimony to what happens when everyone must believe the same. The 20000 denominations are a testimony to the absurdity of thinking we just get our beliefs from the Bible alone.

I'm calling for a more sophisticated ecclesiology, one that I think could mesh with the Wesleyan Church's division between community and covenant members. I think we've kind of stumbled on it. But I think we could actually "write the book" on 21st century ecclesiology here!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Final General Conference Post

I left last night's service encouraged. The theme was on social holiness. The speakers, Christy Lipscombe and Jo Anne Lyon, presented concern for the whole person in a way that clearly integrated spiritual transformation with physical and social transformation. No one could accuse either of preaching a purely social gospel in any way.

I left feeling surprised by the conference. We have had good people in leadership these last years, but not leaders who inspired us or who made us feel like we really had any clear identity. I did not feel that way last night. I felt as if I was hearing some faint cries of a real voice from the Wesleyan Church.

In fact, I wondered if we have ever done anything in the last 40 years of any great significance at all. Jo Anne mentioned that in 1968, when the current form of the church emerged, we were in the Vietnam War, Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated, as Martin Luther King Jr. before. The civil rights movement was well under way. The cold war was very chilly indeed.

And we were talking about how the rapture was going to take place.

The decades for almost a hundred years before that were spent seeking the experience of entire sanctification. I know some lives were truly changed in material ways too--at least in the early years of the twentieth century. But the middle part of that century was inward turned, legalistic, and generally insignificant in terms of impact on the world.

So we have the beginnings of the Wesleyan Methodist Church with regard to slavery and later women and we have the changing of lives in the early part of the twentieth century and the trickle thereafter.

I wondered last night if we were about to do something more worthy to be put in the annals of the universal church last night. It has been an unexpected conference for me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

General Conference 4: Major Decision on Membership

Aside from electing JoAnn Lyon as General Superintendent, the major decision of the conference was in favor of modifying some rules on church membership. My denomination has wrestled with this issue for years and, although I believe once again it has made the right decision, this is an issue that begs for further clarity and refinement.

The issue, in my opinion, is the recognition that there is a difference between the particulars of Wesleyan identity and the particulars of Christian identity. On the one hand, it is perfectly appropriate for the Wesleyan Church to have a distinct identity with distinct beliefs and distinct practices. We believe in victory over sin. We don't drink alcohol. The universal church needs parts of the body to emphasize various pieces of the Christian puzzle more than others.

But there are also Christians who attend our churches who have, for example, a different definition of sin and a different understanding of Christian theology. And there are people who are every bit as holy as any Wesleyan who has ever lived, who drink alcohol in moderation and do so in full obedience to every word of the Bible on the subject.

The search for wisdom these last years is to recognize fully that we must affirm without reservation the equal spirituality of those in the last paragraph to us without negating the importance of our distinct voice among Chrisendom.

The resolution was to require "covenant" membership of ministers, board members, trustees, delegates, nominating committee members, lay leaders, Sunday School superintendents, etc. At the same time, community members can vote on all issues presented to the local church except votes on the reception of covenant members.

A key amendment--a compromise that helped the resolution pass--was the removal of a requirement for all local churches to recognize community membership and community members from other churches. It remains the prerogative of local churches to decide whether they will use the category or not.

Drinking was clearly the focal issue here. Can we have people in our congregations who drink voting on all church matters except the reception of covenant members? For churches with community membership, the answer is now yes.

P.S. Student membership is back (formerly called junior membership in days of yore)!

General Conference 3: I continue to be proud.

I continue to be proud of my denomination's maturity today, although I am sympathetic to those who watched some of our core traditions disappear today.

1. The new special directions say nothing about social dancing. In short, there is now nothing in the Wesleyan Discipline that forbids participation in dances. Since there is nothing in the Bible against dancing per se, it was always a somewhat bizarre part of our history. It is one of those traditions that does not clearly connect to morality. In fact, I would suggest that the prohibition was more of a hindrance to the gospel that makes our tradition look cultishly strange to those with whom we might want to draw toward Christ.

This is the right decision, although I deeply respect those who find the decision disconcerting.

2. The statement on the Lord's Day was amended not to specify comments on buying and selling on Sunday. This is also a major change. It is an appropriate change, however, for two reasons. First, the New Testament never equates Sunday with the Old Testament Sabbath and it explicitly in two places condemns those who would insist on Sabbath observance (Romans 14:5-6, which was brought up, and Colossians 2:16).

Secondly, very few in the Wesleyan Church follow this statement and those few have no chance of convincing the rest to change their mind. It is simply bad policy to have a rule on the books that everyone ignores. It trivializes the ones that everyone does consider important.

Again, this was the right decision, although I deeply respect and want to value those who believe they lost something very important today.

3. The traditional legalistic and prescriptive element of the church tried to assert itself several times. There was an amendment to specify "taking the LORD's name in vain" as prohibited. This amendment was voted down. Frankly, that would be included within the words "immoral and profane language" that was added.

Of course the OT "taking of the name in vain" had nothing to do with swearing but with not keeping vows made in the name of YHWH. Whether the delegates knew this or not, I am relieved that we did not end up with a statement in the Discipline on this score that reflects a lack of understanding.

There was also an attempt to remove the word "excessive" so that the special directions would say not to watch media that is violent. Again, wisdom prevailed as the word was changed to "the gratuitously violent." It was rightly recognized that movies like "The Blood Diamond" are violent but about serious world issues.

I am very sympathetic to those who feel they lost on these sorts of issues today. But I believe the church has won. These were the right decisions. Some outsiders may find these sorts of discussions strange and preposterous. How could you even be debating these things? How bizzare and insular a world!

Chalk it up that Wesleyans treat their faith very seriously. All the same, I'm proud that wisdom has won out on these things today.

Monday, June 09, 2008

JoAnne Lyon Elected General Superintendent!

I'm not always proud of my church, The Wesleyan Church. I like to taut the fact that we stood against slavery when the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to take a stand. I like to mention that we ordained women in the late 1800's (the Methodists didn't do it till the 1950's).

But I also know the coffee cooler grumbling among some significants in the church against women in ministry and I hear rumors of racism. A friend of mine did a study of certain Wesleyan district conferences in the 60's--almost no mention of the civil rights movement with the exception of a few motions on the wrong side of the issue. One Wesleyan church in Alabama made the Associated Press when the pastor called the police to keep some in his congregation from going violent with some Taladega College students who came and sat in the back of the church on an Easter morning.

I believed with all my heart that God wanted The Wesleyan Church to elect JoAnne Lyon as general superintendent of our church. But I'll confess I had doubts that we were spiritually mature enough to do it.

I'm not always proud of my church. Today, I am proud of my church. I am filled with hope that we might actually made a positive difference in the world for God.

And after hearing Dr. Lyon's passioned vision for the future of the church, get ready. By God's grace we're about to get moving!

P.S. Today's been filled with unusual excitement for a General Conference, which I usually consider the height of boredom. See the denominational DJ for this WWF match: Keith Drury.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hello from General Conference

Don't have much time to post this weekend. I'm at the General Conference of the Wesleyan Church, mainly exploring the possibility of the Wesleyan Church finally having its own seminary. We think we are on to some innovative possibilities, if of course accreditating bodies think they are worthy.

If I had time for a full post, I might post my reflections on the juxtaposition of the first 40 pages of Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren (that I read on the plane down) and the missions service here Saturday night. Very interesting.

For all its eccentricities, denominational families are, well, families. People you know at every turn, and they're all in a good mood... at least until the business sessions begin tomorrow. See Keith Drury's blog for that scoop!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Friday Review: Bauckham's "Throne of God"

Today I want to reflect on a paper Richard Bauckham gave at a conference in St. Andrews in 1998: "The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus." It is now a chapter in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus, edited by Carey Newman, James Davila, and Gladys Lewis.

Let me just say that St. Andrews knows to put on conferences. I don't know any place that does a better job--especially in the light of the location. I was actually present when Bauckham gave this paper (10 years ago next weekend), although I will confess to having a problem sticking with most papers of this sort if I don't have a paper copy in front of me. So I sadly admit that reading this chapter was like hearing it for the first time--except of course that it is quite typical of the other things on monotheism by Bauckham I have interacted with here.

Bauckham's thesis is now very clear to me:

1. YHWH was distinguished from all other supposed gods as a) in a completely different category, even if they might be spiritual forces of some kind, b) this uniqueness had to do with YHWH being the sole Ruler of all things and c) YHWH being the sole Creator of all things and thus d) YHWH alone being the object of worship by all things.

This is a summary out of my head rather than the precise wording of this chapter, but these things for Bauckham constitute the "unique identity of the one God."

2. Among "intermediary figures," we can distinguish figures like wisdom and the logos that are included within God's unique identity and other figures such as exalted patriarchs and angels who were never included within that identity.

3. The exaltation to God's right hand that the early Christians understood through Psalm 110:1, because it associated Christ with God's throne, would have immediately implied to the early Christians, says Bauckham, that Jesus was included within God's unique identity. That would thus mean that he was involved with creation and the rule of all things and could receive the worship afforded the one God.

This train of thought is logical enough, but seems to me to assume too many "musts" based on ideological constructs like "God's unique identity" (which as Bauckham acknowledges is not an expression we actually find in any of these texts).

With regard to the throne of God, the focus of this chapter, Bauckham argues that "the throne of God in the highest heaven became a key symbol of monotheism... While a few traces of other enthroned figures associated with God's rule can be found, the subordination of such figures to God's rule is almost always stressed, while the overwhelming trend of the literature is towards emptying heaven of all thrones except God's" (53).

I can go for that--except I question the word monotheism. As he makes clear in his treatment of MacDonald we mentioned earlier, the word is not a biblical word. It is an Enlightenment word. I would prefer to say that the throne of God in the highest heaven reflects the sole rulership of God over every other being and power among all things.

Let me also say that "the subordination of such figures to God's rule" also jumps out at me given comments in the NT like 1 Cor. 15:28: "When he has done this [put everything under Christ], then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all" and Philippians 2:11, "And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." These verses clearly subordinate the rulership of Christ to that of God the Father.

As an aside, these verses are "pre-orthodox." They do not yet reflect the full Christian understanding of the persons of the Trinity and their interrelationships. My purposes here are not to deny the orthodox Christian understanding but to ask where Paul was in the flow of revelation given his Jewish/Greco Roman context. Although it is debated among Christians currently, I am quite willing to affirm by faith the orthodox understanding that there is no subordination among the persons of the Godhead. Orthodoxy has generally understood passages like 1 Corinthians 15:28 in the light of Christ's humanity rather than his divinity, a distinction of course that I suspect Paul would not yet be able to understand.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Bauckham's paper are his discussions of three possible exceptions to his claim that only God can be on the throne.

1. Wisdom on the Throne
Here Bauckham looks at 1 Enoch 84 (from the Dream Visions) and Wisdom 9. Bauckham is right to see these as completely coherent with "monotheism." These are clearly personifications of God's wisdom.

The alternative to Bauckham sees the path to protological language about Christ through the path of wisdom and word. Psalm 110:1 places Christ at God's right hand--"wisdom" is at God's right hand--Christ embodies the meaning, the logos, of creation and is the instrument of new creation--equation of Christ with God's wisdom and logos. Philippians 2 remains the strongest argument against this perspective, in my opinion.

2. Moses on the Throne
Bauckham here treats Ezekiel the Tragedian's (ca. 200BC) placement of Moses on God's throne over all things. His reading seems plausible enough to me. Exegesis of Exodus, influenced by Genesis, leads to this image. The key passage is Exodus 7:1, where God tells Moses, "I will make you god to Pharaoh." Thus the metaphor of Moses on God's throne is God making Moses god to the universe. But it is not really God's throne but an image relating to Moses in relation to the Egyptians.

This picture does not violate "monotheism" because Moses is clearly subordinated to God's rule and in fact rules for God. His placement on God's throne makes us a little uncomfortable, but it is within the parameters of God's sole rule. I like Bauckham's interpretation, but Ezekiel T still puts Moses relative to God's rule on the throne of all things.

3. Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch
By far the most interesting parallel is the Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch. The Son of Man is seated on the divine throne over all things and judges the world. "All those who dwell on the earth will fall and worship before him" (48.5). Bauckham says this is the "exception which proves the rule" (60).

But the problem is that this is Bauckham's rule. How is it not rather the "evidence that undermines his paradigm"? I don't think anyone questions that the Son of Man here is subordinated to the Ancient of Days. But apparently it was okay for such a figure to mediate God's rule.

Further, worship itself is an ambiguous concept. It was appropriate to "bow the knee" to a king, which is one of the words for worship. It is not clear to me that Bauckham or Hurtado have in any way demonstrated that Jewish thought could not accommodate "bowing the knee" to a ruler of all things who was clearly subordinated to the Ruler of all things.

Bauckham has called an exception one of the clearest parallels to the NT in Jewish literature on this topic. I'm a little puzzled that Bauckham distances Matthew 25 from these passages in the Parables. It reminds me of Simon Gathercole's distancing of Sirach and wisdom passages from Matthew. In both cases I suspect that interpreter bias is the ultimate cause rather than an inductive reading of the evidence.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Book Review: Borg's Jesus

I have a student finishing up his graduation requirements with an independent study reading two books. The first is Marcus Borg's Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. Here are some of my thoughts after reading through this book.

1. First, it is probably a book for more mature evangelicals rather than for the impressionable or of shaky faith. While Marcus Borg has a strong personal faith, it is not a traditional faith and certainly not an evangelical faith. Borg started out a fairly conservative Lutheran but found himself intellectually unable to maintain that faith in a traditional form the further he went in his studies.

The result is that he has continued in faith in the only way he knows how. This is a faith that embraces the human side of Christian faith without committing to an objective God or resurrected Christ in a traditional sense. He affirms Christian spirituality as real, just as he would affirm Buddhist or Jewish spirituality. If I remember correctly Ben Witherington characterized his Jesus as a new age Jesus.

Borg now refers to Jesus as a mystic. I read his Jesus: A New Vision back in the 90's in preparation to make some lectures in England on the historical Jesus. This is a great improvement on that book in many ways.

2. But this makes Borg a good read for someone who is about to throw the Christian towel in completely. Borg, like Bultmann before, is keenly interested in legitimating Christian faith. At several points in this book he says things like "Believe what you wish with regard to whether this happened historically or not, but do not miss the real point, which is the more-than-literal meaning of this story."

Borg will be attractive to many emergents, and he hopes to be helpful to them. His Jesus is a Jesus who appeals to the part of Jesus and Christianity that they see as the part most important and valuable in our current context. His message fits with themes like generous orthodoxy and explicitly mentions Jim Wallis' God's Politics with approval in his epilogue.

3. ... which of course means that opponents to the emerging and to the Sojourners movement will attempt to assassinate them by association. Let me say before anyone tries to do this that this is logically invalid. X advocates such and such and Y advocates such and such; therefore X is Y is an invalid argument--ticks me off when Christians make God look stupid. Don't be stupid--Wallis and McClaren don't agree with Borg's understanding of God or Christ.

4. For mature evangelicals, this book is a very convenient look "outside our bubble." Borg was a part of the famed Jesus Seminar. He considers the books of the Bible a human response to the sacred but clearly rejects any claim that it might be inerrant. He matter of factly says things like, "mainline scholars do not see the stories of Jesus' birth as historically factual reports" (62).

That is not to say that there is not a good deal of correct information here and historical insights. With a sensitive guide to walk with you through the book, a person can go a 1000 miles ahead in his or her understanding of the first century context in which Jesus walked. A fundamentalist will jump off Borg's boat soon, an evangelical at some point a little further. To remain orthodox, you will need to jump off a little further on the way.

But for some who were poised to leave Christianity all together, this book might convince you to stay.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Propositions versus Proverbs

Part of the introduction to the logic chapter of my philosophy book:
This chapter sets out some of the basic rules and mistakes people make when thinking and arguing both deductively and inductively. It is concerned not just with whether a proposition or “truth claim” is true or false. It is about valid and invalid ways to move from one thought to the next.

We should also make clear the difference between a proposition and the kinds of things we often say in ordinary language. “I’ll never forget how happy I was to get that dog” is not a proposition. For one thing, it is a hyperbole, an exaggerated comment. You may very well forget, especially if you get senile in old age or get Alzheimer’s disease. Propositions are usually literal rather than metaphorical or figurative statements.[i]

It is also not a statement about what is always true about something. A propositional version of this statement might be something like, “People are always happy when they get dogs.” Of course, this statement is not true as a proposition, since many people do not like dogs, and sometimes even individuals who generally like dogs do not like the ones they get. To be true, a proposition must always be true.

For this reason, it is important to distinguish proverbs and most statements in the Bible from propositions. For example, take Proverbs 22:6: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (TNIV). This is not a proposition, because it is not something that is always true. It is a general principle that is usually true but sometimes through no fault of their parents children choose to go down the wrong paths.

A great example of the “proverbial” nature of biblical statements appears in Proverbs 26:4-5 which says in succession, “Do not answer fools according to their folly” and then in the next verse, “Answer fools according to their folly.” Since one of the rock bottom principles of logic is the law of non-contradiction, both of these statements cannot be true as propositions. However, since proverbs are not statements of absolute truth but of general truth, both of these statements are true as proverbs.

It is important to recognize that the vast majority of biblical statements are not meant as propositions—they are not made as absolute statements of truth that do not have exception. Here we are talking about statements of truth rather than commands (although we will see in chapter 11 that most of the Bible’s ethical commands similarly do not function on the level of exceptionless absolutes). And we are not talking about the many figurative and metaphorical statements in the Bible. Jesus in particular seemed to have used metaphor and hyperbole extensively in his teaching, as we see in his use of parables.

Take Jesus’ intriguing statement to the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:27, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” To start out, this is a metaphor. We might literally put it, “It is not right for me to cast a demon out of a non-Jew” with a supporting statement, “My exorcist ministry is for Jews.” However, neither of these statements is a proposition. If they were, they would be false—or else Jesus did wrong when he then went on to cast the demon out of the woman’s daughter.

In the end, the books of the Bible were written to address ancient Israelites, Romans, Corinthians, and so forth. The statements these writings make were made not only in these contexts, but in terms that people from these ancient cultures could understand. It is the exception, rather than the rule, to find propositional statements like “there is but one God, the Father… and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6).[ii] Our default expectation is that biblical statements are qualified by their historical-cultural contexts and that even then they are more general statements than exceptionless propositions.

[i] Although George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have made a good case that not only speech but even our concepts are ultimately metaphorical in nature (Metaphors We Live By, [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980]). Nevertheless, the distinction between literal and metaphorical stands when we think of the literal as the ordinary use of words and metaphors as an unusual use of words based on comparing them to other things that are unlike them.

[ii] Interestingly, Paul does not exactly word this statement like a proposition, introducing it with the relativizing phrase, “for us there is…”

Monday, June 02, 2008

Monday Thoughts: God Managing Conflict

A masters student is working on a project addressing conflict in the local church. This week they worked on a chapter looking at biblical-theological issues relating to their projects. I never like this week, even though I'm the one who set it up. I don't like it because few are equipped to do a decent job of it.

What would be a decent job to me? Something along the lines of what Richard Hays does in the issue chapters of Moral Vision. From my perspective, what inevitably comes out is a somewhat superficial, personalized reading of some passages that seem to reinforce the intuitions of whoever is doing the reading.

A seasoned pastor recently suggested to me that what the coming generation might need to address some of its deficiencies was more Bible classes. But I guarantee if I listened to one of his or her sermons I would hear pretty much the same superficial kind of mirror reading of Scripture that hears its own theological values in the text. What he or she meant was I would like to tell them what I think the Bible means and them be convinced that it is the very command of God.

I don't remember the name, but I heard someone saying something similar about the recent Evangelical Manifesto. It was something like, "We don't need a manifesto; we just need the Bible." Tell that to the other 20,000 denominations who disagree with you, all of whom are just following the Bible.

Well, all of that is aside. We were chatting a little tonight about the distinction between managing and resolving conflict. Some think that conflict is always bad and always needs to be resolved. Others prefer to speak of managing it, thinking of it as inevitable.

Part of the discussion had to do with a book that sought out five types of conflict in the Garden of Eden. The thought occurred to me that, in a sense, human history is God's managing rather than resolving conflict. True, Christ has set the resolution in motion. Resolution (salvation) is a done deal. But if the conflict began with Satan and was passed on by Adam, then human history is God managing conflict rather than resolving it... at least not immediately.