Saturday, May 30, 2009

Starfish and Spider 2: The President of the Internet

I really haven't planned to review The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, but now I've done two chapters. I honestly haven't forgotten the three other books I started reviewing, but I do have a day job and a thousand other projects I'll never finish.

Chapter 1: MGM and the Apaches

Chapter 2: The Spider, the Starfish, and the President of the Internet

The fun continues. The concept behind the title is that you can kill a spider--it has a head. A starfish will regenerate its arms. In fact one kind will regenerate from almost any part you cut off.

The "President of the Internet" has to do with a guy that was trying to get some French investors to help him start an internet company in the 90's. They were really stuck on the question of who the president of the internet was. They couldn't comprehend a leaderless system. So finally he gave up, "Yes, I'm the president of the internet."

They give 10 questions to figure out whether an organization is a spider or a starfish:

1. Is there someone in charge?
2. Are there headquarters?
3. If you thump it on the head, will it die?
4. Is there a clear division of roles?
5. If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed?
6. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed?
7. Is the organization flexible or rigid?
8. Can you count the employees or participants?
9. Are working groups funded or self-funding?
10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries?

In addition, we're at six principles of decentralization:

1. From the last chapter: When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.

2. Now this chapter: It's easy to mistake starfish for spiders.

His key examples in this chapter both come from 1935. In that year, Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous. No CEO, no leader, run by individuals with common problems.

Also in 1935, a mess of workers died in Key West because the FDR beaurocracy didn't run things up and down the chain of command fast enough. I might add that I keep thinking of the Bush administration and terrorism. I think it will come up later in the book. I swear they remind me of the French trying to figure out who the president of the internet was.

3. An open system doesn't have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system.

He makes an important point here. Open systems don't necessarily make better decisions. They just respond more quickly. Think of potential errors in Wikipedia or the potential for strange ideas in house churches.

4. Open systems can easily mutate.

5. Decentralized organization sneaks up on you.

6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.

Of the big five music companies in 2001, one filed for bankruptcy, two merged. CD shops are history. In short, sales are down 25% in the last five years since Napster.

Seminary Vision (5-30-09)

Every day of seminary implementation here at IWU is a reminder of how revolutionary a vision we are pursuing. Here are three cliffs on my mind today, things that we academics can so easily fall back into:

1. The cliff of lecture
Lecturing is the least effective teaching technique. It makes us professors feel like we've covered the material, but the average student may take away a tenth of what we've said. Then maybe they'll cram some more facts into their head for some test. I have a strong sense that, on average, far more learning occurs in an online class than in the typical onsite classroom because everyone has to participate. You can't sit in the back of the room on Facebook because if you don't post online, you're not there.

(By the way, I'm not a confrontational type, so I figure if I can't design a classroom experience that keeps you with what we're doing, then part of that is my fault. Some profs get very upset with students on Facebook. I would put them in the same category of those who are fighting Wikipedia... you're going to lose this cultural battle. We've got to figure out a way to lasso the thing because it's not going away. At the same time, the grades of my students have gone down noticeably since the advent of the wireless classroom. I'm very up front in freshman classes about what they need to know to do well on my tests. So either these last two years are full of extremely stupid students... or they're not nearly as good at multi-tasking as they think they are.)

Memorization is of course the lowest level of learning. I know professors who think they're tough because students have trouble regurgitating material for their tests. They're not good teachers at all. Unless you move into higher level Bloom's learning (synthesis, integration, evaluation), you're a mediocre teacher. "We learn by doing."

2. The cliff of idiosyncrasy
One challenge for an individual teacher or pastor is that you only take your own class and you have yourself as a pastor all the time. Not so for students or your church. They know that the next professor disagrees with you and is just as sure s/he's right as you are. The last pastor told them "what's really going on here" as well, but it was something different from what you said.

We all want to write our own textbook for our own class giving the right way to think about such and such or do such and such. But that impoverishes the student/congregation. Good teaching will expose them to a diverse body of opinions and positions.

Collaboration has made the vision for the seminary at IWU great. But as we move toward locking down the course content, we have to guard against the trajectory veering off into an individualized final product. In some ways, it would be better to have an unknown good teacher facilitate a product that represents the best thinking of 20 people than to have an individual expert give an individual perspective.

The adult online education model 1) takes brilliant content from a content expert, 2) filters it through a brilliant instructional designer whose specialty is online pedagogy, and 3) is facilitated by someone who is brilliant at managing discussion and classroom activity. These are three distinct skills and not many have all three. It raises the question of whether the best education would be to have the brilliant visit and generate content rather than do the actual teaching/course writing.

3. The cliff of the disciplinary silo
We came into this game thinking one distinctive would be that we would make the Bible, theology, and church history expert get practical. But I saw clearly in the interview process that it goes both ways. It can be hard to get practical people to value Bible, theology, and church history just as much. It seems just as hard for "practical" people to stretch themselves to biblical or theological depth as it is for a "theoretical" person to stretch themselves to learn the practical.

We all have a tendency to go off in the direction of our own personality and area of expertise! How hard it is for us all to follow the middle way.

But let me end on a good note. We are two months away from our first course, three months from our first online course. (There's still room for onsite students to apply, coming to campus all day on Tuesdays in the Fall. We're getting really close with online students for the Fall, so hurry up or you're looking at the January start!)

The vision continues to thrive! The growing cast of characters is wonderful. This is almost an impossible dream... but it is becoming a reality every day, by God's grace!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Starfish and the Spider

Started reading The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations last night. I very much enjoyed the Introduction and the first chapter, which were about the crisis of the music industry and there inability to stop people from sharing music files with each other. Kids don't buy music any more. One person does and then shares it with everyone else. It seems to be a losing battle.

The reason is that there is no head to cut off. You can sue five companies, but you can't sue a million teenagers. The only one making any money is the lawyers.

Then they go off into the Apaches. They survive for hundreds of years while Montezuma bites the dust. There's no centralized leadership to stop.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Explanatory Notes: James 1:2-4

1:2 Consider it to be all joy, my brothers, whenever you fall into various testings,
The word for "testings" might also be translated "temptations," and the word clearly seems to take on this nuance in 1:12. But it is hard not to distinguish the meaning here from the later meaning. 1:2 seems to be broader than temptation per se and refer to challenges to endurance in general.

As good proverbial wisdom, these words have a generally universal application. Testing is displeasurable, but it can actually make us stronger and more mature. Depending on when James was written, of course, some specific period of testing might have been in view. Paul speaks of resistance against believers in Judea (e.g., 1 Thess. 2:14). It is hard to know whether things worsened for believers in Jerusalem in the decade leading up to the Jewish War, which started in AD66.

At the same time, if James is meant to convey what James would say if he were here, rather than what he did say, then it is at least conceivable that the statement could allude to the misfortunes of Israel around AD70, namely, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. However, the statement really does not have any clear, concrete referent and would apply in any context.

1:3-4 ...knowing that the proving of your faith brings about endurance. And let endurance have its complete effect, with the result that you are complete and whole, lacking in nothing.
Faith here has a robust sense, unlike the shallow sense James will give the word in 2:14. Faith here is a faith that endures testing and thus is proved to be true faith. As James says later, "I will show you my faith by my works" (2:18). Do you really believe? Testing will show us.

The principle that facing resistance results in strengthening is a well known principle, especially in our age of sports training and exercise. A muscle that is not used becomes flabby and useless. Only by working the muscle does it become stronger. So testing not only shows how strong faith already is. It also strengthens it.

James 1 anticipates most of the themes that appear later in the book. The theme of testing in James largely appears in relation to the troubles brought on by the wealthy. James 2:6, for example, mentions the rich dragging the audience into court. James 4:13-5:6 also has some of the harshest words toward the rich in the New Testament.

The word for "complete" might also be translated as "perfect" or "mature." However, the word perfect is almost unintelligible to a contemporary audience, since it is inevitably taken to mean some sort of absolute perfection without any fault. The word mature similarly seems to fall short of the fullness the word seems to imply. Testing helps make a person complete to where they lack nothing and are a whole believer.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Missional Hermeneutic: The Mission of God

What is missional?
What is a missional church? Treasure in Clay Jars puts it well when it says, "Missional churches see themselves not so much sending as being sent." [1] Churches used to have a part of their overall life they called "missions." It was the part of the church's life where they sent people out to try to see souls "saved." And, indeed, it was not about sending people across the street or even to the next town. Missions was about sending people overseas, to evangelize those in far away lands.

The missional shift that has taken place this last decade is not just the realization that the person next door might not believe in Christ. [2] It is a huge step back to see the big picture--God's big picture. It does not ask, "What mission do I/we need to send others on?" It is much bigger than that. It is not even just, "What is my/our mission?" It is much bigger than that. It is not even as big as "What is the Church's mission?"

Missional thinking is thinking that steps way back for the biggest picture of all--at least the biggest picture we finite humans can grasp. Missional thinking asks, "What sort of mission is God on in the world?" What is God's plan not just for me, not just for us, not just for the Church, but for the entirety of the universe? Why did God create the world and where is it all headed? The "mission of God" is about the story of God's walk with the creation from beginning to end, and not just about the salvation of us humans, but God's redemption of the world as well.

The Inevitability of a Hermeneutic

One of the must reads of this shift to missional thinking is Christopher J. H. Wright's The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative. [3] One of Wright's main purposes is to show that "the mission of God provides a fruitful hermeneutical framework within which to read the whole Bible." [4] A "hermeneutic" is a way of interpreting something. Everyone has one whether they realize it or not. Some of the most dangerous Bible readers are those who don't know they have one, the ones that assume they just read the Bible and do what it says.

The person who starts down the path of reading the books of the Bible on their own terms soon runs into some interesting issues he or she may not have anticipated. For example, most of us who are Christians read and value the Bible because we believe it to be God's word, God's word to us today. We thus eagerly read the Bible to hear God's living voice, giving us the answers to our life's questions. Perhaps we take a course in Bible study.

Ironically, this drive of ours to listen to the Bible and to hear what it has to say may lead us directly into a conundrum. We are reading, say, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. We notice that this chap named Paul is writing it. Perhaps we think for a moment. Now who was this Paul and when did he live? The answer to the question is not particularly controversial. He lived some two thousand years ago. So God is speaking to me through the words of a man who has been dead for some time now.

But wait. This letter does not say it was written to me. Indeed, it quite plainly says it was written to a group of people who lived in a place called Corinth. And I have assumed it is a letter. This would seem a fairly good suggestion, since this Paul chap seems to be responding to a letter himself (1 Cor. 7:1). Again, where was this Corinth place? The answer to the question is not particularly controversial. It was a fairly large ancient city in Greece, situated in the Mediterranean Sea.

The more I pursue the original location of this letter in time and space, the more distance I may feel between myself and this ancient letter. I will discover that the meaning of actions in one culture may very easily differ from the meaning of actions in another. When Paul wrote the Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, and so forth with behavioral instructions, the meaning of those actions surely had much to do with those contexts such that even if I were to mimic the actions, I would not be doing the same thing.

An amusing example is the old Levitical instruction not to boil the kid in the milk of the mother goat (Exod. 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Even to this day in Israel, you cannot eat milk and meat in the same meal or serve it under the same roof because of the longstanding Jewish application of this verse. The reason for the original prohibition is not entirely clear, although it has often been suggested that it had something to do with the religion of the Canaanites who surrounded Israel. What it likely was not about, is some arbitrary and inexplicable desire on God's part to keep a person from drinking milk with eggs at breakfast.

Whenever we have this sort of puzzled reaction to the Bible, we are very likely reading stories or instruction whose most direct meaning is largely locked away in its ancient context. What? A woman should have authority on her head because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:10)? What does that mean? What? Jacob put speckled rods in front of sheep having sex so they would have spotted offspring (Gen. 30:37-43)? What does that mean? What? Women will be saved from the transgression of Eve through childbearing if they live in continued faith, love, and holiness (1 Tim. 2:15)? What does that mean?

Most Christian readers never pursue the contextual reading of the Bible far enough to have a crisis. Although most of us are hardly aware of it, we have a way of reading the Bible as a single story with a single plot, a "hermeneutic" that goes back to Bible times. God created the world good, but the first human Adam disobeyed God and set the world at odds with God in sin. But God set to work at reconciling the world, first by calling Abraham, who became a model of faith. Then he called Israel, Abraham's descendants, with the goal of ultimately bringing salvation to the whole world through them.

Then God came to earth in person as Jesus, a child of Israel. He died on the cross to make cosmic reconciliation possible. God raised him from the dead and, in time, he will return to earth to redeem the creation fully and to raise the dead to life, some to eternal joy and others to eternal condemnation. And thus we read the Bible as a single story with an overall plot that binds all the individual pieces together.

Something like the above two paragraphs is indeed the Christian way to read the Bible, although no doubt different Christian groups would write the two paragraphs slightly differently. The myriad variety of Christian churches each have their own spins and emphases, even though the cast of characters and basic storyline remains the same. One of the things that distinguishes one Protestant group from another is the specific "glue" used to connect the story pieces to each other.

But for some, the deeper exploration of reading the books of the Bible on their own terms begins to pull against this unified story. Indeed, it is one reason seminarians sometimes find the Bible begin to lose some of its living quality for them, which ironically was one of the reasons they went to seminary in the first place. For example, Adam plays a very important part in the Christian story. But when a person reads the Old Testament on its own terms, Adam plays almost no role at all. He is mentioned in the second and third chapters of Genesis, and thereafter is not mentioned again as a person. The role of Adam in the Christian story does not come from his role on the Old Testament's own terms.

The virgin birth is similar in the Christian reading of the New Testament. It appears in Matthew 1 and Luke 2, but then plays no role in the thought of the rest of the New Testament nor even in the rest of Matthew and Luke. The significance of the virgin birth in the Christian story thus does not come from its role on the New Testament's own terms.

Learning to read the books of the Bible in context is not something to try to avoid, although this has been the initial reaction of many--either to fight context or flee it. Twentieth century fundamentalism and, to a lesser extent, evangelicalism, tried to make the most likely original meanings of the books of the Bible go away when they seemed to come into conflict with reading the Bible as Christian Scripture. Sophisticated--and sometimes not so sophisticated scholarship was developed as a coping mechanism to deal with the so called "higher criticism" that rose in the late 1800's.

Sure, Genesis never says that Moses is its author. Reading Genesis on its own terms would not lead a person to this conclusion, nor would reading Exodus through Deuteronomy on their own terms, since they talk about Moses. They do not read as the voice of Moses narrating the story. But for some it seemed important to find a way to defend Mosaic authorship for the sake of the story's unity. Sure, the varying accounts of the four gospels at times seem difficult to reconcile historically. But intellectuals in the fundamentalist tradition found ingenious ways to deny what seemed an unavoidable conclusion to others, sometimes suggesting amusing scenarios to reconcile minute details. And the suggested harmonization often gave us a storyline that differed from the four gospels far more than any of them actually differ from each other!

But the "liberal" conclusion was wrong as well. The liberal lost faith in the possibility that the Bible might present a unified story and that this story might be the Christian story. This person may at times have understood better what it means to read the individual books of the Bible in context, indeed, may in some cases have been more "honest" with the evidence in his or her interpretations. But the unfortunate consequence was that the meaning of the Bible's books ended up locked up forever in the ancient near east or in the Mediterranean world. The meaning of each biblical text became so particular, so foreign to our world, that it became irrelevant, certainly not God's living word for us today.

The way forward, however, was neither to deny the insights of reading in context (as the fundamentalists) nor to consider the unity of Scripture no longer viable (the liberals). The way forward has proved to be two-fold, and the second way has only emerged clearly in recent days. The first way was recognized by some who managed to keep their faith without running away from the genuine insights of a historical approach to the Bible. For example, Oscar Cullmann and others read the Bible in terms of "salvation history," where the story of salvation is not only a story in the Bible's literature but the story of God moving through history including the events of writing the books of the Bible. [5]

Thus God's story is not merely Adam to Abraham to Moses, in Genesis and Exodus. But God inspired the writing of Genesis and Exodus as moments in the history of salvation. It is the paradigm shift that takes place when one begins to see how to read the books of the Bible in context. You see the books of the Bible themselves as key events in the story even moreso than the characters and statements in those books. The books of the Bible thus become the story of God moving humanity forward toward a better understanding of Him in history, progressively, making the message take on flesh.

The "pre-modern" reader who cannot yet read the Bible in context goes through the books of the New Testament in their literary order--Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. This person has a tendency to think the gospels were written first because they are about Jesus. Paul's books are taken in the order they appear in the New Testament.

The contextual reader sees God walking with the early church through a series of revelatory events. Paul's writings were written first. 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians are early. But we see God walking with Paul into Philippians and Romans, whose teaching seems somehow to reflect a minister nearing the end of a decades long ministry. The gospels were some of the latest writings of the New Testament, especially John. And they reflect a whole generation or two's reflection on Jesus, his teaching, his ministry.

The writing of each of these books was a moment in a flow of revelation that has surely been underway since the creation. The same is true of the Old Testament. Abraham probably understood so little of what we understand that we would scarcely recognize him if we were to meet him. Moses understood a little more, and Isaiah still more. But we may, with 2000 years of God walking with the Church, understand things about the Trinity that the apostle Paul would not have clearly seen. Here is the contextual way to see the unity of the books of the Bible as inspired--inspired within the story of salvation's history.

But postmodern attention to the flexibility of the meaning of texts has also made it possible to return to reading the Bible as a single book once again, just as Christians did before the crisis of historical criticism. Before the modern era forced us to read the Bible in context--or led us to run away from it into separatist enclaves--Christians read the Bible as a single story from creation to final restoration. They read the text of the Bible as a single piece of inspired literature with a single meaning. They placed themselves within that single story they read into the Bible. Ironically, it was the Protestant Reformation's rejection of non-literal interpretation that most set us on a trajectory away from such a unified reading. A unified reading of this sort requires us to de-emphasize the original contexts of each book in deference to a unified perspective we inevitably have to provide as readers.

Paul does not tell us how his "justification by faith" fits with James' "justification by works," nor does James tell us. We are forced to glue them together. The fundamentalist pretends that the unity of these sorts of diverse texts is somehow in the Bible, but it is not. These were separate documents. The gluing together is entirely a function of us as readers looking on. A process of unifying is required to fit the teaching of all the books together, and it is inevitably something we have to do because the Bible itself does not tell us how to do it.

And that is okay. Indeed, it is more than okay. It is the way Christians since before the New Testament have, by the Holy Spirit, found the unified story of the Bible. It is the way the Church, the body of Christ universal, has always read the books of the Bible. It does not matter that it is a slightly different way of reading the books than reading them in context. It is the Christian way of reading the texts.

A Missional Hermeneutic
This discussion may seem tangential to reading the Bible as the mission of God, but it is essential if a person is to appreciate the depth and profundity of what we mean by a "missional hermeneutic." Postmodernism has enabled us to loosen the words of the Bible from their original contexts enough so that we can once again read it as a single story of God creating and redeeming the world. We are currently witnessing the thriving of what is called a "theological hermeneutic" that can once again justify reading the Bible as a single book with a single story even while recognizing the Bible is a collection of books, plural, written in multiple languages to address multiple contexts.

But many readers have simply taken this climate as an excuse to continue reading the Bible in ignorance, never to confront the question of what these texts actually meant in the first moment of inspiration. True, it is most important that we read the Bible as Christians and thus that we hear in the words of the Bible the unified voice of God to us today. But the history of faith crisis will only postpone and reassert itself in the next generation if we pretend that the crisis of context never took place. The challenges of higher criticism were not all the vain attacks of the faithless. Many of them had real substance, and if we cannot proceed with faith without facing them, then we are begging the faith of our children to fail.

Christopher Wright puts it this way, "a missional hermeneutic must include at least this recognition--the multiplicity of perspectives and contexts from which and within which people read the biblical texts." [6] A deep missional hermeneutic will not just read the whole Bible as the single story of God working out His mission for the world, although certainly this will be the centerpiece of a missional hermeneutic. But a missional hermeneutic with depth will recognize, as Wright puts it, that the "writings that now comprise our Bible are themselves the product of and witness to the ultimate mission of God." [7] "[T]he Bible itself is in so many ways a missional phenomenon in itself." [8]

Here is how Wright summarizes a missional hermeneutic:

"A missional hermeneutic, then, is not content simply to call for obedience to the Great Commission (though it will assuredly include that as a matter of nonnegotiable importance), nor even to reflect on the missional implications of the Great Commandment. For behind both it will find the Great Communication--the revelation of the identity of God, of God's action in the world and God's saving purpose for all creation. And for the fullness of this communication we need the whole Bible in all its parts and genres, for God has given us no less." [9]

Wright closes his introductory chapters with the following elements of the story of God on His mission. These headings provide us with a fruitful way to integrate the biblical material into a single, Christian, coherent storyline of salvation's history:

1. God with a mission
God created the universe for a purpose. He is the center of the story, not us. We are small players in a story that is, from beginning to end, about God, not us. The driving force of the plot is the mission of God.

2. Humanity with a mission
Christians understand God to have created a good world that Adam's sin put into crisis, however we conceptualize that sin. One key feature of a missional emphasis is the recognition that God's business is bigger than us. God may have put us above all things in the creation, but He didn't expect us to be "rulers" who couldn't care less about those over whom He placed us. A missional hermeneutic will take concern for the creation as something over which God placed us as stewards.

3. Israel with a mission
The Old Testament is the first part of the story. If we are to take Christianity seriously, then we have to see Act 1 as a true part of the story, where God used one nation out of all the earth to begin the slow process of bringing the whole universe back to Him.

4. Jesus with a mission
Jesus' mission spans Act 1 and Act 2. He comes to earth and ministered to the smallest part of humanity, the back hills of Galilee, truly insignificant by any human reckoning. But by the time he is done, he has died to bring the cosmos back into order and has risen from the dead as the first installment of a victory over the power of death that will be universal.

5. The Church with a mission
This is the part of the story that we are currently in, and the New Testament inaugurates this phase with the Day of Pentecost, placing us in the age of the Spirit. When this phase comes to a close, Christ will come again and bring about the decisive denouement of the plot.

These are the elements of a missional hermeneutic. A missional hermeneutic will not only read the whole Bible as the single story of God's mission to create and restore a world in a book. It will see the books of the Bible themselves as moments in God's mission to restore a fallen world in history. In both cases, the mission of God provides an appropriate unifying principle by which to see the Bible as a whole.

A story, by its very nature, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning of a story, a goal is unfulfilled. Sometimes we do not know how the situation comes about. In the story of Cinderella, for example, we never learn how Cinderella came to be living with her step-mother without her father. But every story has in its origins a problem situation of some kind. It is this problem that the middle part of the story works to overcome. And if the story has a happy ending, the end will see that goal--or some related goal--accomplished.

When we read the Bible through the lens of the mission of God, the goal of the story was for God to create a good world, a world over which humanity would serve as God's steward and representative. The problem at the beginning of the story is that humanity's sin has separated it from God and spoiled the creation. The rest of the story, particularly as found in the Bible, is the working toward a solution, a solution that finds its double climax in the death/resurrection and then second coming of Christ. This plotline of the mission of God to redeem humanity and creation, provides the most appropriate Christian hermeneutic through which to read the texts of the Bible.

[1] Lois Barrett et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), x.

[2] None of this talk of shifts is to say that we are saying something unknown in previous generations. Indeed, these "momentous" shifts are often where the quiet, holy folk in the pew have been all along. And they have patiently watched energetic speakers pontificate to some extreme or another, themselves overreacting to the same speakers in the generation right before them. Meanwhile, the quiet, wise souls in the pew smile and wait for the next circus clown to come through their church, overreacting yet again to the previous speaker with the latest new thing.

[3] (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006).

[4] Mission of God, 26. A slightly earlier book with a missional hermeneutic was Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God's Mission in the Bible, by Arthur E. Glasser with Charles Van Engen, Bean S. Gilliland, and Shawn B. Redford (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003). Its authors are Fuller professors and come at God's story from somewhat of a Calvinist perspective.

[5] Christ and Time (London: SCM, 1962).

[6] Mission of God, 39.

[7] Mission of God, 48.

[8] Mission of God, 50.

[9] Mission of God, 60-61.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dunn's Beginning from Jerusalem 18.2

Last week I started what will almost certainly be a long and yet incomplete read through James Dunn's Beginning from Jerusalem. For the full deal, Nijay Gupta's your person.

For what I've done so far:

1.1 Defining Terms

This week I skip almost to the end of his massive tome to Dunn's section on the book of James. I am teaching James this Fall and doing some explanatory notes on the side on it. And I find it so hard to read a book from beginning to end. Jumping around helps hold my attention and then I can force myself to endure the boring bits. And lets face it. No matter how good an author is, there will almost certainly be boring bits.

By the way, I think I am an above average author and teacher because I find so much of everyone else so utterly boring. I've never read a book I couldn't put down. I've come to read a lot, but almost every page is painful.

Reading Dunn and others on James makes me glad I've formed a lot of my opinions without having read them. I am on such a different page on many things. It makes me wonder how much of interpretive discussion is biased by reading the commentators. At the same time, certainly we gain much when ground has been plowed as much as Paul has. With James and Hebrews, less plowed, the commentators are less helpful, I think.

Dunn goes through a number of arguments against James as author and then, almost surprisingly, asserts that James in its current form is a collection of James' oral teaching made by someone else after his death.

Dunn finds these arguments against straightforward James authorship unconvincing:

1. The Greek is too good for James.
2. James would have introduced himself as the brother of Jesus.
3. The letter wouldn't have faced so much difficulty becoming canonical if James wrote it.
4. The polemic against the rich doesn't fit James' lifetime.
5. The letter seems more typical of Diaspora rather than Palestinian Judaism.
6. The attitude toward the law doesn't fit the Temple/Jerusalem context of James.

Dunn concludes, "the arguments usually marshalled against attributing the letter of James to James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus, are not strong enough to overturn the most obvious implication of the heading of the letter" (1127).

I might say that I still find 1, 5, and 6 significant. And so much scholarship (e.g., Bauckham, Luke Timothy Johnson) I find strangely confuses what is possible with what is probable. The truth question is not, is it possible that a Galilean, Aramaic speaking Jew could write a letter like James in Greek without any help. The question is, is this the most probable scenario, the statistical likelihood. As I said in my initial explanatory notes, I think James has had some help with the Greek if we are to see him as the author.

And ironically, Dunn himself sees James as a collection of James' teaching, which of course means that he does not think James put the letter in its current form even though it accurately reflects the things James taught. Dunn sees James as the legacy of James of Jerusalem (1129). This is an interesting suggestion that, whether true or not, I cannot find fault with from a standpoint of inerrancy.

Dunn answers emphatically no. It is a collection of the wisdom sayings of James, a "commonplace book." I am a little more optimistic about finding an outline to the book than Dunn, as will become apparent as I move through James in my explanatory notes.

Oral Tradition
From Jesus Remembered and A New Perspective on Jesus, Dunn clearly thinks that his appropriation of recent studies on oral tradition to Jesus and now James are cutting edge, and I think they are. He eschews the so deeply ingrained orientation toward literary sources that in so many areas needs to die the death. Similarly, tradition is re-presented in the words of the person passing it on. In short, Dunn has no problem concluding that James contains "genuine recollections of teaching given by James and evidence of the influence he exercised and impact he made" (1136).

Further, he also believes we are hearing in James the same impact of Jesus' teaching on James, passed along in James' teaching perhaps even at times without conscious reflection that he was passing on Jesus tradition.

Emphases of James
Dunn highlights five themes:

1. maturity/perfection ("the teaching of James was not evangelistic, directed to non-believers" (1137).

2. wisdom (not just as a genre, but as a theme)

3. prayer

4. warnings to the rich

"... denunciations, of course, could fit many situations... But one of these is the period prior to the revolt of 66, when arguably the rapaciousness of many landlords was a factor in driving smallholders and tenant farmers into brigandage" (1141).

5. the law and works

Like Dunn, "I do not doubt that the passage evidences a reaction to Paul's teaching" (1142). He maps out parallels to Romans 4, although he does not argue for direct dependence. "And since James is the more polemical, the most obvious inference is that the James version is responding to the Paul version" (1143).

I'll confess that the only reason I can come up with why some scholars argue either that James is independent of Paul or that James was first (indeed, some like to think James is the first book of the NT written) is the old deeply ingrained harmonization tendency. I don't actually think James as it stands contradicts Paul in substance. It is more a parody of Paul that it addresses.

But again the only way I can explain this aversion on the part of some has nothing to do with the overwhelmingly probable best read of James. It has to do with subconscious hermeneutical tendencies that we must get over if we ever want to have a voice on the playing field of truth.

Is it Christian?
Yes. Indeed, Dunn finds in it great potential for information on "embryonic Christianity" (1146). He gives a list of several inferences, one of which is the idea that Jesus teaching formed an important part of the early Jerusalem church.

"The letter of James, then, is an invaluable testimony to a past age, to a time when in effect Christian and Jewish believers in Messiah Jesus were more or less synonymous" (1147).

Friday, May 22, 2009

Seminary Vision (5-22-09)

The seminary and MDIV at IWU continue under construction. The splash grand opening will be October 1, although we're open for business August 3rd with classes. I think we have our first hire beyond Bob Whitesel, but I can't say till Visiting Professor contracts are signed. It looks good!

But here is a snippet of our vision, the IWU seminary (actual name to be revealed October 1) translation of Acts 2:2:42-27,:

“They devoted themselves to the commonly agreed curriculum, to fellowship in each other’s discussion forums, and to prayer together. Everyone was filled with awe at the way the professors actually liked each other and were not put off to have other professors drop in on their classes. They sold their traditional seminary turf and offered it to those who needed practical ministry skills. Every day they continued to meet together online and onsite. They broke bread in the cafeteria and in their homes with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the students. And the Lord added to their number every semester those who actually wanted to do ministry.”


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Generous Orthodoxy 7-8 Post-Protestant, Conservative/Liberal

Brief thoughts on two more chapters of Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN."

Previous reviews include:

0. Foreward, Introduction, Chapter 0
1-4. chapters 1-4, "Why I Am a Christian"
5-6 Missional and Evangelical

Now Chapter 7: "Why I am a Post-Protestant"

Here McLaren gives two meanings for "Protestant": Protestant as Protest and Protestant as Pro-Testifying.

On Protestant as Protesting, McLaren agrees that there were indeed reasons to protest some Roman Catholics in the 1500's. Indeed, he points out that Roman Catholics today would agree.

Then he notes that Protestants started protesting each other. They had opened a consumer model of Christianity where you market your version and compete with the others for consumers. You compete over interpretations of the Bible.

As Pro-testifiers or post-Protestants, McLaren suggests we become better known for what we stand for rather than what we stand against. He hopes we'll get over a restorationist attitude that sees our little group as the true, righteous remnant. Moses offered to die for those who weren't in the remnant when he had a chance to be the remnant. He didn't gloat in his remnantness.

Chapter 8: "Why I am a Liberal/Conservative"
No doubt some will have trouble with McLaren's attempt to applaud what he sees the good in both conservatives and liberals. The liberals, he argues, have dealt with many challenges before conservatives. Liberals tried to address evolution before conservatives. Liberals were tackling civil rights and women's rights when many conservatives were embarrassingly fighting on the wrong side of the issue.

But conservatives have spirit and drive and get stuff done, while liberals can tend to fade away in ineffectiveness and withering congregations. Liberals had civil religion in the first half of the 1900s. The conservatives had it the second half.

He ends the chapter with a parable meant to show how that both have aimed to address similar problems, but both have failed to address them on their own. Perhaps they could regroup and help each other the rest of the way.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

8.4 Faith and Evidence

In the final chapter of this book, we will step back and overview what we might call "postmodern" developments in philosophy, which aptly describe the state of thinking Western philosophy currently finds itself in. However, you will hopefully recognize at that point that you have already seen much of its impact in the other chapters. We saw a glimpse of postmodern impact way back in chapter 2, where we talked about faith and reason. There, we encountered one Christian school of thought that sees faith largely as blind, as something we can legitimately affirm with or without rational proof. For example, we came across "radical orthodoxy," a current Christian trend that is unapologetic in its affirmation of faith, believing without needing to substantiate its faith.

But we have especially seen the impact of what we might call "postmodern uncertainty" in this chapter. The chapter started with the suggestion that ancient myth was much more about expressing the mysteries of reality rather than explaining how reality worked. There we wondered if in fact scientific theories today are really a kind of "myth" as well, only much more precise than ancient ones. We use our contemporary, scientific "myths" to express in great detail the mysteries of what we call the physical world. These myths express the operations of reality so well that we have been able to use them to go to the moon and build things like computers and flat screen TVs. We may not be able to say exactly what reality itself actually is, what "things-in-themselves" are made of, as we heard Kant say at the end of the previous chapter. But our expressions of reality have worked astoundingly well in the age of science.

In the previous section, we saw the impact of postmodernism on the philosophy of science. We encountered Thomas Kuhn's analysis of how scientific revolutions take place. For him, scientific developments are not really developments, but shifts in thinking that inevitably take place because no scientific theory can adequately account for all the data. New theories inevitably arise and take over in the attempt to account for such "naughty" data. But these new paradigms are just as doomed to fail as the ones they replace. According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions have as much to do with the personalities and sociology of the people doing science as they do with anything like truth or real progress in understanding.

At this point, many Christians will want to bring in God as a Guarantor of certainty, a deus ex machina like the "god of the machine" that sometimes arrived in the nick of time in ancient plays to rescue the hero from a hopeless situation. Indeed, philosophers like René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant did bring in God at exactly such points of uncertainty in their philosophies. Someone might want to bring in the Bible as the direct revelation that removes what would otherwise be uncertainty without the possibility of resolution. Someone else might suggest that God has given us clarity through the church.

But as we saw in chapter 4, we cannot get outside our heads to read the Bible or play out the teaching of the church apart from human reasoning and thought. And indeed, the words of the Bible themselves, as well as all the creeds and traditions of the church, were understood within the categories of their original authors and audiences. We saw this dynamic in the second part of this chapter as we looked at the way the Bible discusses creation in dialog with the paradigms of its day. In the end, whether by God's original design or as a result of human sin, all human understanding seems to involve interpretation, and interpretation would always seem to involve human paradigms and categories. [1]

As we conclude this chapter on science and faith, we would like to suggest a "critical realist myth" that 1) is full of faith, yet 2) takes adequate account of the limitations of human understanding and 3) allows us to continue to benefit from the scientific paradigm. You will remember from the end of the previous chapter that critical realism as we define it is an approach to reality that 1) affirms by faith that reality exists and that there are better and worse conceptualizations of it yet 2) recognizes that we can never get a bird's eye or God's eye view of it, that we are stuck in our heads, and that our understandings of reality inevitably take place from a limited and ultimately skewed perspective. Let's unpack those last two points.

First, apart from our affirmation of existence itself, every single thing we believe about every topic and matter involves and ultimately comes down to faith. Descartes believed that because he thought, he must exist: "I think; therefore, I am." But in actuality, his thinking only proved that whatever we might call "thought" exists. It does not prove that "I" exist nor does it prove that what I am calling "thought" is accurately or best understood as thought. My thought could be a sophisticated computer program or something I could not possibly conceptualize.

We operate in this world overwhelmingly by faith, faith that the things around us are real, faith that I am real. We cannot prove these things. Nevertheless, faith in reality works really well. "I think; therefore 'thought' exists" is all we can say with absolute certainty. Everything else involves a hefty dose of faith.

The opposite of faith is thus not reason but proof. In science, it has to do with the way we glue the evidence or data at hand together. It has to do with the way we fill in the blanks between the evidence, not to mention our basic apprehension of the evidence itself. In logic it has to do with the premises or presuppositions we assume in making an argument. Whether faith is "blind" or not depends on how much glue we have to supply to make our paradigms work and how well our assumptions fit the evidence we seem to have.

In a postmodern world, blind faith is not necessarily irrational, especially if we are up front and honest about the apparent lay of the evidence. Logic can be incoherent, and we can still call that kind of thinking "irrational." But in a world where virtually everything is a matter of faith, there is a way in which we can affirm ideas that do not seem to fit the evidence we have or that do not seem to work very well, and we can do it rationally and logically. All we need to do is be honest about it. Radical orthodoxy is thus a rational and coherent approach to Christian faith, even though it has no interest in justifying or defending itself rationally.

At the same time, we wonder what the longevity of such an approach to truth will be, beyond its initial adherents. In Christian thinking, such an approach fits well with the ideas of the most significant theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth (1886-1968). For him, the beliefs of Christianity are not based on evidence at all but purely on God's revelation. Truth is revealed, not discovered or proven. Accordingly, Barth had no interest in questions like whether it is historically likely that Jesus' tomb was empty on Easter Sunday or whether archaeology tends to support the historicity of the Bible's stories. If he were still alive, he would certainly affirm those who say that Christianity is unapologetic about its beliefs.

One potential issue with this line of thinking is that it leaves no reason to believe in Christianity. For thinkers in the Calvinist tradition, this is not a problem, because they believe God orchestrates faith anyway. The only ones who will believe are those God has chosen to believe. But for those who think God makes it possible for humans to choose or not choose Him, this approach is more problematic. Barth and the radically orthodox give the unconvinced no basis to adopt a Christian understanding. For them, it is largely irrelevant whether Christianity seems to make sense to anyone but those to whom God makes it make sense.

In the end, if the claims of Christianity are not basically reasonable, if they do not at least generally fit the data of the world, we can question what sense it makes to say that Christianity is a religion of truth. We are not suggesting that "the evidence demands a verdict" or that faith is provable--not at all. We are suggesting that it would make little sense to say that God is a God of truth if the normal thought processes that work so well to get us through life contradicted Christian faith in some substantial way. It makes little sense to get out of the way of moving traffic and then turn around and say that you would believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus even if someone could prove that they had found the bones of Jesus.

So any interpretation of the world involves 1) faith that the world exists and 2) a recognition that our interpretations of the world are exactly that, interpretations from a point of view that is not exactly God's point of view. God knows all the data of the world, and He knows it all in proper relation to all the other data of the world. By contrast, we know the smallest, infinitesimal portion of the data, and we know it in only the most partial of relationships to the other data. A little reflection on these last two sentences should be humbling to all of us, including textbook writers. How strange it is for us to think we know much of anything about anything!

At the same time, given the current lay of evidence at any given time, there would seem to be better and worse interpretations of reality. If we return to the three tests for truth we mentioned way back in the third chapter, a better interpretation is one that 1) relates well to the data we have (correspondence), 2) is logical and does not contradict itself (coherency), and 3) it works well in the "real" world, the world in which we live and operate (pragmatic). From these basic tests, we can suggest reasonable criteria for distinguishing between more and less likely interpretations of evidence, given whatever evidence we have.

First, the more data, the more evidence we have, the more certainty we can afford the hypothesis or theory. The social sciences speak of having enough data to constitute a "valid sample." You cannot really say that a certain pattern applies to millions of people if you have only seen the pattern in ten.

True, it is difficult to speak of "data-in-itself" in the first place, of evidence that does not already involve interpretation. Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous skeptic, once suggested that "there are no facts--only interpretations." [2] There does seem to be some truth to this idea. Nevertheless, by evidence we simply mean the most basic of things, like an object with a certain apparent size and shape, mass, etc. In historical research, we might be speaking of a primary text, a document that says such and such a thing in such and such a language. The Bible is also a text written in certain languages saying certain things.

Secondly, the theory that accounts for the most data in the simplest or most "elegant" way is the better hypothesis or theory. Again, it may very well be that the more complicated theory is the right one. We cannot prove it isn't, and a person can believe in a less likely theory by faith and be rational. But the more of the picture we have to draw outside the "dots" of data we have, the less likely the theory is given the evidence we have. We can consider that hypothesis a worse hypothesis on the basis of the evidence. This rule is sometimes called Occam's Razor. It is the idea that the simplest explanation for a set of evidence is the more likely explanation.

Thirdly, the rules of logic would seem to be as certain as anything we can know in the world. A theory that does not contradict itself is a better theory than one that is logically inconsistent or incoherent. The quantum world of physics has made it clear, however, that we must be careful even here. The various formulae of quantum mechanics do not fit with each other. They currently contradict each other and are not consistent with each other. In their cases, the rules of logic apply to a part of physics, but not to all of it. And thus we return to our suggestion at the beginning of the chapter than even in science we are dealing more with expressions of reality rather than explanations of the way the world actually is.

Finally, a theory or hypothesis that seems to predict what will happen or that seems to account for what did apparently happen is better than one that requires us to explain away past and future events that do not fit our theory. In short, a better theory is one that seems to work in the unfolding of events, whether past or future. The more exceptions we have to account for, the less helpful the hypothesis. And as we saw in the previous section, such "naughty data" is the stuff of paradigm shifts.

When it comes to Christian faith, then, or even interpretations of the Bible, these rules would seem to apply. We can rationally believe in things that do not seem to fit the current lay of the evidence as best we can tell. After all, all of our beliefs, except the affirmation of existence itself, require varying degrees of faith. What is more important, we think, is that we are honest with the lay of the evidence.

A Christian biologist, for example, can rationally disagree with the overwhelming majority of their colleagues on the topic of evolution. But apparently (and I write this as a layperson who is not competent to judge) it would be difficult for such a biologist to suggest reasonably that the current lay of the evidence makes his or her hypothesis a better scientific hypothesis. Given the overwhelming consensus, it would seem that such a Christian biologist should acknowledge that his or her understanding is a matter of faith. That does not in any way imply that this understanding is false. It simply says that given the data as we currently understand it, such an interpretation seems more a matter of faith than evidence.

[1] Some have of course suggested that there is such a thing as pre-verbal apprehension of reality, a kind of blunt, brute knowledge of the world as it is in itself prior to human conceptualization (e.g., Arthur Schopenhaur [1788-1860]).

[2] ref.

Monday, May 18, 2009

3.1 Houses and Synagogues

Monday is allegedly my day to put a pulse through my Generous Ecclesiology project while I am waiting for word back from a publisher on the proposal. You can look at the sample material I have already written here.

I've titled the third chapter, "Where and When We Meet," and the first section, "Houses and Synagogues."
3.1 Houses and Synagogues
It is by now well known that the early churches met in homes, at least when it comes to Paul's churches. And in Paul's writings, the word church primarily referred to a local group of people assembling in a home. So when Paul writes to the "church," singular, at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), he writes to a group of people who could in all probability meet in a single house, perhaps 40-50 people at most. [1] On the other hand, he writes to the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2), a region in which there was a plurality of local gatherings. Scattered in the closing remarks of the Pauline letters are greetings to churches that meet in homes like the church in Nympha's house (Col. 4:15), the home of Archippus (Phlm 2), or the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:5).

For this reason, it is perhaps better for us to refer to Paul's churches as assemblies, local congregations, rather than to call them "churches." On the one hand, the word church might mislead us when we think of something bigger than a local assembly, the church universal. [2] And it is prone to mislead us with regard to a local group of believers because we automatically picture people meeting in a building. The word assembly helps us picture a group of believers congregating in someone's home for worship and fellowship.

Meeting in homes generated more than one complication, at least in the city of Corinth where the entire assembly could probably meet in the house of Gaius (cf. Rom. 16:23). One such complication had to do with women, who in some Jewish circles of the day would normally have been sequestered within the home from the outside world and other men. But in a house church, men and women suddenly found themselves around people of the opposite gender who were not part of their household--and that in close quarters. This awkwardness quite possibly accounts for Paul's instructions concerning head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. He is concerned that wives not disgrace their husbands or themselves in the presence of men who are not their husband.

Another complication follows in the later part of 1 Corinthians 11. The issues created by Jew and Gentile Christian eating together had already exploded in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14) and the Jerusalem leadership had taken their stab at a solution (Acts 15:22-29). Paul apparently did not agree, for he never mentions their letter or its conclusion in any of his writings, even when he is talking about similar issues. [3] The question of meat sacrificed to idols, which Paul takes up in 1 Corinthians 8-10, may have faced the Corinthian assembly most starkly when they came together to eat.

But the Corinthians perhaps also ran into issues of Roman and Greek practice as well. In Mediterranean practice, issues of social class played a major role not only in relation to who you ate with but it could even affect what food you served which guest. It is at least possible that these sorts of issues played into the chaos of the Lord's Supper at Corinth, where some in the assembly were getting drunk while others went away hungry.

These sorts of problems may very well have played into the eventual separation of worship time from fellowship time in the later church. And of course the legalization of Christianity in AD313 with the Edict of Milan certainly made the construction of buildings more feasible. It is popular in some circles today to villianize this shift in Roman culture, as if the fact that the Romans stopped killing Christians for being Christians was a bad thing. However, if we step back for a second, it is surely likely that more people ended up as "true" Christians as a result, even if an environment was created where there were many more superficial ones.

Further, one cannot neatly separate the "standardization" of Christianity that took place in areas of worship in the 300s from standardizations that similarly took place this century in Christian belief and Scripture. It was in the 300s that the Christian understanding of the Trinity was forged. [4] It was in the late 300s that the New Testament began to reach something like its current shape. [5] If you reject the process of Christianity's legalization, you by extension call into question the fundamental Christian understanding of Jesus' divinity and the precise contents of the New Testament. [6]

Those who villianize the acceptance of Christianity in Roman culture sometimes idealize house churches. Indeed, some extreme voices suggest that house churches were a God-ordained move away from the Jewish synagogue structure into the more "organic" and natural context of the home. On the one hand, we should applaud some of the features of the early church that they are highlighting, features that have often been lost in the time since the move to physical structures.

For example, the early church did apparently see itself as a family, where the men in the assembly were brothers and the women were sisters and the leaders were fathers (since most of the leadership in the early church was male as in most cultures). The meal they shared was meant to embody all the fellowship and connectedness of a family meal. Worship, at least at Corinth, seemed to have substantial room for spiritual spontaneity, including prophecy from anyone in the assembly, including the women.

So we find it difficult to fault the attempt of the house church movement to recapture some of these dynamics that so often are lost in the worship and relationships of more institutionalized churches. At the same time, the more isolated a house church is, the more it faces its own sets of dangers and weaknesses. A group of 15 seems far more likely to drift off into strange ideas and strange personalities than a church of 100. Similarly, a collection of fifty churches of 100 are less likely to drift off into strange ideas and personalities than one church of 100. Of course, the larger the collection of churches gets, the more likely its leadership will be out of touch with the local church and new opportunities for power grabbing arise.

But it is difficult to say that any of these structures are un-Christian. They each have advantages and disadvantages in both local and global contexts. No doubt we could debate what structures have the most overall advantages. There probably are better and worse structures.

What we should not do is un-Christianize other believers because of the structures they prefer. For example, the most strident voices in the house church movement seem to confuse description of the early church with prescription. An important distinction must be made between New Testament descriptions of where early believers worshipped and instructions on where they should worship.

We find no clear instructions in the New Testament on what kind of structure a Christian should worship in. And of course, even if we did find such instruction, we would still need to ask whether the reasons for those instructions played out the same way in our world as they did in the first century. But we do not even find such instructions in the first place. Indeed, the matter of meeting places is so much an assumption rather than argument or description in the New Testament that it is only by way of coincidental comment that we even really know anything about where the early Christians worshipped at all!

This last observation leads us to an important point. It is quite likely that the early believers met in places other than just homes. It is all too easy for Christians two thousand years laters to assume that a clean break took place between Judaism and Christianity in the early church. But neither the New Testament nor good historical common sense pushes us in this direction. The foundational personalities of the earliest church were Jews, and the New Testament reflects their struggle to relate Jesus to their prior understandings and practices.

One anachronistic aspect of common thinking is the presumption that synagogues themselves were buildings at the time of Christ. But the word synagogue itself, like the word for "church," simply means a gathering. Another word at the time, "prayer house," actually was more often used of a Jewish building than the word synagogue was. The archaeological evidence for free standing synagogues at the time of Christ is actually rather sparse. We know they existed here and there. Indeed, there apparently was one in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:7). But it is quite possible that many synagogues in Palestine at this time may have met in the open air, such as in the village center. Acts mentions a gathering by a river in Philippi (Acts 16:13).

So not only did the Pauline practice of meeting in homes not represent an intentional shift away from buildings. It may actually have been a known practice among Jews that some Christians adopted. Acts tells us that Paul taught at Ephesus in a building that was known as the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). Nothing would allow us to say he did not also use this hall for worship as well.

The first few chapters of Acts indicate that the chief apostles used the temple as their primary meeting place for prayer. It seems likely that entire synagogues in some places would have come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. The expulsion of Priscilla and Aquila along with other Jews from Rome (cf. Acts 18:2) seems to have resulted from conflicts among the synagogues of Rome over Christ. [7] It is at least possible that you had some Christian synagogues at odds with other synagogues that had not believed Jesus to be the Messiah.

In summary, we cannot say with any certainty how significant meeting in homes was across the broad spectrum of early Christian practice. It seems more likely that Christians met in the same spectrum of locations that Jews met in synagogue: houses, buildings, open spaces, and so forth. What knowledge we have is largely coincidental, drawn from side comments here and there. It would be wrong to make such descriptions into prescriptions. Indeed, even if the New Testament gave instructions on this score, we would still need to take the difference between our contexts and their contexts into account. In short, there is no clearly Christian place or structure in which to meet.

[1] This is one of several subtle reasons why I do not believe the evidence favors the originality of 1 Corinthians 14:34. It does not make great sense for Paul to tell the church, singular, at Corinth for them to keep wives silent in the churches, plural.

[2] Ephesians does use the word in this way (e.g., Eph. 5:25) but it is important to recognize that it is a departure from Paul's normal way of using the word and in fact one of many small shifts that has raised the question of whether Ephesians is pseudonymous.

[3] It is of course possible that the letter of Acts 15 is artistically placed here in the narrative of Acts and that it did not exist as such in this form at the time Paul was addressing issues like meat offered to idols. In that case, the letter would more summarize the conclusion reached in Palestine perhaps over an extended period of time rather than in a day or two.

[4] It was the legalization of Christianity and drive to standardization of Christian belief by Constantine that set the stage for the Council of Nicaea in AD325, where the belief that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons but one God in substance. The belief that Jesus was the first of God's creations but not God in the same way as God the Father, was a viable Christian option throughout the 300s, at one time superceding what we now consider to be orthodox Christian faith.

[5] We have no known instance where the current books of the New Testament were even suggested to be the right books until the Easter letter of Athanasius in AD367. A regional council in the city of Carthage accepted this list in AD398. The text of the New Testament also was reaching something like the form it has in the King James Version in the 300s.

[6] It is no coincidence that Socinianism flowed out of the Protestant Reformation along with Luther and Calvin. Socinians, in their drive back to the text of the New Testament alone, abandoned orthodox Christian faith in the Trinity. In the same way, "back to the New Testament" groups today run a serious risk of disintegrating into cults, since they are usually unaware of how much "glue" Christian history has provided in organizing biblical material. Take the glue away and you have placed yourself on a trajectory toward the disintegration of faith. Theological liberalism in its technical sense is thus a natural trajectory of the Protestant principle of "Scripture only."

[7] If Christ is what the Roman historian Suetonius meant by "Chrestus."

Explanatory Notes: James 1:1

I'm scheduled to teach General Epistles this Fall: James, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude. It was largely my fault that Hebrews was split off from these, which I never regret when teaching Hebrews, but almost always regret when teaching General Epistles. It is difficult for me to have so much time to spend in Jude, 2 Peter 2, 1 Peter 3. It comes out to almost a week a chapter.

In any case, I thought I might slip some verse by verse explanatory comment in preparation. Any suggestions for a commentary on James to use this year? Thus far I've used the NIV Application commentaries, Nystrom on James; McKnight on 1 Peter, Moo on 2 Peter and James. Perhaps this isn't the semester to try new things with the seminary starting.

Anyway, here are some explanatory notes on James 1:1. By the way, I think I'm going to go way out of order and look at Dunn's comments on James in his new volume Friday.
James, slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes that are in the Diaspora, greetings.
This is a fairly standard ancient letter greeting, except for the more Pauline style expansion on who James is. It is possible that James (or the author if it is not James himself) knew of Paul's characteristic expansions in his greetings. We will later argue that James 2 is reacting to a simplified version of Paul's theology, so it is possible that James is following Paul's style. Paul only calls himself a slave in a letter opening in Philippians and Romans, but James 2 does parody a version of the theology of Romans.

The James of the greeting is almost certainly James, the brother of Jesus (e.g., Gal. 1:19). While we cannot preclude the possibility that he was a step-brother, perhaps even a cousin, we have no reason not to conclude that he was a younger brother of Jesus from Joseph and Mary. It is clear from Paul's writings that he was a central and powerful figure in the early church even within a few years of the resurrection. Paul indicates that he was an apostle before him (1 Cor. 15:7), and Galatians 2:12 shows that even Peter seemed to yield to him at times. By the time of his murder in AD62 by the high priest--in between Roman procurators--he seems to have been the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem churches (cf. Acts 21:18).

Some scholars consider James to be pseudonymous for various reasons. The most obvious would be the fact that it is written in fine and fluent Greek, to where we would probably need to say James had some help if he was in fact the author. The style does not seem to reflect an Aramaic speaker who has learned Greek as a second language. The way James seems to be responding to a simplified version of Paul's theology pushes the timeline close, for James died only a couple years after Paul was taken to Rome. Nevertheless, we have a window of a few years during which James could have written it.

We will keep an eye on both ways of reading James as we move through the epistle. It is probably appropriate to call it an epistle. An "epistle" is less situational than a "letter" and by nature addresses a more universal audience. Indeed, these letters at the end of the New Testament are sometimes called the "general" or "catholic" epistles for this very reason.

Evangelical scholars tend to reject the notion that James is pseudonymous. A pseudonymous writing is one written under the name of an authority figure from the past. We can debate whether the intent in such pseudonymous writings was always or ever to deceive. Certainly most conservative scholars reject pseudonymity because they cannot imagine the practice not involving deception. In theory, however, there is nothing about the letter of James itself that would have to be deceiving if its original audience clearly understood it to be a kind of "deposit" of James' teaching for the church.

James is written "to the twelve tribes that are in the Diaspora." The fact that James is in Greek fits with a message for those outside of Palestine, for whom Greek would be the language most in common. The first thought at the mention of the twelve tribes certainly goes to Israel, although it is more difficult to know whether only ethnic Jews are the intended audience or whether James figuratively means to include Gentile believers as well.

Given the picture of James we get from Paul's writings, as well as from Acts 21, it would be a little unexpected to hear James speak of the "twelve tribes of the Diaspora" and mean to include Gentiles. And James 2 speaks of the gathering of its audiences as a "synagogue" (2:2). Yet at the same time, there is little exclusively Jewish about James or distinctly Jewish in a concrete way. This is especially noticeable in its discussion of works in chapter 2. Paul's discussion of "works of law" is actually more Jewish in character than James'.

In the end, if the historical James is the author, we should probably think of James as a general letter to Diaspora Jews, one with which he has had significant help. If James is pseudonymous, we should perhaps think of it addressing all believers as a kind of deposit of James' essence and person to the church that remained.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dunn's Beginning from Jerusalem 1

I'm not wanting to step on the feet of Nijay Gupta (who is of course a real scholar), but I had been planning for some time to dawdle through James Dunn's second volume, Beginning from Jerusalem, which covers the early church from after Jesus to AD70. I defer to him anyway, since he will read it 1) much more speedily and 2) he will actually finish it.

My first dawdle only made it to page 17. In these first few pages, Dunn tries to decide how to refer to the early Christians. I struggle with this question quite often too, like in this piece. He rightly rejects "Christians," since the earliest Christians didn't call themselves that. The "church" is misleading, since churches were local assemblies, not the church universal. Synagogue is fair enough, but it faces a similar debunking for Judaism that church does for Christianity.

Disciples--not widespread in the NT beyond Acts, so probably not a widespread self-description. Believers is a good candidate, one I use often. "Those who call on the name of the Lord"? Too cumbersome. "Brothers," "saints," "the elect," "the poor," nah.

How about "the way," the sect of the "Nazarenes," the "Galileans"? In the end Dunn concludes that the earliest Christians simply did not have a single term by which they referred to themselves or by which they were known to outsiders. They were a diverse group whose main point of continuity was continuity with the mission of Jesus. And they retained a distinctively Jewish character.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Erasmus Always Wins

Occasionally I come across disparaging remarks about Wikipedia--usually by traditional academics. Now, I'm not saying Wikipedia is perfect or engaging in some apology for Wikipedia. But there are bigger fish involved in this dialog.

Wikipedia represents the democratization of knowledge and--more important from my perspective--the network generation of knowledge. Is Wikipedia perfect? Not at all. But in the time it takes a traditional online dictionary or encyclopedia to put out an edition, Wikipedia has undergone five or six updates. Notice I say a traditional online dictionary. We'll have gone to Mars before you can get a traditional print encyclopedia edition out.

The internet is a network generated source. They're gone now, but back in the early 90's a prognosticator at Wesleyan HQ apparently tried to convince the denomination to put its stuff online. The response--for free! Are you crazy? And yes, the Wesleyan Church remains relatively unknown to this day.

I know of professors who scoffed at offering courses online in the late nineties. A fad, they said. And if they remain in power at their institutions, insisting on a 90 hour curriculum or more, often requiring Greek and Hebrew, I will unfortunately live long enough to watch them go bankrupt.

The bottom line: Erasmus wins. You know, Erasmus, the entrepeneur scholar who was the first to put out a printed Greek New Testament. Who was he up against? A group of very erudite scholars in Spain putting out a very well planned and executed Complutensian Polyglot with five, I think, different versions of the NT side by side.

Never heard of them? Have you heard of the KJV? Yes, it was based more or less on Erasmus. Was Erasmus' first version quality? It had some hilarious aspects. For example, he didn't have any Greek manuscripts of the last part of Revelation. So he made it up--he took the Latin and translated back into Greek! In other words, his first edition had stuff in it that had never been in any manuscript before him.

But he won. In an age of innovation and paradigm shift, the first is often what gets established. Good grief, do you know how hard it was to dethrone Erasmus' textus receptus, decades, even a century after the best textual scholars knew it needed to be replaced? Even in our day there are still King James only groups gleefully riding the fumes of Erasmus' entrepeneurial venture.

I'm apprenticing with these types at IWU. We are, to be sure, entering a "depth" phase and that is much to be applauded. But why are we the largest private educational institution in Indiana, even bigger than Notre Dame. Why are we founding a seminary and hiring as many as three new people in relation to it in the same year that other institutions are closing and laying off faculty. It's not because we're better or more quality. It's certainly not because we're more spiritual. It's because we were Erasmuses in the nineties, right when it counted the most.

So scoff at us, ye traditional academics. Erasmus always wins.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Generous Orthodoxy 5-6 A Missional Evangelical

I doubt anyone's been pining for it, but here are very brief thoughts on two more chapters of Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN."

Previous reviews include:

0. John Franke's Foreward, McLaren's Introduction, and his Chapter 0: For Mature Audiences Only.

1-4. chapters 1-4, "Why I Am a Christian"

Now briefly,

Chapter 4: "Why I Am Missional"
McLaren isn't a missional guru, but he gives a fair taste of the missional thrust. The mission of the church, he says, is "To be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world" (117). The last phrase is what is missional.

Being missional, for McLaren is about living for the good of the world rather than for personal salvation or an inward looking focus.

One questionable part of the chapter is where he says the question of whether everyone is saved, few are saved, or more are saved than have explicitly confessed Christ is the wrong question. On the one hand, I appreciate a sense that we are to be going for the good of the world regardless. That I agree with.

But it might very well make a very big difference. If I believe the world is headed for massive judgment and have a narrow view of who will be saved... further if I believe my bringing the good news can make the difference between salvation and condemnation... if these things are true then it matters a great deal that I redouble my missionary efforts.

What I am saying is that this is only an unimportant question if everyone is saved or is saved regardless of my bringing the gospel.

A final interesting quote in the chapter is from one of McLaren's mentors, "in a pluralistic world, a religion is valued based on the benefits it brings to its nonadherants" (121). We shouldn't live because we want the rest of the world to like us, but I understand what the statement is saying. The world will be more attracted to us if we are bringing value to it.

Chapter 6: "Why I Am an Evangelical"
McLaren seems happy to wear the title "evangelical," especially if it is defined the way Robert Webber does in his excellent book we have reviewed here, The Younger Evangelicals. He admits he no longer really understands the big E Evangelicalism of his youth, but he doesn't want to give up on the little e evangelical.

The positive definition he likes is an evangelical as 1) someone who highly respects the Bible and 2) emphasizes personal conversion, 3) emphasizes intimacy, a "personal relationship" with God, 4) wants to share their faith with others. (Let me reiterate if I haven't before, this McLaren knows some stuff, despite his attempts to pass himself off as a slacker)

What he likes the most about evangelicals is their passion, a passion that leads them to cross oceans and even lose their lives for what they believe.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Paul: Born at a Place and Time

I know, I know, I'm at it again. I've decided the Paul novel idea is not going to work... again. At the same time, there are too many basic intros to Paul already. Good grief, Michael Bird has just put out two of them!

So here's my thought. Might I do a more reflective version for my own (potential) niche market of Wesleyans? If any of you at Wesleyan Publishing House chance on here, I'm working up a proposal and maybe a couple sample chapters... :-) (By the way, first word back from the publisher I sent Generous Ecclesiology to was positive).

My working title is Life Reflections on Paul's Letters. The idea is to casually walk through Paul's life and letters reflecting on our contemporary situation but at the same time reading them in a more informed way than a lot of what is out there.

I've been working off and on with the first chapter, which is meant to be background on Paul. Here's a half an hour's worth of the chapter, starting now.
(about a page)...

Paul was also born in a particular time and place. He was born a Jew. To most of us who are Christians today, his Jewishness is not a big deal. We neither think his Jewishness made him particularly special nor do we think it was an obstacle he needed to overcome.

Thankfully, most of us do not have the old biases Christians often had against Jews throughout the centuries, especially before the Holocaust. While many Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler, still more acquiesced or even supported his war on the Jews. The way Christians like Martin Luther had portrayed Judaism no doubt played a role in this strange situation, where many Christians talked themselves into thinking it was right or even more godly to persecute or even eliminate the Jews.

The views of many Christians during the civil rights battles of the 1960's and 70's was not entirely dissimilar. Many Christians somehow talked themselves into thinking it was somehow righteous to make sure that African-Americans stayed in "their place" or that they deserved to be penalized for breaking the law by not getting to the back of the bus. This same mindset justified Apartheid in South Africa. And some Christians today might think they were doing God's bidding by beating up or killing someone who was gay.

People try to use the Bible's words in all kinds of ways. But Jesus, Paul, James, John--the New Testament as a whole is rarely more unified on any topic as it is on this one. The central ethic of Christianity, the fundamental rule from which its ethic flows, is to love God and to love your neighbor (e.g., Matt. 22; Rom. 13; Gal. 3; James 2; 1 John 4). Jesus clearly included your enemies in the category of neighbors (Luke 10; Matt. 5), leaving no one we might be justified in acting unlovingly toward. The bottom line is this: no one who acts unlovingly toward anyone has God's support, no matter how many supposed Bible verses he or she might try to produce. This is the mother of all Christian absolutes, to which God makes no exceptions.

Luther's picture of Judaism, one that still prevails in many popular Christian circles, is that of a religion in which people thought they could deserve God's reward because of how good they were. In Luther's mind and the mind of many scholars up to the mid-twentieth century, Judaism taught you could in effect earn a ticket to heaven by enough good deeds or good "works." In one version of Paul's life, he struggled so much with his inability to be good, to be "righteous," that he finally came to the conclusion that a person can only be accepted by God and be "justified" on the basis of faith--by trusting in what Jesus had done on the cross. In this storyline, Paul finally came to believe in "justification by faith alone" and not "by works."

This version of the story is partly true, but it is only a half truth. We will have to wait for a later chapter to get a more accurate picture. Suffice it to say here that it is more untrue than true to say that Jews of the time thought they could strictly earn God's approval simply because of how good they were. It is also probably false to think that Paul felt like a miserable moral failure before he believed in Jesus. And most importantly at this point, Paul did not likely see himself as changing religions when he became a follower of Jesus.

When Paul talks about those Jews who have not believed that Jesus is the messiah, he still speaks of them as "natural branches" (Rom. 11). Yes, we find the seeds of Christian faith as something distinct from Jewish faith in Paul's writings. But it would be Gentile believers generations after Paul who would really develop such possibilities. We have every reason to believe that the earliest Christian Jews--and I phrase it this way intentionally--saw themselves as nothing but the most authentic form of Israel, in full continuity with the Jewish Scriptures (which would only later be called the "Old" Testament) and the Israel of its pages (or scrolls, to be more accurate)...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Lovely evening at Southern Wesleyan University

I visited my undergraduate alma mater today, Southern Wesleyan University, in Central, South Carolina. It's about four miles from Clemson University. It has to have been about twenty years since I've been here, sad to say. I saw some faces I hadn't seen in a very long time, drove around places.

It's funny what you remember and what you don't of your past. I feel like a much different person than I was twenty some years ago (I wonder which one of me will be resurrected?). Youth is wasted on the young. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and ring my neck (I hear that Spock does that in the new Star Trek movie--maybe I haven't changed as much as I think, having just referred to Star Trek :-).

Random memories pop up. I hate to say I probably didn't get to know too many people very well at that age. I regret that about high school too. I think I'm less in my own world than ever, but back then, man. I really didn't get to know people very well.

One of my favorite college profs, Bob Black, described me tonight as Kramer from Seinfeld with a PhD or maybe Norton from the Honeymooners. Ha!

IWU is a great Christian university. Hard to beat for an evangelical religion division. Sure, the faculty at Wheaton have written more books. But I doubt they're better teachers, and I certainly doubt whether they are more in touch with God. I can't imagine there is an evangelical religion division in the world better all around than the one at IWU.

But if you pass up IWU, it would be hard to beat the atmosphere of Southern. The campus of IWU is amazing, but Southern has hills. Despite the beautiful buildings of IWU, SWU has to win the award for the more beautiful campus. And there are lots of beautiful lakes and mountains nearby. And the flowers at Clemson in the Spring are amazing. Then there's southern hospitality.

So here's to SWU, a beautiful place with beautiful people!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Book proposal away, Generous Ecclesiology

With two sample chapters written, I finally found a couple hours to fill out the rest of a book proposal. Here are excerpts from it...

A number of trends are in the air. One is the movement away from denominationalism and a rising distain toward any group that would claim to be the group that has a corner on God. At the same time, the non-denominational shift often has some blind spots. First, we find those who mistake taking a position for arrogance or intolerance. They confuse pluralism with generosity toward those who disagree. A second group pushes toward a radical return to “the New Testament church” without any real sense either of its diversity or of the necessity for the gospel to be played out in a local context concretely.

Generous Ecclesiology attempts to reframe these sorts of issues in a way that affirms the complaints driving the non-denominational movement while demonstrating the inevitability of Christians grouping into collections of individuals with distinct emphases and practices. It denies that we can have an ideal, New Testament local church today because 1) the early church itself was diverse enough that its groups could almost be called denominations and 2) because a church with any impact will have to form positions on issues beyond clear biblical teaching that will inevitably distinguish it from other groupings of Christians.

The chapters of the book play out these claims. We inevitably take positions on various issues, but we try to find the good in the diverse emphases of different groups and to defend Christian diversity. For example, it seems a bit odd in the light of the New Testament and Christian history that the Salvation Army does not baptize. Yet they should be considered part of God’s church, and their reasoning highlights the fact that the truly essential element in a Christian being “in” is receiving the Holy Spirit. The book proceeds through the practices of the church with a view to generosity toward Christian diversity without disintegrating into some sort of radical pluralism.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Myth of the Ideal Church
1.1 The Good Old Days
1.2 The “Platonic” Church
1.3 The Incarnated Church

Chapter 2: Getting In: Baptism and Other Things
2.1 Baptism
2.2 The Holy Spirit
2.3 Confirmation
2.4 Church Membership

Chapter 3: Where and When We Meet
3.1 Houses and Synagogues
3.2 Cathedrals and Homes
3.3 Saturdays and Sundays
3.4 Multiple Services and Sites

Chapter 4: Who Should Lead?
4.1 Apostles, Overseers, and Deacons
4.2 Ordination and Training
4.3 Popes, Bishops, and Pastors
4.4 Women in Ministry

Chapter 5: Word and Table
5.1 The Lord’s Supper
5.2 Communion Today
5.2 The Role of the Bible
5.3 The Sermon

Chapter 6: Sacred Events
6.1 Easter and Christmas
6.2 Weddings and Funerals
6.3 Revivals and Camp Meetings

Chapter 7: Other Things We Do
7.1 Singing and Praying
7.2 Confessing and Testifying
7.3 Giving
7.4 Sunday School and Evenings
7.5 Dressing Up

Chapter 8: Relating to Those Outside
8.1 Other Churches
8.2 Surrounding Community and Culture
8.3 Evangelism and Missions