Monday, May 31, 2010

Reflections: Reasons for Romans

Happy Memorial Day! Gratitude to all those who have served the United States in its armed forces...

This concludes the first chapter of my second Paul book. For the last section of this chapter, follow this link.

For several years I have heard great pathos in Romans 15:23, where Paul mentions in passing that he had no more room to minister in the eastern Mediterranean. We like to think of Paul as this great hero missionary whose ministries were all a great success, but it seems like sometimes it could have gone either way at the time. The hindsight of history is often clear. Our experience of things in the moment often is not.

It is amazing that Paul does not seem to have given up, even to the end. Despite set backs, he kept moving on. It does seem that he learned to move on the hard way in a few cases. In our sense of things, it was the Romans that moved Paul on from Ephesus. In our reconstruction, Paul left Corinth without everyone there won over to him.

These two lessons are so obvious and yet so incredibly hard to accept. First, we will never win everyone over to our sense of God's will and plan, no matter how hard we try or how eloquently we argue. Dale Carnegie once put it in this way, "A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still." The second is that there is a time to move on. It can be as simple as "agreeing to disagree" or as hard as "wiping the dust off your feet." But there is a time to give up and move on.

Sometimes we think the early church was completely unified. Acts contributes to this perception because part of its purpose seems to be to show that Christians are not troublemakers but a peaceful, unified community. And indeed, this is how we are supposed to be. This message is God's word to us from Acts. But it is not always the case and was not always the case in the early church. In reality it had factions with distinct ideologies that were as different from each other as some denominations differ from each other.

On some points, Paul and his opponents genuinely disagreed. They taught what they believed in their communities and Paul taught his understanding in his communities. On other points, his opponents skewed his position to suit their goal of discrediting him. Perhaps they thought they understood him. Perhaps they intentionally skewed his thinking. It is sometimes hard to tell the difference.

But the same lessons apply as above. We hope simply to agree to disagree and remain brothers and sisters in Christ. Our disagreements can devolve into calling each other "false brothers" as well, as Paul thought of some of his enemies in the church. Paul and Barnabas wisely went their separate ways and, surely, wished Godspeed to each other.

With those who maligned Paul maliciously, he did his best to protect his assemblies from their influence. Early on at Antioch, he seems to have argued with them face to face (Gal. 2:11-14). But at some point he must have realized that trying to convince them was a waste of time. He got to the Galatians after they were already partially persuaded. He writes the Philippians before they got there (3:2-3, 17-19). And most of Romans is a defense of his understanding of the gospel, to prepare the way for him.

And so there is a point where we have to leave all such things in God's hands. It is, after all, not about us winning an argument or about everyone seeing that we are right. God can take care of such things. If we are right, God will make this clear in the end. If we are not, God will make it clear to us in the end.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Oden 2: Name of God

Each Sunday, I am trying to summarize a chapter of Tom Oden's Classic Christianity. For some thoughts on the Preface, see here.

First there is the Introduction to Book One: "The Living God" (3-11). Oden expresses ambivalence at the personal pronouns "he" and "she," since God is not literally a particular gender. Indeed, part of the scandal of particularity is the specificity with which Christ had to come to earth. So he was a Jew and not a Greek. He was a man and not a woman. "It" doesn't adequately convey God's personhood.

The intro distinguishes "natural" and "revealed" theology, a distinction most will know.

Chapter 1 is called "The Name of God" (15-37). "Christian revelation refers to the disclosure of God in the person and work of Christ" (18). This is a crucial point. To speak in general of a divine Being is not to speak of God in a Christian way. Christ is the focal point of talking about God for Christians historically. "The Christian study of God is faith seeking understanding" (21).

Here is Oden's understanding of the "consensual" definition of God: "God is the uncreated source and end of all things; one; incomparibly alive; insurmountable in presence, knowledge, and power; personal, eternal spirit, who in holy love freely creates, sustains, and governs all things" (23).

Oden mentions five ways of knowing God's character:

1. revelation
2. inferred through causality
3. what God is not (via negativa)
4. God as greater than (say of heightening characteristics--via eminentiae)
5. a priori sense of God, inferred from the very idea of God

He then sets us up for the next two chapters, which deal with attributes of God. Attributes first, then he will look at arguments for God's existence.

One thought that struck me is a potential critique in the making with regard to Oden's "consensual approach." It comes from the fact that almost all his sources are pre-modern, pre-Cartesian. The pre-modern way of looking at the world is essentially reflexive. It reads an order to the world out there that is possibly subject to Feuerbach's claim that God is simply a projection of the best collective traits of humanity. When we say God is the greatest possible Being, for example, are we setting up a portrait of God that is unthinkingly based on our perspective of the world?

I would thus modify Oden's list in this way:

1. God has revealed a nature in relation to this universe. We have no point of reference to say much of what God is outside this universe.

The consensual tradition is pre-Cartesian and so was unable to think in these terms. The order it read "out there" was largely a reflection of an order within its own understanding, not an order that would really correspond to a universe created out of nothing. Its picture of God was thus in many respects simply an extension of this universe rather than the other way around, as it must be.

In this respect, I suspect the consensual tradition must be translated in a post-Cartesian world. Oden's fundamental enterprise--not to say anything new--thus potentially consigns his theology to the pre-modern domain. To continue to view the world in this way is to hobble theology from the very start. The fathers and mothers are crucial, but we have an immensely better understanding of the world than they did and this does matter.

2. inferred through causality
This remains a key way to think about God, and we can do it much better than the consensual tradition could because of our immensely improved understanding of creation. Certainly we may be way off still.

3-4. via negativa and via eminentia
Again, these seem to work well in relation to this universe. I am unsure what if anything they might tell us about God outside this universe, but I look forward to reading on.

5. Being itself
I am less confident that we can know much of God through this path. I suspect in our modern paradigm, this collapses into #2.

These are musings, not claims. I have mused over them for years. Charles Taylor has helped me conceptualize them a further step.

Why I am a capitalist...

Since I have been trashed elsewhere with a number of ridiculous labels, I felt I should make something like a quasi-official statement of what I think, things I've said before and will no doubt have to say again because people have trouble with nuance and distinctions.

I believe in capitalism as the best way to go for many reasons. For example, given our fallen human nature, we are generally not motivated to work or do our best outside of being forced to in terms of reward and punishment. The attempt to enact a communistic system or economy has proved itself historically to be a complete failure everywhere it has been tried. In fact, it has never even been successfully achieved except in small communities.

I believe that stealing what belongs to others is clearly wrong biblically (which implies a sense of property). I fully affirm the "Protestant Work Ethic" of 2 Thessalonians 3, that those who can work but do not should not be given a free ride. For example, I am not in favor of welfare as it is often practiced in America. Those in need--if they are at all able--should have to do something for assistance, even if it is token action nowhere near what they are given in return. Ultimately, assistance should be most about empowerment. I also believe that God created us in Genesis 2 for competition, so capitalism in that respect is not unbiblical.

What confuses some--usually individuals who want to be confused about me and thus do not truly listen to what I say--are comments I have made of this sort, "I am opposed to communism for practical reasons, not for biblical ones." Here I am not referring, of course, to any modern communism like the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, Cuba, etc. There was gobs of stuff to oppose in these governments biblically, not least their state endorsed atheism, brutal treatment of their people, foreign aggression, etc. This comment referred only to something that has never been and never will be successfully implemented in a government, philosophical communism--"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

So what I am saying biblically when I say something like this is the following. What I find repeatedly and consistently in the NT is a sense that the early Christians were expected to share everything they had with others above what they needed to live and feed their families. This is true in Acts 2 with the community, and Paul took offerings of the excess to Jerusalem for the poor there (2 Cor. 8-9). Luke-Acts has nothing good to say about money. 1 Timothy 6 says it is a root of all forms of evil. James has nothing good to say about the rich. I don’t think these statements translate directly to today necessarily because of their differing understanding of the limited nature of resources. But, as I implied in this comment, I find repeated references throughout Scripture to the effect that what we have is ultimately God’s, not ours, and that He would have us share those resources with others who are truly in need.

So in theory, the idea, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” sounds very much like what we find often advocated in Scripture. The problem is that we are all fallen and it doesn’t work at all as a large scale economic system. So while we are still on earth, what works better is “From each according to their own self-interest, to each according to their work,” which is capitalism. But I don’t see how anyone could argue biblically that “do what is in your own self-interest” (the fundamental basis of capitalism) is more biblical or Christian than “share from your excess with others who have need.” Can you?

It absolutely flabbergasts me that anyone would think differently!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Paul's Detractors (4)

The last post in this series was here.

Paul's Detractors
At the very least, Paul was not popular with the believers in Jerusalem. Acts 21 gives us a picture of his unpopularity there just after he had written Romans from Corinth and arrived in Jerusalem. He arrives with an offering for the churches, one he has been collecting from the various places he has ministered in Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). And Acts tells us that James and the elders took him aside when he arrived to strategize in relation to his opposition (21:17-26).

James and the elders inform Paul that the bulk of believers in Jerusalem are very conservative indeed when it comes to the Law. They have heard rumors that he was teaching Jews among the nations to abandon the Law of Moses (21:21). They have heard he is telling Jews not to circumcise their children and do other key Jewish practices. The elders strategize with him to participate in a vow certain men have taken, to pay for their sacrifices and other elements of the vow at the temple. The goal is that everyone will see that Paul himself does in fact keep the Jewish Law as a Jew, despite certain exceptions they have made for Gentile believers.

Paul confirms in Romans that false rumors did circulate about him. In Romans 3:8, Paul alludes to people who sum up his teaching as, "Let's do evil so that good can come." This slogan seems to be their version of Paul's teaching on "faith rather than works of Law" making us right with God. He makes it clear in Romans 6-8 that he does not advocate sinning more to show how much more grace God has. But by sinning here, he almost certainly does not mean keeping the parts of the Jewish Law the Jerusalem Christians of Acts 21 are concerned about--circumcision and matters of ritual purity.

Paul had been sparring with this "denomination" of Christians for a long time by the time he came to Jerusalem, perhaps some time around AD58. Acts is much more favorable to them than Paul himself was. Paul considered them "false brothers" (e.g., Gal. 2:4), but Acts treats Paul's opponents on these issues as if they are just as much believers as he is (e.g., Acts 15:5; 21:20). About ten years earlier he had privately presented his teaching on Gentiles to Peter, James, and John because he knew some believed you could only be saved if you fully converted to Judaism (Gal. 2:1-10). They seemed to prefer that Gentiles convert, but they did not force them to (Gal. 2:3).

He almost certainly lost an argument at Antioch with Peter over how Jewish and Gentile believer might eat together (Gal. 2:11-14). James had sent messengers there to make sure that Jews were still keeping purity rules, even though Gentiles could be saved without being circumcised. Paul had disagreed. He saw the purity rules as irrelevant to what made a person right with God. In a very real sense, he really did advocate that Jewish Christians abandon some of their customs so that they could fellowship with Gentile believers.

This argument probably stands as much or more in the background of the break up of Paul and Barnabas as a ministry team as Mark did, even though Acts only tells us about Mark. Paul would have almost certainly told the Galatians that the other side conceded--if they had. Rather Paul seems to have embarked with Silas on his second missionary journey somewhat on the outs with the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch.

Acts 15:23-29 seems to give the solution James and the Jerusalem elders came up with on the issue of Jew and Gentile eating together. If Gentile believers would not bring meat that had been offered to another god, if they would not kill the meat by strangling, so that the blood stayed in the meat, if they would not be sexually immoral, then Jewish and Gentile believer could eat together. But as far as we can tell, Paul ignored most of these instructions--all except the sexually immoral bit. When the issue of meat sacrificed to idols came up at Corinth, Paul adopts a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Don't ask where the meat came from and eat it with thanksgiving (1 Cor. 10:23-30).

The book of Galatians is all about Paul's disagreement with other Christians who insisted Gentile believers become circumcised. Although others date it much earlier, we have pictured it while Paul was at Ephesus on his third missionary journey. We get his "first draft" of a response to his detractors, his understanding of how a person can be in right standing with God and exactly what the purpose of the Jewish Law is. Again, although others date it differently, we have pictured Paul writing Philippians at Ephesus as well, just a little bit later. In Philippians 3 Paul tries to warn the Philippians ahead of time about his opponents, "those who mutilate the flesh" (3:2), those who insist Gentiles must be circumcised.

So by the time Paul writes Romans, he knows his opponents and their arguments well. He knows what others are saying about him and he has been perfecting his response for years. He knows what response worked with the Galatians and what did not. The bulk of Romans is thus Paul's most developed defense of the gospel message he has preached among the Gentiles. It is not a "compendium of Christian theology" in the sense we would write one today. It is still a letter written in a certain situation to address a situation. But Paul writes it as an introduction to what he actually believes and teaches, and in that respect it is the most systematic presentation of his theology on these particular issues that we have.

As Rome had both Jewish and Gentile believers, it is reasonable to assume that Paul anticipated that both Jewish and Gentile Christians would read Romans. However, the bulk of his rhetoric addresses Gentiles, in keeping with Paul's sense that he is apostle to the Gentiles, not to the Jews. In 1:13 Paul says he wants to have some fruit among them just as among other Gentiles. In the next verse he does not divide those he feels responsible for into Jew and Gentile but into "Greek and barbarian"--a way of dividing up the Gentile world. In Romans 11:13 explicitly addresses the Gentiles as the audience and warns them not to get cocky about God's current favor on them. Paul's address to a Jew in Romans 2:17 is more about what someone might say rather than a direct address to someone in the audience. So Paul could have expected that some Jewish believers would read Romans, it seems mostly to address Gentile believers, in keeping with Paul's own sense of the mission to which God had called him.

So Romans is a defense of the gospel Paul preached among the Gentiles, with a view to the objections and arguments his detractors had used against him, particularly his detractors in Jerusalem and Antioch. He goes about to show that all have sinned, both Jew and Gentile, and thus that both equally rely on God's grace to be accepted by Him (Rom. 1-4). He shows how Christ's obedience has undone the sin of Adam for everyone, including both Jew and Gentile (Rom. 5). He addresses the question of just what the purpose of the Jewish Law was in the first place and in the process the accusation that he is advocating that Christians sin (Rom. 6-8). And he steps back and speaks about God's plan and how Jews and Gentiles fit into it (Rom. 9-11).

You can see the degree to which the "Gentile question" dominates the entire letter. How is it that Gentiles can be part of the people of God if they do not convert to Judaism? Romans was not, as Augustine and later believers made it, an abstract theology of how to get saved. Any time Paul mentions the law, he has in mind some part of the Jewish Law, not some abstract moral law. And when Paul talks about works, the parts of the Jewish Law that most separated Jew and Gentile were never too far away. Romans is thus Paul's most developed response to his detractors.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Looking to Spain 3

To follow the bread crumbs back, here's the last one.

I should finish a little Bible study book on Philippians today. The format is quite annoying, very regimented, and it has been depressing how long it takes to write it--much harder for me than writing a normal book. But these little Bible studies might actually turn out to be the most appealing things I've written (I finished one on 1 Thessalonians about two months ago).

We'll see. They go through a book of Paul in six weeks of Bible studies, five days of lessons per week. Each lesson covers a little snippet of Philippians (anywhere from one verse to several). After a 50 word introduction, there's about 125 words of the central message of the snippet. Then there's about 125 words of commentary, followed by about 125 words of life reflection, followed by a short prayer. It would be good for a Bible study or Sunday School class or personal devotions.
Looking to Spain
If all we had were the book of Acts, we might get the impression that Paul's mission to non-Jews, to Gentiles, resulted from his continued rejection by Jews. We might think that he targeted Jews and Gentiles somewhat equally but just got a better reception from the Gentiles. However, Paul did not view his ministry in this way. Surely he was delighted when Jews came to believe that Jesus was their promised king, their messiah. But he did not see Jews as his calling. Paul understood himself as someone called to non-Jews. He was the apostle to the Gentiles, just as Peter was the apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2:8; Rom. 15:8-12, 16, 18). [1]

Paul also, as we said, saw himself as a traveling minister, not as someone called to a particular location until Christ might return. In Romans 15:20-21 he tells the Romans that he has made it a point not to preach the good news in places where someone else has already laid a Christian foundation. Perhaps Isaiah 52:15 was something like a "life verse" for him: "Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand" (NRSV). [2]

He was thus a "church planter." He was not interested in staying in Rome for a few years the way he did at Corinth and then Ephesus and like he perhaps had done earlier at Tarsus. He seems rather to want to set up something like a "mission base" in Rome so that he could then launch into the unevangelized territory of Spain (15:24).

So Paul writes Romans from Corinth on his way to Jerusalem at the end of his so called third missionary journey. He writes more than any other reason to introduce himself to the already existing group of believers at Rome. He plans to go to Jerusalem before Pentecost (Acts 20:16) with a large delegation from the various churches he has planted (Acts 20:4). Together they were carrying a large offering for the needy among the Christians of Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-27; cf. Gal. 2:10). [3]

Paul is deeply interested in the Roman churches in their own right. He writes at the beginning of the letter that he had often wanted to come to them but that he had consistently been hindered from making such a trip time and time again (Rom. 1:13). He is hoping they might share together some mutual building up of each other's faith by his visit (1:11-12). He wants to talk "good news" with them, a good thing in itself (1:15).

But his primary destination is Spain rather than Rome. Rome is a very important stop along the way, perhaps both for personal reasons and for missional reasons. Surely Paul was looking forward to having an impact on the churches at Rome in part as a matter of personal satisfaction. But it is not his focus. His focus is to get to Spain, and he sees Rome as a fitting place through which to go on his way there. And just maybe he thinks the churches at Rome might contribute to that mission to Spain in the same way the Philippians seem to have supported Paul materially while he was in the other churches of Greece.

Romans is thus Paul's letter of introduction to the churches in Rome on his way to Spain. But as he introduces himself, he has at least two other tasks to accomplish as he writes. The one is to provide a defence of himself as a preacher of the gospel. Paul has enemies in the larger church. People talk about him, as Acts 21:21 indicates. So Paul writes Romans as the most systematic defense of his understanding of the gospel in any of his writings--at least in relation to the whole question of how the Gentiles can be saved without having to convert to Judaism.

He also apparently has some information about the church. He seems to know in some of the later chapters of the book that Rome has "stronger" and "weaker" Christians like Corinth did. So while he is introducing himself and his gospel, he also takes some time out to address some disunity he has heard about among the churches of Rome.

[1] The book of Acts, in its tendency to emphasize order, seems to emphasize Peter as the initiator of the Gentile mission in Acts 10 and at the "Jerusalem Council" of Acts 15. It is significant to recognize that Paul might not have told the story with the same emphasis. Indeed, he saw Peter at Antioch more as an obstacle to the Gentile mission (Gal. 2:11).

[2] The verse is in the famous "suffering servant" passage in Isaiah, which many early Christians seem to have read in relation to Christ's sufferings on the cross.

[3] It is intriguing that Acts never mentions this offering, even though it was an incredibly big deal for Paul (e.g., 2 Corinthians 8-9; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:25-27). Acts gives us a lot of information that fits the framework of a delegation with an offering, but strangely does not mention the offering itself. We have to wonder whether the Jerusalem Church did not accept the offering or if the money ended up being used in some other way. Some would suggest Paul used the offering to pay for the purification rites of the men with a vow in Acts 21:24.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lessons: OT in the NT

Tonight in a seminary Biblical Interpretation class I teach in Indianapolis one of the topics is the New Testament use of the OT and biblical theology in general. I'll have them look at examples like:

1. Paul's use of Genesis 3; 12:7; and Deuteronomy 25:4
2. Matthew's use of Micah 5:2; Hosea 11:1; Isaiah 7:14; and Isaiah 11:1
3. Matthew and Luke's use of Joel 2
4. Hebrews' use of Jeremiah 31 and Psalm 40

These uses show a spectrum of continuity and discontinuity with the original meaning. But the take away from this exercise, as far as I can see, is nothing short of massive. From a Christian perspective, the key take-away is this:

For the New Testament, inspiration is not in any way connected to the literal meaning of Old Testament passages. It is pneumatic, and in fact the same OT passage can have multiply valid interpretations.

Just some quick but massive implications:
1. The inspired meaning of Scripture cannot be deduced from the historical-cultural method.

2. Any understanding of inerrancy that is tied to historicity or scientific correlation is foreign to the biblical texts themselves.

3. Twentieth century evangelicalism was well-intentioned but misguided in limiting the meaning of biblical texts to a single meaning.

I can't see any way around any of these conclusions, can you?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blow it Up!?

Anyone know why they don't blow up some sort of bunker buster charge near the pipe gushing oil and let the rubble mostly seal off things while BP is doing the month long relief drill?

Greek Alphabet Video

Greek for Ministry begins next week, a new experimental course happening both online and onsite in Indianapolis on Tuesday nights for 8 weeks. The first week covers pronouncing Greek words, what an interlinear and an analytical is, as well as key connecting words.

The first vidcast lecture is up:

I might also mention two posts I put up yesterday on the seminary Dean's blog, one on the new cohorts in town this week and the other my continued writing on a great time for the Wesleyan tradition.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Paris Agreement on Aid Effectiveness

This is now the final installment of my reflections on the Wheaton conference on "Government, Foreign Assistance, and the Mission of God in the World," cohosted by Wheaton's Center for Applied Ethics, Bread for the World, and the Micah Challenge.

Previous posts included:
1. First Look
2. Why Government should aid
3. The Bible, Christians, and Government

The Paris Agreement on Aid Effectiveness
One of the presentations was on aid effectiveness, and this declaration was mentioned. I have not read through the entire website, but the main points of the agreement seem sound, especially if a developing country sets good goals.

1. Ownership
The country receiving aid should own the development process. It should own its own goals, set its own strategies, improve its own institutions, and tackle its own corruption.

2. Alignment
Donor countries should align behind these goals and use local systems toward their accomplishment.

3. Harmonization
Donor countries coordinate, simplify procedures and share information to avoid duplication.

4. Results
Developing countries and donors shift focus to development results and results get measured.

5. Mutual Accountability
Donors and partners are accountable for development results.

Here endeth my reflections...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Oden: Preface

This is the first of what I hope will be about three months of Sundays working through Thomas Oden's Classic Christianity.

Preface (xiii-xxvi)
I haven't known whether to smile or get annoyed when Oden proudly announces that he aims "to make no new contribution to theology" (xiv) and that the "only promise I intend to make... is that of unoriginality" (xv). Oden's systematic theology is about the consensus of Christendom, the beliefs that all Christians hold together in common. He mentions Vincent of Lerins sense of the core as "that which has always, everywhere, and by all Christians been believed about God's self-disclosure" (xv).

He gives the ecumenical Doctors of the Church in the east as 1) Athanasius, 2) Basil, 3) Gregory of Nazianzus, and 4) Chrysostum, and the Church in the west as 1) Ambrose, 2) Augustine, 3) Jerome, and 4) Gregory the Great. Meanwhile, consensual documents are more important than individuals (xvi).

Of course all of these are secondary for Oden to Scripture. He is interested in the common understanding of faith these individuals and other consensual documents have as they have interpreted Scripture. Oden makes it clear that he does not, however, have a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture. xxiv-xxv lay out 10 ways in which his approach differs from fundamentalism.

For example, the consensual approach focuses on the meaning of the resurrection while fundamentalism focuses on the historicity of the resurrection. (To be sure, Oden believes in the historicity of the resurrection too). Another is that the consensual tradition recognizes metaphor and varieties of expression of inspired doctrine in Scripture, while fundamentalism focuses on a single legitimate interpretation of each text.

Gregory of Nyssa put it this way: "Those who handle the text in too literal a manner have a veil cast over their eyes, whereas those who contemplate the God of whom the Scriptures speak receive the revelation of divine glory which lies behind the letter of the text" (xxv).

For next Sunday, d.v. the introduction to The Living God and chapter 1, "The Name of God."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bible, Christians, Government

Here's the third and maybe second to last post about the conference I attended last week at Wheaton called "Government, Foreign Assistance, and the Mission of God in the World." Previous posts include:

Basic Thrust
Why Government should aid...

The first presentation of the conference was on the biblical basis for governmental assistance. The presentation focused on Psalm 72 and Romans 13. I imagine that I wasn't the only one that found this line a little shaky. One professor from Denver Seminary used the word "tricky."

It's always tricky in my mind to apply the civil dimensions of the Old Testament to today. Governments are usually a given rather than something we can apply the Bible to. What is different about the US is that it is a democracy. Within the limits of the Constitution, we can as a people "bend the power of the United States" in certain directions, as long as they we do not violate the establishment of religion clause.

I've never found Romans 13 very helpful on these issues either. Statements in the Bible usually give a snapshot of the truth that is particularly relevant to a place and time. Romans 13 is nothing like an absolute philosophical statement on the timeless purpose of government. Governments punish wrongdoers. Yep.

But they can do much, much, more and they often do less. In fact, this was the same government that put Paul to death, reflecting the simple fact that governments more often than not fail at one of their fundamental purposes. Indeed, we cannot be completely sure that there is not an element of rhetoric in Romans 11--that Paul is giving a more idealistic picture of Rome than he himself believed, suggesting what Rome should be like rather than how it is.

Interestingly, the most helpful part of the conference for me on this score came in the last 20 minutes of the conference in a comment from Cheryl Sanders of Howard University. She mentioned the Joseph story of Genesis. When someone questioned this example, wondering if Pharaoh was really a model for government, her response was, to me, very insightful. It amounted to "Exactly." In so many words, Pharaoh embodies all the ambiguities of the people of God engaging with worldly powers.

So I propose the following model of Christian-state relationship. First and foremost, the people of God should never confuse themselves with worldly powers. Even when we are in government, even if Billy Graham were to become President of the United States, we must always distinguish the people of God, the Church, from the powers of this world.

If we take all the kings of Israel and Judah, far more were not kings after God's own heart than were. And the period of the judges was far from an operational theocracy. In short, this distinction applies even to ancient Israel, which is usually used as the model for those groups that most wish to identify church and state.

What we find in the story of Joseph and Pharaoh or Daniel and Nebuchanezzar or Nehemiah with Persia or Esther with Artaxerxes or Paul with Rome is that there is always a "dancing with the devil" dimension to any relationship between the people of God and government. God can and does use government to forward His will. God uses specific individuals at specific times and places to move governments in the right direction.

But it's often like playing with a snake. It can bite you. The relationship between people of God and worldly powers is ambiguous. It can be good. I can be bad. It is not a simple formula. It is not always Christ versus culture. It is not always Christ within culture. And this side of eternity it will never be finally transformed any more than our flesh is ever permanently removed from play. The relationship is dynamic.

I am not advocating a two kingdoms model because I am not suggesting that Christians can give up their Christian identity in their involvement with worldly powers. I am not advocating a Christ versus culture model where one withdraws from political engagement. I am advocating the attempt to intersect the kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world as much as possible to "bend" it.

Although I would not make too much of the supposed Christian foundations of America, there is a great deal of commonality between fundamental Christian values and fundamental American principles. More than most other nations in history, we have the opportunity to "bend the power of the United States" in Christian directions. As was also pointed out at the conference, here we are the government, in a sense.

But make no mistake, the US government operates on the basis of a social contract between everyone living here, which includes many non-Christians. No law or policy that is specifically Christian--and not generally beneficial--will stand the test of time. This is why the entire Christian lobby against gay marriage will eventually fail and probably is, in my suspicion, a waste of energy, an exercise in futility.

But it will also often be possible to argue for Christian goals within the language of the US Constitution. For example, it is in the best interest of the US government to alleviate poverty in those parts of the world that grow terrorists. The current problems around the world with terrorism stem more than anything else to the impoverishment of peoples. So Christians are motivated to eliminate poverty because we are following the mandates of Christ. But we can "bend the power of the United States" using an argument that achieves a similar end but using the language of national self-interest.

In the end, my mind was drawn to the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16. This parable seems filled with all the ambiguity of the relationship between the people of God and worldly power. As in all of Luke, money is viewed as something outside the kingdom of God. It is morally dubious at best. This strange parable seems to say, Be very, very sharp when dealing with the world. You are handling a dangerous thing, like a snake. Be very shrewd. Be wise as a serpent, but harmless as a dove.

Government should aid...

This is the second in a series of posts unpacking the recent conference I attended at Wheaton called Government, Foreign Assistance, and the Mission of God in the World, hosted by Bread for the World, Wheaton, and the Micah Prayer. The first post is here.

One interesting phenomenon I find is that both "conservative" and "liberal" Christian perspectives often have serious reservations about government involvement in foreign assistance, although usually for quite different reasons. Certain "conservative" Christian voices object because they not only often see it as stealing our money from us against our will but they also see government as instrinsically wasteful. Certain "liberal" Christian voices often see government aid as counterproductive and often doing more harm than good.

There were two "governmental" speakers at the conference: 1) Michael Gerson, who was Bush's speechwriter and who headed up PEPFAR (Africa AIDS initiative) and 2) Tim Ziemer, who first under the Bush administration and now under the Obama administration is the US Global Malaria Coordinator.

Gerson discussed Bush's initiative to get antiviral drugs to communities in Africa that were being decimated by AIDS. If I remember the statistics, the PEPFAR program has turned a situation around from only around 4% of Africans with AIDS being on ARV drugs to now 94%. There are, of course, some critiques of the program. For example, the emphasis was on distribution rather than establishing systems of distribution, which means the program is not self-perpetuating. I also heard some critique of the deals made with pharmaceutical companies.

In case I don't remember later, I have formulated over the course of the week a kind of "dance with the Devil" perspective on Christian-state relationships. I may post on it tomorrow in relation to certain biblical precedents.

Ziemer talked about the US led attempt to elimilate malaria from 15 countries. I guess 3000 people die a day in the world from malaria--completely unnecessary. Here the US has established systems that meet US environmental standards at the distribution of nets with incesticide, spraying, etc. Some have questions about the incecticide, but generally consider it a necessary evil.

Ziemer mentioned several elements the US government brings that small NGOs cannot:

1. level of cash
2. technical/logistical assistance
3. political influence

In short, no local church is equipped to respond effectively to the scale of a Katrina or Haitian earthquake or an Indonesian tsunami. In fact, there is actually a term "badvocacy" for a lot of what is done by well intentioned but as often as not ignorant church groups. They weren't mentioned but I thought several times of the whacko church group that was trying to smuggle orphans into the Dominican Republic.

The CEO of Food for the Hungry had just returned from Haiti and was reminded of the phrase from Judges, "Everyone did what was right in their own eyes." Although the general sentiment was that short term mission trips were generally a good thing, there was also the sense that well intentioned but culturally ignorant Americans can also do great harm. Just because you've been to another country, doesn't really mean that you've been to another country. Often such trips make generally un-self-aware people feel like they're now experts, when they culturally never really left home.

Again, in short, the church is not organized or mobilized enough to get the job done--or barely even started--on matters like AIDS or malaria.

A final word on the appropriateness of government involvement for those who think it is not in the best interest of US citizens for their money to be used in these ways. One thing that both Gerson and Ziemer mentioned is that it has been showed definitively that an overwhelming connection exists between poverty and terrorism. That is to say, it is misguided to think of terrorism as primarily an ideological issue. The evidence more demonstrates that it is economics that drive the ideology.

From what I can tell, there is near unanimous if not unanimous agreement by all experts in government and foreign policy that poverty is the number one cause of terrorism. This implies that it is massively in the public interest for the general welfare of US citizens for the government to address world poverty, especially in the Arab world.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Descartes Summary

René Descartes (1596-1650; pronounced “day-CART”) is rightly considered the “father” of modern philosophy. But he also had a massive impact on mathematics, inventing the Cartesian coordinate system of x’s and y’s that every high school student learns. He was a devout Roman Catholic, although the church of his day condemned his physics and philosophy. He was French but did most of his work in the Netherlands, most importantly a work called, Discourse on Method. At the time of his death he was a tutor to Queen Christina of Sweden.

Every philosopher to some extent gives expression to the struggles and spirit (Zeitgeist) of their time. The most famous thinkers are those whose expressions and solutions most resonate with their age or some later one. That to which Descartes gave expression was a sense of uncertainty and a thirst for something solid and true. The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance had generally eroded the assumptions of a thousand years; in particular, that the things Christians had heard and believed through the Church were correct. Those who were convinced that charismatic leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Huldrych Zwingli had correctly interpreted the Bible might simply switch the source of their certainty. But what had been an unquestioned assumption (Christian belief is self-evident and universally agreed) now had to be argued for.

The beginnings of the scientific revolution would become yet another source of questioning assumptions. We discussed Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in chapter 8 and his attempts to place the quest for knowledge on an experimental basis. One gathers evidence and tabulates the data, eventually drawing the conclusion that best fits the evidence. Again, he represents a move from assumption of truth to the need to justify it.

In this context, Descartes begins to look for a place of absolute certainty from which to establish a firm basis for truth. Unlike Bacon, he is a rationalist (see chapter 4). He searches for truth first in reason. He questions everything he can question and finds he can doubt everything except for the fact that he is doubting. His conclusion is, cogito ergo sum, “I think; therefore, I am.” From this point of certainty, he then proceeds to try to reconstruct certainty on all the things people of his day took for granted, including the existence of God.

Despite how certain Descartes himself might be of his conclusions, he has sowed a doubt that had not been there before, much as the Reformation did. All the ordinary truths about the world—that I am really sitting somewhere reading this book—now have a question mark over them that was not there before. He creates a new sort of human identity. “I” am the most certain thing I can know, and the rest of the world is the object of my knowledge. I may still believe in God, but it is I who is doing the deciding and believing. The order of the world, all the truths that I had once assumed without question, are now truth claims that I am forced to make decisions about. Even faith becomes an inevitable choice I have to make as an individual, instead of an assumption. The shift seems inevitable. I can still believe everything I believed before about God, faith, and the world, and I can believe them ferociously. But I am now keenly aware that I am the one doing the believing.

The impact of this shift, this turn of focus of truth from something “out there” inherent in the world to something I have to make judgments on inside my head, has been far beyond massive. This sense of a human individual as a rational being that makes decisions about what is true has empowered everything from the scientific revolution to the birth of capitalism to the notion of social contracts between individuals, the basis for the United States system of government. Descartes inadvertently gives birth to the “autonomous individual,” a sense of a human person as someone who can make objective decisions about the quite distinct world outside of herself.

Descartes’ sense of nature and of the soul fit hand in glove with his other ideas. He makes a sharp distinction between the natural world and now the super-natural world. Nature is no longer everything that God created, but only now the physical, material part of it. Descartes does not include things of God, angels, or spirits, or things having to do with the mind in what he calls "nature." These now "immaterial" things are far more certain to him than what would become the world of science. He thus inadvertently prepared the way for Deism, which saw the world as a machine God created but with which He need no longer be involved.

Descartes also shifts the soul from being the life principle of a person to become the immaterial container in which the human self resides. It is where the “I” can think about the world in a detached and objective fashion. It is where the human will is located. It is the part of the person that survives death, like an escape pod.

The current climate is rather negative toward Descartes, and clearly we can point out any number of extremes in his thinking. Martin Heidegger (1886-1976), more than anyone, has shown that we cannot detach ourselves from the world around us. Almost everyone today would recognize the impossibility of complete objectivity. Nevertheless, we should not forget that most of the greatest cultural developments in the Western world these last few centuries can be traced back to Descartes more than to any other single individual.

Government, Foreign Assistance, Church

I was privileged to sit in on a conference at Wheaton these past two days called "Government, Foreign Assistance, and God's Mission in the World." A "Wheaton Declaration" will come out of it after a couple revision loops. One paragraph of the first draft looked to be a particularly good summary:

"The extraordinary power of the United States and the daily impact of the United States on the world's poor requires special vigilance on the part of American Christian citizens as to the effects of the US role and policies and assistance programs. Our goal should be to bend the power of the United States toward a maximally effective impact on the world's poor"

The relationship between churches and the government on these sorts of issues is a thorny one, in my opinion, and I am much more comfortable personally with Christian groups lobbying the government than denominations per se, especially when it comes to specific policies. Nevertheless, I may post some thoughts in relation to the conference over the next few days.

Probably the first thing that struck me was the assumption of values. I think almost everyone at the conference accepted the value of helping the poor. One early caveat was on effective assistance. There was a strong distinction made between aid and development. Aid is short term in a time of crisis (e.g., Haiti). Development is about empowering people to support themselves eventually.

But I sat there wondering whether even most American Christians are on board with the basic value that it is our duty as Christians to help those in need. Before we can ever get to the question of the government, we have to make sure Christians can see that helping those in need is a fundamental Christian value.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Famous Existentialists

At a conference at Wheaton called "Government, Foreign Assistance, and God's Mission in the World." Not supposed to blog or tweet till it's over :-)
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55)
The Danish Kierkegaard is sometimes retroactively called the “father of existentialism” for the way that he focused on the centrality of human choices over ideas and the cognitive. He held that a “leap of faith,” one that could not be based on reason, was essential for a life with meaning. Although he was a Christian who talked of this leap of faith in terms of Christian faith, the subjective nature of such leaps makes him the father both of theistic and atheistic existentialism. See chapter 2.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Whether we consider the German Nietzsche a proper existentialist or not, he clearly laid the groundwork for the twentieth-century movement with this name. Atheistic existentialism starts with the inherent meaninglessness of things in order to argue that any meaning we impose on the world is as valid as anything else. Nietzsche is the starkest in his presentation of such nihilism, and he equally focuses on the human “will to power” as the human drive to force our choices to be the right ones. If we do not retroactively consider him an existentialist, we must certainly see him as its most important forerunner.

Martin Heidegger (1886-1976)
Although Heidegger (who at least initially supported Hitler) did not self-identify as an existentialist, he was a significant influence on Sartre and those who did. In Being and Time, Heidegger rejected Descartes’ attempt to separate oneself as a thinker from the world you are thinking about. Rather, you are inseparable from the world, and our fundamental existence is “Dasein” (being-in-the-world). Authentic existence is when in the midst of our caring deeply about our situation as part of the world we nonetheless make a decision to take responsibility for the situation into which we are thrown and resolutely shoulder our inherited burden.

Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976)
The German Bultmann was perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, even if most scholars would reject his best known interpretations today. On the other hand, many who are sympathetic to Christianity but who struggle with faith still find his existentialist agenda attractive. Bultmann famously did not believe that it was possible to “use electric light and the wireless… and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (“The New Testament and Mythology,” 1941). Instead, he believed that if we “demythologize” the New Testament, we would find that its core teaching is existentialist. Resurrection is the call to authentic existence in the face of death.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80)
We might consider the French Sartre the true father of modern existentialism, particularly atheistic existentialism. As mentioned in this chapter, Sartre taught that “existence precedes essence,” meaning that we have to come up with “what we are” (essence) long after our bodies are born (existence). According to Sartre, we are “condemned to be free.” We have no choice but to choose who we are, but we are free to choose any “who we are.” The classic treatment of his existentialism is his 1943, Being and Nothingness.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86)
In contrast to Sartre’s difficult, Being and Nothingness, Simone de Beauvoir’s, The Ethics of Ambiguity, is a much more readable presentation of French existentialism. de Beauvoir was Sartre’s lifetime partner, and together they were activists for mid-twentieth century socialist and communist causes. Her work, The Second Sex, is a major piece of secular feminist literature and captured the spirit of existentialism well when she wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Albert Camus (1913-60)
As mentioned in the chapter, the French Camus was known for the “theater of the absurd,” a school of art that portrayed things we experience as very significant in insignificant ways. In The Stranger, for example, a series of casual decisions and accidental occurrences end in murder and subsequent capital punishment, a consequence Camus portrays as rather inconsequential. His essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, portrayed life like the fate of Sisyphus, who in Hades eternally pushes a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down as he reaches the top. So Camus would have us believe that life is truly meaningless, but we nevertheless start each day all over again as an act of rebellion.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Roger Scruton on Heidegger

Quite mirroring my own sense of Heidegger are the following delectable comments on him:

"It is impossible to summarize Heidegger's work, which no one has claimed to understand completely. In the next chapter I shall give reasons for thinking that it may be unintelligible... Its language... is metaphorical and contorted to the point almost of incomprehensibility; the reader has the impression that never before have so many words been invented and tormented in the attempt to express the inexpressible" (Short History, 256)


Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida... three of a kind

Bultmann and the Internet

I was about to quote Bultmann's famous line in a summary of existentialists: "It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless… and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles."

I always used to chuckle at how modern Bultmann was, mentioning the wireless and all. I was sitting here thinking, none of them will know what the "wireless" is. And then I thought, wait, I'm using wireless right now! Man, Bultmann was way ahead of his time :-)

P.S. Anyone out there using wireless still believe in spirits and miracles? :-)

Fowl on Theological Interpretation

Came across this quote from Stephen Fowl in an Interpretation article students in our seminary leadership class read this Spring:

"Theological interpretation of the Bible is not determined by any particular method but by the goal of growing into ever deeper communion with the triune God and with others" ("Know Your Context: Giving and Receiving Money in Philippians," Int. [2002]: 45).

This statement confirms my feeling (and those of others I've talked to) that theological interpretation is really more about a goal than a method. This also potentially signs its death warrant as a movement because all it amounts to is to try to find a way to connect the biblical text to Christian faith and practice today. For example, the new Brazos commentary series will simply be Christians reflecting on the biblical text theologically with no clear commonality except for that end goal.

That reduces these sorts of series to the novelty of buying a Matthew commentary written by Stanley Hauerwas.

P.S. A very small installment of the Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition is up on the Dean's blog (Wesleyanism in the 1900s).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Surveying Biblical Literature

Quickly done, but for reference:

This is a vidcast on surveying as I learned it at Asbury and modified it for myself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

World Wesleyan Web

What if Wesleyan denominations didn't exactly merge but formed (as Devin Rose put it) a kind of "UN of Wesleyan denominations"? Then the more it worked, the less the current denominations would need to function until eventually, in effect, we had a new uber-Wesleyan connection.

Here are some things I've heard as suggestions or brainstormed myself:

1. What if it was something that individual Wesleyan, Nazarene, FM, etc. local churches joined as the real "atoms," with the denominations themselves only setting it up and providing initial leaders? Maybe something like the Willow Creek Association?

2. What if this uber-connection provided services to these local churches like pension, health care, insurance, etc. so that the individual denominations no longer needed to fund these things?

3. What if those churches who joined were excused from a certain amount of denominational "tax," such as that for educational institutions? What if those educational institutions that could support themselves became more associated with the connection than with their current denominations?

4. What if, as soon as the connection reached a critical mass, these local churches elected a council of leaders from regions and/or some other groupings?

Any thoughts?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Image of God

Finally getting back to some philosophy. The last post was on the soul.
Thus far in the chapter we have looked at the human person from four different angles. We started with those who have viewed us as biological machines. From a Christian standpoint, this much is true, but it is not nearly the whole picture. Then we looked at the extent to which human identity is "socially constructed," that is, the degree to which we draw our identity from the social groups and contexts in which we grow up and live. Again, Christianity would historically see more to human existence than the mere constructs of particular societies. Further, Christianity's understanding of salvation has set us on a trajectory that tends to transcend visible social groupings and group-embedded identity. Since being a Jew or a Greek, a male or a female, a slave or a free person--or any visible indicator--cannot tell that a person is part of the people of God (Gal. 3:28), the usual external indicators of identity become quite inadequate. [1]

The third angle was that of personal choice, existentialism. Existentialism focuses on the potential for each of us to create our own identity for ourselves, to make ourselves into anything we want to be. Again, while Christianity can certainly accommodate a view that sees individual choice as essential to becoming a Christian, we would not believe that truly authentic existence is something anyone can create from any direction in life they choose. We believe that there are right and wrong choices, no matter how much you might invest yourself in the choices you make.

Finally, we looked at the traditionally Christian view that we have souls or spirits within us that survive death. Although the idea that the soul might be the primary container of our identities largely dates to Descartes, Christians have long associated the soul or spirit as the part of us that survives death until the time of the resurrection when we are reunited with a transformed body. In the last section, however, we saw that much of the work the soul is made to do in modern Christian thinking is itself largely a modern innovation that at least can be questioned from a number of different angles, including that of the Bible itself.

In this final section of the chapter, we want to consider if thinking about how humans as the image of God might stand at the heart of a Christian view of human beings. Yes, we are biological machines whose self-understanding derives significantly from our social context. Yes, a privilege of Western society in particular is the freedom to determine who we are in many more respects than people at other times and places. Yes, whatever the mechanism, we believe all humans continue to exist at death and that they will eventually be re-embodied. But more than anything else, a human is a reflection of God. A human person is an image of God.

Just like the soul, the idea of the image of God has also shifted somewhat over the centuries. As Western culture after Descartes became more individualistic, so the image of God more and more became something inside of me as an individual. [2] This was a crucial shift. Prior to Descartes, the image of God was something about me that reflected the divine order of things. What humans are reflected in part what God is. God is ruler of the universe. So God created humanity as His image to rule the created order. [3] Other aspects of us as humans that were often thought to reflect characteristics of God and the order of the world were our rationality and our potential for moral righteousness.

[textbox quote: The image of God in Wesley: natural, political, moral]

The Reformers from the time of Martin Luther increasingly looked at the image of God as something almost completely destroyed by Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden. [4] It became something we largely do not have in the present but that Adam had in the past. They focused primarily on the "moral" image as something completely lost in the Fall of humanity. Yet another current view focuses on the image of God as something greater than anything Adam had in the past but that we are destined to have in the future, at the time when God restores all things.

All of these views go well beyond anything in the Bible. Genesis is not very specific as to what the image of God in humanity might be, although in 1:27 it seems to relate to men and women governing the world. Paul and others in the New Testament seemed to relate this position of honor in the creation to Psalm 8, which the NRSV translates,

"what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas" (8:4-8).

As His image, God has granted humans a position of honor in the world that is a reflection of His own honor. Here is no sense of human rationality or even morality. We simply reflect God. The place He holds over all is the place He has assigned humanity in the world. A man should not cover his head when he prays because his head reflects God (1 Cor. 11:7)--to see the honor of a man is to see the honor of God. Similarly, one should not harm an innocent human because you are harming the image of God (Jas. 3:9). These are all pictures, but we can easily synthesize them into a Christian way of thinking about what we are as human beings created in the image of God.

First, even if one only looked at humanity as biological machines, we are clearly the dominant beings on the planet, at least as far as we can see. [5] The idea that humans "rule" in the animal kingdom--even if we are poor rulers at times--seems beyond question. We hold a position of honor in the created order that does reflect the role God has in relation to the entire creation. Part of that high position does include a higher rational and moral capacity than the rest of the creation, which reflects our sense of God as the perfect thinker and absolute standard of goodness. In this sense, Christian thinkers throughout the ages have fastened on legitimate aspects of what we are as humans, even if they read much more into the image of God than any biblical author was thinking.

However, what is perhaps more important for us today is to recognize that humanity in the image of God is intrinsically valuable and meaningful. Prior to Descartes and the Reformation, the value of humanity in general was a reflection of the very order of things, of the world. Meanwhile, the value of an individual human might be a matter of the social class to which they were born. There was no sense of development. It was assumed that a person who turned out to be great must have always been great.

After Descartes, thinkers no longer simply assumed an intrinsic order to things. A person's choices might show them to be great, and a person might start from nowhere and rise to greatness. The late 1800s saw Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and the birth of psychoanalysis, where events in a person's childhood were seen as formative influences that combined to make a person what they became. The nature/nurture controversy began, which would eventually become the question of whether what we are is more a function of our genetics or the environment in which we grew up.

Nevertheless, we can to a great extent return to the thinking of the Christians of the ages by thinking of how God thinks of humanity. If humanity--if indeed all the creation--is important to God, then it becomes a moral offence to mess with any of God's "stuff" and especially with humanity, which Scripture has declared to be the image of God in a way that the rest of the creation is not. This fact of God's perspective toward us makes us intrinsically valuable, despite the fact that we might also be biological machines that think and make moral choices.

[1] Although to be sure, visible Christiantity soon developed its own set of visible indicators so that group-embedded identity has continued to dominate the history of Christianity as well, another indication that homo sapiens is a herd animal.

[2] I am highly dependent in what follows on Charles Taylor's The Sources of the Self.

[3] This would seem to be the primary sense of the image of God in Genesis 1:27.

[4] The late Stanley Grenz spoke of a shift to a "relational" view of the image of God in the Reformation, followed by a more "dynamic" view as something God wants to restore in us at the time of Christ's return. See Theology for the Community of God, **, 168-73.

[5] Leaving out of consideration the spiritual realm for the moment.
As a side note on Steve Deneff's sermon this past Sunday:
Pastor Deneff made an interesting contrast between contemporary Westerners who are more "performance" based and the Bible world that was more "identity" based. This laborious chapter I've been hammering out in bits and pieces for months says similar things but in different terms.

First, what he is talking about is part and parcel of the ancient world, indeed I consider it the default of the human animal everywhere. His "identity" is really a function of a collectivist and honor-shame culture, as discussed previously.

Second, it is a pre-Descartes view of a person that sees who we are as a function of orders outside ourselves, an order to the world that is out there, as discussed previously and above. I think it can be recovered (as above) by seeing our truest identity as what God thinks of us. But the "performance" view--I am what I do--is one possible perspective as a result of the Cartesian slide, IMHO.

next bit of "Wesleyan Tradition" up

Next bit of my first draft of A Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition is up on the seminary Dean's blog. It probably needs unpacked a little for those with no historical background, but need to move on to other things today...

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Why Merge?

This is my third post in relation to recent decisions of the General Board of Administration 1) to explore connection/merger with groups like the Nazarenes, Free Methodists, CCCU, Bible Methodists, etc... and 2) to peal off two general superintendents in preparation for such mergers/connections and to streamline for our own effectiveness in the meantime.

Today I want to start a list of reasons why I think connecting on some significant organizational level is (mostly) a no-brainer, the kind of thing to which we should immediately say, "Of course," on the conceptual level and only turn down if the details would somehow put it off.

First, I should mention that I think the legitimate purposes of denominations are twofold: 1) to proclaim or preserve particular understandings of faith and practice for which God raises groups up and 2) to pool and focus resources toward common goals and purposes. There may be others, but this is my list.

If this is the list, then the following are some of the reasons for significant organizational connection I can think of:

1. It would be silly not to!
Given my two-fold sense of the purposes of denominations, I can't think of any principled reason for us to be separate:
  • We share the same focuses of faith and practice and
  • We are wasting significant resources by the multiplication of infrastructure between us.
2. Principle of Unity
The principle of the unity of the church pushes us to unify in identity if we do not have good reason not to. As far as I can tell, the only reasons not to would be logistical or financial, and surely God has given some people out there enough wisdom to figure out such details.

3. Easier to Fix Things
It is easier to make significant organizational shifts in the process of a merger than to do it out of the blue. I know some people have wanted a single general superintendent for decades. It would never have happened apart from the current financial situation coupled with talk of merger. The same goes for matters of stewardship, apportionments, collegiate allocations, etc. These things generally continue on their merry way until there is a crisis. A merger/organizational connection is a much more desirable catalyst for fixing these sorts of imperfections.

4. Pooling of resources
Each piece of the Wesleyan puzzle has something to contribute. Each has something missing apart. The voice of the Wesleyan tradition hardly seems a major player within Christendom and in that sense we can question whether any of us are truly fulfilling the legitimate reasons for us to exist as denominations in the first place. Perhaps the Nazarenes are a little known (although our condolences on the weird name).

But the rest of us are, to be honest, peons who have little impact on anything. The Wesleyan Church has 1700 churches in North America (big whoop=relatively insignificant) and the Nazarenes, despite having more buildings, apparently only have about twice our attendance in church on a Sunday morning(=problematic). The Free Methodists have interestingly decentralized quite a bit already.

What are some reasons you can think of for us all to reorganize ourselves together in some way? Reasons against?

Friday, May 07, 2010

A Single General Superintendent?!

Yesterday I pointed out that the General Board of Administration of The Wesleyan Church had voted to explore serious connections with other holiness denominations like the Nazarenes. This discussion has been going on for some time and in fact this is partially a response to a resolution along these lines that the Nazarenes passed at their last general conference. In other words, this is a very serious proposal with significant intent by the leaders of at least these two denominations. I fully expect there to be a "merger" or "connection" proposal of some kind at the 2012 General Conference.

One of the other significant changes is a restructuring of the offices at Wesleyan headquarters. All the duties of the Discipline will be performed by the appropriately elected officials, but HQ will be using different names and operational patterns until it either becomes permanent at the next general conference or it is rejected as permanent or we merge making it moot.

JoAnne Lyon is, in effect, the only person at HQ they will be calling a General Superintendent for the remainder of this quadrennium, even though Tom Armiger and Jerry Pence will continue to perform the duties they are assigned by the Discipline as elected general superintendents. Instead, they will be heading two new offices: Pence will head "Local Church Services" and Armiger will head "Administration and Communication Services."

From one point of view, one might think that this is a centralization of power, but I believe quite on the contrary that it represents a further dismantling of the "top-down" system. Lyon has not become a pope but rather less power is being invested in this highest point of the church than ever before. It should be viewed as "two leaders have been pealed off" rather than "power has been invested in one."

I believe this move should be viewed in part as a preparation for merger (where we would only be able to contribute something like one leader) and probably (and here I'm just guessing) as a matter of financial streamlining.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Great Merger of Wesleyanism?!

Buried within the report of the most recent General Board of Adminstration meeting of The Wesleyan Church was this astounding line:

"Approved a resolution authorizing the Board of General Superintendents to pursue further discussions with other like-minded holiness denominations regarding the possibility of creating a new holiness denomination for the 21st century."

Outstanding!! There's really no reason for there to be Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Free Methodists, and so forth when we all have the same basic beliefs and practices. And in a culture of decentralization, networking, and financial stress on bureaucracies, it can take a reformulation of this sort to create a structure that really fits the times rather than one perpetuated merely because of traditions that don't really fit any more.

Let's call it the Wesleyan Methodist Church (or maybe connection?)! ;-)

Also hidden in there are some very significant potential restructurings of the general church...

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Meaning of Words

Anyone who has dabbled in this blog from time to time knows my understanding of words, but since not every visitor will have heard it, my online teaching has cued the basics again.

1. Words do not have fixed or timeless meanings.
New meanings come into use and old meanings fall out of use. Words have particular, specific meanings that relate to communities of language users. The town of "Intercourse," Pennsylvania was not called that originally because the settlers there sure liked to have sex.

2. Definitions are somewhat artificial.
They are abstractions that try to capture the way we use words. The meaning of a word is in how it is used in a specific context. Change the context, change the precise connotation. You can rarely if ever translate a word from one language (or even context) into another without both some loss of meaning and some potential addition of extraneous meaning.

3. If a set of absolute "meanings" exists, human language does not operate in terms of it.
There are arguably truths that would receive universal assent (2+2=4) however a particular language might express it. But there is a significant distinction between such "absolute" truths and human language. Specific human language is a moving target that will always stand in a contingent relationship to the more theoretical realm we call absolute truth.

For example, it is possible that in the future "two plus two" would become an idiom for "two plus two more than two," which would then equal "six." Not likely, but language changes in these sorts of unpredictable ways over time and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it.

4. Some quick and inevitable conclusions
  • The Bible will always have to be retranslated over time.
  • The way the Bible strikes you when you are unaware of yourself and the unique features of your own language community (e.g., Wesleyan, Baptist, American) will say as much or more about yourself than about anything the Bible actually meant originally.
  • The original meaning of the individual books of the Bible was a function of their original language communities and contexts.
  • These meanings will differ from book to book.
  • There are connotations words could have in the ancient world that we could not easily understand because they simply are not part of our language communities (e.g., what a sacrifice really meant to the ancients).
  • This is a fundamental reason why there are over 20,000 different Protestant denominations who think they get their ideas from the inerrant Bible alone.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Word Study Tips

First, latest installment of Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition is up on the seminary blog.

If you ever turn in a word study for me, here are some things that tick me off:

1. Don't give me a preliminary definition from Webster,, or some modern English dictionary.
The range of meaning English words can have today is completely irrelevant! It's the range the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word had that counts. And yes, they're not the same.

2. Don't give me all the Thayer's overload from
Thayer's comes from the overload fallacy era (see Kittel). It stuffs stuff that is a function of context (rather than the word itself) into the meaning of the words, extraneous meaning. All I want is one, two or three words, a starter definition. After all, the purpose of a word study is not to look up what a word means--it's to figure it out yourself! Preliminary definitions are just a rough draft before getting down to business.

3. Don't cut and paste a 1000 pages of stuff that is just a bunch of stuff you've cut and pasted.
I don't give a dime for it, let alone a point, not unless you've written on it or shown me that you've processed it somehow. You need to go reference by reference and tell me how each instance of the word shows you the kinds of things the word can mean. My dog can print a screen of blueletterbible if I hold its paw up to the right button.

4. I couldn't care less about Kittel...
... except that it can sometimes give a sense of some of the more archaic or less frequent uses of the word. The history of the word, including its breakdown into parts is generally irrelevant. Think about the way you use words--you don't think about where the word came from or how it breaks apart--it's absurd!

4. Don't use commentaries as a crutch.
Commentaries are useful in word studies to tell you potential word background and to point out things you might not have thought of. But you can do better at inductive word studies than half the commentaries out there if you are only disciplined and don't shove preconceived notions down the words of the text.

5. Don't confuse literary and historical contexts.
The whole Bible is not the literary context of Philippians. Only Philippians is. All the rest was written at a different time, place, and situation. Don't count on Philippians always to use a word the same way or for its uses to be related (although there's a good chance many of them are). Don't count on Paul always to use a word the same way or for his uses to be related (although there's a fair chance you'll find a lot the same). Certainly don't count on Matthew using words the way Paul does, and you shouldn't at all expect the Hebrew of the OT to use words the way the Greek of the NT does.

The way the Greek translation of the OT used words may or may not be helpful, but it is far more likely to help than the Hebrew original, which is much more likely to be irrelevant than relevant when it comes to the meaning of a Greek word.

There. I got it off my chest.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Grading Finals and Suicide

I was grading the finals for Hebrews class over the last few days. One surprising phenomenon was that so many students put true to the question, "Most scholars think Paul wrote Hebrews."

Now I don't know a single Hebrews scholar today who thinks Paul wrote Hebrews. In fact, I would almost discount a person as a true scholar of Hebrews if they did. I read somewhere that the last scholarly article to argue for Pauline authorship was in the 40s, and that was a pre-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic who probably almost had to.

Now it's true, I don't think Hebrews is as un-Pauline as some argued at one time, but I was left trying to explain this answer. My students are always welcome to disagree with me and also with the so called "experts." But I was surprised that they didn't even realize what most scholars thought.

Here are potential explanations. You can pick more than one.
1. I somehow completely forgot to mention this the entire semester or when I did I left the conclusion so open that they did not really get the lay of the scholarly land.

2. They were so much on Facebook that they missed this "first class" subject.

3. They think of me as so whacko out of the mainstream that they assumed that the majority of scholars would never agree with what I thought.

4. The distinction between scholar and devotional writer is so blurred that students today can't tell the difference.

Any other suggestions?