Thursday, September 30, 2010

God's Boss 3

What we are discussing here is the question of God's "sovereignty," his authority over everything.  Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous skeptic of the late 1800s, tells how he came to the conclusion early in his life that if we are to thank God for the good things that happen to us, we have to give him credit for the bad as well. [1]  Coming to this conclusion was part of the unravelling of his faith.

But his idea is nothing new.  This is the standard view, for example, of the bulk of the Old Testament--"The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised" (Job 1:21).  Similarly, some Christian traditions like the Calvinist one tend to see God orchestrating even the details of our lives.  A very popular Christian book a few years back, The Purpose Driven Life, presented a view of life that saw God's hand in almost everything that happens to you in life, God teaching you lessons and helping you grow in almost every detail. [2]

However, I as someone from the Wesleyan tradition do not accept this view.  For one thing, we also find passages in Scripture like James 1:13, which says no one should think that God tempts them to do wrong.  "For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone."  This verse gets at the heart of Nietzsche's complaint.  If God is truly in control of the world, then he must also have control of the evil that happens in the world.

But there is a difference between God's directive will and God's permissive will, whether he directly causes everything that happens or in many cases only allows them to happen.  Yes, God is sovereign.  If he is king, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then he must ultimately be in control of everything.  The question is if he has created a world with some degree of freedom or if he micro-manages everything directly.

Some of those who take a very directive view argue that if God would allow someone to disagree with him or violate his will, then he would not truly be sovereign.  But this argument seems rather unsophisticated.  Could not a parent intentionally allow a child experience the consequences of disobedience so that the child can learn, for the growth of the child?  In fact, this is a much more mature and sophisticated picture of God, rather than one that almost sees him flying off the handle in rage every time someone disobeys him or worse--as someone who causes people to disobey him so he can how his greatness at blasting them out of the water?  In short, is God not sovereign enough to choose to allow people to disagree with him?

This is the position I take as a Christian and that I will advocate in the rest of this chapter.  Romans 9 does have some "naughty verses" for this point of view, but every theological point of view has its passages to deal with, and the Calvinist view seems to create a picture of God that is not only incoherent, but makes him at least borderline evil, indeed almost Satanic.  It does not fit with the picture of God elsewhere and, in the end, seems more a particular kind of "language game" in Paul that we should not take completely literally. 

Yes, for God to be sovereign he must "sign off" on everything that happens.  But it does not mean he must orchestrate and plan everything that happens.  The best suggested answer to the "problem of evil," although it is not perfect, is that a world in which God gives people the freedom to make good and bad moral choices is a better world than one in which they cannot help but do good.  God thus has created a world where people can disobey him for a greater good--and a world where we find evil and pain.

[1] Beyond Good and Evil

[2] biblio...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The last of this particular set of backed up assignments.  There may be hope for normal backed-up-ness by Friday!
The apostle Paul gives us a good definition for humility when he tells the Philippians to "regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others " (2:3-4).  He then goes on to quote an early Christian poem about how Jesus emptied himself of the rights and privileges of divinity and instead took on the status of a servant (2:6-7).  Even then in human form he humbled himself even further to one of the most shameful kinds of death: crucifixion (2:8). 

Paul's example of Jesus, as well as his own example, point to humility more as a way of living and behaving rather than of self-esteem.  Humility for Paul thus means to put the needs of others above those of yourself.  It is "not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Rom. 12:3).  Christian humility is thus not self-effacement, for we as humans are created in the image of God, both female and male (Gen. 1:27).  God made humanity a little lower than God (Ps. 2:5) and to denigrate each other is to insult God who made us (e.g. Jas. 3:9).

At the same time, humility is also an attitude, of which arrogance is the opposite.  An arrogant person is one who does not realize that everything they have is a gift from the Lord, that that we entered this world naked and will exit it the same (Job 1:21).  Dust we are, and to dust we shall return (Eccl. 3:20).  The humble recognize who they are before God (cf. Isa. 6) and rejoice in the greatness of his love.

A Grief Observed 2

One of those days!  I got a phone call from my step-daughter around 10 that something was wrong with our Great Dane.  So I took him to the vet.  One thing led to another.  X-ray showed that his intestines had twisted around his stomach and spleen.  First they tried to depressurize.  Then emergency surgery.  Then I was getting my kids out of school to say good bye before they euthanized him.

Such is life and such is a small trial run for bigger crises and tragedies.  I heard the familiar yawn of Bruce this morning at 6:10 saying, "I'm ready to go out and eat now."  He scarfed down his food--the ultimate cause of the problem.  Big dogs sometimes gulp down too much air because they eat too quickly.  Six hours later he was dead.

Telling my children is the hardest part, a microcosm of deeper griefs.  "We'll get through this."  The great "No" that is impossibility.  Keep active.  Keep moving.  Get your mind on other things.  Tomorrow will be a little better and the next day a little better.  It won't hurt any more than it hurts right now.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Interesting quote about the New Atheists

Jonathan Parsons pointed out this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education ( on John Schneider at Calvin College.  He has been exploring possible ways to fit evolutionary biology with Calvinist Christianity.

What caught my eye for this blog is not that debate but this comment by Michael Ruse, who describes himself as someone who has become a non-believer over time.  He indicates that both individuals like himself, an atheist who respects the intelligence of someone like Schneider, and people like Schneider, who are trying to fit faith with their academic disciplines, seem to get it from both sides.

He says this:

"These days it is not easy for those of us who argue that science and religion can live in harmony. For my pains, I have been likened to Neville Chamberlain – the pusillanimous appeaser of Munich.

"Just last week, the editor of the British magazine the New Humanist, who argued for some modicum of accommodation, was called a quisling – after the Norwegian Nazi who supported the Germans in their Second World War occupation of his country. But really, what does this matter to us? I rather thrive on abuse. The case of a brave scholar like John Schneider shows too well that even today, at top-quality institutions, being willing to push the boundaries of understanding can come at great personal stress and possible cost. Such people will never get any respect from the New Atheists, who simply hate everything and anything to do with religion and who have nothing but contempt for believers. The rest of us should realize just how very perverting religion can be in even the best places and should applaud those who are believers who stand up against its misuse."

Interesting!  The Trinity of ignoramus new atheists that come to my mind are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, and Sam Harris.  I can respect a person who does not believe because they have intellectually come to particular conclusions.  But I experience these sorts of new atheists not only as naive in their portrayal of religion but as downright jerks.

The Bible and Preaching

My post on the seminary blog for the week: The Bible and Preaching: Four Tips

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Spiritual Life... 21st century...

I've been putting a slow pulse through a new book idea on the side.  I'm not going to write much of it here--I do enough of that sort of thing.  I thought I might give a little glimpse on some Sundays.  Believe it or not, it has to do with spiritual formation.  Here's today's excerpt:
What I do feel confident about is that we are in the middle of a major cultural shift. We are shifting away from a world of sequence—where we do things in order from beginning to end—to a world of associations—where we slide from one thing to another by unplanned connections. We live in a world where a dictionary like Wikipedia will come together overnight instead of a ten year project where each entry is assigned to a scholar. This new world offers a level of stimulation that can feed the attention deficit like never before, but it will also make it harder for more and more people to engage successfully in the sequential world of conventional spirituality.

At this point some will complain, as if we can actually do something about it. Yeah, that’s going to happen. The internet is here to stay. Teachers who think they can shut wireless out of the classroom are destined for failure. Parents who think they can somehow hold back the flood of endless text message exchanges are destined to lose before they even start trying to fight. This is just the way things are going to be from here on out.

Plato bemoaned how writing softened the memory. Our parents’ math teachers bemoaned the calculator. Just ten years ago traditional educators bemoaned online education and called the internet a fad. Publishers have bemoaned the rise of the electronic book. Bemoan on—and adjust or go out of business.

The way we do spiritual formation will have to adjust too...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

God's Boss 2

Romans 9-11 deal with the question of why it is that so many Gentiles had come to believe on Christ when God's people themselves, the Jews, by and large had not.  In the older interpretation of Romans--that it was about how to get to heaven--these chapters seemed completely out of place.  One scholar even suggested a long time ago that these chapters did not even belong here, that they had been spliced in at an arbitrary place.

But if you have been reading the last few chapters, hopefully you can see that they are completely appropriate here.  Romans 1-4 dealt broadly with the fact that Jews, just like Gentiles, were sinners and violators of the Law.  All have sinned, Paul said (3:23), both Jew and Gentile, and thus Jews needed Christ's atonement just as Gentiles did.  Romans 6-9 deal broadly wih the question of the Jewish Law.  What was the purpose of the Law, then, if keeping it did not make a person right with God?

So questions like, "Why has Israel not believed?" or "Has God abandoned his people?" fit perfectly with the things Paul has been discussing thus far in the letter.  In Romans 9, Paul's answer is basically, "Who are you to question God?  God is God and can do whatever he wants."  Of course Paul goes on to answer these questions, so it is unbelieving Jews and Judaizing Christians he has in mind, people who reject that Gentiles can be part of God's people without getting circumcised and converting to Judaism.

His answer to such people is that God is the one who decides who he will have mercy on and who he will not.  Paul is not primarily talking about individuals, another important piece of the puzzle here.  His logic, especially if taken completely literally, does have implications for individuals.  But individual predestination is not what he is discussing.  He is discussing God's right to have mercy on the Gentiles if he wants to do so.

"Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel," Paul says (9:6).  It is those who have believed who are, those who have pursued a right standing with God through their trust in Christ (9:30-32).  It is only a portion of Israel that are truly Israel, a "remnant" (9:27).  Meanwhile, Paul says later, while he has grafted some of the natural branches out, he has also grafted some Gentile branches in (9:17).

Paul pushes back strongly on anyone who would question God's judgment in doing such things.  "Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (9:20).  "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" (9:20).  Clay does not have the right to complain about the way the potter has made it, and if God wants to make some pottery for noble purposes and other pottery for skeet shooting, that is his right as God (9:21-22).

Certainly it is!  But it is essential to recognize that Paul is making an extreme point.  The tone reminds me of some of the things parents have said to their children when they are acting up.  "If you don't stop I'm going to pull this car over and make you walk!"  "I'll take your TV and throw it in the trash!"  "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!"  They are extreme statements that, thankfully, the vast majority of parents do not actually mean.  If they followed through with them, they would go to jail. [1]

God is certainly in charge.  God certainly is the boss.  I personally believe that God could command us to sacrifice our children if he wanted to (cf. Gen. 22).  The sovereignty of God, his absolute authority, is a key Christian belief.  It is also a key Christian belief that God does not act on his freedom in certain ways because of who he is.  The heart of the predestination-free will debate is the fact that the logic of Romans 9, when taken straightforwardly, seems to conflict not only logically with the central Christian belief that God is love, but it seems to conflict with both the way Paul operated and with other things the New Testament says.  By the end of the chapter, we hope to have sorted out these sorts of tensions as best we can.

[1] And let's be very clear here, what the predestinarian is suggesting here goes well beyond the outrage we would feel toward someone who took a newborn, tossed it in a trash bin and left it for dead.  The double predestinarian is suggesting that God makes certain people fail and then torches them in all eternity because they failed.

Next: God's directive and permissive will

Friday, September 24, 2010


I'm trying to crank out something due a long time ago.  For whatever reason, things flow out of me better when I at least think someone is listening.  So here goes cranking:
The word gospel has meant different things in different contexts, most of which relate broadly to the idea of "good news."  The gospels of Matthew and Mark both make the "gospel of the kingdom" the essence of Jesus' earthly teaching (e.g. Matt. 4:23; Mark 1:15).  This fact suggests that Isaiah 52:7 provides key background to how Jesus saw his ministry.  In particular, Jesus likely saw his ministry as part of the restoration of God's reign within Israel and the world, including the defeat of the evil powers that currently rule the earth.

The original context of Isaiah 52:7 was of course the return of Israel from captivity in Babylon around the year 538BC.  The statement in that verse, "our God reigns," seems to connect directly to Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God, the rule of God returning to earth as it is in heaven.  Early Christians like Paul primarily read this verse in its Greek translation, where they found the verb "to proclaim the good news" (euangelizomai).  It is thus quite possible that the early Christian use of the word gospel started among Greek-speaking Christians who connected Jesus' preaching of the rule of God to the Greek sense of a gospel as the announcement of good news of a momentous sort.  For example, a famous inscription from 9BC about the Roman emperor Augustus of him as a savior whose enthronement was good news (euangelion) for humanity.

A major focus of the gospel in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is Jesus' ministry to the poor.  The verb "to proclaim the good news" also appears in the Greek of Isaiah 61:1, which Luke pictures Jesus quoting as the very inaugural address of his ministry (Luke 4:18): "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor."  Matthew 4:13 also connects Jesus ministry of healing to his proclamation of the good news.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke thus understood the gospel not only in terms of the coming reign of God over the earth but also in terms of the liberating ministry of Jesus to those who were oppressed and disempowered on earth.

In Jesus' ministry, the good news was about God's reign.  When we get to Paul's writings, the gospel is about Jesus Christ himself as king.  Romans 1:3-4 give us a good sense of what Paul means by the word.  The gospel is about Jesus being king.  He is descended from king David in his humanity and enthroned as "Son of God" as part of his resurrection.  It is important to recognize that the title "Son of God" has everything to do with Jesus being king, being the Messiah, the Christ.  The background for this phrase is firmly in Old Testament passages like 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2, both of which were originally about kings of Judah.  Other New Testament books also picture Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand as a kind of enthronement as Son of God (e.g. Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5).

Paul's sense of the gospel of Jesus is thus much like the inscription about Augustus.  The good news is that Jesus has been enthroned as king.  As king he will bring justice and salvation to the earth.  The gospel thus extends beyond the fact that Jesus is king to the benefits and blessings that have come in consequence.

Mark 1:1 probably has a similar sense of the word gospel as Paul.  The beginning of Mark narrates the beginning of the good news that Jesus Christ is king.  Perhaps it is then a coincidence of history that the word gospel came to refer not just to the good news of Jesus as king but to the genre of books like Mark that present the good news about Jesus.  Thus we now refer to books like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as gospels, whereas originally their audience would have thought of them as biographies (Matthew, Mark, John) and a history (Luke-Acts).

Pledge to America

I increasingly feel like an outsider to both political parties.  I am not a Democrat and don't identify with their most vocal advocates.  But I scarcely identify with the Republicans I see on TV these days either (Bainer and McConnell).  I skimmed the Pledge to America put out by the GOP yesterday.  Here were some of my thoughts on the first 6 pages:

1. "We pledge to honor precepts that have been consistently ignored – particularly the Tenth Amendment, which grants that all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

I wholeheartedly disagree and so would Abraham Lincoln.  This is backward looking and a clear sign that old South-North issues are at work here.  The Civil War settled this 150 years ago.  The future is global, not tribal. 

This part of the Constitution is a layer from 1791 and goes back to a time when the states were just beginning to meld after having been independent of each other before.  It was transitional legislation that became increasingly moot the longer we existed as one nation and particularly after the Civil War.  To emphasize this amendment is like emphasizing the right of Wesleyans to own a machine that runs on alcohol, insisted by Luther Lee at the founding of the Wesleyan Methodists because he had a patent on such an engine and didn't want the fact that Wesleyans didn't drink have any implications for his patent.

2. "We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values."

This is Calvinist code for--we insist on making those who aren't Christians conform to our values.  The concrete manifestations of this sentiment are not only unconstitutional, they are not even the way God operates in the world, who currently allows people either to choose or reject Him freely.  It reflects the inability of American Christians to distinguish between America and ancient Israel.  It reflects the ongoing impact of dispensationalism on American fundamentalist culture.  Christians in other parts of the world (and in other times and places) do not think like this.

3. "Washington has not been listening."

The Tea Party didn't win the last election (what, is it 30%).  The party that was elected has tried to carry out the values of those who elected it.  Elections have consequences.  The stalemate in getting anything done, for good or ill, has been caused by an unprecedented filibustering by the Republicans in Congress.  Perhaps it was for the better.  But what has most annoyed Americans about Washington these last two years is not the Health Care Bill but the refusal of the two parties in Washington to work together.  The voice of the people right now is primarily an anti-establishment vote, not a pro-Republican one.

Nevertheless, if Americans elect a new majority in Congress, then the shoe will be on the other foot, and the Democrats will have to decide whether they are going to filibuster too.  The President will have to decide how often to veto.  Elections have consequences.  We'll see whether a Democratic minority will be more noble or cut from the same cloth as the current Republican 40.

4. "We will rein in the red tape factory in Washington, DC by requiring congressional approval of any new federal regulation that may add to our deficit and make it harder to create jobs."

What does this mean?  We're a big country with a lot of people.  The precise mix between regulation and deregulation is an art, not a simplistic thing.  In effect this sentiment puts another layer of red tape on regulation.  Sometimes it could be good, or will it simply make it easier for special interests and big business to muck up restraints that could really help people?  That's really what this is about, right, making it harder for Congress to regulate Wall Street or reform health care?

5. "We will also prevent Washington from forcing responsible taxpayers to subsidize irresponsible behavior by ending bailouts permanently, canceling the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."

This one scares me.  Anyone who thinks that the bailouts did not save the world economy is someone I want far away from Washington.  The bailouts were a Bush and Obama--by-partizan--thing and they saved the world.  This is the scary, scary thing about the Tea Party.  They don't understand 21st century math.  Which is better, for example, to have a GM that is still afloat, has paid back its loans, and still has thousands and thousands employed or if it had gone under and all those people were among the unemployed right now, dragging the economy even further down than it is with them employed? 

The question of whether it's fair is irrelevant and those who think it is simply a fairness thing should be far away from power.  It's a world survival thing.  This is very, very, very dangerous thinking and those who think like this are not smart enough at 21st century math to have control over the economy.  I guarantee you that whoever had been in power, including any Tea Party candidate right now, would also have bailed out some of these banks because there's a point at which you realize the world is at stake, and you have to ignore politics and those who don't know the details of what's going on.  I guarantee you, anyone who had been in power two years ago would have taken the advice of their economic advisors and bailed out some of these banks.

It may very well be that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need reforming.  They probably do.  But make no mistake, it was the unbridled derivative trading of housing debt on Wall Street (=21st century math) that precipitated this economic crisis, not some African-American defaulting on a $20,000 house. 

Those are my opinions.  I am open to being convinced otherwise, but you'll have to be right to do it...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

God's Boss 1

Certain passages in the Bible are what I like to call "naughty verses." They are verses that we find difficult to fit into our general understanding, verses that at least seem to say things that go contrary to what we expect the Bible to say. Romans 9 is one such "naughty passage" for me. In Romans 9:22, for example, Paul speaks of certain humans that God has "prepared for destruction." 9:18 also gives a picture that, if we take it as it is, seems to say that God "hardens" certain people so that they will not do the sorts of things that lead to his mercy.

In other words, some of the verses in Romans 9 seem to say that God makes some people for skeet shooting. He makes them bad so that he can show his glory when he blows them to bits. Some Christians today and in the past for some reason love this image of God. A teacher like John Piper has made Romans 9 the ground zero of his thinking about God. He teaches something called "double predestination," the idea that God not only predetermines who will come to him and be saved, but also who will not come and be damned.

Suffice it to say, this view of God is difficult to reconcile with any meaningful sense of the idea that God is love. It says that God is nice to a certain select few that he has chosen according to his fancy, and he is mean to everyone else. Some who take this view might say that God only chooses who will be saved, that we were all damned anyway. In their view, God does not choose for anyone to be damned because we are all damned already. He only shows his mercy by choosing to save some who are already condemned. Adam had the freedom not to sin and he messed up. Now we cannot help but sin and so are all damned by default.

I appreciate this latter kind of "predestinarian" or "Calvinist," this doctrine taking its name from John Calvin. This last kind of Calvinist at least recognizes the difficulty of reconciling any normal definition of love with this view of God. But I'll at least hand it to the double predestinarian that Paul at least seems to go all the way in Romans 9. Paul pictures the damned complaining to God--why are you complaining about me, God? You made me this way (9:19-21)! So I at least have to hand it to the John Pipers of the world for taking Paul literally.

But the key to understanding Romans 9-11 is threefold. First, we need to understand the role these verses play in the overall thought of Romans. In particular, Paul is not really discussing our individual fates. He is trying to answer the question why so many Gentiles have believed in Jesus and most Jews have not. Second, we need to realize that fatalism and determinism were key features of the world in which Paul lived. In that sense, there is a cultural dimension to his arguments here. Finally, I would argue that the "language game" of predestination does not function primarily on a literal level. It serves two basic purposes: first, to affirm that God is in control and second, to assure the "elect" of their "destiny."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Redemption 3

Romans 8 ends on a triumphant note, a fitting end to the first eight chapters of the letter (1:16-8:39 in particular). Paul begins to reflect on our current situation in contrast to the one that is coming. Currently, he and other Christians are suffering (8:18), but a "glory" is coming. If the default state of humanity is currently that "all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God" (3:23, author's translation), those in Christ look forward to a "glory that will be revealed" (8:17-18).

Christ has set in motion the complete solution to the problem Adam's sin created. Already can our sins be forgiven, already can we be considered "innocent" in God's divine court. Already does the Spirit give life to our mortal bodies here and now so that we can walk in newness of life. But we still await the complete redemption of the creation, currently enslaved to corruption and decay (8:21) and we await our full attainment of the glory of God lost through sin.

These are the verses where Paul connects the enslavement of human flesh to the enslavement of the material creation. Of course he would connect these, because in his categories they are made of the same weak materials. They are both subject to spiritual powers, whether to the power of Sin as they currently are or to the power of the Spirit as they can and will be. These metaphors work for us as well, although if we were to speak on a literal level we would no doubt talk of brain structures and quantum variables.

Our "flesh" will thus always be our weakest point, where we are speaking of our skin, the part of us that belongs to this world. It is not a matter of a sinful nature being eradicated or suppressed. It is a matter of whether we are controlled by the Spirit or not. If we are controlled by the Spirit, then the power of Sin over our flesh is dead. But the weakness of our flesh and its potential to sin is always as close as our loss of the Spirit.

In our current location, embodied in weakness, potentially empowered in Spirit, we will always face potential struggles. Some of these come from the world around us. But if we neglect our connection to the Holy Spirit, they will come from our bodies as well. We have two powerful intercessors in our fight. Christ's atonement has already interceded for our justification at God's right hand (8:34). But the Spirit gives constant intercession for us as well, even beyond what we know we need (8:26).

So we are conquerors in this fight against Sin, at least we should be. No one in the world can accuse us when the Judge of all is on our side. Human courts and human authorities can cause us trouble, but their judgments are not the ones that count. God has already arranged for us to be transformed into the same kind of resurrection body that Jesus already has. This is the original meaning of Romans 8:29, that we are predestined to be "conformed to the likeness of his Son." Paul's emphasis is not on determinism, on God's "predestination." The emphasis is on what God has in store for us because he knew us ahead of time.

Nor is Paul discussing the question of whether I can mess up what God has in store. When Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, the context clearly has in mind the "present sufferings" he has been talking about all along (8:18). No external force "in all creation" has any power to dislodge us from the destiny in the kingdom toward which God is leading us (8:39).

Paul links the redemption of the enslaved creation to the redemption of bodies that will take place for those who are alive and remain at Christ's return (8:22-23). The created realm presumably came under the power of Sin when Adam sinned. Therefore, it seems very likely that Paul saw eternity and the kingdom of God being on a redeemed, transformed earth rather than in heaven.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Leadership Failure, Spiritual Failure?

One of the assignments for my spiritual formation class this week is to reflect on this quote from Samuel Rima's book, Leading from the Inside Out: "every leadership failure is, at its root, a spiritual issue" (129). I want to admit that I may redirect this assignment in the future. It mostly seems a helpful question only if you agree with the quote, and the more I reflect on it, the more I disagree pretty strongly with it as a Wesleyan.

The Wesleyan tradition makes a sharp distinction between sin and weakness. Sin in particular for a Wesleyan coalesces around choices. I do not believe, for example, that having a tendency to be late to things is a sin. It can be a sin if I choose to be late to spite the person I'm meeting with or if I choose to ignore the effect my actions have on others.

To be sure, there are habits that are sinful that lay just below much conscious intentionality. My tendency to be late can "wrong" others by messing up their schedules. But I don't personally consider it a sin in general for a student to be 5 minutes late for class every day. I consider it a weakness. Weaknesses can easily slide into sins, but I see a pretty significant distinction.

A person who is consistently late to things or tends to be disorganized may very well fail in leadership. Certainly a person who is on time and organized has definite advantages in this respect. But I would not call a leadership failure for these reasons a moral or spiritual issue. In that sense, I disagree with Rima's statement. I knew a leader who was a great guy, very intelligent, and highly informed, but he was often unprepared for meetings and sometimes didn't pull the right triggers at the right time.

He ended up changing jobs. I don't know that I would call him a leadership failure, but I certainly wouldn't say there was any spiritual failure behind his leadership issues.

In the same way, I would just as strongly disagree with Bobby Clinton's sense that you cannot be a successful leader if your spiritual life is not in order. Poppycock. Many ministers are highly successful leaders because they are type A personalities. Their home life and families go to pot, their children rebel because they are busy leading the church effectively. They are spiritual failures on a grand scale--and highly effective leaders.

How many episodes of SVU and Criminal Minds show how the immense success of a particular kind of driven person correlates directly with failed home life. You can play around with words--they're not really successful leaders. That's circular and ridiculous. The question is whether an individual can cast appropriate vision and manage effectively and be a spiritual failure. Yes, you can!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Posts, Seminars, and Birthdays

First, I wanted to draw everyone's attention to an excellent post by John Drury on our Wesley seminary blog: he puts the essence of WesSem @ IWU as well as anything I've seen.

Secondly, I wanted to remind anyone in the Marion area of the Monday Theological Research Seminar that meets today from 3:30 till we finish (but no later than 5). Today Dr. Steve Lennox is up with a paper he will also present at SBL in November: "Disability in Ancient Egypt." Next week is Chris Bounds, "Grace in the Early Church."

Finally, today's my 44th birthday. Every day is a day for goal setting for me, but birthdays and New Year are especially so. A year from now I'd like to be in Munich, Germany on sabbatical writing a book. I can see some things keeping that from happening but hope springs eternal. I hope that a year from now my second Paul book, the philosophy book, a few more Bible studies, and my research on the afterlife from my last sabbatical are either published or in the shoot.

And I've been working on some strange Schenck goals for several months now. I've admitted to myself that I will never achieve some of my earlier life goals. I'll never break a 5 minute mile. Frankly, I doubt I'll ever break a 6 minute mile again. I'll never be able to jump up and flip and land on my feet--something I used to think I would work up to.

But a few are still on the bucket list. I want to understand quantum mechanics and relativity before I die. I want to get a novel published. I want to be able to play some piano pieces by Rachmaninoff and Mendelssohn. Toward the first goal, I try to read two pages of math, physics, or chemistry a day. The idea is that by the time I'm fifty, I will have reviewed and expanded my knowledge of university calculus, physics, and chemistry. Then I hope to work through textbooks I've had for twenty some years on quantum mechanics and relativity in my fifties.

It's a little depressing to me how hard it has been to get my brain to wrap around things that used to flex so easily to me before. I understand what I've heard before. It's not that an older person can't learn new languages or new things in math and science. It just takes a lot longer. Ain't that the truth.

But it is going in. Once I get things, I am seeing some patterns I didn't recognize before. Well, I may have to give many of these dreams up too eventually. But at least for today, I understand what it means to say that the graph of a polynomial of odd degree with a positive lead coefficient will start at negative infinity on the left and eventually stretch up to positive infinity on the right. :-)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Redemption 2

So it would seem, after working through Romans 6-8, that Paul does not in any way teach that sin is a normal part of a believer's life, despite justification by faith. Indeed, this is exactly the accusation he has been trying to fend off! Rumors are circulating about him that he teaches, "Let us do evil that good may result" (Rom. 3:8). People are saying he teaches sin is a good thing. He has worked hard in Romans 6-8 to show that this accusation is false. His message is that we cannot continue sinning (6:2, 15), that those who are "in the flesh" cannot please God (8:8).

But after we have finally heard Paul and shaken off the popular misinterpretation of Romans 7, we are still left with the problem of application. The reason Christians have been able to ignore Paul's repeated statements on sin in Romans 6-8 is because they identify so much with the second half of Romans 7: "what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do" (7:15). Experience trumps the surrounding two chapters. How then do we deal with the pervasive sense of sin so many have in their lives?

In this regard, the Wesleyan tradition from which I come has always been more optimistic than other traditions, at least on the books. At least in the past, we have preached that God can perform miracles in your spiritual life just as we believe he does with physical sickness. But "holiness," as our tradition used to call this hope, could also degenerate into petty legalism over what a person wore or how they did their hair. At one point in the mid-twentieth century, many of those who most tauted holiness ironically were thoroughly sinful in their attitude toward others and did almost no good at all in the world.

Part of our pessimism is how introspective our world has become. We are probably more aware of our inner feelings than any generation in any time or place prior to the 1800s. We experience intensely as Jesus reveals that the heart is the source of our actions or when Paul prioritizes faith over works. But we probably experience these shifts more intensely than Jesus and Paul themselves spoke them, and we can hyper-analyze our motives well beyond anything they intended. Our standard of living above sin goes far beyond the biblical expectations. We think anything short of absolute perfection is sin. The New Testament standard is much closer to John Wesley's sense of sin as intentionally doing wrong. [1]

Then there are addictions and tendencies. Our strengths often have corresponding weaknesses. If we are a decisive and assertive leader, we can have a tendency to run over people. If we are compassionate and understanding, we can have a tendency not to help others develop discipline or empower their weaknesses. Sometimes we develop addictions we could never overcome in our own power. We have developed a keen sense of these sorts of things in our last two centuries of introspection. While the New Testament understands slavery to sin, its world did not think in terms of genetics and environment.

Paul's argument against sin in Romans 6-8 was a defensive one. He was making it clear that his theology did not encourage or excuse sin. Because he taught a person could not get right with God by keeping the Law (focusing on the Jew-specific parts), he needed to make it clear he was not excusing violation of what we often call the "moral" law. [2] This debate is far removed from the issue we are discussing now, to what extent sin is a normal part of a Christian's life.

1 John has the mix just right. On the one hand, anyone who thinks they have never sinned does not understand the human condition (1 John 1:8, 10). Yet intentionally doing wrong cannot be normal for a Christian. After all, we have God's "seed" inside us (1 John 3:9). Nevertheless, Christians do sometimes sin and when this happens, we need to seek God's forgiveness through Jesus Christ (2:1)...

[1] One can, of course, wrong others without intending to do so, and one can have an evil heart without realizing it, as has sometimes been the case of those who most preached victory over sin.

[2] The biggest problem with understanding Paul here is that he uses the word "Law" to refer to both and what we call the "moral law" was not a category Jews used--it is a later Christian way of processing what parts of the Old Testament Law we still keep and the parts we do not.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Redemption is Coming

Aside from the fact that I was presenting, I thought we had a good start to the Theological Research Seminar yesterday. Dr. Lennox is up next week with "Disabilities in Ancient Egypt." I presented what was intended to be the second of four chapters tracing what I'm calling afterlife trajectories within Second Temple Judaism.

But to the post at hand...
Romans 8 is truly a climax of the book thus far. The first four chapters present the problem of God's coming wrath on all humanity coupled with the solution of faith in what God has done through Jesus Christ. The first part of the fifth chapter thus celebrates justification and peace with God on the basis of faith and the blood of Jesus. The last part of Romans 5 and chapters 6-7 then step back again and look at the human condition from another vantage point. We used to be enslaved to sin and the Jewish Law only unveiled our helpless state. Who will free us from our bodies enslaved to sin, Romans 7 ends. Thanks be to God, Paul exclaims, through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 8 thus begins as Romans 5 with the glorious situation the believer finds herself in. We are freed from the condemnation of the Jewish Law and the "law" of sin and death. The "law" of the Spirit has set you free from the "law" of sin and death. The Jewish Law was of course not able to accomplish this feat, as Paul has just cataloged in Romans 7. The weakness of our human flesh was unable to keep the Law, even in its essence. But God sent Jesus in human flesh, flesh that was like ours only not under the power of Sin. And Christ's blameless sin offering put an end to sinfulness.

The result is that we are now able to walk in newness of life (cf. Rom. 6:4). We who walk, not according to the power of Sin over our flesh but according to the power of the Spirit are actually now able to meet the righteous requirement of the Jewish Law. For us Gentiles, we now demonstrate the work of the Law written on our hearts and do the things of the Law (Rom. 2:14-15). Again, Paul does not refer here to the same part of the Law that he elsewhere argues believers do not need to keep (e.g., Gal. 4:10, 21). He does not mean Jew-specific things like circumcision but the essence of the Law, Christ's Law (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21).

The long and short of it for Paul is that those who are "in the flesh" cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). The flesh--our skin under the power of Sin--is not able to do the good we want to do (8:7), as Paul has vividly acted out in Romans 7. The flesh is hostile toward God. The only way to please God is thus to get out of our flesh by getting "in the Spirit" (8:9). If we live according to the flesh, our destiny is eternal death (8:12-13). The only path to life is to put to death the deeds of the flesh and be led by the Spirit. This entire argument is thoroughly oriented around living, around "walking." Paul is not giving some abstract, sophisticated fiction about living sinful while being considered legally righteous. The wording is about how we live and what we do in this life.

The secret is the Spirit. If someone does not have the Holy Spirit, Paul says, they are not even a Christian (8:9). The Spirit inside us brings "death" to our sinful bodies and we are deemed "righteous," "justified" by God (8:10). We are buried with Christ in baptism and die with him (6:4). The miracle is that then we not only are deemed righteous by God "legally" but the Spirit then actually "raises"our mortal bodies so that we can actually live righteously (8:11). We rise with Christ so that we can walk in newness of life (6:4)...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering 9-11

On September 11, 2001, a group of well-equipped jihadists managed to fly planes into the two World Trade Center towers, into the Pentagon, while failing to fly a fourth plane into the Capital. All those on board the planes died, as well as almost 3000 people on the ground. The twin towers both fell under their own weight.

The impact of this event has been profound. It was like America was raped and lost any sense it had that the world was a safe place. We have heard of wars and atrocities, but they have always seemed so far away, something that happens to people we don't think much about. I couldn't have found Afghanistan on a map before 9-11. Places like Somalia, Yemen--not on my radar.

And then our own human nature kicked in. We wanted to hurt someone really bad. We went tribal or, to put it in more civilized terms, we went nationalistic. The result has been a mixture of good and bad, in my opinion. It's a physiological fact that you can't reason as well when you are furious with anger (the limbic system overcomes the cerebral cortex) and the last 9 years have plenty of that. As we cool off, we are in a better position to assess our new trajectories and make good decisions about where we should go from here.

1. All except the whackos (and there are some of them) agree that we should honor the almost 3000 souls who died that day. Was this God's judgment on America? I don't have much time for those who think in those terms. "The soul that does the sinning, it shall die" says Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31. In both cases, the prophet is countering the idea that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children.

It's old Old Testament thinking to think God kills Jane to judge John. There were plenty of Christians in good standing who died that day. No doubt some who died were good people and some who died were not, but we honor all the dead as victims of an atrociously evil act.

2. I personally don't have a problem with us overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban who were in charge were forces of evil in cahoots with Al-Qaeda and bin Laden. Good riddance... except of course that they're not gone...

3. I give immense blame to the Bush administration for what I consider is one of the worse decisions in American history--it could actually turn out to bring us down. Rather than capitalize on the good will of the entire world, rather than empower all the moderate Muslims in the world who were very sympathetic to us at the time, rather than finish the job in Afghanistan, the Bush administration enacted a macro-plan to bring stability in the Middle East by starting an unprovoked war in Iraq.

The result was the empowerment of Muslim extremism around the world and the ensuing polarization of "us versus them" that we've seen just this week in the ignoramus pastor wanting to burn a Quran in Florida. The result was the election of Ahmadinejad in Iran over the moderate party there--a direct result of our invasion of Iraq. The current financial crisis came directly from the housing crash but has had immense assistance from the financial bleeding of our wars in the Middle East. Make no mistake, the current financial crisis was not caused by the Obama administration.

I am sympathetic to the Congress that voted for war in Iraq. It would have been political suicide not to do so at the time for all except the Democrats who were in such liberal districts that their re-election was in no danger (which includes Obama). But Congress made a bad decision fueled by the seething country only a couple years out from 9-11 at that point.

The election of Obama showed that the majority of the country had cooled down enough to realize the mistake that Iraq was. A vote for Obama was a vote for change, a vote away from the Iraq decisions of Bush, perhaps more than a vote for Obama himself. Nevertheless, a significant portion remains angry, perhaps most easily pictured in the Tea Party movement.

4. Xenophobia is clearly on the rise right now. This also follows naturally on 9-11. All Muslims are painted with the same stroke as bin Laden, which of course is ignorance. Hatred against Mexican immigrants is at an all time high as well, again, a natural consequence of post 9-11 anger, misdirected of course. Of course there is nothing Christian about any of this and if your "church" preaches this sort of thing, you should go somewhere else that preaches social justice like the Bible does.

5. We have seen an extreme "conservative" back lash these last nine years. When it was disempowered in the 2008 election, it went psycho. Put Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan in someone's body today and these circles would call them liberals and socialists. Thankfully, anger can only burn so long. It lasted in Nazi Germany less than 15 years. I predict that the extreme conservative voices right now will run out of steam soon enough, and we can go back to normal conservatism like John McCain used to be. Ironically, this guy I used to like has had to go rogue even to stay in office as a senator.

Today I honor the dead of 9-11. And I will honor them most if I do not let the atrocity of that day distract me from truly American values, rather than the skewed ones of the current burn. America is a friend of the world. We are a friend of Muslims and Mexicans, and we want to make a way for anyone who wishes to live peaceably under our laws to live with us. We are a force for good in the world, but we're not stupid about it. People don't believe you're their friend when you tell them at the end of a gun.

You don't have to be a Christian to live here. We do not make laws to make American law mirror "Christian law"any more than God forces the world to obey Him. He prefers for the world to choose Him freely, not by force. That's not the God presupposed by the Constitution or the Christian God I worship.

This moment too shall pass. Hopefully we will not be ruined from the consequent damage in the mean time.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Announcing: Theological Research Seminar

In cooperation with the undergraduate School of Theology and Ministry, Wesley Seminary at IWU will be hosting the Fall Theological Research Seminar on Monday afternoons from 3:30-5:00pm. We will meet in CM122 in the Noggle Christian Ministries building. Visitors are welcome.

The purpose of the seminar this year is to promote scholarship among faculty of the seminary and university in the areas of biblical studies, theological studies, and Christian historical studies. We will see if it grows into a catalyst for masters degrees in some or all of these areas.

The Fall schedule as it currently stands is:

13 – Ken Schenck: “Otherworldly Afterlife without Resurrection”
20 – Steve Lennox, “Disability in Ancient Egypt”
27 – Chris Bounds, “Grace in the Apostolic Fathers”

4 – John Drury, “The Resurrected God”
11 – Brian Bernius on Philistines
18 – Steve Lennox, “Galatians 3:28 and the American Holiness Movement”
25 – Bart Bruehler: “Finding a Home for Zacchaeus: Archaeology and Imagination in the Interpretation of the Gospels”

1 – Ken Schenck, “Resurrection to Otherworldly Afterlife”
8 – Amy Peeler on Hebrews
15 – Russ Gunsalus on women in ministry in 20th century American Christianity
29 – TBA

6 – Elaine Bernius on Old Testament topic

Thursday, September 09, 2010

12 minute "What is a Wesleyan" vidcast...

For new faculty, I think, if they use it: What is a Wesleyan?

Quran Burning--not a good idea

Certainly no mature follower of Christ will do such things. There is no ambiguity in Jesus' teaching here. We are to love our enemies. It's Parable of the Good Samaritan stuff--modern Muslims are not unlike Samaritans in the story (although a Mormon might be closer). Of course to equate all Muslims with the Muslims of 9-11 is sheer ignorance on a grand scale anyway.

Only the unaware could burn a Quran today for fun (=not a mature follower) and anyone aware could not burn one in love (=not a mature follower). Thusly, no one who is a mature follower of Jesus Christ will do such things.

But that's not who this post is targeted toward. It is targeted toward non-Christians and the vast majority of nominal Christians in America who do not really know Jesus or follow him, despite their frequent and very vocal "Lord, Lords." It's just not a good idea to provoke people unless you want a fight.

Burning Qurans pushes people who might be our friends and makes them more likely enemies (=stupid). It takes those who already our enemies and inspires them to action (and what's the point there?).

So go ahead, you people who are no smarter than Hamas, the IRA, or any other group that can only function in a tit-for-tat mode. He hit me first. You're no more evolved than the next primate. Go make yourself feel better. Burn a Quran, imbecile.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sin and the Law 4

The key to understanding Romans 6-8 is to understand the clear "before and after" Paul presents repeatedly throughout the section. The first is in 6:17-18:

"But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness."

Notice the clear timing here. The Romans used to be slaves to sin before they believed. Now they are free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. Paul gives no middle ground. A person is either a slave to righteousness or a slave to sin. You are not both at the same time. The timing for Paul is not ambiguous. Before you commit to Christ you are a slave to sin. After you believe, you are not to "let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires" (6:12).

Paul gives the same contrast in 6:19-22 and then again in 7:5-6. His statement in Romans 7:5-6 is worth quoting because this statement is in the lead up to what he will say later in that chapter:

"For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit" (NASB).

Again, the timing is clear. Being "in the flesh" is a matter of a believer's past. And the "fruit for death" that Paul has in mind is also clear from the previous chapter. 6:19 puts it clearly: "you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness." And when Paul says we have "been released from the Law," is not talking about some legal hocus pocus where God treats us like we have become righteous even though we continue sinning as before. You would have to ignore everything he has said in the previous chapter to read him this way.

No, there is not the slightest ambiguity here. Paul is saying that we were slaves to sin. We used to act in ways that lead to death. Paul is saying believers no longer let their sinful passions control their actions. Believers are set free from the law of sin.

Romans 8 confirms this same train of thought yet one more time: "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" ... "so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (8:1, 4). "Walking" is the Jewish word for how one lives (halakah), confirming that Paul is not talking about something only figuratively fulfilled in us. He is talking about believers actually keeping the essence of the Law, like the Gentiles he mentioned in Romans 2:15 who demonstrate the Law written on their hearts. [1]

Paul's overall train of thought in Romans 6-8 is thus quite clear. One is either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness. Before the Spirit, a person is a slave to sin with the result that they act sinfully and follow the lead of the sinful passions inside them. However, after the Spirit, a person is set free from the law of sin, a person is freed from sin and becomes a slave to righteousness, with the result that they act righteously and actually fulfill the righteous requirement of the Jewish Law.

It is only when we have this context firmly in mind that we should approach Romans 7:14-25. The popular interpretation of these verses is so deeply engrained in the contemporary Christian's mind that it will take every effort to keep most readers even at this point from chucking Paul's clear train of thought out the window. Paul cannot be saying that he is still a slave to sin or that he continues to be unable to keep the heart of the Jewish Law unless he is saying he is not a believer.

"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin" (7:14). Paul cannot be talking about himself at that very moment because he has said clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically that believers used to be slaves to sin but are now free (6:17-18; 19; 20-22; 7:5-6; 8:1-4). If Paul is talking about the default state of the Christian or of himself, then his train of thought here is fundamentally incoherent. The only way to read Romans 7 this way is to rip it completely from the rest of Romans!

The only way to read Romans 7:14-25 coherently is to see Paul putting himself into the shoes of the default Jew who has not yet believed, not yet been baptized into Christ, and has not yet received the Spirit. [2] It is a person who "wants to do good" (7:21, NASB) but is incapable because s/he is a slave to sin. In short, Paul is not talking about his current experience but he is explaining what the purpose of the Law was even though unbelieving Jews are unable to keep it even in its essence. [3]

Paul's theology would have starkly raised the question of the Law among Jews. Paul is saying that keeping the Jewish Law does not make a Jew right with God. Only the death of Christ and faith in what God has done through it can make a person right with God. Well then what was the purpose of the Law, then, Paul? He states clearly in Romans and Galatians that its purpose was to show me my need for Christ (e.g., Gal. 3:24). Romans 7:14-25 presents this need dramatically.

I am a Jew. I want to keep the Jewish Law. The Jewish Law tells me what God desires of me (meaning those core parts that apply universally). But I find in my default state that I am unable to keep it. I discover that I am a slave to sin, that I am "utterly sinful" (7:13). Who will free me from this body that makes me do things that lead to death?

"Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:25). That is to say, when I am incorporated into Christ, I am set free from this horrible default state in which humanity finds itself, including Jews. We have seen this exuberant exclamation before, "Thanks be to God." It was back in Romans 6:17, and it is worth quoting those verses all over again to show that Paul's train of thought here is exactly the same as it was there: "thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness." [4]

Romans 8 thus continues with the believer, returning to much the same point Paul reached at the beginning of Romans 5. Paul had reached the point of talking about peace with God in Romans 5:1 after his lengthly discussion of the need and basis for justification in the first four chapters. Romans 8:1 returns to this point of "no condemnation" after over two chapters talking about the problem and overcoming of Sin in a person's life. The rest of Romans 8 will celebrate the real benefits of the Spirit's power in the believer, both now and in the redemption that is to come.

[1] It thus seems very likely that Paul had Gentile believers in mind in Romans 2:15. Therefore, in Romans 8:4, Paul is not thinking that the righteous requirement is literally fulfilled in Christ and only figuratively then fulfilled in believers. Paul is saying that the law of the Spirit literally empowers believers to keep the heart of the Jewish Law, what he calls "Christ's law" in 1 Corinthians 9:21).

[2] The suggestion that Paul has Adam in mind in 7:9 seems to overread the passage. Paul is presenting a logical, not an autobiographical or chronological sequence.

[3] Paul's claim here is difficult because Jews in general did believe they could keep the Law appropriately to God's expectations. Some have accused Paul of misrepresenting the Law or even of misunderstanding it. Nevertheless, we do find this same sentiment elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 15:10) and Paul implies the same in Galatians 6:13.

[4] From the standpoint of our understanding, it is unfortunate that Paul went on in the rest of Romans 7:25 to summarize the state of his hypothetical unbelieving Jew wanting to keep the Law--"I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." Just this restatement is enough for many to ignore the victory his train of thought has just pronounced through Christ.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sunday Scripture: Psalm 104; Proverbs 9

I'm passing on a full post. If I had done so, I would have gone to Psalm 104, which is a poetic celebration of God as creator, with some mythical imagery. Proverbs 9 also pictures wisdom helping God create. It probably should have been joined with John 1 two weeks ago.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Sin and the Law 3

... In the first volume of this series, we argued that when Galatians uses the phrase "works of Law," Paul primarily had in mind those parts of the Jewish Law that distinguished Jew from Gentile. [1] In Galatians, circumcision in particular was the key issue under discussion when he said, "no one will be justified by the works of the law" (2:16, NRSV). The argument of Romans is more general, and certainly Paul did not think anyone could earn God's favor, but the key subject was still whether a Jew had any advantage over a non-Jew in being right with God. The underlying issue is not "Can you be good enough for God to accept you?" It is "Is there something about being a Jew that automatically makes you right with God?"

So when Paul says he is not under Law (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:20) and that right standing with God does not come by "works of Law" (e.g., Rom. 3:28), he primarily has things like circumcision, Jewish food and purity laws, and Sabbath laws in mind. Yes, as part of that argument he makes general statements about the impossibility of earning a right standing with God (e.g., Rom. 4:4-5; 9:32). But it is a supporting point, not the main one. When Paul distances believers from the Law, he primarily has the Jew-specific aspects of the Jewish Law in view, the boundary type laws that most distinguished Jew from Gentile.

What is confusing is that Paul also talks about the Law with a very different content in view. Sometimes he has a certain "core law" in view that is universal and timeless. When Romans 2:14 talks about Gentiles who "do by nature things required by the law," it cannot refer to Jew-specific elements. Gentiles by definition do not do such things. Paul can only have a certain universal, "moral" core in mind, if you would. It is this part of the Jewish Law that Paul has in mind in Romans 6-8.

The key to understanding Romans 6-8 is to understand the clear "before and after" he presents repeatedly throughout the section...

[1] Paul: Messenger of Grace

Friday, September 03, 2010

Sin and the Law 2

I am convinced that a great deal of our confusion comes from the fact that Paul glides seemlessly between a number of different meanings for the word "law" in these passages in Romans and Galatians. Perhaps a good place to start is to remember that the "Law" in general was the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of our Old Testament. When Paul says that the "Law and the Prophets" witness to recent developments (Rom. 3:21), he is referring to the first five books of Scripture, a body of literature.

When we ask what sin was for Paul, we must very quickly get to this Jewish Law. Paul says in Romans 5:13 that sin is not reckoned where there is no law, even though it is present. This comment makes it very clear that one purpose of the Jewish Law was to identify exactly what sin was. Paul confirms this purpose a little later in Romans 7:7 when he says, "I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'Do not covet."

A key observation here is that Paul nowhere has some absolute definition of sin. Sin is not for Paul "missing the mark," as if anything short of absolute perfection is sin, any imperfection whatsoever. [1] Sin is, in one respect, to violate the Law, the Jewish Law, where the Law is a record of the actions that are wrong. As we might expect of the Old Testament, such violations were far more concrete than abstract. They were not some introspective flub where a less than perfect thought flew through your head. We suspect that even when Jesus spoke of looking at another woman with lust (Matt. 5:28), there was a level of intent to act that went well beyond what we would call a lustful thought. [2]

A great starter definition of the verb, "to sin," is thus "to do wrong," where wrongdoing is defined in the Jewish Law. Closely related is to wrong another person. Thus you can sin against someone (e.g., Matt. 18:21; 1 Cor. 8:12). Such definitions know nothing of the standard "sin every day in word, thought, and deed." This conventional Christian definition of sin does not come from the Bible but from later Christian theology. The Bible consistently treats acts of sin or wrongdoing as something that is avoidable and bad.

To be sure, Paul does not use the word sin in relation to every part of the Jewish Law. Paul never speaks of someone who touches a dead body as sinning nor does he say that someone who works on the Sabbath sins. Indeed, he very likely did not consider such actions to be sins for a believer, especially a Gentile believer. [3] We thus encounter the key ambiguity in Paul's rhetoric about the Jewish Law: sometimes he used the word "law" in relation to parts of the Law he did not apply to Gentile believers; sometimes he uses the word "law" in relation to parts of the Law that still applied to believers. But he does not clearly distinguish in his language between the two...

[1] Thus the quite incorrect translation of Romans 3:23 in the New Living Translation where sin is to fall short "of God's glorious standard."

[2] We have the Romanticism of the 1700s and 1800s to thank for our overly introspective orientations.

[3] Whether he might have considered them sins for an unbelieving Jew is a question we probably cannot answer given the evidence he has left us.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Southern Baptist Piece on Glenn Beck

Someone sent me this link: Should Glenn Beck Speak for Christians?

The article didn't light me up, but I thought I would post it for your reaction. Here's the paragraph that I identified most with:

"It’s taken us a long time to get here, in this plummet from Francis Schaeffer to Glenn Beck. In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined 'revival' and 'turning America back to God' that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement."

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

New York Times quotes...

... with which I agree. Nothing to gloat about here. It's like the oil spill. Mentally very happy to see it capped. Too emotionally drained from the cost to celebrate with much exuberance.
From the NYT
... "The speech also made us reflect on how little Mr. Bush accomplished by needlessly invading Iraq in March 2003 — and then ludicrously declaring victory two months later.

"Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction proved to be Bush administration propaganda. The war has not created a new era of democracy in the Middle East — or in Iraq for that matter. There are stirrings of democratic politics in Iraq that give us hope. But there is no government six months after national elections.

"In many ways, the war made Americans less safe, creating a new organization of terrorists and diverting the nation’s military resources and political will from Afghanistan. Deprived of its main adversary, a strong Iraq, Iran was left freer to pursue its nuclear program, to direct and finance extremist groups and to meddle in Iraq...

"There was no victory to declare last night, and Mr. Obama was right not to try."