Monday, January 31, 2011

Original Meaning Translation: Romans 1:11-15

More of my "original meaning" translation of Romans:
Romans 1:1-7
Romans 1:8-10
Romans 1:11-15
11 For I desire to see you in order that I might share some spiritual gift with you so that you might be strengthened, 12 and this is to be mutually encouraged with you through the faith in one another, both yours and mine. 13 And I do not want you not to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you and I was hindered until now, in order that I might have some fruit even among you as also among the other Gentiles. 14 Both to Greeks and barbarians, both to wise and to foolish I am a debtor. 15 So the purpose for me [is] to proclaim the good news also to you who are in Rome.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pacifism and Prioritizing Values

How's this for a text box on pacifism in a philosophy textbook?
A pacifist is someone who believes violence is wrong in every situation, that non-violence is an absolute. However, even in this instance, the pacifist has chosen one value over another. In certain circumstances, he or she considers non-violence a higher ethical priority than helping or saving the lives of others.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Procedure is not Truth

After one too many episodes of Law and Order, I continue to be frustrated with the way our system enables those who are found not guilty because of procedural issues, with the consequence that those with enough money to hire clever enough lawyers have a much better chance of getting off than someone without resources.

Of course this does not mean that those without resources who are found guilty are not guilty.  It just means many who should be found guilty are not.

The logical fallacy of letting someone off because their Miranda rights weren't read to them or because evidence was found without a search warrant is heinous.  The question of justice is a question of truth and guilt, not one of procedure.  I understand that these "rights" were instituted to protect the innocent and to prevent corruption (I personally reject the notion of intrinsic rights on any subject, only common responsibilities toward others).  But if it were at all possible these two issues should be separated.  The police should get in trouble for not following proper procedure and the guilty should be found guilty, regardless of the procedure by which their guilt was discover.

Sure, make the stakes high for a police person who does not follow the proper procedure, especially if the person is found not guilty.  Maybe even kick them off the force or suspend them without pay for six months.  Make the stakes high for not following procedure.  But, somehow, it ultimately has to be about guilt or innocence, not a ridiculous game that makes us a laughing-stock and that favors not the innocent, but the guilty.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Romans 1:8-10

An "original meaning" translation I'm doing as I write a Bible study on Romans 1-8.
Romans 1:1-7

Romans 1:8-10
8 First, on the one hand, I am giving thanks to God through Jesus Messiah concerning you all because your faith is being announced in the whole world, 9 for God is my witness--whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son as I am constantly making mention of you-- 10 always asking in my prayers if somehow at last at some time it might work out for me in the will of God to come to you.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Women Church Planters

Rev. Joanne Lyon, current head of the Wesleyan Church, met a couple weeks ago with the faculty and administration of our seminary and we discussed our mutual visions for the church.  I think everyone would agree (see Wayne Schmidt's coming post Monday on the seminary blog) that our values and sense of direction are very much the same.

One interesting idea that popped out of the synergy of that discussion was the idea that some of our women who feel called to ministry might lead church plants.  While the Wesleyan Church remains firmly in support of women in ministry from a theoretical perspective, many Wesleyan churches in practice would resist a woman pastor.  The result is, as Keith Drury once wrote, that we can end up sending our best women off to other churches like the United Methodists.

So what do you do when you're the pastor of a small group of twenty dead folk with frowns on their faces, sometimes darkness in their hearts, and a death grip on the non-direction of the church?  You either close the church or you ask God to empower you to build a living congregation around the dead flesh... until they can outvote the dead wood.

In the same way, the spark of an idea was to take some of our most talented women who are called but stalled in the church and start some new, living church plants.  Work around the dead flesh.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Seminary Update

We are now a year and a half into Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University and I thought I would give an update since I haven't really said much since we ramped up what seems like so long ago.  Here are some highlights:

1. Our first MDIV cohorts are now half way through their degree program.  They've taken a 6 hour course on the Missional Church, a course on Leadership, a course on Worship, and now they are in a course on Proclamation.  They've taken spiritual formation courses in which they've looked at change, at themselves, at goals, and now they're beginning a course on being mentored.  Many of them came to campus to take courses on cultural contexts, on tools and aspects of Scripture in ministry, on Christian theology.

2. We have about 9 cohorts of MDIV students (over 100 students), adding to about 100 MA students.  The leading groups feel a little like guinea pigs, but hopefully they're not too scarred.  We've had a quick revision loop to try to improve things, which means they've seen some changes every semester as we have tried to get things right.

3. We have 4 full time faculty now and hope to add 2 or 3 more this Spring.  We started with Bob Whitesel, consultant extraordinaire, added Charles Arn, omnipresent online professor.  Then the second year we added John Drury the theologian and Lenny Luchetti the proclaimer.

Since every practice course is team taught with independent Bible, theology, church history, and integration professors dropped into the mix with the practice professor, we have this semester 3 additional individuals adjuncting Bible assignments (including Steve Lennox onsite), 3 additional individuals adjuncting theology assignments (including Chris Bounds), 3 additional individuals adjuncting church history assignments (including Bud Bence), and 4 additional individuals adjuncting our purgatorial Integration Paper assignments.  Thanks to all those who have been willing to enrich our students for some extra change!

4. Wayne Schmidt continues to do a masterful job leading the seminary.  His vision is for a seminary that looks like Revelation 7:9.  He and Joanne Solis-Walker have created a Hispanic version of our MDIV, whose first all Spanish cohort will begin in March.  He has continued good relations with the AME church in Indiana that Russ Gunsalus forged at the beginning.  He is the right person in the right place doing the right thing, full of wisdom and stature and favor with God and all the people.

5. Our infrastructure continues to grow.  Karen Clark and Nate Smith in the office are a machine beyond belief.  Nate Lamb and Dianne Clark are an incredibly efficient and welcoming gateway to the seminary.  We are in the process of hiring Spanish speaking admissions and enrollment specialists.  And of course we have great office help like the ever efficient Joel Leichty.

6. We are in dialog with many possible venues for cohorts ranging from having them at Bethany in Canada to New Zealand to South Carolina.  What I usually say is that if someone in our network can find 15 students for a cohort, we can start a cohort.  Certainly such groups can do their intensives in Marion.  But we can explore other locations too.  For example, anyone is welcome to sign up for a one week intensive elective at 12Stone church in Atlanta this summer, June 1-7, called "Church Laboratory."

Even if you do not want to join an MA or MDIV, you can sign up for a one time course.  Are you looking to be ordained in the Wesleyan Church and already have a bachelor's degree?  Why do FLAME for no credit?  You can take Wesleyan Church History and Polity online for 8 weeks starting in March.  We regularly offer Theology of Holiness in the same format and will be offering it going forward online as an elective each Fall.  Charles Arn is doing an 8 week online course in Welcoming Newcomers in March as well.  Lenny Luchetti is teaching Narrative Preaching onsite for a week in May.  I'm teaching Hebrew for Ministry for 8 weeks online or onsite in Indy starting May 31.

You don't have to join a degree to take courses in the seminary.  Just find something you like and take the class.

7. I have never been busier.  The last two practice courses--Congregational Formation and Congregational Relationships--are in the writing.  After that, I will feel like I have played the role God especially called me to do.  We will apply for ATS accreditation this October on schedule.  We are setting up an amazing assessment system with the wonderful Chalk and Wire people.  We continue to eat together, pray together, and very dear to my heart, drink coffee together.

Thanks to God for letting me be a part of this amazing work!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Gospels as Scripture

More material for a class.  Feedback welcome.
The central part of the Scriptural story, the central part of the Christian story, is when the problem of the story is overcome.  The problem of our story is the alienation of the creation from God, including humanity.  The goal of the story is the reconciliation of humanity and the creation to God.  The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the means by which God brings this reconciliation about.

The Gospels thus stand as the heart of the Bible read as Scripture.  Think of the central part of the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, dead, and buried.  The third day he arose from the dead.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God, the Father, Almighty.  From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”  When we read the Gospels as Scripture, we read them with all these things in mind.  The New Testament letters and Acts may unpack them in terms of doctrine, but the story of the Gospels is the starting point.

It is right for us to read them in this way as Christian Scripture, even though we may also know how to read the Gospels in terms of their original historical-cultural context.  For example, the incarnation—Jesus as God becoming flesh—is only a feature of John’s Gospel.  Only Matthew and Luke tell of Jesus’ virginal conception.  Mark and John do not mention the virgin birth.  From a historical/contextual perspective, we lack sufficient evidence to say whether they knew about it or believed it.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not speak of Jesus as God becoming flesh, as John does.  From a historical/contextual perspective, we lack sufficient evidence to say whether they knew about it or believed it.  Indeed, many Christians prior to the 300s did not read John to say that Jesus was fully God in the same way that God the Father was God.  We find contemporary Jews who used language similar to that of John 1 in relation to the “word” of God (logos), which was above all the rest of the creation as the “firstborn” of all creation, but was still created.  Further, the word for worship in Matthew could be used of human kings (proskyneō).

What the last two paragraphs say is that to read the Gospels as Christian Scripture is to see more in them than they may have originally meant or than we can prove that they meant.  The tools of inductive Bible study require us to read an individual book in its own right, not to see more meaning in the text than is required or justified by what that text actually says, following its own clues.  Inductive Bible study thus can never conclude that Mark or John believed in the virgin birth, for they do not mention it, and we lack sufficient historical evidence to say that Christians at the time commonly did.  But when we read Mark and John as Scripture, we are free to read them with the assumption of the virgin birth.

As Christians, we read the Gospels also with the assumption that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity.  The Nicene Creed (AD381) says that Jesus was “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; Light from Light; true God from true God; begotten, not made; of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.”  These distinctions all reflect debates that took place in the centuries after the New Testament, but Christians ever since have believed them.  For example, at the Council of Nicaea (AD325), they debated whether Christ was of similar substance to God the Father or of the same substance, one substance with the Father.  We have believed as Christians that Christ was fully God like God the Father ever since.

It would be anachronistic to read these positions into the original meaning of John or any other New Testament text.  Christians carried out these debates on the playing field of Scripture, but they were discussing issues that went well beyond anything the historical context of the New Testament books addressed.  No inductive reading of the New Testament books in context will surrender clear answers on these issues.  Indeed, it is possible to argue that we must believe in a Spirit-inspired, unfolding development and progress of understanding in the church in order to arrive at the Nicene Creed.

But it is perfectly legitimate for us to read the Gospels in the light of these later Christian beliefs.  After all, this is the way that we understand the Christian story.  So this is the way we bring the stories of the gospels into our Christian story.  We incorporate the stories of the gospels into the overarching story of Scripture, a unified story we believe the Spirit has inspired the church to see in the words of Scripture.  The Spirit working through the church has provided the glue of a story we experience as seamless and unified.

However, we can also see the historical writing of each Gospel as a moment in salvation history.  Most experts would say that Mark was the first gospel, written perhaps in the late 60s or early 70s.  Historical scholars have hypothesized any number of possibilities—many impossible either to prove or disprove—about how Mark’s material came together.  It currently seems beyond question that we find in Mark what were originally oral traditions, many of which must have circulated widely.

Most experts believe that Matthew and Luke, perhaps in the 70s or 80s, then used Mark as the starting point for their Gospels, both incorporating almost all of Mark into their presentation.[1] A majority—although this issue is more subject to debate—continue to believe that Matthew and Luke also had another common source, mostly a collection of Jesus’ sayings.  It is then thought that the Gospel of John reached its current form last, perhaps some time in the 90s.  Even here, though, some argue that John may have been written in stages.

Many scholarly theories, such as those presumed in the last two paragraphs, can neither be definitely proved or disproved.  There is a sociology to such theories.  Experts “get used to” certain ideas, ideas they may never have fully explored on their own.  They will know the basic case, evidence most people will not know, but they may never have struggled with other possibilities to the level of those who first came up with an idea.  New evidence can also arise.  The point is that scholarly agreements can change, just as scientific theories or historical reconstructions can.

The reading of the Gospels as Scripture is not contingent either on historical reconstruction, nor is it dependent on historical accuracy.  Both the modernist drive to get back to the historical Jesus and the fundamentalist drive to harmonize the content of the Gospels are both equally out of focus.  Certainly there are features of the story that must be historical for the Christian story to be true in its normal, orthodox, historical sense.  Jesus must really have existed.  He must have truly risen from the dead in history.  But even such minimal historicity is enough to support faith in the incarnation. [2]  Our point is not to dispute the historicity of the Gospels, only to point out that Christian faith does not clearly stand or fall on the historicity of the bulk of the Gospels.

The fundamentalist reading of the Gospels is also not necessarily the same as a Christian reading of the Gospels as Scripture.  The fundamentalist reading insists that we be able to fit all the details of the Gospels together as history, while reading the Gospels as Scripture only requires that we read the Gospels in relation to the one story.  It is not that we have any interest in saying that Jesus did not do something in the Gospels or did not say something.  It is only to say that we can read the Gospels as Christian Scripture regardless of these decisions—many of which can neither be proved or disproved from a historical standpoint.

We derive immense truth from the parables without even considering their historicity.  In the same way, reading the Gospels as Scripture is not dependent on historicity.  The problem with the fundamentalist drive to harmonize is that it often requires us to disregard what the Gospels actually say.  We create a “fifth gospel” that differs more from any of the four gospels than any of them actually differ from each other, and all this effort in the name of an idea we have, rather than in the interest of listening to what each individual gospel itself has to say.

Reading the Gospels as Scripture is not dependent on such things.  It need not ignore the kinds of things those who truly are experts have hypothesized or discovered.  But it also must not think that a unified reading of the four Gospels is bound by an inductive reading of each individual text.  We are free to see more in the Gospel texts than they themselves say, while recognizing the writing of each individual Gospel as a moment in God’s never-ending walk with his people, a moment in salvation history.

We believe that the second person of the Trinity came to earth and was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary.  He walked the earth as one of us.  He experienced what we experience.  He was tempted in every way as we are but did not sin.  He did miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, just as we can.  He healed; he cast out demons.  He went to Jerusalem and died to reconcile humanity and the creation to God.  He rose from the dead, and God enthroned him as king of the universe.  He will come again to reconcile all things to God.  When we read the Gospels as Christian Scripture, we read them with this faith in mind.

[1] A minority argues that Matthew was first, with Mark then abridging it and Luke reordering it.

[2] For example, even the virginal conception does not seem essential to Jesus' divinity.  No one miracle, no one healing or exorcism, no one event or saying of Jesus seems essential for Jesus to be divine.  Certainly the Christian story would be anemic without these elements, but we could still believe the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed even if most of the stories of the Gospels were not historical.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wesleyans and Communion (W)

I thought this was posted somewhere here, but I didn't find it in a search or on my sidebar.  This is a piece I wrote once upon a time.  This piece is more about the practice of communion in the Wesleyan Church, extrapolating the theory embodied in the practice rather than any well thought out theology.
1. For Wesleyans, as for other Christians, communion is, first of all, a remembrance of what Christ did for us in his atoning death. Christians also call it the "Eucharist," a "thanksgiving" for what God has done through Jesus Christ's death in reconciling humanity to himself. This is the predominant lens through which Wesleyans understand communion in practice, even if it is not the only one. Nevertheless, it is an element Wesleyans share with the church universal.

At some point in the communion services of most churches, the minister retells the story of the Last Supper:

“On the night he was betrayed, he took the bread. And when he had given thanks, he broke it gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take, eat. This is my body that is given for you.’

“Likewise after supper he took the cup. And when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink you all of this, for this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

One Wesleyan once described communion as a kind of “passion play,” where you watch the story playing itself out in the words of the minister.

2. In conjunction with this aspect of communion, we might mention another strong characteristic of communion in the Wesleyan Church. Our tradition used to have regular "altar calls" in which individuals were invited to come forward and pray.  Sometimes Wesleyan churches will still call for a moment of commitment or recommitment to Christ.  But certainly in practice we would strongly associate the time of communion as a time for us to confess our sins and recommit ourselves to Christ. Communion thus serves as a kind of reset button on our relationship with God. Before you go forward, you repent of any un-confessed sin and commit to move forward with God.

3. Thirdly, we would view communion as a sacrament, a divinely appointed moment to meet God and experience his grace, a divinely appointed moment in which God takes ordinary things like bread and juice and catalyzes his presence and power in the believer.  While Wesleyans often do not emphasize this aspect of communion as much as they should, it is part of the language we use to describe communion, and it is of course solidly rooted in John Wesley himself.

To say that communion is a means of grace means that something mysterious goes on in communion, that in some strange way we cannot explain, people meet God when they take communion.  We mean to say that a person seeking God is likely to find him in communion.  We mean that a person who is having trouble experiencing God’s presence or who is in a dark night of the soul is more likely to feel God’s presence if they take communion than if they do not.  Wesley himself thought that since it was ultimately God’s choice as to when he spoke to you but that we should avail ourselves of the means of grace to make ourselves ready.

Does the Wesleyan Church have a view on historical debates  like transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and other issues?  We have never had such debates in our fellowship.  A Wesleyan leader once suggested that by saying “The body of our Lord,” we left it to the partaker to work out exactly what that might mean to them.  In that sense, the Wesleyan allowance for some breadth of belief in relation to the historical debates of the church applies to these issues as well.  John Wesley himself agreed with Calvin on this issue, that Christ was spiritually present in the elements but that they did not literally become the body and blood of Jesus.

Wesleyans generally expect that an ordained minister will "preside" at communion, especially when it comes to the moment when we ask God to make the elements become the body and blood of Christ for us.  However, we do not consider it an absolute.  It enhances the sacredness of the moment for someone set apart by God and recognized as such by the church to call on God to make this moment into a sacramental moment.  But we allow that God can set apart individuals for special moments and times by his own reckoning, outside mortal channels.

4. Communion is about communion with the body of Christ. It is easy to forget that one of the principle functions of communion in the early church was to emphasize the unity of Christians with one another.  1 Corinthians expresses this same point to the Corinthians, who were sorely in need of it: “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all partake of the one bread.”

It is worth reminding ourselves, in the midst of our individual wafers and cups, that Jesus and his disciples shared a common cup and a common loaf.  Wesleyans in North America do not celebrate communion with wine, so hygienic reasons might keep us from drinking from a common cup.  However, many churches practice communion by intinction, where you or the minister breaks off a piece of bread from a common loaf. Then you dip the bread into a common cup.

This way of doing communion preserves the unifying principle much better than individualized plastic cups and wafers.  Also, having people come forward helps with the other two functions we have mentioned: 1) it focalizes partaking to a moment of decision in front of the minister and 2) the imagery of the common bread and juice makes the act look like more than a little snack in the pew (this helps children to see it as a different kind of activity too).

Communion should be open to every Christian or seeker present when it is offered.  If it is part of a wedding, it should ideally be offered to everyone present.  Wesleyan churches are supposed to take communion at least once every three months.  Notice the direction this wording is headed—we are welcome to take it far more often than that.  John Wesley’s conviction was that you should take communion “as often as you can.”  Indeed, he considered it a “sin of infirmity” to miss the opportunity inadvertently when it was available.

The Wesleyan liturgy emphasizes that the person partaking of communion should do so as an act of seeking communion with God.  That means a non-Christian can make communion a time of seeking faith.  Wesleyans do not require baptism for a person to partake of communion. All we require is that the person be seeking God, “you who do earnestly repent of your sin.”

We have never debated the question of children in communion, but we can see how the practice might vary depending on whether a Wesleyan church more practiced infant or believer's baptism.  For churches that practice believer's baptism, there will be a tendency to keep children from communion until they are old enough to make a conscious decision for Christ.  For churches that practice infant baptism--and thus see the children more as "in" until they make a choice otherwise--there will be a tendency to have them participate in the common meal as they would have in the early church.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wesleyans and Infant Baptism (W)

Someone asked... here's a position piece edited from a previous post.
Before we say anything else, it is important to point out that Wesleyans do not think baptism saves you. We do not think that baptism keeps anyone from hell or protects them from the consequences of original sin.  If a person has faith, we believe it is possible to get into the kingdom of God even if you are never baptized.  We believe some Quakers and Salvation Army folk will be in the kingdom of God.  Similarly, we do not think that baptism guarantees in any way that a person is right with God.

So the question of infant baptism for Wesleyans is two-fold: what does baptism symbolize and what grace can baptism catalyze.  But given the previous paragraph, we simply do not argue over infant baptism.  It is not an issue for us as a tradition.  We have some who prefer infant baptism because of its symbolism, and we have some who prefer believer's baptism because of its symbolism.  But it would be silly for us to get too out of sorts about either because none of us believe that baptism saves you.

As far as grace is concerned, God can meet us most anywhere.  In a sense, believer's baptism is grace "after the fact."  You have already believed.  You have already received the Holy Spirit as God's seal of ownership, presumably.  You have already received the Spirit as a down payment guaranteeing eternal life.  What grace, then, is given by baptism at that time, since the cleansing of the Spirit has already taken place?  Perhaps empowerment or a strengthened assurance?

We thus understand and sympathize with those who think it is significant to be able to remember your baptism. In a Western, individualist culture, we understand the power of individual decision and the strength of being able to look back and hold on to a powerful memory in times of trouble and doubt.  We also understand why this position tends to see baptism more in symbolic than sacramental terms--it is after the fact.

The symbolism of infant baptism is also quite significant, but it focuses more on your sense of belonging to a community, a family that passed its faith on to you.  It is no wonder that this symbolism has resonated in cultures that are more group-oriented.  For Wesleyans who practice infant baptism, it is not an assurance of ultimate salvation.  It is laying a claim on the child's life for Christ.  It is binding the church and parents to do everything in their power to raise up the child in the way he or she should go.  Infant dedication does the same thing but it puts the child on the "outside" of the people of God, while infant baptism places them on the inside of the line (as in ancient Israel) and challenges the child never to leave.

There is some key theology at work here.  Wesleyans believe that God wants everyone to be a part of the kingdom of God.  We tend to believe that God gives everyone a chance to be saved, even those who have never heard.  Wesleyans call it "prevenient grace," the grace that comes to us before we even know it.  We do not believe God would condemn someone who was true to the "light they had" even if they did not know the name of Jesus.

So we do not believe that God will condemn young children who are not mature enough to understand.  Nor do we believe he will condemn those who are mentally challenged.  There are people whom God would never have condemned at any point of their entire life because they responded appropriately from the very first moment God made himself known to them.

It was thus completely in keeping with John Wesley's theology that he preferred infant baptism, and it is for this reason that Wesleyans can still baptize infants today.  It is laying a claim on them for God and saying, "You are in and we will do everything we can do to help you to stay in, even though it is ultimately your choice.  But we are challenging you to stay in rather than holding you symbolically 'out,' at arm's length, until you make a move."

What is the grace then that might be involved in infant baptism?  Perhaps it is a grace to keep you in and a grace on those around you to catalyze it?  There is a real sense in which the rise of believer's baptism corresponds to the rise of Western individualism.  We are not comfortable with the group dynamics of earlier times and often don't realize that the biblical world itself was similarly group oriented.

A whole host of clarifications to Paul's theology come into play here.  For example, justification by faith must be balanced out with the faithfulness of Christ and the far more prevalent sense of us being incorporated into his faith and his death.  Predestination and election language in Paul is primarily focused on us as a group rather than on us as individuals.  Paul can even say that an unbelieving spouse is sanctified by a believing one, including the children, even apart from the faith either of the spouse or the children themselves (1 Cor. 7).

The fact that the baptisms recorded in the New Testament are all adult baptisms doesn't settle the issue. In point of fact, the Bible never tells us an incident where someone is baptized as an adult who was in the church as a child. All the adult NT baptisms are people entering the church for the first time as an adult. The NT does mention more than once that whole households were baptized--we just don't know who was in them. On the whole, the group-embedded nature of the ancient world must make us reckon with the strong possibility any children in these families would have been baptized in keeping with the family decision of the parents.

A personal relationship with God and Christ is of course essential.  Every individual must confess Christ and appropriate his death if they understand the nature of things at all. But we must strongly suspect that such relationships were always embedded in the community of faith in New Testament times. In that sense they were personal, but not individual relationships with God and his Christ.

And of course infant baptism is not a Roman Catholic thing. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley all believed in and practiced infant baptism. Believer's baptism is really a result of Anabaptist influence on American Christianity in the last few hundred years, a minority voice that has really only flourished in America.

Wesleyans are free to practice baptism in any way other than one that believes the act of baptism itself saves us.  We are free to baptize infants, and we are free to baptize individuals when they come to conscious faith.  We are even free not to baptize at all, although the vast majority of us would agree that baptism is too powerful an act for us to miss out on.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Song for Nervous Flyers

To be sung to the tune of "This Is My Father's World," about 30 seconds after take-off:

There is nothing I can do,
To keep this plane in air.
It's totally outside my hands.
It's pointless to give a care.

There's nothing I can do.
I could not make it fall.
E'en if I wanted it to crash,
There's nothing I can do.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pew Translation?

Kyle Ray in effect asked me at The Gathering to stop waffling and endorse a translation for the pew.  I continue to struggle but I'm trying to formulate an answer:

First, preach on Sunday from whatever version seems to best communicate the message you believe you should bring this Sunday.  In other words, I'm not necessarily recommending that you standarize your preaching version.     The problem of course is when you want the congregation to read along and you are not using a PowerPoint for them to follow along.  If they are following along in the pew, you don't want the version read from the front to be too different.

... which of course raises the question of a pew translation all together.  If you don't have them at this point, I wouldn't bother.  Invest in a good AV system so you can project the version of the morning on a screen instead.

For a detailed study of the text in a class or in sermon preparation, you want a heavily formal equivalence translation like the NASB, RSV, or ESV, although the last does show its theological bias occasionally.  The NRSV and CEB are going to be better in some cases, but they will also fool you sometimes when it comes to gender (brothers and sisters).

I'm going to tentatively fall off the log with the CEB, the Common English Bible, as the leading candidate in my mind right now for pew translation, if you're going to have one.  This is not my final answer but I like it for several reasons: 1) it is very understandable and 2) it has less theological bias in my opinion and in some cases is the only version that gets it right.

We'll see.  The NLT makes a fine pew Bible too and is even more dynamic.  I use the NRSV in my worship service.  It remains the standard version for biblical scholarship at large.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Holy Centigrade, Batman

I was sitting in a Greek pub here in Ontario, Canada--about a mile and a half from my lodgings and chomping on a gyro--when the news said it was going to be 15 below zero.  "15 below," says I!  That's cold!

Then I remembered that only we scientifically backward Americans still use Fahrenheit.  That's only about 7 degrees.  That's no worse than Indiana.

It was a fine walk home.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

One Second Prejudice...

... two seconds to Christ.

I was thinking last night that a lot of us are not far from the right attitudes and choices.  We humans tend to be so unthinkingly inconsistent.  Maybe all some of us need is someone next to us to ask the obvious question--one extra second and we might actually be Christ-like.

"But Ken, don't you believe you should love your neighbor as yourself?"
"Well, Yes."

And that's all it might take for us to move from spiritual mediocrity to Christ-likeness.  Here are some scenarios:

"I can't stand all the attention they give to Martin Luther King Jr.  All this special treatment to make African-Americans feel good."
"Really, Ken?  Are you saying that African-Americans are getting special treatment because of their color?  That's never happened to whites over blacks, right?  Shouldn't you be happy that after centuries of slavery, after no help whatsoever normalizing after slavery was over, after lynchings and clearly prejudicial laws for a century, you begrudge giving a day to honor someone who in a non-violent way worked to allow African-Americans to be able to sit anywhere on a bus?"

And just that extra second makes me realize how completely ridiculous my first second of prejudice was.  But there are many other issues.

"We need to get rid of all these Mexicans and send them back.  See that woman over there?  I bet she's illegal."
"What's really ticking you off, Ken?  Did she do something to you?  You really think she's hurting you some way or is some sort of a hardened criminal?  Why does it get to you so much?  You've never even seen her before."

Just the extra second of putting yourself in someone else's shoes, of asking how you would want to be treated if you were them, if a person really is a Christian, that's all it can take to move from a mind that has nothing to do with Christ to a Christ-like mind.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading Paul's letters as Scripture 2

This is my continued attempt to express what it might mean to read New Testament letters as Christian Scripture.
If what you read for the previous discussion has any validity, the difference between reading New Testament letters as Scripture and reading them for what they meant originally might involve a number of differences.  For example, there may be some content in them that we find more central than others.  We may emphasize and prioritize certain parts of the letters over other texts on similar themes in the books of the Bible.  Martin Luther framed this question as some texts being “clearer” than others, but history teaches us that one person or group’s “clear” text is another person or group’s “unclear” one.  The biblical texts themselves come to us without an introduction telling us which passages are more central than the others.  We inevitably have to provide this bit of glue as we look at these texts that were originally written at different times and places to different audiences.

Not only common Christian tradition but even more so the specific Christian traditions to which we belong strongly influence what we find as clear or unclear in the Bible.  It is important to recognize that these traditional influences are at work in our understanding, in our “world in front of the text,” even if we are a part of a supposedly “non-denominational” church.  Most non-denominational churches in America at any point in history will tend to look much alike.  They tend to be Baptist in structure and flavor, usually with a strong “restorationist” sense that they are modeling themselves after the early church.  Many also add a charismatic element to their identity.

But just because you are not aware of the historical influences on your understanding does not mean there are no traditional influences on you.  All of the elements I mentioned in the last two sentences come from distinctive streams within the history of American Christianity.  In terms of ideas and practices, therefore, American non-denominational churches partake of Christian tradition just like a Methodist or a Lutheran.

Some passages appear unclear to us because we immediately sense the historical distance between us and the biblical texts.  For example, although we do find Christians around the world and even in North America who strictly try to follow New Testament comments on hair coverings or jewelry, most Christians sense the historical and cultural distance between us and texts like 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 or 1 Peter 3:3.  At the same time, we know that our particular cultures and subcultures have a massive effect on what seems clear or unclear.  Is it clear that Christians should not go to war?  It is to Quakers.  Is it clear that infant baptism is wrong?  It is to Baptists.  Is it clear that women can be ministers?  It is to Wesleyans.  Is it clear that a Christian can be in a monogamous homosexual relationship?  It is to the Metropolitan Community Church.  When you get to analyzing the golf swing, what looks so effortless becomes much more complicated.

A second feature of reading texts like the New Testament letters as Christian Scripture, rather than as ancient texts, is that we sometimes shift their meaning subtly.  This can be a reinterpretation of words or phrases.  It can be a broadening of scope beyond the original scope the words had.  Again, Fee and Stuart would reject the validity of changing the meaning of the words and try to lay down clear rules for broadening the scope of the words.  You may want to argue for their position over what Dr. Schenck is presenting.

But we might think of some of the passages over which the Christians of the first five centuries argued.  For example, when Colossians 1:15 says that Christ is the “firstborn of all creation,” was it implying that, even though Christ is pre-eminent over all creation, he was part “of” the creation?  Common Christianity rejects this position.  When Christians read Colossians as Scripture, they do not appropriate this verse so that Christ is a part of the creation, the first thing God created.  Since AD325, the Christian understanding is that Christ is “begotten, not made; of one substance of the Father.”

But what did Colossians 1:15 originally mean?  From one perspective, it does not really matter, because God has clarified throughout the centuries what Christians are to believe on this subject.  From a traditionally evangelical or Protestant perspective, however, it is quite important.  From Fee and Stuart’s perspective, a text cannot come to mean something different from what it meant originally.

For this reason, the New International Version (NIV), for so long the evangelical translation of the Bible, made it a point to translate the biblical text so as to remove any possibility of interpreting them in an unchristian way.  For example, it translates Colossians 1:15 to say that Christ is the firstborn “over” all creation.  The original meaning must turn out to be the same as the Christian meaning.  At numerous places, it adds words or refashions the text so that this issue disappears.  Here are just a few examples:

  • The NIV renders the Greek phrase “being in the form of God” as “being in very nature God” (Phil. 2:6) in conformity with Christian orthodoxy.
  • The NIV adds the word “now” to 1 Peter 4:6 so the verse cannot be read to say that the dead ever had any chance of changing their eternal destiny.
  • The NIV adds the word “just” to Jeremiah 7:22 so that it does not support the views of some scholars who argue that the sacrificial laws do not trace back historically to Moses.
  • It translates the word “entirely” as “surely” in 1 Corinthians 9:10 so that Paul does not sound like he is dismissing the original meaning of Deuteronomy 25:4.

Some of these interpretations may of course be correct.  The point is just that the NIV translators were strongly driven to make the original meaning of a biblical text conform with their evangelical theology.  What we are suggesting is that to some extent, we do not have to worry about passages with disputable original meanings because God’s Spirit has made the Christian way of reading such passages clear, regardless of what they meant originally.

We arguably rightly do some of this “reinterpretation” without even realizing it.  For example, when Paul says he was taken up into the “third sky” (2 Cor. 12:2), is it not likely that he literally pictured the universe as consisting of three layers of sky as you go straight up from a flat earth, like other Jewish writings of the day did?  Did he not likely picture the dead being located directly below, in the underworld beneath a flat earth (e.g., Phil. 2:10)?  Without even realizing it, we take these expressions as metaphorical expressions rather than as literal pictures of the world.

But is this way we think about such things another example of reinterpreting the text so that it speaks more directly to us today?  When we talk about the sun rising and setting, we know we are speaking “phenomenologically.”  We are speaking in terms of how things appear, not necessarily about how things literally are.  But is it not much more likely that the biblical authors understood such things literally?  So once again, we find that we have been able by the Spirit’s power to hit the golf ball to the green without necessarily knowing all the physics of our golf swing.

By the way, this discussion lays bare potentially grave problems with a “fundamentalist” approach to the Bible, such as the insistence that Genesis 1 must refer to “literal” 24 hour days.  If God revealed the truths of the Bible in the categories of its original audiences, then we would expect a text like Genesis 1 to sound much more like a dialog within the categories of the Ancient Near East than a dialog with the issues of modern science.  And indeed, if we really read Genesis 1 literally, we find that on Day 4 God places the sun, moon, and stars into the space between waters God created on Day 2.  In other words, after creation we would have expected to go straight up through the stars to find the primordial waters above them.

A third way in which reading texts like the New Testament letters as Scripture differs from reading them as historical texts is in our personal involvement with them.  It is conventional to speak of the “authority” of the biblical texts.  But like the golf swing that is more complicated than it looks, the potential ambiguity of what the biblical texts actually mean significantly complicates the question of authority.  Which meaning of the biblical text is authoritative?

Further complicating matters is the question of genre.  One of the reasons so much of Christian faith and ethics comes from our dialog with the New Testament letters, especially for Protestants, is the fact that these letters function—more than any other part of the Bible—on a propositional level.  The letters make statements about beliefs and give instructions about how to live.  They are thus in a form that lends itself most easily to formulating beliefs and practices.  It thus makes sense for us to speak of these New Testament letters as having authority over us as Christians, meaning that we are to do what they instruct and believe what they teach.

However, as we will explore in subsequent weeks, it is less clear what it means for a story or a psalm to be authoritative.  Psalms tend to be expressive of the feelings of the psalmist.  A story may describe something that happened without necessarily prescribing that we model ourselves after it.  We will discuss in what way these other genres and types of “speech acts” might be Scripture for us later in the course.

Yet we would argue that no one even applies all of the commands of the New Testament letters directly to today.  Fee and Stuart set down a rule, “Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first century hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them” (75).  In other words, standard evangelical method looks for the points of continuity and discontinuity with the original context of the New Testament letters.

They recognize the potential this dynamic brings to “explain away” the authoritative commands of the New Testament.  But they rightly see no way around it.  Does God want us to set up a system today where widows under sixty are urged to remarry and where the church provides all the material needs of widows over sixty (1 Timothy 5)?  We could, but most of us recognize that the situation of widows today may be quite different than it was two thousand years ago and, just to complicate matters, 1 Corinthians 7:39-40 give a different preference for widows to remain single.

Again, the fundamentalist approach to the Bible tends to flatten out these sorts of texts, forcing them all to say the same thing without taking into consideration much of the original context in which they were written.  Here we should recognize that it is not only ethics that can relate to specific times and places but ideas as well.  Assuming that God wanted to be understood, we should assume that even the beliefs of the New Testament letters were “incarnated” in the categories of the first century, that they “took on the flesh” of those to whom God was speaking.

Again, determining the original meaning of a biblical text is arguably a science that an atheist could do.  You read the words in their literary and historical context to determine what they mostly likely meant.  But discerning God’s will for us today in those texts—which parts relate mostly to “that time” rather than “our time”—is a spiritual dance.  It requires Spiritual discernment that cannot really be taught in a book.  Except in those occasional moments when God sends a prophet, we surely would expect God’s will to be clearer the more Christians we have who share a common vision and a common understanding.  And thus we can see an expanded meaning to what Paul meant when he urged the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

I prefer to speak of the “sacramental” dimension of the Bible as Christian Scripture rather than in what prove to be ambiguous categories like authority or inerrancy.  A sacrament is a divinely appointed meeting place where something that seems ordinary becomes a channel of God’s grace.  What appear to be ordinary bread and wine become for you the body and blood of Jesus, shed for you.  What appears to be ordinary water becomes a catalyst for spiritual cleansing.  In the case of the Bible, what seem to be historically, contextually determined words become a channel for God’s voice to you.  The Bible does not speak in this way to atheists.  It is a dimension of the Bible as Christian Scripture.

Yet it is clear that the precise content of God’s speaking becomes somewhat vague and ambiguous as well in this sacramental view. We would again argue that this ambiguity is no different from determining which of the countless interpretations of the Bible in play are the correct ones! In practice, countless groups with the same high view of the Bible still manage to have contradictory beliefs and practices. At the root of this situation is the “polyvalence” of language, the fact that the very same words can mean different things to different people. We are thus forced to work together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to determine God’s will for us and to rely on common Christian readings of the Bible beyond the phantom “text alone.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reading Paul's letters as Scripture 1

Feedback welcome on this background to an assignment.
Although we do it all the time, the way in which Christians dance between the biblical texts and our lives today is fascinating and complex.  For example, if you watch a pro golfer, you will see what looks to be an effortless motion and swing, with the ball gliding nicely to the green.  But if you ever take a golf lesson, you will no doubt get a confusing array of instructions: hold your elbow a certain way, hold the grip a certain way, swing through but primarily use only one of your arms to guide the club.  It seems impossible to think about every element in a good swing at the same time, but a practiced golfer does it all at once.

The proper use of the Bible as Christian Scripture is a little like a good golf swing.  To talk about what goes into it sounds a lot more complex than it is, even though we as Christians do it all the time.  Why is it, for example, that we tend to emphasize certain parts of Scripture and pay less attention to others?  How do we who are Protestants know that we should emphasize “a person is justified by faith and not by works of Law” (Rom. 3:28) over “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).  Since Christians have not always prioritized Scripture in this way (e.g., prior to the Reformation), not a little Christian tradition must be a part of our subconscious, even though we may not stop to think about it in that way.  After all, the Bible itself does not tell us to emphasize the one and explain the other away.

A great deal of what we who are Protestants emphasize as our doctrine, as our system of Christian belief, maps to the letters of the New Testament.  Martin Luther took his doctrine of “justification by faith” from Romans, the idea that the only way to get right with God is to trust in what Christ did for us.  Before him, Augustine took the idea that we come into the world totally sinful from Romans as well, and he took cues from Paul on how to read the Adam and Eve story of Genesis.  John Calvin in the 1500s followed Augustine’s lead.  Even if you do not know these names, it is nevertheless very likely that you have some of their interpretations in your Christian bones if you are a Protestant.

Yet, as Fee and Stuart point out fairly well, the letters of the New Testament were originally “situational.”  That is, they were written by and large to address specific situations.  Even Romans, Paul’s most systematic letter, addressed a situation where Paul was introducing himself to the Romans while defending himself against misinformation people were spreading about him and hoping that the church might support him on a missionary initiative in Spain.  Romans was not, therefore, what one of Luther’s main heirs said—a “compendium of Christian theology” (Melanchthon).  Romans is full of rhetoric meant to convince.  It presupposes a conflict of ideas with people who disagree with Paul, such that Paul might have said certain things differently in the middle of a different conflict or if there was no conflict.

Here is where the golf swing comes in.  Melanchthon knew how to swing Christian theology out of Romans.  He knew how to read Romans and Paul’s letters as Christian Scripture.  He did so without even realizing that his readings of Romans were not exactly the same as what Paul meant originally—he saw more of a timeless and absolute systematic order to Romans than it may have originally had.  In fact, Melanchthon had a very naïve understanding of how meaning works.  He thought that Christian theology was simply a matter of analyzing the grammar of the Bible.  In reality, words only take on meanings in a context, to where the very same words can mean different things depending on the context in which they are said.

In my opinion, Christians have found legitimate Christian theology by hearing related but somewhat “loosened” meanings in the biblical texts throughout Christian history.  By “loosened” I mean that we have taken context specific teaching and made it more universal and timeless.  When the Spirit was behind it, who are we to say it was not legitimate, God speaking through the words of the Bible as a living word?  In my opinion, this phenomenon of the living word has been more likely the more Christians have commonly agreed on what they heard.

Just as an example, there are many points where the standard Protestant reading of Paul may differ in this way from Paul.  For example, did Paul really teach that we are totally depraved, that there is no good left in us whatsoever?  Certainly Paul believed we are thoroughly sinful as a result of Adam’s sin, but it is not clear that he ever absolutized human sinfulness.  Similarly, many experts on Paul today would suggest that faith in Christ was not as much an emphasis for him as Luther thought.  Many would suggest that the key phrase meant the faithfulness of Christ himself and that faith in God the Father was Paul’s main focus.  We could go on to critique Luther’s interpretation of the phrase “the righteousness of God” and the phrase “works of Law.”

But does the fact that Luther’s reading of Paul changed the meaning somewhat mean that God wasn’t in his Christian golf swing?  After all, Luther’s interpretations resonated with a vast number of Christians, so much so that even the Roman Catholic Church has come to acknowledge that faith is the central element in justification, in a right standing before God.  Fee and Stuart, representing the evangelical tradition well, disagree with the sort of “loosening” of the text’s meaning that we not only think God has used to speak to believers throughout Christian history—including in the Protestant Reformation—but that the New Testament authors demonstrate repeatedly in their interpretation of the Old Testament.

For Fee and Stuart, however, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers” (74).  Like so many evangelical scholars, they spend a good deal of energy trying to analyze the evangelical golf swing, trying to set down rules for how to swing.  And this is understandable.  If we allow the Spirit to swing meaning from Scripture freely, then it becomes hard to nail down exactly what it means.  So evangelical hermeneuticians have developed a highly sophisticated method of extracting meaning from the biblical text.

First we must read a particular book of the Bible in context.  Then we must look for points of continuity between our time and their time.  Fee and Stuart painstakingly look for how to justify when to see biblical teaching as locked up in ancient culture and when it extends to today.  They argue that the teaching of 1 Timothy on women is culture bound and does not transfer to today while New Testament teaching on homosexual practice continues to apply.

But in practice, Christians just swing the club and they swing together.  Do they swing well?  Does the ball make it to the green?  Fee, Stuart, and others like them set out these sorts of rules and methods to try to preserve the authority of Scripture while recognizing that its books were written for another time and place.  I wonder, however, if we can pin God’s use of the Bible as Christian Scripture quite so neatly.  “The wind blows where it wants.  You hear the sound of it but you do not know where it came from or where it is going” (John 3:8).

In the end, neither the original meaning nor the rigid evangelical interpretive method of the twentieth century has given us a unified sense of the Bible’s meaning down to specifics.  Indeed, what the Protestant focus on Scripture alone has given us is a fragmentation of Christian belief and practice into over twenty thousand different Christian denominations, what one theologian called the "Protestant Principle" of inevitable fragmentation (Paul Tillich).  It seems to me that a whole lot more of tradition and individual experience inevitably is a part of our Christian golf swing than many of us like to acknowledge to ourselves.

We would argue that these three elements should always be involved in reading the Bible as Christian Scripture.  First, a sense of the original meaning, the first moment of God’s speaking.  Having a sense of the original meaning of a biblical text does often show us our idiosyncrasies and places where our tradition has gone off course.  I would argue that the Protestant Reformation largely played out along these lines.  Luther pointed out how far Roman Catholic tradition had wandered from the original meanings of the Bible.

At the same time, the books of the Bible themselves are diverse and had distinct meanings.  The first five centuries of Christianity involved a process of integrating the books of the Bible into a common understanding.  Doctrines like the Trinity or the full divinity of Jesus were not clear to the Christians of the first few centuries.  They debated Scripture with each other until these common understandings emerged.  Indeed, they even had to discern which books constituted the New Testament itself, since the New Testament books themselves do not tell us which books should be in the New Testament!  We would seem to be on most certain ground when we read the Bible through these common Christian eyes, even moreso than when we read it in terms of its original meanings.

Finally, we must finally surrender to the Spirit.  Maybe there is a problem with us feeling like we need to be able to say when the Spirit is breathing through Scripture and when He is not.  After all, the Spirit himself knows.  We want to set boundaries.  We want to tell our denominations what they can and cannot believe, what they can and cannot do.  We want to nail things down.  We want control.  God is in control.  He controls the dance.  He directs the swing when it is on target.

Thankfully, when it comes to doctrine, what Christians believe, we have inherited the bulk of our faith from Christians reading the Bible throughout the centuries.  We have the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creeds, which distill the understandings about God and Christ that emerged as the Christians of the first five centuries read the Bible as Scripture.  Those interpretations emphasize certain biblical texts over others.  Those interpretations “loosen” some texts from their original scope and meaning to address new questions.  This is the dance between reading the books of the Bible as historical documents and reading them as Christian Scripture.

We Protestants also have a certain set of emphases when we read the Bible, things like the importance of individual faith and an openness to reformation in dialog with the Bible.  The smaller the subset of Christianity we are a part of, the more we can probably question our unique readings of the Bible.  Then again, who is to say that God does not call specific groups to be like different parts of the body of Christ, with their own unique callings and tasks?

This is the first of several discussions we will have throughout this course on what it means to read the Bible as Christian Scripture.  Our claim, which you are very welcome to dispute, is that reading the books of the Bible for what they meant originally is not exactly the same as reading them as Christian Scripture.  An atheist can be an excellent interpreter of the original meaning of a book of the Bible.  In fact, an atheist might prove to be more honest and objective about the evidence, since he or she may have nothing invested in how the meaning turns out. 

But we would argue that to read the Bible as Scripture requires a Christian perspective of the whole, a certain way of prioritizing, organizing, and perhaps even reinterpreting the meaning of various texts into a whole.  It is something like what John Calvin called “illumination,” although he would not have described or understood it in the terms we are using.  An atheist might understand a Christian reading of Scripture, but he or she would have no reason to adopt it.

For example, a non-Christian Jewish scholar might have an excellent knowledge of the Jewish Bible for what it originally meant.  But for such an individual, it would not be the Old Testament.  In that sense, even though the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament are exactly the same text, they have quite a different significance and, probably, a quite different meaning at points.  To read the books of the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture is to read them in the light of faith in Jesus as Christ and as God.  It is to read them in the light of the New Testament. 

So Christians do not worry about offering animal sacrifices as Leviticus instructs (of course modern Jews have spiritualized these as well).  Most Christians also do not see the food laws or circumcision or Sabbath observance on Saturday as ongoing timeless ways of life.  This is because we read the books of the Old Testament in a certain way that goes beyond what they actually say about themselves.  I would argue that this same dynamic also applies to the way we as Christians read the New Testament, although it is more difficult for us to see it.  In the second discussion this week, we will explore this question a little further.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Should I become an Independent?

I didn't pay much attention to the quote until Reince Priebus was elected Chairman of the Republican Party today.  Maybe you've heard it: If you are "pro-stimulus, pro-GM bailout, pro-AIG, well, you know, guess what, you might not be a Republican."  Funny, I thought I was a Republican in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, and that the party had swung way right in the last 10 years.

I guess I'm being shown the door, even though I probably voted about half and half last election. ;-)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Text of the Bible

I don't know if we'll ever rescue all the instructional videos I've done.  Argh!  I don't know if I ever did one on the text of the Bible.  Here's one I recorded last week for an online class:

The Text of the Bible

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Economics and Ethics

I was listening to a piece on NPR about a move to introduce some sort of code of ethics into the guild of economists.  Many economists resist this sort of thing because they view their trade as a science, a matter of "fact" rather than "value," a matter of "this is how it works" rather than "this is what we should do."

Actually, it is this last contrast where some economists contradict themselves.  I agree that economics is a science--if you do this, such and such will happen in consequence.  An economist can thus suggest that "if you do such and such," "such and such will happen."  Of course there are different schools and so we cannot speak of a consensus on many things, but the basic sense of the discipline as science is clear.

It is when the question of "should" that ethics inevitably becomes part of the process.  Boyer, in his Idea of the Christian University, wisely suggested that it was at this point that a person's Christian values became a part of the equation.  For example, an economist might say--this particular course of deregulation or this particular bank failure will create great economic crisis in the short term, but will result in a more stable market sooner, while more moderate regulation and a bailout will result in a slower and less substantial recovery, but fewer people will commit suicide, so to speak.  (I'm not speaking to the specifics of recent events or the Depression, only trying to give a general impression).

It is at this point that those implementing economic principles, whether it is economists suggesting a particular course of action or the political system, bring ethics into the equation.  The implementation of economic theory always and inevitably involves ethics.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Original Meaning Translation: Romans 1:1-7

Wesleyan Publishing House had the great idea of publishing Bible studies along with my two books on Paul.  So a Bible study group might work through Philippians or 1 Thessalonians together, while the study leader reads through the main Paul book.  Now with the second Paul book in process, I need to write the first two Bible studies that will go with it, which cover Romans.

I'm not going to write them here, but I thought I might give my own translation of Romans as I worked through them.  I was tempted to do an original meaning dynamic equivalence or free translation.  But I decided to go extra formal, to give a fairly straightforward window into the Greek, even though it may not turn out to be very good English.  By the way, don't worry, the Bible studies use the NIV as the default translation, although because it is so bad at places, I sometimes shift to others as necessary.

Romans 1:1-7
1 Paul, a slave of Messiah Jesus, called [to be] an apostle, having been set apart (and still set apart) for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised earlier through his prophets in the holy writings, 3 concerning his Son, who came from the seed of David according to flesh, 4 who was appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through the resurrection of the dead, Jesus, Messiah, our Lord, 5 through whom we received grace and apostleship [leading] to the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 among whom you yourselves are also called by Jesus Messiah, 7 to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called [to be] holy ones.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Messiah.

Martyr-Proof Ideology

I was reflecting on the tactic of killing off someone because you want to disempower their ideas.  We possibly saw this yesterday in Arizona, but we saw it last week also in Pakistan and it happens repeatedly.  If the ideas have largely centered in one person, killing the person can kill the idea--or at least disempower it.  In a strange way, this dynamic also applies to the pastor of a local church.  If she has centered her ministry around herself, then it may fizzle after she leaves.

On the other hand, if the idea is truly held by the group, then others will immediately rise to take the martyr's place and may in fact be energized by martyrdom.  This cuts both ways, whether the ideology is good or bad.  Killing the leaders of Al-Qaeda, for example, may not in any way disempower their movement any more than killing Christians does in the stories we tell ourselves about Christian martyrs ("The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church").

So there are some ideas we would no doubt like to see disappear and there are some we would like to see transcend.  If we want them to transcend, they had better be bigger than us.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Gathering Impressions

The Gathering was a meeting of the pastors and denominational leaders of the Wesleyan Church.  I asked myself who I was looking at among this group of worshiping believers.  I was not looking at the believers in the pew.  I was looking at those who stand behind the pulpit, along with their families.  I was not looking at Wesleyan educators, although understandably top college administrators and marketers were here on the job.  Also since many ministry faculty are ministers, some of us were here as well.  And of course those who lead the denomination at HQ were here.

So what did I go out to see?  These pastors are really the operational core of the Wesleyan Church.  Those who were up front, those from HQ, those like me who are educators, we are not the dynamo of the church.  Certainly the people in the churches are most the church, but they do not frame the direction of the church, at least not at this time.  The denominational leaders, educators, and people on the platform can try to influence the pastors, but ultimately, they as a whole, if they share a common vision, are the real influencers.  They signify the church's direction, its future.

So what are my impressions of the direction of the church, after these days here?

First, the pastors of the Wesleyan Church are good people.  I have countless friends here: childhood friends, college friends, seminary friends, former student friends, colleague friends.  I like the people of the Wesleyan Church.  The crowd here (including the Spanish service I went to yesterday) love to sing songs of praise to God.  I thought the worship leader for the conference was excellent.

The primary emphasis of their ministries (my impression) is to get people to pray the sinner's prayer.  Here I think you can distinguish the bulk of these pastors from the large church pastors and young pastors.  The emphasis of the growing churches and the young pastors, I think, is to love people on their way to a true and lasting relationship with Christ and one another.

There does remain a strong stream (I think) that does not like having a woman leader, simply because she is a woman.  If you ask, "But wouldn't you agree that Joanne Lyon is a more gifted leader than anyone else at HQ?"  Usually they will agree.  "Don't you think she has as much vision for the church as anyone."  Usually they'll agree.  I have not been able to find any real reason for this attitude other than an unhealthy bias.

I have a hunch personally that the bulk of Wesleyan pastors are quite "culturally captive," and this is a concern for me.  I am speaking of American conservative culture that takes its cues from the moguls of American fundamentalist Christianity.  It is a culture that has a difficult time distinguishing Republican politics from Christian values.  It is neither historically Christian and certainly not historically Wesleyan.

The second emphasis of the ministries of these pastors (my impression) is to get people to stop sinning.  Again, here I want to distinguish the bulk of Wesleyan pastors from the large church and young pastors.  The successful pastor will preach more "for" things than "against" things.  They preach changed lives for the better rather than against those out there somewhere (the people they preach against aren't usually sitting in front of them) who are doing the wrong thing.  The pastors who are attracting large congregations and the younger pastors want to see people's lives healed.  They want to see marital problems solved, etc (versus preaching against how much divorce is going on out there).

There is some good thinking going on in the Wesleyan Church.  I heard that Wayne Schmidt's presentation was excellent, although I was still on a plane at the time.  Also, more than one person told me that Brenda Salter-McNeil, the African-American women who spoke Wednesday morning, was the best speaker of the entire conference (again, I was uploading material for an online course ;-)

What is most encouraging to me about our denomination is our involvement and empowerment of Hispanic ministry and Dr. Lyon's engagement with bringing "good news to the poor" in our broader society and world.  This bristles some because of the cultural captivity I mentioned, but these may actually be some of the only distinctive contributions our fellowship is making to the kingdom of God at this time at all.

This is a hard word and perhaps I am wrong.  As I looked out at the collection of people I love, I found little reason for us to exist as a denomination.  There are some people with vision, but I don't think the "operational core" of our church has any clear vision or identity.  Indeed, those streams within the church that might most point toward such vision are the very things that cause so many Wesleyan pastors to bristle.

So does the Wesleyan Church have any reason to exist?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Gathering 2

First of all, let me apologize for yesterday’s post.  After being here for a day, I can see that those who put the program together did a good job of setting things up.  The problem was mine—I don’t know any of the Wesleyans on the program.

I was delighted yesterday to meet with a number of new friends from the church in Puerto Rico, heard Gabriel Salguero speak on the difficulties of bringing multiple ethnicities together in worship, met Dr. Samuel Pagan who is from Puerto Rico but teaches in Bethlehem.  I did not realize the connections between Christian Palestinians and the Spanish-speaking world!  Dr. Pagan’s wife Naomi has published a children’s book that has Spanish, English, and Arabic side by side—amazing!

I’m also very curious about what strong sub-currents might be running within the denomination below the surface.  I’m picturing a river where you see a gentle flow on the surface but where strong and independent currents are running below, almost as if a completely different river.  Anyone else feeling that?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

In Florida at the Gathering

The Wesleyan Church stumbled onto a good thing a few years back when they created something called "The Gathering."  No, it's not Highlander, although the jokes are already circulating now that the WC may be moving toward a single general superintendent ("There can only be one." ;-)

It's my sense that the regional minister's conference has been dead in the WC for a couple decades now, but perhaps that was just fallow ground enough for a "minister's reunion" to go gang busters.  I'm not sure what attendance is at this one.  I wonder if they should have scheduled it between Christmas and New Years.  I wasn't able to bring my family, for example, because public school started back up yesterday.  But attendance was unexpectedly large at the first one.

OK, I was wrong.  Excellent line up.  Good work to the committee.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Merit Pay for Teachers?

For the first time in a long time, Republicans now control the Indiana State legislature and it looks like education reform is high on the agenda.  One element of the measures proposed is merit pay for teachers.  In theory, I am very much in favor of rewarding our teachers astronomically for those who demonstrate massive giftedness in our public schools.  I couldn't do what they do, given the behavior issues and ADHD environment.

Here's the deal.  Merit pay is a bad idea if it is solely linked to student scores.  This rewards the teachers who, either by politics or even incompetence manage to get the easy students.  The biggest problem in the classroom is the massive behavior management issue, not the incompetence of teachers.  Merit pay linked to scores does not take into account the incredibly gifted teachers who take on the children in our schools who are overwhelmingly likely to spend the majority of their life in prison or on the streets.

So merit pay is a great idea to me but only if it is administered in the light of a whole range of competencies.  What we need more than anything right now is brilliant classroom managers.  Almost anyone with a classroom full of "normal" children could improve test scores.  There just aren't very many classrooms like that in the failing schools of Indiana.

P.S. There were only two passing schools in Marion last year and, because the failing schools shewed their worst and dullest to them, there may not be any passing schools this year.  The problem is not the teachers; it's the kids as they have emerged from their "families."

Monday, January 03, 2011

Second Paul Volume Done!

Well, only six months late--and almost a year since I finished the first volume--I have finished Paul: Soldier of Peace.  (The first volume was Paul: Messenger of Grace)  It will probably be July before it comes out.  I'm even more excited about this book than the first, even though I'm sure I could have done better if I'd taken even just another week.  But it must be done!

I believe this book will pretty much be the only book out there that brings Wesleyan (revivalist) theology into dialog with the developments of the last thirty years of Pauline studies (admittedly, I have not yet dived into the new Romans commentary from Beacon Hill).  Certainly there are scholarly commentaries that dialog with recent developments in Pauline studies (e.g., Robert Jewett's Romans commentary in the Hermeneia series, probably the current gold standard).  And there have always been Wesleyan interpretations of Romans.

What I don't think exists are Wesleyan treatments of Paul that fully take into account the immense changes in Pauline studies in the last thirty years.  I suspect the first five chapters of this book on Romans will be astoundingly eye-opening to a Wesleyan audience that just has no idea.  If I had the resources, I would put a copy in the hands of every Wesleyan pastor.

The last five chapters look at the most disputed writings of Paul (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastorals).  Here I don't think I have dodged any of the landmines, although I leave it up to the reader to decide what they think on issues like pseudonymity.  What I have not done is wished the issues away.  There is just no getting around the fact that the Pastorals and Ephesians are significantly unlike Paul's central writings in many respects.  If we are actually interested in listening to what they have to say, we have to take the differences into account, whether we think Paul has changed his mind or his secretary or whether we think these documents were written to convey Paul's voice to a generation some time after his death.

Now the able hands of Kevin Scott at Wesleyan Publishing House will take off the rough edges ;-)  Thanks to all the great help there and for all the sharpening those of you in blogland have brought to the writing as well.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Ten Most Impactful Teachers...

... on me.

This is not about personality but about moments or courses of impact.

1. Fifth grade: Mr. Guinn, Wilton Manors Elementary School
He shared with us at one point that he ran 5 miles a day.  At the time, I thought that was astounding.  It was part of the inspiration to be a runner (I thought of doing this while running a few minutes ago ;-).

2. Tenth through Twelfth: "Uncle Mel" Atkinson, Fort Lauderdale High School (FLHS)
I took Chem 1, 2, and 3 with him.  I did a search on him yesterday and see he died in 2009.  He was my favorite high school teacher.  He was a "populist" teacher, which means he took a lot of time to talk about life and take everyone along, not just the people interested in Chemistry like me.  I became a Chemistry major initially in college under his influence.

3. Eleventh and Twelfth: Phil Pickett, FLHS
I mentioned him in my post yesterday.  Had him for Trig/Analytic Geometry and Calculus.  Probably the best teacher I've ever had anywhere.

4. Twelfth: Larry Stock, FLHS
Had him for Humanities.  Man, the teachers at my high school were as good as any I ever had anywhere.  In two semesters we went from the Sumerians to the Impressionists.  We did art, architecture, philosophy, world history.  We read the Republic.

I remember him telling us about a couple of his former students who traveled Europe after high school who understood so much more from his class.  I experienced it too when I went off to England to do my doctorate.  He taught us what a "flying buttress" was ;-)

Died about three years ago, I think.  Some of my class who still live in Lauderdale went to the funeral.  Again, a lot of colleges couldn't match my high school, a public school, no less.  I don't have room to mention Mr. Hatley or Ms. McGuire or Mrs. Gaus or Mr. Packard...

5. College: Martin LaBar
I had other profs I was closer to in college, several who were very memorable and whom I still call friends (Bob Black was probably my favorite overall, but Drs. Schmutz, Bross, Sinnamon, Dongell, and Elliott were also memorable).  But the class that would eventually have the most impact on my thinking in college was a 1 hour integrative course where we read (or at least were supposed to ;-) Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Dr. LaBar was a genetics professor who is known to lurk in these blog parts.  I didn't have him for any other course, but this book is surely one of the top ten books to read to reach enlightenment.

6. Seminary: Bob Lyon, Asbury Seminary
Dr. Lyon has passed now.  I learned Textual Criticism from him and his article on baptism in the New Testament taught me an attempt at objectivity in handling evidence I had known in science but not in religion.  Dr. Lyon was not perfect, but he was brilliant and led the "LO Society," "Loyal Opposition" to the generic stream of mindless conformity that so often typifies the status quo.

7. Seminary: David Bauer
Asbury truly taught me how to aim at objectivity in biblical scholarship.  I learned IBS, baby, Traina style.  Dr. Bauer is truly a scientist of inductive Bible study.  By the way, Lawson Stone was also awesome, just out of Yale at the time.  He was enthusiastic and creative, exactly the kind of person you picture when you picture a genius.

8. University of Kentucky: Lewis Swift
He wouldn't know me from Adam.  The dog-gone guy was Dean of UK and adjuncting a class in Virgil's Aeneid in Latin.  The guy was wicked smart and dropped French and Latin phrases into his everyday speech without thinking.  He wasn't putting on airs.  He really thought like that.  Other great professors there: Jane Phillips, Robert Rabel, Hubert Martin.

9. Durham: James D. G. Dunn
Truth be known, Dr. Lyon's piece on baptism is little more than Dunn's Baptism in the Spirit, a book that like all of Jimmy's books is a model of objectivity.  You may not like his recent, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?, but you will scarcely find anyone else so willing to follow the evidence to what seems to him to be its logical conclusion as Dunn.

10. Durham: Loren Stuckenbruck
He's now chair of the Biblical Studies department at Princeton Seminary.  One of the smartest people I have ever met.  No one need ever worry about me thinking I'm smart.  I'm a complete moron compared to people like Loren.  I have seen genius and it is not I.

I should give honorable mention to David Bundy who, rumor had it, learned Dutch one weekend in Amsterdam.  He wasn't at Durham but was a master linguist like Loren.  Bundy was librarian at Asbury when I was there.  I did an independent study with him in Aquinas at Asbury.  He's currently librarian at Fuller.

How's that?  I wish anyone out there at any stage of their education the chance to study with minds like these!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

FLHS: Mr. Pickett understood

I had an incredible high school AP math teacher my junior and senior year, Mr. Pickett at Fort Lauderdale High School (FLHS).  My class (1984) by the way was great.  They still get together in Ft. Lauderdale during the holidays.  In fact all the classes before and after me were great.  They were the stuff of what we picture high school to be at its best.  At least I thought so.

And now to the obscure you could only expect of me ;-)  I had Mr. Pickett for Calculus my senior year.  He was, by the way, even better than my college calculus teacher.  He was so good for me that I can still remember things he said, and I don't remember anything from real life. ;-)

I remember him talking about the "epsilon-delta" confusion in the first weeks of calculus.  He told us not to worry about it.  He said the only person he knew who claimed to understand it was a fellow student of his at Florida State, who occasionally would fall down the stairs because he wasn't paying attention to where he was going.  He said they would yell, "Are you okay, x?" And he would yell back, "Yeah."

I took that as a challenge.  I would eventually look at this epsilon-delta confusion.  I would understand it.  And I did when I was in college.  It isn't actually that big of a deal.  It's mathematicians dotting their i's and crossing t's in a way that seems complicated--much ado about nothing for the rest of us.

The point is that Mr. Pickett understood.  I know he did.  He just knew it was completely unnecessary for us to know.  It would have blown almost everyone's circuit breakers over something completely unimportant unless you're going to be a math professor.

So here's to Mr. Pickett, wherever you are.  He moved back to South Carolina the year or so after I graduated, much to the loss of FLHS.

P.S. Yes, I remain a nerd on my own time. ;-)

New Year's Resolutions

Happy New Year!

I glanced back at the resolutions I published last year and, typical, I didn't do so well.  One of them I take up again--to finish plowing through Josephus.

I want to make some different kinds of goals this year.  First, not to get so freakishly behind as I have been these last six months.  I've been unbelievably late on everything and unable to catch up on anything.  In the next week I will at long last finish off several albatrosses around my neck and around those who have waited on me.

So going forward:
1. I'm getting old.  I shouldn't plan to write more than 6 pages a week of anything, tops.  That means not taking on any more writing assignments till I've finished my current plate and then only moving forward slowly.  By the end of the year, I would like to have finished another scholarly book, or be close.  Thus far I really only have one book that falls in that category, Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews.

2. I should read at least 30 pages a week of something a bit more scholarly.

That's about all I'm sharing.  Anyone else have resolutions?