Monday, February 28, 2011

God is Love 3 (W)

This is the third of this attempt to capture the essence of the Wesleyan tradition...

A Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love
What we have been expressing is the way God relates to his creation, a creation that is alienated from him in its knowledge and being.  When we look to Scripture to tell us about what God is like, we find a number of pictures.  God is love.  God is just.  When we ask what God's dominant mode of operation toward the creation is, surely love is the dominant characteristic.

John 3:16 captures this characteristic well.  God's love stands behind his sending of Jesus into the world so that anyone might be reconciled to him.  Wesleyans do not believe that God has only chosen a select few to rescue, seemingly arbitrarily.  John Wesley himself taught that God had a "prevenient" grace that empowered us to move toward God long before we even know God is at work.  It is a grace that "goes ahead" of us, indeed, that was in action in some respects before God created the world.

The way we think about God has massive implications.  For example, the best of the Wesleyan tradition has always believed that God's judgment of humanity is a matter of "the light we have," rather than his measurement of us against an absolute standard.  The end result is that we may find individuals in the kingdom of God who had never heard the name of Jesus while they were alive but who had responded appropriately to the prevenient light God had brought to them.

At the same time, it is not clear that God extends this light to us indefinitely.  Perhaps we best take what the Bible calls the "hardening of the heart" as a rejection of God's light to the point that God abandons a person to his or her own destructive path.  And however we might understand eternal condemnation, it surely represents a path set by our own rejection of God's advances, resulting in a permanent separation from him that reflects our own hardened identity.

Some Christian traditions do not think God could have complete authority and be "sovereign" if humans could disobey or defy him.  But the Wesleyan tradition believes that God in his authority has every right to empower free will in humanity if he wants to do so.  The best of the Wesleyan tradition does not operate from a sense of God enraged by our destructive actions.  This is one picture we find in the Bible, but all such pictures are given to help us grasp a God who is beyond our understanding.  The more important and dominant picture in the New Testament is of a God grieved by our self-destructive patterns.  God demonstrates his love toward us in that even when we were his enemies, he sent his Son to die on our behalf (Rom. 5:8).

Again, the Wesleyan way of understanding God has implications that fit with what we find in the biblical witness.  For example, while some Christian groups emphasize ethical absolutes, the best of the Wesleyan tradition emphasizes a priority of values and the importance of exceptions.  By definition, an absolute has no exceptions.  For example, if you believe that keeping the Sabbath is an absolute, then you believe there is no circumstance in which it would be right not to keep the Sabbath.

Wesleyans, as all Christians, do indeed believe in the two great absolutes that Jesus reiterated from the Old Testament: love God and love neighbor (e.g., Matt. 22:36-40).  There is no situation that could ever arise when it would be appropriate to make an exception to these two principles.  But the ethic of both Jesus and Paul focused on making exceptions to the "Law" when a higher value was at stake.  People trump rules for their own sake.

Jesus does not come into conflict with religious leaders in Mark 2 because of his absolutism.  On the contrary, it is his opponents who take an absolutist perspective on the Sabbath.  Paul did not come into conflict with other Christians because of his absolutism, but because he set aside parts of the Law that were hindering the gospel.  The normal level of Christian ethics is universal in scope, but not absolute in practice.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan captures this principle well.  In this story, the Levite and priest ignore the love of their neighbor because of the purity standards of Leviticus.  By contrast, the picture we get of God's character--and of his ideal for us is--is of a love that prizes people over rules.  Jesus never agrees with the Samaritan over theology and practice.  He just demonstrates that such things do not trump the love of one's "enemy."  The best of the Wesleyan tradition sees God in these terms and believes that in his relationship to humanity, "mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13).

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scot McKnight's new James commentary

My first, unthinking thought was, "Yeah, I can use that when I teach General Epistles..."

My next thought was... "Oh, that's right, I'm an administrator now." ;-)

Heart-Oriented Tradition 2 (W)

This is the second of the umpteenth attempt...

A Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
Is it possible that a person’s “head” could be wrong on very many things, and yet that person be right with God? By the same token, could a person have all the right beliefs and yet be as far away from God as the most violent criminal? The best of the Wesleyan tradition says “yes.” In a very different context, 1 Samuel 16:7 puts it memorably: “the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (NRSV).

We can put it another way. Could a person “mess up” in very many ways for various reasons, and yet that person be right with God? Similarly, could a person’s outward actions appear virtuous and honorable and yet her heart be far from God? The best of the Wesleyan tradition says “yes.” God is able to divide “soul from spirit” and to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

Let us ask the question one more time. Is it possible that a person be right with God because their heart is rightly oriented toward him, even if their understanding is thoroughly mistaken and their actions far from God’s ideal? The best of the Wesleyan tradition says “yes.” This sense of the heart as the focal point of God’s concern, more than your ideas or actions, reflects the Pietist influence on Wesley and, of course, ultimately traces its origins to Scripture.

One’s beliefs were certainly important to Wesley. And actions were even more important to Wesley than one’s beliefs. Certainly we will have great difficulty maintaining a good relationship with God for long outside of the community of faith. But the best of the Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that, for me as an individual, my heart is God’s focal concern. "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:20-21, NRSV).

This heart orientation manifested itself in Wesley’s definition of sin as a “voluntary transgression of the law.” Is it possible to sin unintentionally? Certainly it is—we can wrong others without meaning to do so. We can also do wrong without even realizing it. It is not incorrect to call such wrongdoing “sin,” because it is this sort of sin that is the primary interest of the Levitical law—“high handed,” intentional sins left little room for forgiveness (e.g., Num. 15).

But the New Testament says almost nothing about unintentional sin. And it would be quite mistaken to think that God’s standard for sin in the New Testament is absolute perfection. Paul came closest to giving us a New Testament definition when he said that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23, NRSV). This is the standard God has set for our relationship with him. It is not, “whoever does not believe the right things has sinned.” It is not even “whoever does not do the right things has sinned.” It is “the one whose thoughts and actions come from the wrong motivations has sinned.”

Some Christian traditions have struggled more than others with the postmodern challenge of these last decades. The postmodern critique pointed out how ambiguous language can be. The postmodern critique pointed out how often politics and power are involved in what we call truth. The postmodern critique exposed how unaware we often are of the cultural and historical influences on our paradigms, and how paradigms tend to change over time. We can learn from these critiques without abandoning our confidence that truth exists.

Indeed, somewhat ironically, the postmodern critique has actually reinforced the theological values the Wesleyan tradition has always had. We have always known the limitations of knowledge, even when it comes in Christian garb. Wesley was certainly a thinker, but he was also a pragmatist, the direction in which the postmodern critique pushes us. And our emphasis on transformation and divine encounter is completely unaffected. The best of the Wesleyan tradition has always known that truth is far more a matter of what is going on deep inside us than the relatively superficial thoughts we have with our conscious minds.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why I Am a Wesleyan 1 (W)

Again, I apologize to those who don't care or have heard it all before.  Maybe the muse will help me get it just right this time for some sort of booklet.
A Generous Tradition
I appreciate aspects of all Christian traditions.  I appreciate the sense of security in God that Baptist traditions have. I appreciate the emphases on grace and freedom in the Lutheran tradition.  I appreciate the depth of the Roman Catholic tradition. Surely no Christian tradition has everything right, and surely we can agree on many things in almost all Christian traditions.

I personally come from the Wesleyan tradition, a tradition that traces its origins ultimately back to an eighteenth century Anglican minister named John Wesley.  I do not think for one moment that he--or I--have everything all figured out.  Indeed, like almost all Christian traditions in North America, the Wesleyan tradition today includes numerous little groups that spun off from their original Methodist roots.

In our current setting, you would not have to pick a "denomination," a group of churches that join together on the basis of some commonality. In fact, some churches have banded together on the common ground of opposition to denominations.  The current climate includes a multitude of non-denominational churches and even the house church movement is going strong.

But a quick look at the beliefs and practices of the most virulently non-denominational church will almost always reveal the influence of historical Christian traditions.  How to they baptize?  What do they believe about particular issues?  The answers to these questions almost always will reflect the influence of particular Christian traditions.

So I come from the Wesleyan tradition and have stayed with my tradition despite growing up, studying, and formulating my own personal understandings and practices of faith.  I could no doubt express my faith and be enriched in almost any church.  Why, then, am I a Wesleyan?

One reason is because the Wesleyan tradition is a heart-oriented tradition that, because it is focused primarily on our intentions and character, can be generous toward differing ideas and practices. It is not that the Wesleyan tradition is unconcerned with ideas or has no interest in the pursuit of truth.  It is only that its focus on virtue and pure intentions make those concerns a second or even third order of business.

John Wesley, like most great thinkers, has left us with several memorable sayings that capture key truths.  One of Wesley's was that "if your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mind."  I am a Wesleyan because the Wesleyan tradition is a generous tradition toward others.  When we are at our best, we are more about finding what we have in common with others than with separating from others because of our differences.

Indeed, because of this heart-orientation, many churches in the Wesleyan tradition have developed a great freedom in church practice.  For example, you will find almost every form of baptism in my own Wesleyan denomination, everything from believer's baptism to infant baptism to no baptism at all.  While I have my own preferences, I delight in a tradition that does not fight over baptism, communion, or so many of the Christian practices that have so often divided Christian churches.

I am a Wesleyan because the Wesleyan tradition at its best is a generous tradition toward other traditions.  Generosity in this sense is not the same as thinking all beliefs and practices are equally valid.  It is simply an orientation toward others that sees the most important common ground as a matter of our intentions and character, not whether we all think or act the same way.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Not Again: What is a Wesleyan?

Sorry to do this again!!!

You may not know how big Indiana Wesleyan University is, but we have about 16,000 students now.  I just found out yesterday that we have more graduate students in education that IU or any other institution in the State of Indiana.  Our Adult and Professional Studies college is where most of these numbers are and they are all keen on our mission as a Christian institution.  The problem is that I don't think they have a clue what it means to be Wesleyan--certainly not what the undergraduate School or seminary thinks it means to be Wesleyan.

So I find myself once again wanting to capture the identity of our brand of Wesleyanism in about 15 pages of writing that could be printed in a booklet like my little piece on women in ministry.  My last attempt ended up 44 pages long--too long for a booklet, too short for a book.  What's worse is that I wrote it with "audience drift," meaning that I did not consistently have one audience in view as I wrote.  There's also a tightrope to walk between a sense of openness and generosity and being proud of certain identity features.  I do fine in front of one audience or another, but I struggle to do justice to both at the same time.

I thought I would just try an outline today.  Things to say with no more than one or two pages in each instance to say it.

1. Generous tradition toward other traditions (gen. orthodoxy, identity among diversity, flexibility in practice)
2. Heart oriented tradition (not afraid of postmodernism, pietist, revivalist, heart more than hands or head)
3. God as heart oriented (according to light, wanting to save everyone, not absolutist)
4. The cross as love and wooing (not primarily as justice)
5. Free will (which affects our politics, our parenting, our discipline)
6. Love as the law (and optimistic about it, our sense of sin as intent, as defeatable)
7. Love beyond spiritual (beyond evangelism to material needs, social justice)
8. Love into the structural (past on slavery and women, present, not fundamentalist)
9. Importance of faithfulness (works part of the equation, nature of grace)
10. Scripture as sacrament (of transformation, of divine encounter)
11. Scripture as story (of our identity, of God's walk with humanity and his people)

Any thoughts?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Appropriating Scripture: Any thoughts?

I wrote this summary of "original meaning" appropriation (the third of three Christian methods of appropriating Scripture: 1) pneumatic, 2) theological, and 3) original meaning.  Any additions or corrections?
"We might thus suggest three key factors in appropriating the original meaning of a biblical book to today. First, there is the question of genre. What are the dynamics of each type of literature that come into play when appropriating that type.

Second, there is the question of continuity and discontinuity between “that time” and “this time.” The notion of continuity and discontinuity is arguably a little more sophisticated than talking about “all time” principles because, whether we like it or not, our sense of what those “all time” principles are is a function of “our time”—because we are the ones conceptualizing those principles! But in the end, what we may find is that there are some things we would not be able to do today that they could in biblical times (e.g., have slaves) and there may be some things that we can do today that they could not (e.g., have goatees).

Finally, there is the question of integrating biblical teaching. How does one Scripture connect to the other pieces of Scripture? Where does an individual passage stand in the flow of revelation? This rigorous method is surely not necessary to hear God’s voice in Scripture, but it is sound nonetheless and, in many respects, safer than the pneumatic method we mentioned above."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

OT Law in the New Testament: fair summary?

I've written this summary for a class.  Is it fair?  Have I missed an option?

"Some traditions pay more attention to Old Testament Law than others.  Some American churches formed in nineteenth century dispensationalism have a tendency to see Old Testament Law in more continuity with the New Testament than other Christian traditions do (e.g., Seventh Day Adventists).  High Protestant traditions like Lutherans and the Reformed like to see the Law as completely fulfilled in Christ, to where we are not bound by anything in the Old Testament except the law to love God and love our neighbor.  A more partitioned approach is also possible, asking which Old Testament laws the New Testament retains, which ones the New Testament considers fulfilled, and which ones the New Testament abandons."

Three Obstacles to Vision

I found some comments interesting yesterday in Carson Pue's book, Mentoring Leaders.  He mentions three characteristics that sometimes blur a young leader's sense of vision (82).  Putting them in my words:

1. Too many things they are able to do.
If a person only has one gift or area of interest, it's pretty easy to have a clear sense of direction.

2. Too many things they are doing.
The more involved you get, the more your life runs on autopilot and you don't stop to focus on a vision.

3. They proceed without self-awareness.
So they do not eliminate things that hold them back or mistake personality for God, etc...

P.S. I think Pue's preface is a cop-out.  Alternating between masculine and feminine pronouns is only "distracting and confusing" (12) if you do not fully see them as interchangeable.  Masculine pronouns are no longer generic to modern readers.  When I see "he," I think "he" and not "she."  If you really believe women can be leaders, it hurts nothing to vary your pronouns.  It's hard for me not to think his decision to go with all masculine pronouns is simply a move to placate the typical reader of this sort of book, despite his preface comments to the contrary.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Middle East

What's happening in the Middle East?  We'll have to see.

A first thought is that we are seeing more consequences of the flattening of the world.  With the internet, cell phones, and such, governments can't isolate their people, especially their young people.  And once people get a taste of what is possible, it's hard to deny them.  But this is also a protest against distress as much as an assertion of freedom.

It remains to be seen from country to country what the end result is.  Egypt could end up better.  Libya might just switch dictators.  Some could go more democratic.  Others more fundamentalist.  We'll see.  Thus far these do not seem to be ideologically driven rebellions, just people tired of oppression and economic distress. But what inserts itself into vacuums remains to be seen.

So far, it's exciting to think about what might happen.  For one thing, it would be nice to knock the notion out of so many Americans' heads that all Muslims want to blow us up.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2

I don't suppose that many of us spend long periods of time pondering Leviticus, but yesterday's OT lectionary reading made me think of the current immigrant debate:

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God" (NRSV).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mixed Wisconsin Feelings...

I either do not have the insight to take a definitive position or perhaps the Wisconsin political situation is complex.  ;-)

Here are three conflicting impressions I've had:

1. The collective bargaining power of unions is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it arose in a context where business was running over the individual little man.  I also think that in a different period, unions have made it difficult for some businesses to be competitive by unreasonable demands.  I don't know what the solution is.

2. Who would want to be a public school teacher in America today?  The kids are atrocious because the parents are atrocious.  Local teachers and administrators waste half their time filling out paperwork for the government.  They aren't empowered to do what needs to be done locally.  They're not even allowed to physically remove disruptive students from the classroom.  The drop out rate for teachers in the first 5 years is enormous.  They are the play thing of political debate and subject to ever changing expectations.

And now they're getting a massive pay cut in Wisconsin by cutting pension and health care from their existing salary.  I heard a commentator on Fox News this morning repeat the governor's rhetoric in his own words--they're being paid too much and given too much vacation.  Right.  Actually, let's just put some unemployed janitors in as teachers.  How hard can it be to teach someone to read, right?

3. The entire amount of the current Wisconsin budget shortfall would be covered four times over with tax cuts that have been made in the state over the last 10 years.  This is a debate America needs to have.  What is the "sweet spot" on taxes?  Taxes fund the government.  The government provides services to provide for a common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.  But taxes reduce individual spending, which diminishes profitability in the free market, which gives individuals less money to spend--which yields less taxes.

Both sides need to get their head straight, I believe.  For the one side, high taxes presumably do not lead to a thriving economy or society.  The impulse to keep as much money in the hands of the people that spend it (which is not necessarily the wealthy) seems to be a good impulse.

For the other side, there is no divine right against taxes.  Paul said to pay taxes.  Jesus said to pay taxes.  I cannot even imagine how to make an informed biblical, Christian, or moral argument against taxes along the lines of the current debates.

My main hope is more local.  I have a mixture of people who read this blog from time to time, people on both sides of these issues.  Perhaps we can carve out just a small island of mutual understanding and of Christian clarity.  As I've said before, we should be able to agree on our broad Christian values, even if working out the details is complicated.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dangers of Ideological Isolation

You all can imagine that there are many times when I wish I were situated in a place where I could dedicate my thoughts strictly to the question of truth.  But when it comes to things like religion and politics, there is usually another layer that is also in play.  For religion, there is the question of the impact of truth and truth discussions on faith.  For politics, there are questions of keeping the system moving and getting re-elected.

Like Dubois said about the identity of an African-American, those in religion and politics have two identities--who you think you are and who other people think you are.  I like what Obama said to O'Reilly last week about those who hate him.  He said he didn't worry about it because they didn't know him.  In so many words, they only knew a caricature of him.  I know I have misjudged others before because of the blanks I filled in with my mind, rather than leaning on what I actually saw of them face to face.

All of this is to thank those of you who disagree with me from time to time here on the blog.  It would be more comfortable no doubt if only people who agreed with me commented here.  But isn't that our problem?  Democrats only talk to Democrats and get more extreme, or libertarians only talk to libertarians and get more extreme.  When Wesleyans only talked to other Wesleyans, let's face it we were pretty bizarre in some ways.

So thank you for your loyal opposition.  I learn from you and I hope I at least make you think from time to time.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Commentary Series Recommendation for Pastors

This is a recommendation for evangelical pastors.  I'm often asked about what commentary series to buy by Wesleyan pastors and seminary students.  The usual scholarly answer is less than helpful, even if it is accurate.  You'll hear things like, "You really should buy commentaries based on the author and specific commentary rather than by the series."

Certainly that's true.  The authors in a series are not all the same.  Some are better than others.  Some are better at one book than another.  But how do you know which to pick?  Certainly David Bauer's Annotated Guide is good.

Another thing scholars will do is recommend a series out of the reach of most pastors.  For example, the Word series is excellent.  The Hermeneia is probably the most scholarly of all.  But these commentaries are not the most helpful to the typical pastor who may not know the original languages or not know them well.  Also, these commentaries are not oriented around application but around the original meaning.

So for the typical evangelical pastor, I have generally settled on recommending the NIV Application Commentary series for the following reasons:

1. It does not require knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.
2. It addresses the kinds of questions that evangelicals ask and answers them from an evangelical perspective.
3. It does a fair job of making you aware of the kinds of background information you could not really get from the text itself.
4. It is accessible.  The format is friendly to the "get it quick" user.
5. It is hermeneutically aware.  Sections have clear distinctions between interpretation and application.

The main drawback for Wesleyans is that there are no authors from the Wesleyan tradition in this entire series.  This is our situation in general.  The Wesleyan tradition neither has the publishing power of other traditions nor general interest in publishing/buying these sorts of books. That means the most you will get at best is a broadly Arminian perspective from the NIV Application series.  For some that's a strength; for Wesleyans, it means opportunities are missed.  I hope to look at the new Nazarene series some time soon to see if it fills in some of these gaps.

The same goes for instances where evangelicalism is out of sync with majority scholarship.  For example, Moo's IVP Application Commentary on 2 Peter/Jude tries to argue that Jude is dependent on 2 Peter.  This is an attempt based purely on ideological rather than exegetical concerns.  But you could argue that it is exactly this sort of interpretive perspective evangelical pastors are looking for, so that could be a strength rather than a weakness.

Computers Win

I'm struck with the fact that a computer beat two human contestants on Jeopardy.  We've all enjoyed iRobot, Matrix, Terminator, and all the sci-fi movies where computers take over the world.  I am struck by the very real possibility that the thought experiment could one day be a reality.

It is naive to think that there is anything a computer could not be programmed to "simulate."  Emotion, moral values, virtue, vice, intellect, research capacity--I have little doubt but that these processes could one day not long from now be programmed in a manner that gave a robot the appearance of much greater consistency than anyone in your neighborhood.  This brings a number of related thoughts:

1. At first, robots and machines replaced those who do hard labor.  Next, they will replace doctors and researchers.  Why go to a doctor who is very fallible?  Why not go to a robot who is better than any human diagnostician could ever be?

2. Our sense of these things is generally very simplistic.  The American ethos makes fun of taking classes on things like psychology or the brain, then thinks its opinion is as valid as any other on these sorts of matters.  The physical structure of the brain can account for far more than we would like to think in the areas of emotion, religious experience, and values.

Here's the bottom line: the notion that the existence of a detachable soul might be necessary to account for human processes is an act of faith--and one many Christians do not think is dictated by Scripture or creed.  It could turn out that the word "simulate" in relation to robotic thought is a rather artificial distinction.  I am not taking a position here, since the answer seems unprovable at present.  I am simply saying that at present, it is unclear what "mind process" is not accounted for adequately by the physical brain.

Just to fend off alarm, if you are unfamiliar with this discussion, those like Joel Green who take this position believe in the afterlife, believe in human moral responsibility, etc.  They just consider language of the soul as metaphorical and unbiblical.  I have blogged on this before.

3. This also bears on some of the, in my opinion, naive statements sometimes made about God.  For example, many say that God became Jesus so he could learn what it felt like to be human, as if emotional and experiential knowledge are fundamentally distinguishable from cognitive knowledge.  For God this distinction is nonsensical.  God created emotions, experiences, and even the potential to sin.  Omniscience means that God must know not only "intellectual" truths, but experiential ones as well.  This distinction is meaningless on the level of God.

Some thoughts on Jeopardy ;-)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Budget Cutting is Hard...

Heard two bits of information yesterday that hit hard.  The one is that the House is proposing to cut Fulbright funding over a billion dollars this week.  I'm in the process of finding out whether I'll get a Fulbright to go on sabbatical next year.  Suffice it to say, such a cut could hurt deeply!

The other is the proposal to cut funding entirely for public radio.  I do watch the local morning news and some of the Today Show on TV.  I occasionally will put on CNN or MSNBC for headline news.  But NPR is my primary source of news every hour on the hour, driving in to work and driving home.  I like listening to Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and All Things Considered because the hosts are polite and try not to take sides.  I generally don't know their own positions.

These were illustrations to me yesterday of how hard it's going to be to get the deficit under control.  If it were possible, I'd prefer for them to do a cross the board percentage cut--to get the budget under control in 5 years we must cut everything x%.  I suppose it doesn't work that way but perhaps it could be a place to start.

What can't happen is ideological cutting.  Almost everything must be cut, from defense to things like the above that preserve America's soul.  Ironically, defunding the arts and value added programs like Fulbright remind me of the old Communist sense that only what is useful in a very narrow and material sense matters.  It's funny how if you go far enough to one extreme you can become like the other extreme.  Completely defunding things like PBS or NPR is ideological cutting and is counterproductive.

This budget cutting is going to hurt everyone if it is done right.  What's the magic percentage?  Start there with everything, let each area suggest specifics, and let's go from there.  We'll all hurt together.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sampling the Bible/Theology Divide

John Drury gave a wonderful comparison of John Wesley and Karl Barth's interpretation of Matthew 5:48 at our weekly Theological Seminar (3:30 every week in the CM building if you're interested).  It highlighted to me again the contrasting use Christian interpreters of the centuries have put to Scripture versus the original meaning.  Three quick examples come to mind of late.

1. Barth has a rather sophisticated understanding of Matthew 5:48--perfect means brought to its appropriate goal, which would of course differ in specifics between God and humanity.  For Wesley, of course, this verse hinted at Christian perfection.  Both are wrong in terms of the original meaning.  Perfection in Matthew 5:48 simply means to be complete, to go the whole way.  Love your enemies and your neighbor.  Be complete.  The completion is exactly the same for God and for humanity in this case.

2. A student email asked of the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God.  Apparently, this is a well worked out distinction among Christian interpreters.  In Matthew, however, they are synonymous, with the phrase "kingdom of heaven" being a matter of Matthew's style.

3. Salvation for Paul is future oriented (with the possible exception of Ephesians).  It is to escape God's coming wrath on the Day of Judgment.  Theologians of the centuries, I think however, have focused more on salvation in the present.

Because of the flexibility of language, I accept the validity of both types of interpretation, the original, contextual one, and the truths Christian theologians have heard in the words over the centuries.  The truths they see do not necessarily contradict the original meaning.  They are just interpreting the words differently.

But I'm never quite sure what to do with the difference.  If you want theological enrichment, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley are wonderful.  But don't go to any of these if you want the original meaning.  They were not oriented or equipped to read in context and their interpretations regularly fall far wide of the mark from an inductive standpoint.

My problem is that I find it distracting.  Barth is incredibly profound, as are so many theologians.  I feel like I should be able to listen to him or Wesley for the truth God gave to them on their own terms.  But I am left wondering what to do with the fact that they sometimes do their dance based on misunderstanding. Perhaps this is my problem and one that shouldn't be.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Nazarene Statement on the Bible

The Nazarenes met last week at NNU to clarify the words we so often use in talking about the Bible and to do so from a Wesleyan position informed by the lead of Wesley himself.  Below are five statements they came up with.  I've included a few comments in red interspersed.

1. The Bible has its origin in the heart of God. God inspired the authors and inspires readers of Scripture across the ages. God uses the Bible to call us to faithful response.

I like the fact that the Nazarenes recognize the importance of inspiration for readers along with the original inspiration.  From a pragmatic perspective, unless a reader or group of readers can experience God in the words, then the text does no good whatsoever for that reader.  For precision, something might also have been said about the contextual nature of the original inspiration.

2. The Bible consistently witnesses to, reveals, and teaches the Church regarding God's purpose of salvation and holy life. It is consistently confirmed by the Christian community, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The role of the Church in the first five centuries was incredibly important in establishing the core interpretations Christians make of Scripture in relation to Christology and the Trinity.  This statement begins to get at how crucial a role the Church has played in God's gift of Scripture to us, but is much weaker than it might be.

3. The Bible is inerrant in what it does: the Spirit is at work revealing through human words the character and purposes of God to redeem, in Christ, all creation.

Perhaps this statement is an attempt to re-steer language of inerrancy from the past.  A more precise wording might say that the Bible is infallible in what it does.  Nevertheless, this statement reflects some of the brilliant understanding speech-act theory has brought to such things.  Words do things, and stating ideological truth is only one thing that words can do.  This statement indicates that the primary thing that the Bible "does" is reveal the character and purposes of God.  Perhaps we might more accurately say that the primary thing God does through Scripture is to transform us into his likeness (or Keith Drury would say, "to form a holy people").

4. We interpret the Bible in a dynamic process. This requires that Christians interpret in community, in prayerful humility, and relying upon the Holy Spirit. Good interpretation is informed by the tradition, anchored by essential Christian beliefs, and informed by the best contributions of saints and scholars today.

This statement strikes me as "theological interpretation" speak.  I agree with what this language "does."  I have recently used the analogy of a good golf swing.  This statement gives key elements in a good golf swing, in the proper appropriation of Scripture.  I just don't think the scholars who crafted this language fully understand their own swing.

This statement blurs two quite different activities.  There is original meaning interpretation, which is squarely a function of the range of meanings words had at the time the books were written.  An atheist historian could interpret the original meaning soundly, although it is certainly appropriate for us to pray for the illumination of our minds and to be informed by the best contributions of saints today.  

But it is theological interpretation and theological appropriation that appropriately bring along extra-biblical elements like tradition and humility.  And the Holy Spirit is essential if we are to appropriate Scripture properly today, the essential ingredient that an atheist does not bring to the text.  This statement blurs together appropriate, but distinct interpretations of biblical language.

5. Christians have always engaged and interacted with the cultures in which they live. Yet the essential message of the Bible remains consistent. Christians in humility endeavor to engage the postmodern world by listening to, speaking with, living among, and embodying Christ-like love to this generation.

This is about the importance of contextualization of the message.  Jesus and Paul modeled an approach to Scripture that took into account the context into which it spoke.

So those are some of my takes.  Does anyone know if Maddox's talk on Wesley's use of Scripture is available?  Of course Wesley was not the founder of the Nazarene Church any more than he founded the Free Methodists or the Wesleyans.  We are free to be more profound than Wesley was.

In any case, here is the website about the conclusion of the conference.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Blockbuster's Dying Breath...

Blockbuster's closing here in Marion.  We loved it.  It's less than a mile from our house.  We were on the pass, which meant we could go in and get 2 new movies at any time with no late fees.  Every month it auto-paid.

So we had not jumped on the Netflix band wagon.  My step-daughter at college wondered what reason she would even have to come home with no Blockbuster for her and Spencer to use in the service of hours of endless boredom. ;-)

Alas, at the sell-out Tuesday, I bit the bullet and bought a Toshiba Blu-Ray device that has built in wireless and that you can use either for Blockbuster or Netflix.  I cancelled my pass, signed up for the DVD mailing service (which simply does not satisfy last minute people like us who might go through 4 videos on a Saturday).  What I expected is that I would be able to buy some sort of online pass to use with the Blu-Ray.

Not so.  As a sign of Blockbuster's death, I have to pay $3.99 per video we "rent" through  It's valid for 24 hours.  This of course means that if we were to have any Marathon Saturdays, we will have to pay nearly $20 to do it.

The final insult was not only that the "signing" package only gives you $5 free (=one On Demand rental) but that our inaugural movie last night "wasn't eligible" for free.

My conclusion?  Blockbuster will go bankrupt in the next 12 months.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Biblical Theology?

Someone recently asked me if there was a biblical theology in print that I would recommend as a Wesleyan.  I've heard that Dennis Kinlaw has produced an OT one (I haven't found it on Amazon).  I made the usual references to Ladd and Marshall recently has one.

If I were to make a prediction, we might see in a few years a glut of biblical theologies.  What somewhat killed biblical theology about a generation ago is the fact that each biblical author has a unique theology.  The typical biblical theology book thus goes author by author and points out what is unique for them.  But with the rise of theological interpretation, we can come clean about the fact that biblical material can be organized on the basis of  Christian theology external to the text itself.

In short, the hermeneutical climate would now allow for a synthesized biblical theology once again, like the pre-modern ones of yore that did not realize they were organizing the content of the biblical texts on the basis of later Christian theology, but this time with intentionality.

So my next thought is predictable.  Should I dedicate a few years to writing one?  My answer thus far is no.  First, there is no real demand for me to write anything, especially on this level.  My own denominational publishers don't publish serious scholarship, and I don't know of any mainstream publishers that would be interested since I hardly have a following in mainstream circles.

But I also became stymied when I began to think of how I would organize the topic of God.  Barth, for example, organized his Dogmatics around Christ.  But God the Father remains the uncontested center of Scripture, with Christ firmly subordinated to him in the New Testament.  Once more it reminded me that I am not trendy enough to write this work.  The great biblical theology that would sell today would have to be co-written by someone with Richard Bauckham's Christological interpretations and Joel Green's hermeneutic.

Does that person exist?  Michael Gorman?  Maybe some of us in the Methodist tradition could get together.  Just let me write some of the parts on hamartiology, justification, and sanctification. ;-)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hopes for my church... (W)

One thing Bud Bence is known for in new faculty interviews--especially when we are interviewing a Wesleyan candidate--is to ask them in the words of Robert Frost, if they have a "lover's quarrel" with our denomination.  It is always an interesting question.  Presumably it is of some value to be a Wesleyan when you are applying for a position at a Wesleyan university, especially in its School of Theology and Ministry or seminary.

But critical thinking is also an incredibly important skill in an educator.  No one thinks the Wesleyan Church is inerrant   Indeed, it is not known for its history of profound thinkers, no matter how godly our forebears might have been.  It puts the candidate in an interesting position between having some critique but presumably not so deconstructive as to say you don't belong.

Of course one issue with the Wesleyan Church presently is that it's not entirely clear who we are.  There are some very attractive features of our denomination that are resulting in some transplant growth among our ministers.  This is an interesting phenomenon.  We have some of the benefits of a denominational fellowship--a network of people who get along, a pension plan that has survived the economic crisis well, a network that makes it a lot easier to find a church than some independent church.

Yet a local church really has a good deal of the feel of a Baptist church in terms of its structure and independence, and a large church can pretty much do whatever it wants (within reason).  We have district superintendents, but they don't "lord it over" local churches.  It is easy for a Baptist or a charismatic minister to come to the Wesleyans thinking--they're basically like me except they believe you can keep from sinning.  And some Wesleyans don't even think that.

The result is what I might call "transfer drift," ministers who join our denomination because we are a friendly denomination that looks a lot like wherever they've come from.  While the "weird bits" are easy to overlook because Wesleyans themselves don't seem to take them very seriously.  So ex-Baptists, ex-Pentecostals, conservative Methodists, find themselves in our pulpits and we welcome them, as long as they don't teach eternal security, don't promote tongues, and the Methodists can tell all the jokes they want about how liberal their former denomination was.

On the one hand, I like that we are such a welcoming and inviting denomination.  I consider it a strength and defend it as part of John Wesley's DNA--"If your heart is as my heart, put your hand in mine."  But here are some things I hope are not lost in our mindless melange of ministers:

1. We believe in a God disposed to have mercy on all, not a God who saves on the basis of what you know or as a slave to the rules of justice.  He disciplines to redeem, not to destroy because his honor is insulted.

2. Sin--understood primarily as doing wrong intentionally--is not normal for a Christian.  God does not have an absolute standard for sin.  His standards are attainable through the power of the Holy Spirit.  To do wrong intentionally is a rejection of him, and he will let a person reject him (even a Christian) to the point of eternal separation from his goodness.

3. Ministry to the poor and dis-empowered is a central element and charge of the gospel.  When we have the opportunity, we should challenge the structures of society that disadvantage others simply because of their race or gender.  We fully affirm the potential of women to take leadership in all positions of the church and the home.

4. We should not be a fundamentalist denomination, not only because fundamentalist approaches to Scripture cannot be defended on the merits but because fundamentalist approaches skew the prophetic voice.  The "fundamentalists" of the nineteenth century took the wrong position on slavery and women, and fundamentalism in the twentieth was short-sighted on poverty and civil rights.  Fundamentalism is strong on the letter but impoverished in Spirit.

There are voices in my church that currently pull in different directions from the above.  There are murmurs against women in ministry.  There is resistance to social justice here and there.  Our default is a kind of fundamentalist use of the Bible without any real awareness of it. There is a silent acceptance of popular definitions of sin and God's justice.

The generosity of our tradition in its focus on "getting people saved" allows many of these issues to be idle disputes in the background.  But these issues are the ones that distinguish us, the torch-bearing issues.  They are the ones where we have a potential contribution to make.  They should not constitute a "new kind of Wesleyan" or an "emergent Wesleyan" because they are the best of what we have been already.  But I invite the like-minded to rally around these identity markers going forward, even if I don't have a catchy name to offer.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Me to You

Steve Deneff and David Drury have written a book called Soul Shift.  For some reason it does not seem to be available at Amazon but you can get it from the Wesleyan Publishing House site.  This book and the sermon series of which it is a part, in my estimation, is aimed to help us as a congregation mature, as a tool of discipleship.  I have deeply admired the way in which College Wesleyan Church has provided concrete ways to work out our convictions on things like service and small groups.  My sense is that most churches know we should do these things but don't have a clue how to do it (I think of some of my past sermons).

The first "shift" chapter is about moving from "Me to You," and I had some reflections on it.  We are so impenetrable as humans.  Others can see the areas where we need to grow, but it is often very difficult for us to see them.  So those of us who grew up in the church may think, "I already think about how to help others."  And those of us who have had bad self-images in the past think, "It is important to have boundaries and a healthy sense of who you are."

Then I come back to one fundamental aspect of virtue, in my opinion.  Virtue is not about the things that come easy to you, but the things that come hard for you.  So growing in the area of "me to you" is not a measure of how much you think of others "by nature."  Virtue in this area is giving to others in those areas where you don't want to give of yourself, when it is hard.

Maybe it is your personality to think of helping others.  Maybe it is your personality to let others go first.  But is there an area where you cling on to what is yours and could rightly think more of others?  That is an area of potential growth in "me to you."

Monday, February 07, 2011

Original Meaning Translation: Romans 1:16-17

More of my "original meaning" translation of Romans:
Romans 1:16-17
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God [leading] to salvation for everyone who has faith, both to the Jew first and to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith [leading] to faith, as it stands written, "But the righteous by faith will live."

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Novel Excerpt

I couldn't think of anything to say today.  I decided I needed to take some time off.  But I did write a couple pages on one of some 25+ novels I've started.  I'm actually 30 pages in, which puts this one in the top five already in terms of holding my interest ;-)
“Do we need to turn our backpacks on?” I asked. “And will we survive a fall from such a great height?”

“My dear, what great height? You are smaller than the proton we were on, which itself is only something like one, ten trillionth of a centimeter.”

I could tell that was rather small, but I was too embarrassed to ask exactly how small that was. But I could not seem to stop myself. “And what is that in scientific frustration?”

“In scientific notation, the nucleus of an atom—itself usually made up of many protons and neutrons—is about 1 x 10-14 meters. If you took a meter and divided it into ten parts, then divided one of those parts into ten parts, and continued to divide one of the ten parts fourteen times, then you would have something about the size of the average nucleus of an atom.”

“That’s rather small,” I said.

"We may fall for hours and yet will never come close to the smallest fraction of a millimeter, hardly a big enough fall to get even a bruise”

Again, I knew that was rather small, but I was much more comfortable talking in inches and feet than in meters, centimeters, and millimeters. But I still could not stop myself. “And exactly what is a millimeter?”

“Oh dear,” Feynman said as we continued to fall. “I had hoped by this time that America would do a better job of moving its people into the scientific age. We tried, you know, to get kilometers on highway signs in the 1970s, like the rest of the world, but people just don’t like to learn new things. I can only imagine that by now that there are other countries about to surpass America scientifically.

“In any case, an inch is about 2.54 centimeters, and a millimeter is one tenth of a centimeter.”

Friday, February 04, 2011

Seminary Faculty Meeting Picture

From left to right we have Bob, John, Lenny, Chip, and Ken.

Passage for the Day

I went to a certain news website this morning and immediately went from relatively happy to a sense of crisis, fear, and alarm. One article captured the site well, a piece criticizing Obama for leaving the phrase "they shall renew their strength" out of his quotation of Isaiah 40.  It's no wonder so much of America is angry, I thought.  How can anyone with the Spirit of Christ take much of this, I thought.  I was tempted to respond in kind.

To purify myself, I give you this passage from someone this website would attack if he had a different name and was saying this today:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, love the whole way, as your heavenly Father loves the whole way."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Kingdom: Commenced and Coming

Bob Whitesel was telling me at lunch how revolutionary George Ladd's theology of the kingdom was at Fuller when he was there in seminary.  It's an odd story to me, because to me I have always found both Albert Schweitzer's rendition of Jesus (the kingdom is entirely yet to come) and C. H. Dodd's rendition (the kingdom is entirely here already) as so strangely extreme in the light of the gospels.  Ladd's idea of "inaugurated eschatology"--the kingdom has begun in the person of Jesus but is not fully here and will not be fully here until Christ's return--has always seemed commonsensically the best description both of the gospels and of Christian theology.

But Bob has helped me see that these ideas, which for me in seminary were simply different ideological positions, were originally ensconced in what was going on at the time of these scholars.  Ladd, for example, gave theological justification to a burgeoning charismatic movement for whom it was important to see the spiritual gifts of the kingdom as present reality.  John Wimber, for example, was about to start the Vineyard movement at the time.

No doubt the same could be said for Schweitzer and Dodd, especially Dodd.  It's a reminder that historical Jesus research often has as much or more to do with those doing it as with the historical Jesus.  I'm not at all saying such investigations are illegitimate.  I'm just confirming what so many have said before: when we see Jesus as our model for today, we often see Jesus as a mirror of ourselves.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

David versus Josiah

I am always trying to point out the difference between reading the Bible inductively and reading it as Christian Scripture, both of which I consider important for Christians.  We naturally read the Bible as Scripture and this way of reading is completely appropriate, but it is a form of "reader-response," an "ideological" reading from a Christian point of view.  Inductive reading, reading the biblical texts for what they actually say and what they likely meant originally in context, is very difficult for us to do.  It takes massive paradigm shifts for most of us even to know what I'm talking about.

Another example occurred to me this morning.  From an inductive standpoint, it seems to me that Josiah is more important for the deuteronomistic history (Joshua-Kings, with Deuteronomy as lead off) than even David is.  Does not the lead off in 1 Kings 13:2 point to Josiah at least as the climax of 1 and 2 Kings?  2 Kings 23:25 point to him as the greatest king of all Israel's history.  In fact, from an inductive standpoint, an argument can at least be made that a Jewish reader of, say, 500BC, would see Josiah as the most likely candidate for who Deuteronomy 18:15-19 pointed toward.

Yet when we read the Bible as Scripture, David clearly outshines Josiah in the story.  Josiah plays no role in the New Testament, but David is a type of Christ, a key feature in Jesus' identity as king.  Acts 7:37 and other passages clearly read Deuteronomy 18 in relation to Christ.  So when we read the Historical Books as Christian Scripture, David is by far the most important person in the story.  Inductively, David is important--after all, he dominates the space of the narrative.  You just might argue that he is not as important as Josiah in terms of the original meaning of Samuel-Kings.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Heaping Coals of Fire (Rom. 12:20)

Keith Blackburn did a paper last semester on Romans 12:20 on that well known expression about "heaping coals of fire" on the head of your enemy.  He had heard a nice "this is what this really meant" story and wanted to verify or discount it.

So I dug out Robert Jewett's relatively recent Romans commentary, quickly on its way to become the commentary on my list of Ken's Picks, although I want to use it a little more before committing.  (By the way, I wrote too much on my second Paul book so Wesleyan Publishing House is probably going to split it in two, making the next volume, Paul: Soldier of Peace, entirely on Romans.)

So here's the situation as best I can figure it out.  First, Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:22.  Since Proverbs draws on some Egyptian literature, it is likely that it alludes to an Egyptian practice of a repentant person carrying a thing with hot coals in it on their heads to symbolize their repentance.  The idea of the Proverb would thus be to feed and give drink to your enemy so that he or she will repent of their animosity toward you.

Of course Paul is unlikely to know the Egyptian background of the Proverb, which makes that information irrelevant for interpreting Romans (this is a key point of learning that many "scholars" do not even get.  Doing a Hebrew word study or contextual exegesis of an OT passage is irrelevant to the interpretation of a NT passage that engages the OT if the NT author isn't likely to have known such things.  By and large, the NT authors used the Greek OT and didn't read the OT using historical methods).

So there may have been interpretive traditions around that Paul had in mind, ones that we apparently have no information about.  On the other hand, Paul may have been in the same boat we are as far as reading the verse in context.  We can tell the context is about something positive, not negative.  We can tell you are doing something good for your enemy, and it is moving them toward reconciliation with you.

And this is exactly the meaning Paul sees in Romans 12:20 as the Spirit leads him to write to the Romans.  It is possible, although we cannot really say, that the expression was just as much a dead metaphor for Paul at the time as it is for us.  We pretty much get what it is saying without really knowing where it came from.