Wednesday, November 30, 2011

John and Anti-Judaism 4

Reading through Terence Donaldson's Jews and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  For previous summaries:

Matthew and Anti-Judaism
Luke-Acts and Anti-Judaism

Now chapter 4, John.  Of all the books of the New Testament, John is the one most open to charges of antisemitism and anti-Judaism.  "The Jews" in John are often synonymous with "the world" in John, which is diametrically opposed to God.  The term is used some 70 times in John.  They want to kill Jesus, and their father is the devil.  Clearly it was easy enough at least for later readers to see in these words a completely negative designation of Jews not only as a religion (anti-Judaism) but as a race (antisemitism).  As Gregory Baum once put it, "many generations of John's readers have perceived the Gospel as encouraging them to look with contempt on the Jewish people" (81).

There are some potentially mediating factors.  The word sometimes has a neutral sense (about a dozen times).  Sometimes the word means "Judean" rather than Jew.  In a number of the most pejorative instances, "the Jews" seem to be the religious authorities in Jerusalem.

The relationship to Gentiles is not straightforward.  The word Gentile never appears in John.  Almost all of those who follow Jesus in John are themselves Jews.  Still, John explains things that a Jew would know, implying that it is written so that Gentiles could read it.  The majority position on the "sheep not of this fold" verse is that it refers to Gentiles.

I posted yesterday matters relating to the possible history of John both as a document and as a community.  These sorts of issues potentially impact the way we understand John's use of language like "the Jews."  For example, if the scholarly consensus is correct, then John's community at some point was forced out of mainstream Jewish synagogues.  So Baum once argued that "the Gospel needs to be read as a response to a painful exclusion rather than as an attempt to force and hasten a separation" (84).

Donaldson concludes the chapter thinking about John rhetorically.  He believes that 20:31 most likely should be rendered, "these are written so that you might continue to believe that Jesus is the Christ" and thus that John addressed an internal community (contra Bauckham).  As such, we have an inner-Jewish debate rather than an externally driven anti-Judaism.

It would be fun to explore further, but this is where our discussion of Donaldson's chapter ends.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The History of John

I've finished the next chapter in Terence Donaldson's Jews and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  It is on the Gospel of John and may be my post tomorrow.  But I was struck by the gap between the church and the academy when I read Donaldson's description of the current consensus on the "two-level" nature of John's Gospel.  I'm struck because I have to imagine that the vast majority of pastors in America, after reading this post, would say, "Consensus?  I've never even heard of that."  Or even more: "I completely disagree with that" or "That doesn't fit with the way I approach Scripture."

It is a microcosm of many issues, where the vast majority of experts in a particular subject who follow the standards of "objective" research have come to a particular perspective that is highly questioned on a popular level.  Then usually a counter-community of experts arises with a primary goal of arguing that the evidence can be read in a different way.  Such counter-guilds appear to be following the rules of research but they do so from a deductive rather than inductive perspective.  They start with their conclusion and go to the evidence to support it rather than starting with the evidence and drawing conclusions that seem to fit the data most straightforwardly. [1 postmodern footnote]

Enough preface.  And now, the "consensus" of experts on the history of the Gospel of John, forged primarily by Raymond Brown, a godly Roman Catholic who passed away a couple years ago.  The consensus is that John has two interpretive layers.  The one has to do with Jesus.  The other has to do with the individuals who produced John and their "community."

1. The Gospel of John has some seams...
... that seem to indicate that it was not written in one sitting.  Rather, it seems to have developed as a document over time. In 3:22 Jesus comes into Judea... but he has already been there since 2:13.  In 6:1 Jesus goes to the other side of Galilee... but he was not on this side before but in Jerusalem.  In 14:31 Jesus tells his disciples to get up... but he talks for three more chapters before they do.  Chapter 20 ends the book... but then it goes on and tells about the author of John in the third person in chapter 21. One that Donaldson doesn't mention is the fact that Jesus performs many signs (2:23; 3:2) in between his first (2:11) and second (4:54) signs.

It thus seems quite likely that the Gospel of John was written in stages and, since the last chapter talks about the beloved disciple as author, it would seem that John himself (remembering that we don't actually know it was John--the text never identifies the beloved disciple) was not the one who put it into its current form.

As an inspiration break, I don't see any of this as contradicting the idea of inspiration.  Editing can be inspired just as well as sitting down and writing.  It might, however, mess with unexamined assumptions we have.

2. The Beloved Disciple
The majority of John experts do not think that this was John the son of Zebedee but another follower of Jesus who was not one of the Twelve (Hengel suggested someone we know of called John the elder).  The Twelve do not play a major role in John and in fact Peter is subordinated to the beloved disciple in the narrative.  Given the prominence of Judea and Jerusalem in John, the majority consider this disciple to be from Judea rather than Galilee.

To some, the extra interest in John the Baptist suggests the author might have started as a follower of him.  At the same time, I would add, John de-emphasized the Baptist in a way that may say something about the situation at Ephesus and followers of JB even later when Paul was there (cf. Acts 19).

3. Expulsion from synagogue
The Gospel of John is quite distinct from the Synoptics in its theology.  It is, for example, far more dualistic.  Its Christology is more explicitly "high" than most of the rest of the New Testament.  In Brown's hypothesis (supplemented by J. Louis Martyn), John's group is eventually expelled from the Jewish synagogue.  In the majority hypothesis, it is unlikely at the time of Jesus that anyone would be expelled from a synagogue for believing Jesus was the Messiah.  The incidents with the blind man and his parents in John would thus reflect the situation of the community that produced the Gospel rather than incidents from the historical Jesus.

4. Arrival in Ephesus
Tradition has John at Ephesus, and the majority hypothesis is comfortable with the idea that John and his community might have left Judea around the time of the Jewish War and moved to Ephesus.

5. John reaches its current form.
After John's death, John 21 was added as an epilog, while additional material like chapters 15-17 was added.

Something like the preceding is the majority hypothesis.  Certainly it is subject to critique and evaluation.  Some parts seem more solid to me than others.  For example, that the Gospel of John developed in stages seems very likely to me because of the seams.  It also seems likely to me that it reached its current form after the death of the Beloved Disciple.  I am also very sympathetic to the idea that this disciple was not one of the Twelve, that he was from Judea, and that he died in Ephesus.

The two level reading of John is what I suspect may be the most controversial in pulpit and pew.  It implies that John is not straightforward history but is highly symbolic and a mixture of two histories--that of Jesus and that of one group of early believers.  I might mention that Richard Bauckham has recently questioned whether any of the gospels can be read as written for an individual community.

I thought you'd want to know ;-)

[1] No one is objective.  The theories of inductive research are always subject to critique and revision.  They often are at some point.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Date of Hebrews: Excerpt

I was happy with how this paragraph came out.  In context, I'm addressing arguments by David deSilva that  10:2 implies that sacrifices are still being offered at the time of writing, as well as Luke Timothy Johnson's argument that 8:13 implies that the cultus has not been destroyed yet.  Of course the use of the present tense has long been shown to be irrelevant to the case because Josephus, Clement, and others do the same long after the temple was destroyed.
...When we therefore try to reconstruct the mindset of Jews toward the temple in the time between the destruction of the temple and the Bar Kochba revolt, we get a sense that the temple was physically destroyed but not permanently destroyed in their conceptual framework.  If we want to evaluate the possibility that Hebrews was written in this period, we have to forget that we know the temple was never rebuilt.  We have to picture a time when “various strange teachings” (13:9) might come into play as a coping mechanism until such time as the temple was re-established.  God had allowed the temple to be destroyed before, but once Israel’s sins were purged, he had faithfully seen it rebuilt.  So he would again.  This is the way we must expect many Jews to have thought in those years, and it is against such a backdrop that we must evaluate the possibility that Hebrews comes from this period.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent 1: John 1

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and it seemed appropriate to reflect these next few Sundays about the coming of Jesus.  John 1 seemed a good place to start.

"In the beginning was the Logos.  The Logos was with God, and the Logos was divine.  This Logos was with God in the beginning.  Everything came into existence through it, and apart from it, not even one thing came into existence.  That which has come into existence by it was life, and the life was the light of mortals.  And the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out."

It is not until verse 14 that we hear, "the Logos became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we beheld its glory, like the glory of the only born from the Father, full of grace and truth."

The Logos was the word of God, his will in action.  When God created the world, he spoke.  Everything  came into existence when God spoke a word.  To speak of Jesus as God's Logos come into the world is thus to say that Jesus is the instrument by which God accomplished his will for the world.  That will was "full of grace and truth."  His will was to make sons and daughters in the world of all who would receive him (1:12).  His will was an expression of love, for it was because God so loved the world, that he sent his Son into it (3:16-17).

Jesus on earth "tabernacled," which is to say that he was a tent in which God was present in the world.  Jesus on earth brought life to the dark in the world.  The first Sunday of Advent is about expectation about foreshadowing, about prophetic anticipation.  What are we to anticipate?  This year I am anticipating the Spirit of Christ filling the world again this year and thus God's will coming into the world again this year.  I am anticipating God's presence being in and among us, bringing grace and truth to the world once more.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

CEB and Jesus' secret trip

I don't know if you've ever noticed John 7:3-10.  In 7:8, Jesus tells his brothers that he's not going up to the Feast of Tabernacles.  Then in 7:10, he goes up secretly.  The 1984 NIV actually added the word "yet" to 7:8 to avoid the issue: "I am not yet going up to the feast."  The new NIV, as well as the ESV and other translations, swallow hard and leave "yet" out because it is unlikely.

So here's the CEB: 7:3 "Jesus’ brothers said to him, 'Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.' For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

"Therefore Jesus told them, 'My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.' After he had said this, he stayed in Galilee.

"However, after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret."

There are enough issues that surround this verse to make your head spin.  There's the question of John presenting Jesus.  Is this exactly how it happened?  There's the question of what even John is saying.  Then there's the question of what God expects in terms of truth-telling. Are we too "Victorian" to see what the expectations were in the first century?

Jesus at least seems to shade the truth a little in John's presentation.  True, he does not go to Jerusalem to do what his brothers are making fun of.  He goes up with a different purpose.  At the very least, it isn't George Washington and the cherry tree, a lovely tale invented, you guessed it, in the 1800's... when Victoria was queen of England ;-)  

Luke-Acts and Anti-Judaism.

Next installment of Terence Donaldson's Jews and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  For previous summaries:

Matthew and Anti-Judaism

Today is Luke-Acts and, once again, Donaldson does not disappoint in terms of giving us an excellent "lay of the land."  Once again, he captures three basic perspectives:

1. Israel rejected and replaced by the church.
Luke does not have a verse like Matthew 27:25, but the book of Acts does end with a very strong turning away from the Jews to the Gentiles.  Coming as it does at the climax of Acts, one could (and many have) easily argued that Luke-Acts is a story of a definitive rejection of Jesus by the Jews with a definitive turning away from Israel thereafter.

In this reading, Luke starts full of hope.  Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon--they all looked to the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem.   But alas, Ernst Haenchen argued that by the end of Acts, Luke has written off the Jews in favor of the Gentiles.  Luke-Acts taken in its totality pictures God as done with Israel.

2. Purged Israel joined by the Gentile church
The moderating view is that, following Jacob Jervell, the mission to Israel is a success and then the mission moves on to the Gentiles.  Sure, not all Israel ends up saved, but those who are to be saved within Israel are.  "The picture that Luke presents, then, is not of Israel's rejection but of its division" (65).  A purged and repentant Israel thus fulfill the expectations of people like Zechariah and Simeon.  Now the mission can continue to the Gentiles.

3. Israel and church in tension
I'm not sure that I like this way of titling the third option, but it is the one that I favor.  In this interpretation, Luke-Acts looks to some future time for the fulfillment of some predictions.

[As an aside, I do not form this conclusion as a dispensationalist.  I form it on the basis of inductive Bible study.  I do enjoy the fact that, at least on one score, it vindicates the lowly Dallas types over the haughty WTS types]

Jesus answer to his disciples in Acts 1:6 is not, "You're wrong to think some earthly kingdom is still coming to Israel."  His answer is, "in God's time."  Similarly, mention of a "times of the Gentiles until..." in Luke 21:24.  The implication is that, at the end of time, God will restore political Israel and the nation will turn to Christ.  The turning away at the end of Acts signals the full advent of the times of the Gentiles, not a permanent abandonment.  This interpretation, by the way, fits very well with Paul in Romans 11 as well.

[Again, I say this as a Bible-head, not as a modern prophecy teacher.  Any attempt to equate modern Israel with the Israel of these texts is problematic because modern Israel does not accept Jesus as messiah.]

Some of the question of tone then has to do with the social location of "Luke" and his audience (remembering that the work never identifies its author).  It is generally accepted that the author was a Gentile (although even here I think the case is not as clear as often assumed).  It is generally accepted that the author is writing after the fall of Jerusalem, perhaps 80's.

As far as rhetorical features, Donaldson mentions a number, including that Luke-Acts is apologetic history, that it is favorable to the Romans, that it stresses continuity with Israel.  Donaldson does not, however, give a conclusion on whether it aimed at outsiders or insiders.  Is Theophilus a patron?  A potential convert?  A symbolic name?  A Roman official?

As for me, I do think Acts has a tendency to blame "the Jews" for the trouble that followed early Christians like Paul, but at the same time it is very positive toward Christian Jews like James.  Indeed, Luke-Acts favors a more "conservative" form of Christianity in relation to Judaism than Paul, in my opinion.  I do not think anti-Judaism is an appropriate term, especially since the kingdom will be restored to Israel in the final time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Excerpt: Hebrews 13:9-14

Here's an excerpt from my writing today.  I'm discussing 13:9 and whether it might refer to participation in the temple cultus: "With various strange teachings do not be carried away, for it is good for the heart to be confident in [God’s] grace, not in foods that do not benefit those who walk in them."
... Two considerations, however, point in a different direction in this instance.  The first is the way the author describes the teaching in question.  Most interpreters render xenos in 13:9 as “strange.”  It is of course possible that, if the temple had continued to exist, a later Gentile Christian at some point might have described the normal operations of the temple cultus as "strange."  The question is whether anyone prior to 70CE would have, Jew or Gentile believer.  On the face of it, it does not seem very likely that any mainstream Christian--especially a Christian Jew--would describe the idea of the sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple as a "strange teaching."

Indeed, it seems unlikely that "strange teachings" relating to the Levitical cultus would have arisen while the temple was still standing.  In itself, this warning not to participate in miscellaneous and peculiar practices of a Levitical nature is one piece of an overall puzzle that we are arguing points to a post-70CE date for the sermon.  We can imagine that, in the absence of a temple, any number of synagogue and other practices might emerge intending to serve in some way as a substitute for the now defunct sanctuary. [1]  It is neither possible nor necessary for us to know exactly what they were, only to recognize the forces that make their existence more than plausible.

A second argument against the exhortation of 13:9 referring to temple sacrifices is the way that it arises in its literary context.  It is plausible enough that the central high priestly argument of Hebrews alludes to the operations of the Jerusalem temple in one way or another, even though it only refers explicitly to the wilderness tabernacle.  Although 13:9-14 alludes back to those earlier arguments, it seems to bring up a new issue, even if it is related.  These verses are part of a collection of miscellaneous instructions in the final chapter, the letter closing to the sermon.  This admonition about strange teachings is neither at the beginning of these final exhortations nor is it the final one.

It thus does not arise in a way that makes it seem like the central point of the whole sermon, which it would presumably be if it were about the Jerusalem temple.  Indeed, how odd it would be if, after so much generality in the bulk of the sermon, the author only got to the point in the letter conclusion, after the sermon part was already for all intents and purposes over!  It seems much more likely that this later instruction is related to the central argument but only in a somewhat peripheral way.

Accordingly, 13:9-14 does not affect our argument that Hebrews never argues against participation in the mainstream Levitical cultus.  Rather, its argument always urges the audience to rely positively on Christ as a means of atonement.  The audience can be confident in relation to what Christ has done.  While the author argues that the Levitical cultus did not take away sins and was ineffective as a means of atonement, he never then proceeds to say, "So do not participate in it." 

[1] Jukka Thoren, Barnabas Lindars***

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Matthew and anti-Judaism 2

I'm reading through Terence Donaldson's Jews and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  My summary of the first chapter is here: Introduction.

Today I want to summarize his again excellent chapter 2 on Matthew.

Donaldson ends up laying out three basic positions on the issue.  But it is worthwhile to get the mother of all potentially anti-semitic verses out on the table before giving them, as he does: "Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!'" (Matt. 27:25, NRSV).  This verse has often been taken in Christian history as an indication that Jews remain perpetually under blame for the death of Jesus.  Throughout history, people who call themselves Christians have used the verse as an excuse to persecute and kill Jews, just as some people would do toward homosexuals today hiding behind other verses.

The three positions are:
1. Rejection of ethnic Israel and replacement by a Gentile Church
This interpretation of Matthew sees God having bent over backwards to give Israel every opportunity to respond so that their final rejection and replacement are finally justified.  In the end, the Church is almost completely Gentile.  The Great Commission is understood to say, "Go and make disciples of all the Gentiles"... and not the Jews, by implication.  This is a possible translation.

This interpretation sees a transition within the Gospel of Matthew from a beginning that still holds out hope for Israel to an end that has completely abandoned Israel.  The Gospel begins with a genealogy that firmly connects Jesus to Israel.  The mission in Matthew 10 is to the lost sheep of Israel and excludes Gentiles and  Samaritans.  Initially, Matthew distinguishes the leaders of Israel from the crowds.  Then, in this interpretation, the distinction falls away at the time of crucifixion, where the crowds join the leaders. In this interpretation, the Great Commission now excludes Israel and the mission is now toward the Gentiles, with the Church fully replacing ethnic Israel, which is now soundly rejected.  Some with this position might even argue that Matthew was written by a Gentile to a Gentile church.

2. Rejection of ethnic Israel and replacement by a Church with both Jews and Gentiles
This is a somewhat softer version of the replacement interpretation.  Israel is rejected and replaced by a "third race" that is neither Jew nor Gentile.  So "even if--as is quite likely--Matthew sees the destruction of Jerusalem as divine punishment on 'this generation' for its persecution of the line of prophets that culminates with Jesus (23.29-36), the idea of definitive rejection does not necessarily follow" (41).

By the  way, I wholeheartedly agree with this quote.  The way Matthew has edited the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in 22:7 implies that Matthew was written after the destruction (compare the version in Luke 14). I see comments like 27:25 more as explanatory and backward looking than forward looking--this is why God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed in the past.  I can accept that it might also have functioned as a polemic against competing Jewish groups of the time (e.g., perhaps the Pharisees about to set up shop at Jamnia).

Against the "complete shift" version #1 above, this version argues that the people are once again distinguished from Israel's leaders after the crucifixion in 27:64.  And throughout Matthew, the phrase "all the nations" presumably includes Israel (e.g., 25:32).  Cannot the Great Commission be read as an extension of the mission to the nations rather than a shutting of the door to Israel?

3. The Church as the lost sheep of Israel, joined by Gentiles
This is my position and the one to which I believe Donaldson is most sympathetic.  In this perspective, "Matthew has an Israel-centered view of the group to which he and his readers belong" (43).  The author thus has a "remnant or sectarian outlook."  The Gentiles thus join the restored portion of Israel rather than replacing them.

On the one hand, "Matthew seems to have little interest in those aspects of the law that would have differentiated Jew from Gentile (e.g., circumcision, food laws)" (44). On the other, he is quite keen to see Jesus bringing a fulfillment to the OT Scriptures, including its law.  Matthew thus argues for the most meaningful kind of continuity between believers and the Israel of the past.

As far as the purpose of the rhetoric, most consider it "social formation."  The goal is not so much to vilify others as to create internal group cohesion (kind of like when I go Wesleyan on the blog).  Another interesting twist Donaldson mentions is the irony of Christ's blood being upon someone.  Why yes, his blood is on us to save us from our sins (1:21)!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kudos to Gingrich...

... for not wanting to split up immigrant families who've been here for 25 years.  I'd like to think that the influence of Jim Garlow is somewhere in the background of that comment!

I bet I'd actually like a lot of the candidates more if they could actually say and do what they really think.

One perspective on church splits...

Caught an international service in English here in Munich Sunday afternoon.  It was a church that has had one or two splits in the past (in good Protestant fashion).  A gentleman stood up to greet the church who had been there since its beginning.  His comments were interesting in the light of the church's history.

He said, if you have differences, try to come to an agreement.  But don't waste too much time if you can't.  We will need thousands more churches to spread the good news to everyone, so part company in peace and go start a new church.

Never heard it put that way before! ;-)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A "thick description" of truth-telling

Leave it to David Drury and friends to get some of the best discussions in the Wesleyan Church going in years.  To no one's surprise, it's on Facebook and the presenting excuse is the approaching general conference.  One of the discussions going has to do with WIF (our money lending body) and, presumably because its a potentially sensitive post, the poster of the thread posted under a pseudonym.

Now of course no lying is involved because everyone knew that "Orange Scott" was not the person's real name (Orange Scott was one of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist church).  But a number of people took umbridge that the person did not have the guts to post his/her own name, as well as that s/he broke the rules of Facebook by registering under a false name.

I'll leave it to the person's conscience as to their intent, whether benign or spiteful.  And, being who I am, I don't care much about the WIF question.  And I accept the possibility that someone relatively connected, perhaps even "on the inside" might have legitimate concerns they could hardly bring up under their own name.  I'm a philosopher, a Bible-head, and a hermeneutician.  I'm interested in the question of what it means to tell the truth or to have integrity with regard to registering an account on Facebook.

It is an excellent illustration of what I meant in a previous post about "thick descriptions" of things in cultures.  Here are two fundamental insights into meaning:
  • The meaning of language is in how it is used, not simply in defining each word.
  • The meaning of an action or an event is a function of its socio-cultural context.  If an action has a universal significance, it is because of commonality between every such context.
If I say, "There's an elephant in the room," you cannot know what I mean without knowing the context.  I could be a zoo-keeper.  I could be using an idiom.  Or it could be code for my sister to pour Cool-aid on your head.  If turn my hand and make a V in America, who knows what I'm doing (victory symbol?).  In England I am flipping you off.  

So it is with truth telling.  I remember being at a church where some of the leaders would get very upset that individuals from another culture would tell them they were going to be at church Sunday and then would never show up.  To me, this was a cultural conflict rather than a matter of them being liars or, worse, it being typical of their "lying culture."  I knew what they were doing with their words.

The use of the words, "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" had a social function rather than an informative one.  "Yes, I'll be there Sunday" meant "I like you and don't want to offend you... even though I don't know if I'll come Sunday or not."  I considered it the cultural ignorance of the church leaders to assume that the meaning of words is always propositional, that the meaning of the words must be straightforwardly and literally defined in order to be truthful (if you disagree with me, don't ever step anywhere near a mission field).  The meaning of words has to do with what we are "doing" with them rather than some propositional content... unless of course what we're doing with them is in fact propositional.

It reminds me of sermons where a pastor chastises a congregation for saying, "How are you?" without waiting for an answer.  You guessed it, ignorance of how that language functions in common parlance.  "How are you?" often does not mean "How are you?" in some propositional sense.  It is often closer to "Hi, I want to be on good social terms with you."

So Facebook normally does not care whether you're a 9 year old girl or not really Mahatma Gandhi.  The function of that language is to keep their legal nose clean if you turn out to be a bad person.  They don't really care unless someone takes them to court--or you actually do something bad or do something stupid.  That's what the language really means because that's how it's used, how it works.  It's a game.

It's why I just smiled when someone once chastised me for being willing to go 9 miles over the speed limit.  If the police don't care, then the true meaning of the 55mph on the sign is really 64mph.  In other countries, stop signs mean, "Be careful as you barrel through this intersection, and if you do hit someone, we may very well come after you and kill you."  It's not a lack of integrity if you don't stop.  You'll be rammed from behind if you do.

Again, I'm sure I could have done better, but these are the sorts of things I mean by a thick description.  What does Colossians 3:9 mean when it says not to lie to each other?  To answer it, we have to know the parameters of truth telling in the first century.  We can't get the answer from Webster's Dictionary.

Jews and Anti-Judaism 1

I have a book review to write on Terence Donaldson's, Jews and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament: Decision Points and Divergent Interpretations.  I read the first chapter yesterday and found it a delight.  What a great presentation of the lay of the scholarly land!  I'm also writing on related issues in Hebrews this week so the convergence is a great serendipity for me.

Chapter 1 is the Introduction, which gives the back discussion on the question of antisemitism and the New Testament.  The issue became very pertinent after WW1, especially with Jules Isaac's book Jesus and Israel.  Isaac had written much of the material on the run from Nazis.  His wife and daughter died in concentration camps.

Isaac was not attacking Christian faith per se, but could legitimately point out that the Nazi perspective on the Jews grew easily from a centuries old tradition that was a Christian tradition.  It included a scholarly and popular climate that painted Judaism as degenerate at the time of Christ, assigned collective guilt to the Jewish people for Christ's death, and considered the dispersion of the Jews a divine punishment for their crime.

The chapter cites other scholars who pursued the issue and some of the helpful distinctions that followed the later discussion.  These included Gregory Baum, who initially put early Christian polemic in the category of denunciations of Israel carried out by the prophets... thus not anti-Semitic.  Rosemary Ruether by contrast argued that there was no way to rid Christianity of anti-Judaism because its view of Christ demands a polemical interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures.  James Parkes argued that it was not until after the war with Rome in AD66 that there ensued a "parting of the ways" (10).

The rest of the chapter is its brilliance.  Donaldson carefully and insightfully divides the issue into its parts.  He does not at this point so much give answers as present the discussion and its options.

Is the New Testament anti-semitic?
Because Christianity became overwhelmingly Gentile, we have to at least address this issue in the use of New Testament texts, but many have argued that it doesn't make much sense to say that documents themselves, since they were written by Jews, were anti-Jew.  Edward Flannery, for example, sees anti-Judaism as different from anti-semitism, as theological.  "It rejects Judaism as a way of salvation but not the Jews as a people" (14).

Is the New Testament anti-Judaic?
Or does it fall more in the category of the prophets or a sect like at Qumran?  Douglas Hare identifies three types of anti-Judaism (what follows are my words): 1) prophetic, 2) sectarian, and 3) outsider.  The prophets were clearly not anti-semitic or anti-Israel.  They were trying to correct it.  The Qumran sect was anti-the rest of Judaism, but were still Jews arguing for the right form of Judaism.  In the second century then, with the outsider comments of Gentile Christians like Ignatius and Justin Martyr, we probably have hit a form of anti-Judaism proper.

Thus Donaldson concludes that the term anti-Judaism would fit the last type but not the first type (into which category Hare put Jesus and John the Baptist).  Whether the second type fits the term Donaldson considers a matter of a spectrum.

Is the New Testament supercessionist?
That is, does the NT see the Christian church replacing and superseding ethnic Israel.  For Donaldson, approaching the issue in this way misses out some pieces.  For example, it formulates the issue negatively--what is the discontinuity--more than positively--what was the continuity.  It also does not include individuals like Marcion or the Gnostics, who did not even believe the OT was legitimate in the first place.

Kendall Soulen has distinguished types of supercessionism, each of which has a different tone.  "Punitive" supercessionism sees the replacement as a matter of punishment for Israel.  "Economic" supercessionism has to do with God's plan for different periods of history.  There is also a mixed view that only sees the Gentiles replacing the part of Israel that did not believe, while the part that did remains unsuperseded.

Does the NT reflect a painful parting of the ways?
A lively discussion has emerged in recent decades, with Ways That Never Parted arguing that Jewish and Christian social groups interpenetrated off and on even to the time of Constantine.  Daniel Boyarin has argued that "partitioning" would be a better word than "parting," and James Dunn has argued for "partings" plural rather than singular.  A key here is that since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we are far more aware of the diversity of first century Judaism (sometimes even put in the plural, Judaisms) than we were before.

Set up for the book
Early in the chapter, Donaldson gives three aspects of any document that need to be taken into account when assessing this issue.  First is the identity of those who are expressing statements (the "subject").  Second is the identify of those to whom they are speaking (the "object").  Lastly there is the tone or the intention behind their expression.  He will use this three fold rubric in the rest of the book, as he looks at the gospels and Paul.

Great start to the book!

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Thick Description": Elders

I was having a discussion recently about the virtues of calling the local board of leaders in a local church a board of elders.  My denomination currently calls them a local board of administration.  The discussion plays into some remarks I've made earlier about the assumption that we should pattern ourselves in every way on the early church (primitivism) and the fact that my church faces potential identity confusion because of an influx of pastors from other traditions. For example, "elder" historically is a term for a minister in the Wesleyan tradition.

But that's really just background.  In the discussion about elders, I was reminded of the great insight that has really only come into biblical studies in the last 30-40 years or so.  The sociologist Clifford Geertz rightly suggested in 1973 that we should give a "thick description" to events that take place if we really want to understand them.  I wish I could communicate the difference this would make in reading the Bible.

A lot of Bible readers can quote the Bible thoroughly and even tell you historical dates and events.  But their understanding of such events and texts is two-dimensional or the words are brought into the three dimensional contours of their modern cultural context.  By contrast, a "thick" understanding of biblical contexts understands the significance of words and events in the first century cultural matrix.

1. I don't think I can do the discussion justice, but I wanted to think a little about what a thick description of the role of elder might look like.  First, we would situate the term in a culture where older was assumed to be wiser.  The elders were in fact literally older and they were assumed to be wiser than the younger.  So if we were really to be like the early church, we would not have anyone on a church's governing board who was not at least in their 50's, I would say.

2. But you can't make a culture think older people are wiser.  In fact, in our day there may be ways in which younger people know more about many important things than the older people do.  Again, a thick description of a NT "elder" would need to recognize that the ancient world didn't change much over time.  There were no technological innovations.

3. Collections of elders were also situated an autocratically oriented culture.  Is that style of leadership the ideal for today?  I don't think so.  It was an appropriate accommodation to ancient culture rather than a timeless model.  Developments in the study of leadership are good, and we are not required to throw them out the window simply because the early church operated in a model appropriate to the ancient world.

4. Although you cannot prove to me that someone like Priscilla was not among the elders at Ephesus at some point, ancient collections of elders were probably overwhelmingly male.  Again, this was to be expected given the culture of the time.  It is, however, not appropriate for a kingdom-oriented church today, where we recognize that women have equal access to the Spirit just like men.

So maybe it's good that we have a different name for the governing board of a church, just so we don't get confused.  We don't live in the ancient Mediterranean.  Good leadership today will not play out the same as good leadership then.

Philosophy Text... Away!!

After about six years of intermittent writing, I have finally sent off the first draft of a 410 page philosophy book with the working title, A Christian Philosophical Journey.  I look forward to the many hands that will smooth its rough edges and make it a little less Schencky.

I also sent off my notes for the Hebrews part of the CEB Study Bible this morning.  What a fun thing!  If I could, I'd post the 8300 word "commentary" here, but alas...

Now I can finally begin my sabbatical!  ... and only two and a half months late!


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hebrews and Allegory

I'm finishing up my draft of the study notes on Hebrews for the CEB Study Bible today.  I am once again struck by the author's use of allegorical interpretation and dumbfounded by those interpreters who break out in a rash at the word.  It starts in 7:2-3 with Melchizedek, but the real allegory central is in 9:8-9.

Two parts to the tent.  The first part represents the old covenant and the present age that is waning (perhaps even the created realm), with its multiplicity of sacrifices. The second part represents the new covenant and the world that is coming, a heavenly age based on the one sacrifice of Christ.

I know why some evangelical scholars resist these sorts of interpretations and why "liberal" scholars used to make fun of them.  For evangelicals, they make it clear that inerrancy cannot be formulated exclusively in terms of the literal or plain meaning of the text.  For "liberals," it was their assumption that such interpretations were stupid that made them laugh at them.  For revivalists and charismatics, it's business as usual ;-)

P.S. This is another indication that the fundamentalists and modernists of the early 1900's based their debate on the same assumptions, assumptions that we should question today.

The Middle Majority

I feel confident I could come up with a budget deal that most Americans would vote for... just not one that either Democrats or Republicans in Congress would vote for... or that anyone who could get elected to Congress from either party would be able to vote for and survive.  I wish there were a third party for the middle majority, who are neither Occupants nor Tea Partiers.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

resting from our "works": Hebrews 4:10

I have long had difficulty figuring out Hebrews 4:10: "The one who has entered into his rest has also himself rested from his own works just as God from his own."

1. It's not that a number of easy interpretations don't jump out.  Ah, first thought, this is the old Martin Luther "faith versus works" issue.  We stop trying to be justified by works and instead rest in justification by faith.

The problem is that Hebrews doesn't say anything about the old faith versus works debate.  That's an issue in a couple of Paul's writings.  This is a great illustration of how you have to let each author, indeed each book of the Bible speak in its own terms.

Of course, even the old "faith versus works" debate is a skewed version of Paul.  Paul believes in works. It's "works of [Jewish] law" that Paul is primarily concerned with.  He makes no absolute distinction between the two.

2. Then there is a very local interpretation I grew up with.  The passage is about entire sanctification, resting from the fight against sin, finding it easy to be righteous and do good.

3. If you want an example of repeated comments I make about very few people being able to read the Bible in context, here is one.  We bring a dictionary of later church history and our traditions to the Bible and define the "obvious" meanings of the Bible without a clue.  That doesn't mean we aren't preaching truth.  It just means that half our preaching isn't really the Bible. This is why even at Wesley Seminary with its practical emphasis, we insist that the Bible, theology, and church history teaching be done by people who are experts in this area, people who are trained to be able to read the Bible exegetically as well as theologically.

Let me offer a suggestion for what resting from works here might mean in context:

a. The context is the image of Israel leaving Egypt but not making it to the Promised Land because of lack of faith.  They did not enter God's rest.  This image resonates with a recurring theme in Hebrews.  If we do not continue in faith to the end of our earthly pilgrimage, we will not be part of the coming kingdom.  As an exhortation, therefore, the exhortation to enter rest is about making it to the end (3:6, 14).  We may enter in a sense "every day called today" (3:13), but the ultimate sense of entering has to do with the end of our journey, which does not come until death or Christ's return.

6. Hebrews characterizes the present of the audience as one of striving, of effort, of diligence.  "Let us be diligent" (4:11).  In Hebrews' thought world, we thus do not rest, do not ultimately enter rest while we are in this life.

7. Work is not negative in Hebrews, as in the "faith versus works" interpretation.  God's work is the creation, and it is not a bad mark on his resume (4:3-4).

8. I am now in a position to argue that the "sabbath rest" of Hebrews refers to the ultimate rest from our striving, at the end of our persistence in faith, our endurance in obedience, one that will not ultimately come until God's unshakeable kingdom arrives.  We will rest from our "works" when we finally make it to the end.  In this world, however, Hebrews insists that we work our way through the wilderness, pilgrims and strangers on the earth looking for a city that is to come (11:13; 13:14), whose builder and maker is God.

Beware when your interpretation fits too tidily with the categories of later Christian traditions, whether they be those of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation, or the nineteenth century holiness movement for that matter.  God inspired the authors of the New Testament in the categories of ancient Jews.  The past is a foreign country.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Is the world getting better and better?

I think Chris Bounds twice has corrected me on Augustine here... hopefully I've got it right the third time ;-)  Thanks, Chris!
The first individual we know to formulate an extensive, linear philosophy of history was St. Augustine (354-430).  His work called, The City of God, addressed accusations that the gods had allowed Rome to be sacked by the Goths in AD410 because Rome had become an exclusively Christian nation. [1] Rather, Augustine claimed, what society was witnessing was the ongoing conflict between two cities that existed side by side in the world.  The one was the “city of God,” a city of heaven made up of the righteous angels as well as the “elect,” those whom God has chosen to be saved.  While the city of God has a special connection to the “visible church” (the people who gather together and call themselves “Christians”) you cannot see clearly who is truly a citizen of the city of God and who is not.  The visible church is like the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13—the wheat and the weeds are mixed together in this world, and we cannot know definitively which is which until the judgment.

The other city mixed together with the “city of God” is thus the “city of humanity,” a city of earth made up of fallen angels and the majority of condemned humanity.  Those who ultimately belong to this city are oriented around themselves and their own pleasure, rather than God.  These two cities are in constant conflict in this age until Christ finally returns, but the trajectory of history is toward the definitive separation of the two at the final judgment.  A significant portion of Augustine’s work goes through biblical and secular history to demonstrate the progress of the two cities throughout history.   The implication is that we should not be surprised when earthly cities like Rome fall, especially when they are associated with the city of earth.

Augustine’s approach to history is sometimes called amillennial, because he does not associate the thousand year period in Revelation 20:4 with a literal thousand year period.  For him the number is symbolic and refers to the entire period between Christ and the final judgment.  Augustine thus has a linear view of history—he sees it headed toward a particular destination.  But he does not have a clear sense that things will develop in a certain way in the intervening time.  He does not clearly indicate that the city of God will increasingly overcome the city of earth or the contrary.

Two other Christian perspectives do.  Premillennialism is a Christian perspective on history that tends to take the thousand year period of Revelation 20 literally and believes that this millennium has not yet taken place.  Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years after he returns to earth in the future.  Generally, premillennialists tend to have a pessimistic view of the trajectory of history.  They tend to expect the forces of evil to fight harder and harder against God up until the time of the end.  Passages like Mark 13:19 are sometimes invoked: “in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be” (NRSV).

By contrast, postmillennialism agrees with Augustine that the millennial age has begun, but tends to see the city of God taking over the city of earth, as it were, as time progresses.  Christ will thus return after the millennium is over.  Since it has been over a thousand years since Christ, postmillennialists may not take the thousand year period literally either.  The main point that distinguishes them from Augustine is thus the sense that things will improve more and more leading up to Christ’s return.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that Christians in different periods of time have tended to lean in one direction or the other.  Prior to Augustine, many though not all Christians were “chiliasts,” individuals who looked for a literal thousand year reign of Christ after his return.  From Augustine to recent times, postmillennial and amillennial approaches tended to dominate.  It is perhaps not surprising to find that the same optimistic spirit of human progress in the days after the Renaissance and Reformation would find a postmillennial perspective attractive.

At the same time, we should not be surprised to find that premillennialism would rise again in popular circles in the uncertain times of the Industrial Revolution.  John Darby (1800-82) was an British evangelist who almost singlehandedly gave birth to dispensationalism, a Christian perspective that sees history divided up into a series of periods in which God had a unique relationship and expectations of his people.  The culmination is usually a seven year “tribulation” leading up to Christ’s return and judgment, followed by a literal thousand year reign of Christ on earth.

We thus cannot say that there is a distinctive Christian perspective on the direction history will take leading up to Christ’s return.  Each position has favorite passages in the Bible, and each position has explanations for the favorite passages of the other positions.  If we are good philosophers, we will be aware of the forces that have influenced us in the past and are influencing us in the present.  We will be aware of our own biases and do our best to be reflective about them. 

Perhaps most importantly, we will try not to let our biases become self-fulfilling prophecies.  A self-fulfilling prophecy is when our expectations come true not because they were inevitable, but because our own actions, perhaps inadvertently, made them come true.  If you expect things to get worse and worse, there is a fair chance you will do things that will make them get worse.  And if you expect things to get better and better, you probably will do things that move them in that direction.  Let God watch over history.  Let us work for good in the world.

[1] By decree of the Roman emperor Theodosius I in AD380.  Constantine had only made Christianity a legal religion in AD313.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Christian View of History

A critical thinker should always hesitate to say something like, "This is the Christian view of something."  We usually find multiple viewpoints on issues by people who consider themselves Christians, and of course  it is ultimately God who gets to decide who really is.  We have seen briefly in this chapter that we do indeed find some variety of thinking about history among Christians.  In particular, some see history primarily as a downward spiral till the end, while others look more to the potential of Christianity to change the world for the better leading up to Christ's return.  Other Christians, perhaps without much thought, may operate more cyclically--you live, you die, you go to heaven or hell... next in line.

Nevertheless, among those who take the historic beliefs of Christendom somewhat straightforwardly, we can sketch out some general elements to a Christian view of history, despite disagreements on the details.  First, let me suggest that perhaps the most helpful way to approach the question is to think of history as a story. Since I too as a textbook author cannot see my own blind spots, I hesitate to say that this is the way to view history.  I can only say that I personally find it the most appropriate of all the approaches to history we have mentioned in this chapter.

To think of history as a story allows us to incorporate all the elements of historiography.  For example, it reminds us that, although we are talking about things we think actually happened in the past, we inevitably have to be selective in what we choose to tell about.  Think of the nearly infinite amount of data from the past!  Only God could hold it all in his "mind," with every bit in properly relationship to every other bit.  How ridiculous for us to think for a moment that we have it all sorted out!

When we tell or relive history as a story, we are inevitably skewing it by only selecting some data and "de-selecting" other data.  But that is the nature of the game.  There is no history that is not told from a perspective.  There is always more than one way to tell a story, and there is always more than one way to tell about history.

A story has characters; it has events; and it has settings. [1] So does history.  The characters are not only the people, but the "actors" in the drama.  If we wanted, we could look at history playfully from the standpoint of certain ideas as characters, making their way through the story.  For us as Christians, the most important character of all is God, and the hero of the story is Christ.

Events form the backbone of a story--its plot.  What are the key events of a Christian understanding of history.  Surely the creation is very important as the beginning of history for us. [2] And for those who are in continuity with Christianity historically, the central event of the plot has to do focally with Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection. Again, different Christians may emphasize one or another of these more than another, but historic Christians will see some or all of these events as the resolution to the tension of the plot.

A traditionally Christian view of history is thus a linear view of history.  It sees the whole of human history starting from a beginning and headed toward a particular destination.  The beginning is the creation.  The historic destination for Christians is when God sets everything right in the world, leading to eternity.  Traditionally, Christians have seen a fundamental problem to be resolved in the story as well, a problem that goes back at least to the first humans.  It is this problem that Christ resolved, although the final working out of that resolution is yet to come.

We should be careful about the details.  There are Christians who think of Adam and Eve as poetic expressions of the human situation.  There are Christians who do not await a literal return of Jesus to the earth in judgment.  They stand outside the historic beliefs of Christianity, but God will be the judge.  "Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve" (Romans 14:22, NRSV).

Since Christians believe that Christ was God come into history, Christians are not historically deists in the way they understand history.  That is to say, Christians believe that God has and does intervene in the events of history.  We are theists.  We may differ in the extent to which God intervenes, but Christians believe that God can become part of the cause-effect flow of history.  We believe at least that miracles have taken place in the past, and most of us believe they can take place in the present.

Historic Christians look to the Bible for the most important content of the story--its key characters, events, and settings.  Christians differ on a multitude of interpretations of that content, but the story of Israel in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus and the early church are the most important elements of the overall story.  As someone once put it somewhat cheesily, "History is "His-story," meaning the story of God.

We are part of that story too.  So are all the people before and after the Bible.  So are all the people who were not in Israel in ancient times.  So are all the people who have not been part of the church after those times.  So is all the creation and all the "settings" of the story in space in time.  The rocks cry out in praise to God (cf. Luke 19:40); the heavens declare the glory of God (cf. Psalm 19:1).  Or as the Nicene Creed says, God is the creator of all that is, "seen and unseen," which includes all spiritual powers.

Another way in which a "narrative" or story perspective on history is helpful for a Christian is the fact that stories are always told from a particular point of view.  Inevitably, we are forced to tell the Christian story from our point of view.  For this reason, no version of Christian history any of us give will be the Christian view.  Any version we create will be inevitably partial and tainted, including this one.

Nevertheless, we believe by faith that the authoritative point of view on the story, what literary critics call the "evaluative point of view," is that of God.  God's perspective on history is the Christian perspective on everything that has happened.  By the end of this book, we will hopefully convince you that we do not have direct access to God's full perspective on the story for several reasons.

For one, Scripture only covers the core of the story.  It does not cover World War 2 or the next presidential election.  A bottom line is also that I am still the one interpreting Scripture and a trip down an average city street will quickly illustrate how many Christian denominational "I's" there are.  Reading the Bible in context also reveals that the Bible itself has multiple narratives on the key events, each with a distinct perspective.  Further, they were revealed in ancient categories, meaning that I am forced to translate them into our categories.  Finally, because narratives are selective, they by their very nature cannot give an absolute perspective on any story.

We thus believe by faith that God has an evaluative point of view on the story.  We believe Scripture gives us the most important indications of what that point of view is.  But we will never have direct or complete access to God's point of view.  We have to wait till the end of the story for him to reveal such things more clearly to us.

One key element in the ongoing Christian debate has to do with whether the key to understanding God in history is love or justice.  While most of us would want to say that these two do not contradict each other, there are clear differences among Christians as they play out one or another in their sense of God's action in history.  To simplify things, those who lean more toward the key to God's point of view as love tend to see God creating a world that is somewhat free to go its own way while longing for the world to move toward him.  History is thus the story of God wooing the creation back to himself.

Those who lean more toward justice as the key to God's character tend to see the creation more in terms of its guilt and sin before God.  History is God punishing humanity for the sin of the first human, while making a way through Christ for his justice to be satisfied, so that some of humanity can escape his judgment.  It should be clear that this text book leans much more toward the first way of viewing God's point of view on history.

[1] An excellent overview of the elements of a story is Mark Allan Powell's, What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).  An excellent examination of the Christian story from a similar point of view can be found in N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

[2] God's story no doubt preceded our story, but presumably it is mostly beyond our comprehension.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Myth of Progress 2

Myth of Progress 1...
However, it is the more profound sense of the word "myth" that we want to explore in relation to the "myth of progress."  Whether it actually turns out to be literally true, the idea that things will get better and better is real and has had a powerful effect on Western society.  While we saw in the previous section that people in the ancient world were perhaps more likely to see history as a story of deterioration, the idea of progress was also present in the ancient world as a minority report. [1]

In this section, we want to look at some ways in which, in the last five hundred years, many in "the West" have conceptualized history in terms of the idea that European and American peoples in particular have stood at the front of the progress of humanity and civilization.  I put "the West" in quotation marks because it would seem that even the very notion of "Western civilization" is part of this story we have told ourselves, part of the myth.

Again, when we use the word "myth" in this way, we are not saying that these ideas are complete fabrications with no relation to reality whatsoever.  It surely cannot be denied that the scientific revolutions of the last few centuries took place overwhelmingly in Europe and North America in cultures that spoke Indo-European languages.  It surely cannot be denied that the beginnings of these advances took place as the power of the church declined and as intellectuals began to think in terms of natural laws of cause and effect rather than in terms of a spirit-controlled world.

This says nothing about superiority of intelligence, and it certainly says nothing of moral superiority.  And it says nothing about everyone in these places.  It simply says that the conditions of these regions were fertile ground these last few centuries for massive scientific and technological advances.  We have every reason to believe that individuals of the intelligence of Einstein have always lived in every region around the world, from ancient China, Egypt, and Africa to present day Afghanistan. [2]

Whatever the basis in actual fact, the "myth" of Western civilization has gone further to construct its history in such a way as to express its sense of superiority over both the past and others in the present.  Even the language we use demonstrates such value judgments: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment.  These are not value-neutral terms but impose on the very diverse data of history very simplistic evaluations that exalt ourselves.

An early piece of this historical construct came in 1442 when the Italian historian Leonardo Bruni first called the period from the Fall of the Roman Empire to his day the "Middle" Ages or the medievalperiod. [3]  There is an implicit condescension in this terminology.  It implies that while things were good and “enlightened” during the Roman Empire, the intervening thousand years were the "Dark" Ages, a period of cultural darkness.

The term "Dark Ages" is particularly biased.  Even more, it ignores significant pieces of data, especially when we apply it to Europe as a whole.  For example, several of the great universities of Europe quite possibly were already operating around the year 1200: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris. [4]  The theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), not to mention the Arab Muslim philosophers Avicenna (ca. 980-1037) and Averroes (1126-98), extensively appropriated the philosophy of Aristotle as they presented their understanding of various theological issues.

Bruni built his three part division of Italian history out of some hints from the Italian humanist Petrarch (1304-74).  In a letter Petrarch wrote in 1359, he calls the era in Italy since the Fall of the Roman Empire an "era of darkness." [5] To his credit, he considered himself still part of this darkness.  But what was more or less a passing comment for him became for Bruni a division of history into three parts: ancient, middle, and modern.  Thus we have the idea of the "Renaissance," the supposed "rebirth" of culture from around the time of Petrarch in the 1300's, a return to the living past in contrast to the intervening dead years. [6]

However, to demonstrate the degree to which this way of viewing history is a construct, a story we in part have created, the term "Renaissance" was not actually invented until the 1800's.  Its origins in English derive from Jacob Burckhardt's 1867 book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. [7]  To be sure, the individuals who lived in the 1400's and 1500's knew that momentous cultural changes were taking place.  There are facts behind the construct.  But it was a later interpretation that labeled these years in ways that evaluatedwhole periods of time.  The Dark Ages are bad.  The Renaissance is rebirth of the good.

The term Enlightenmentis yet another label that places a value judgment on a period of history.  It began as a term that certain French intellectuals used of the ideas they were sharing with each other in public discussions and debates in the mid-1700’s. [8] Doubtless the vast majority of people living in France at the time were not involved in such discussions, and those who disagreed with their ideas did not consider themselves unenlightened.  The identification of those years as a distinct period of history was both a matter of self-promotion by those who participated in the movement and an interpretation that is highly selective.

None of this is to say that there was no concrete reason to say something was developing in the 1700’s among the most influential intellectuals in France, England, and Germany.  There was an almost unprecedented rise of critical examination and reflection on things the vast majority of people previously had simply assumed in one way or another.  But ideological invention was also involved, to where there is also some truth in Roger Chartier’s claim that the Enlightenment was in some ways invented by the French Revolution when it identified a “canon” or definitive list of Enlightenment thinkers, while excluding others. [9]  It is in part an example of how history is told by the winners…

[1] Cf. J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origins and Growth (19).  Cf. also Robert A. Nisbet,History of the Idea of Progress, 2nd ed. (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1994).

[2] This claim follows naturally from Herbert Spencer's critique of the "great man" theory of history we mentioned in a textbox earlier in the chapter.  Great leaders do not emerge simply because they are great but they emerge under certain conditions and situations.  A George Washington would have been another anonymous farmer in another period of history.

[3] History of the Florentine People, sometimes called the first modern history book.  Because Bruni did not divide up history with a clearly Christian view, he is sometimes called the first modern historian.

[4] Cf. Charles H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1923).  In his The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1927), he questioned the stark division Burckhardt made between the “Dark” Ages and the “Renaissance” (see below).

[5] Cf. Theodore E. Mommsen, "Petrarch's Conception of 'The Dark Ages,'" Speculum 17.2 (1942): 226-42.

[6] Although historians debate the precise dates of the beginning and end of the Middle Ages, it will suffice for us to broadly them of them as the years from 500-1500.

[7] And he drew the term from Jules Michelet, who in 1855 used the word Renaissance in his book, Histoire de France.

[8] ***

[9] The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution(1991).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Epilog: Good News versus Soterian

It seemed appropriate to sit back and reflect a little after finishing Scot McKnight's book, King Jesus Gospel.  I had a sense of where I thought Scot would go with the book and in my mind he went half there.  I suppose it has a lot to do with the question he was posing.  What would a fuller sense of the gospel look like in contrast to what happens in an awful lot of American churches?

His answer is that the meaning of "gospel" is something much bigger than what he calls a "soterian" approach.  Since he has invented the word, it is completely appropriate.  A "soterian," as he defines it, is someone whose overwhelming focus is on getting people "saved."  He has made it clear elsewhere that he doesn't actually think the word "salvation" is this narrow in the NT.  What he is targeting is practices associated with a very narrow way of thinking about salvation.

To put it in my own way (which is much the same as Scot's), the gospel is, in the first instance, the good news about the inaugurated kingship of Jesus and the kingdom of God that he inaugurates.  I'm not too sure why this is so controversial in some circles.  People like Scot and Wright might debate some of the details, but it really isn't debatable.  End of story.

This original sense of the gospel is not "me" focused.  It doesn't center on me getting saved.  It is much bigger, much more important than me and my individual salvation.  I think what's really bugging McKnight (and Tom Wright before him) is the all-too-typical, shallow, self-centered focus of so much American Christianity, as if the center of the good news is me and what's in it for me.

Further, Scot is rightly concerned that so many Christians act like the whole deal is done once they "say the magic words."  There are many who believe in eternal security and go on to take very seriously the lordship of Jesus for the rest of their lives.  And there are some who act like once they've read the words on the card, they're done.  Eternal oops there.

Here are two further thoughts upon reflection:
1. God's creational good news
Scot says in the early chapters that the gospel relates to the "Story of Jesus" part of the overall Christian story.  I've hinted before that he is doing a dance between wanting to define words the way the NT does and doing theology, which almost always has to move beyond the specific words of specific biblical authors to formulate an integrated perspective.

The word "missional" does some of that.  I wonder what this book would have looked like if Scot had posed the question "missional versus soterian."  Then it would have more easily looked at a bigger version of the story.  It would have allowed us to talk not only of good news for humanity but about good news for the creation as well.  The NT doesn't actually use the word "gospel" in this way, but it is a valid theological broadening of the implications of the way the NT uses the word "gospel."

Missional has been somewhat of a buzz word, but it still seems to narrow God's purposes for the world to the area of saving.  I personally believe that beauty remains in the world, even after the Fall.  I find it hard to believe that every last bit of goodness flew out of the creation with Adam's sin, and the Bible certainly does not require us to believe that.

God thus has intentions for the creation that do not involve human beings and that are in addition to saving it.  The biggest story we can comprehend is the "creational" story.  I knew a student who pretty much lost his faith traveling the world after college (I've lost track of him).  It seems to me there is a faith crisis waiting to happen if we must limit God's walk with the world to the incredibly narrow story of Israel and story of the church.

I don't think most people have a sense of how few people God must care about if this is it.  We are so surrounded by Christianity that it is easy to assume that most people should know better.  Take a few months and travel through Asia.  Look at a map and compare the size of Judah to the rest of the ancient world.  Then read the book of Jonah. There is at least a potential difference between what Christ has done for the world and what the world knows about Christ.

2. A full switch to what God has done
I came to an ironic realization this morning.  In his chapter on salvation taking over the gospel, Scot pinpoints the Reformation as the point where salvation started on a trajectory to become more important than the gospel.  He says there that it did not happen at once--not with Luther and Calvin--but that it took a while.  It occurred to me where it most took place--with the Anabaptists!

It is the Anabaptist tradition that has been most influential on American Christianity and it is the Anabaptist tradition that has most focused on an event of faith once a person has reached an age of understanding.  With deep respect, I believe this is why I ended the book feeling like it had only gone half way.  As long as we are so focused on this event as the be-all-and-end-all of salvation, we will still ultimately be soterians.

Wesley was of course influenced by the Anabaptist tradition.  But we are not hindered as Wesleyans from recognizing that for Paul, the most important moment of justification and salvation is the final one.  Paul rarely--if even once--uses the word "salvation" in relation to anything but the final escape from God's judgment.  Ephesians 2:8 is the only possible exception I can think of, and even it may speak proleptically (poetically speaking of something that is still to happen but is so certain to happen that we can speak of it as already happened).

It is true that Paul predominantly speaks of justification in the past tense.  We can be justified now and this is incredibly important.  BUT the most important thing is that we are justified when we stand in the judgment.  "It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law will be justified" (Rom. 2:13).  More important is the "day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.  For he will repay according to each one's deeds" (Rom. 2:5-6).  And this includes believers: "the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done" (1 Cor. 3:13).

Paul's theology was not focused on a justification event in mid-life.  I personally don't think justification was the centerpiece of his theology overall--it was an issue that stood at the center of his debates with Judaizing believers and thus it comes up in Galatians and Romans.  I believe the central focus of Paul's preaching was the cross and what Christ had done.

But even when Paul argued over justification, his concern was with ultimate justification before God, not with a mid-life crisis event.  Certainly we should by all means seek God's justification ASAP.  We can and should be justified now.  But Paul was not arguing over the timing.  He was arguing over the basis.

The role of Acts in our thinking is significant here.  Scot takes the pattern "repent, believe, be baptized" as normative.  An important question is the context of Acts.  For example, these conversions are "first wave."  They refer to places where the tsunami of the gospel is reaching for the first time.  How might the process look different in a place where the wave is retreating?  It is an unexamined assumption that it would look exactly the same.

Even more crucial is the most important element of Acts' equation and one I find that an awful lot of people miss, namely, the Holy Spirit.  Repentance is incredibly important.  Faith is incredibly important.  Baptism is very significant.  But the sine qua non, the most crucial ingredient of all, is the Holy Spirit.  And here we have the precedent of John the Baptist to know that a child can have the Spirit long before they understand the gospel.  These are at least things worth some reflection.

I'll end with a reflection my colleague Keith Drury once made.  "There is no point in my life," he concluded, "at which I would have gone to hell."  His reasoning was thus, put in my own words.

"When I was a child, I did not know what it meant to have faith in God or confess Jesus as Lord.  If I had died at that point or if Christ had returned, God would have accepted me.  The first time I half way understood my need for Christ, I accepted his death for me.  I affirmed him as my king.  If I had died then or Christ had returned, God would have accepted me.  Although I have sinned since then, I have also confessed my sins without undue delay and asked God for forgiveness.  I do not believe there has ever been a time since I confessed Jesus as Lord that God would not have received me if I had died or if Christ had returned."

I could muse more, but I'll stop there (I'll put in a shameless plug for my life reflections on Romans book if you want more ;-). Let me only say that we, and Wesleyans in particular, should do some significant reflection before we conclude the "soterian" path within broader evangelicalism is the right one for us.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Finishing King Jesus Gospel

For all the preceding, check here.

The final chapter is called, "Creating a Gospel Culture."  It has two basic parts.  In the first part, Scot sketches the gospel story from creation to Jesus' return.  The second is his take-away from the study, what would a "Gospel Culture" look like.  Here are his points:

1. We become people of the story.  We read Scripture.  We become people of the Book.

2. We immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus.  Here he interestingly suggests we follow a church calendar because "the church calendar is a gospeling event too" (154).  The church calendar is all about the story of Jesus.

3. We learn from the model of how the apostle's took the story of Israel and the story of Jesus into the next generation and into a different culture... all the way to our generation.

4. We need to counter the stories that crowd out and re-frame the gospel story.  Here he gives a list:

  • individualism
  • consumerism
  • nationalism
  • moral relativism
  • scientific naturalism
  • new age
  • postmodern tribalism
  • salvation by therapy
Ways to do this--emphasize baptism and communion.

5. We need to embrace the story so that we are saved and can be transformed by the story.  To embrace the story involves a life of communication with God (prayer).  It involves serving others in love and compassion.

Here endeth the reading.

Myths of Progress 1

In popular language, a myth is something we tell ourselves that is not true, a false story, if you would.  As we discussed in chapter 8, there are more sophisticated ways of looking at myths.  A more meaningful definition of the word would be a fictional story that we use to express something about ourselves and our sense of the world.  "A story expressing a mystery," is how we put it in chapter 8.

When we speak of "myths of progress," we could mean the word in either way and be saying something true.  In 1932, the psychoanalyst M. D. Eder wrote a piece called, "The Myth of Progress," in which he used the word "myth" in the first sense, as a false story we tell ourselves. "The myth of progress states that civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction. Progress is inevitable." [1]  He was reacting primarily to the idea that the human condition would inevitably improve over time, particularly through scientific progress.  He argued on the contrary that scientific developments were making humanity more unhappy on the whole and in some ways actually threatened its destruction.

We do not wish to linger long on this sense of the "myth of progress."  Surely most of us would agree that there is no guarantee that progress is inevitable.  From a human perspective, all it would take were a serious political mishap to wipe humanity from the face of the planet in a nuclear war.  Since every child begins the world anew, humanity is always one generation away from the total loss of any accomplishments it might have accrued in the past.  This is the stuff of science fiction, but most of us would surely agree it could happen on a human level.

As Christians, we believe in more than the human.  We believe in providence, God's guiding hand for ultimate good in the world.  That is not to say that God does not allow evil.  We saw at the end of the last section that Christians do not agree on how this age of existence will end.  Some believe Christ could return to a world that has been greatly changed for good by the good news of God's coming kingdom.  Others believe things will get worse and worse until God intervenes at the last moment... 

[1] "The Myth of Progress," The British Journal of Medical Psychology 12 (1932): 1.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

McKnight 10: Gospeling Today

Next is chapter 9 of Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel

Intro: Evangelism Explosion
Chap. 1: The Big Question: What is the Gospel?
Chap. 2:Gospel Culture vs Salvation Culture
Chap. 3:From Salvation to Story
Chap. 4: The Gospel of Paul
Chap. 5: Salvation Takes Over the Gospel
Chap. 6: The Gospel in the Gospels
Chap. 7: Jesus and the Gospel
Chap. 8 The Gospel of Peter

Now the second to last chapter: "Gospeling Today."

This chapter is really what the entire book is headed toward. If Scot is right about the gospel--and in my mind he is far more correct than the popular sense of gospel as "how to get saved"--what is the right way for us to look at the gospel today?

First, what is the gospel?  Here is a summary of the book thus far:

  • It is framed by Israel's story.
  • It centers on the Lordship of Jesus.
  • It summons people to respond.
  • It saves and redeems.

What does it summon to?  It summons others to confess Jesus as Lord and Messiah.  "Anyone who can preach the gospel and not make Jesus' exalted lordship the focal point simply isn't preaching the apostolic gospel" (134).

It is driven by the story of Israel.  "Acts has only hints of an atonement theology" (134).  "Neither Peter nor Paul focuses on God's wrath" (135).  "If kingdom is the solution, the problem was the absence of God's kingdom on earth" (137), not my individual sinfulness.

Bottom line: "There's not enough Jesus in our gospel" (145).  "We need to talk more about Jesus."

linear views of history born 2

... One pattern that emerged in the first millennium before Christ is for a people group to divide their past history into stages, looking back to a Golden Age of some sort that deteriorated over time. [1] The Greek poet Hesiod in the 600's BC was already dividing the past up into successive stages of gold, silver, bronze, and so forth, and the Roman poet Ovid in the century before Christ would follow suit.  They looked to the earliest age of human history as an ideal time that had only deteriorated with successive periods. [2]

We find this same pattern in Daniel in a dream that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has.  In his dream, he sees a statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay (Daniel 1:31-35).  The head, Daniel interprets represents the king's own kingdom, that of the Babylonians.  However, after the head, interpreters disagree on what empires the rest of the metals represent.

In the traditional view, the silver represents the Medes and the Persians.  The bronze represents the Greeks.  The iron represents the Romans, with the mixed kingdom that follows being the divided kingdom of the Romans.  One might then equate the kingdom that will never be destroyed (2:44) as the church, which rose to become the dominant force in Europe during Rome's divided kingdom.  This view of course takes the statue as a prophecy about the future.

Outside evangelical circles, the dominant view is that the book of Daniel is largely a type of literature known as apocalyptic and that most writings in this genre write about the present by having important figures from the past predict events that were actually taking place in the present.  In other words, in this view, the statue mostly describes the past until we get to the feet, which were about the author's present.  In this view, Daniel was largely written to address a crisis in Israel in the years 167-64BC, the "Maccabean crisis." [3]

The silver would represent the Medes, the bronze the Persians.  The iron is thus the Greeks, with the division of the Greek empire between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria as the iron mixed with clay.  God would then set up an everlasting kingdom for Israel at the end of that time.  In this view, the unfolding ages of the past are still much like the pattern of Hesiod, only told in a creative way.

Regardless of the conclusion one reaches on Daniel, it is generally agreed that Jewish apocalyptic literature in general worked in this way, and we can make a good argument that linear thinking about history began to gain dominance through it in the centuries just before Christ.  The Apocalypse of Weeks, written just after 200BC, divides up history into 10 "weeks" and has Enoch from Genesis 5:24 lay out the whole of history from beginning to end (1 Enoch 93:1-10; 91:11-17).  Everyone agrees that most of these weeks were in the past for the author and that he was writing in what he hoped was the beginning of the eighth week.  The key is that this anonymous author mapped out three more epochs of human history until it reached finality.

It was during this time, the second century before Christ, that the idea of resurrection firmly rises within Judaism. [4]  Apocalyptic literature often was written in relation to times of crisis.  Accordingly, when such literature was written, the expectation of the "end of history," the resolution to the evils of the world, was hoped for in the very near future.  But after such crises were over, the literature remained and thus also hope that one day in the indefinite future God would indeed set the world straight.  A linear view of history was born that saw a trajectory not only for the near future but potentially for the distant future.

So it was arguably in this period that a linear view of history emerged within Judaism.  Christianity emerged from Judaism, and Islam later emerged from the matrix of both.  The three great monotheistic religions all thus share in common a linear view of history.  Because we can trace the origins of the view does not at all mean that it is an incorrect view.  We as Christians, for example, simply believe that this is the way in which God brought the idea forward.

The Christian view of history is thus a linear view.  It is not only the fundamental view of the New Testament--belief in a future resurrection of the dead and the return of Christ to judge the world.  It is also captured well in the fundamental creeds of Christianity.  The Apostle's Creed says, "I believe... he [Christ] ascended into heaven... from there he will come to judge the living and the dead... I believe... in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

[1] Many Christians today still have this tendency when they think of the early church as the ideal church and assume that a primary task for Christians is to "get back" to the way things were in the golden age of the disciples.

[2] An exception for Hesiod was what he called the "heroic" age of the Greeks who fought the Trojan War, the Greeks of legend and story.

[3] For example, Daniel 11 reads like a blow by blow account of the Maccabean crisis, but then Daniel 12 skips to the resurrection at the end of history in a very linear sense.

[4] The only passage that everyone agrees refers to resurrection in the Old Testament is Daniel 12:2-3.  There are other candidates (e.g., Ps. 73).  The bulk of the Old Testament is either silent on the topic or actually denies resurrection (Job 14:14) or a meaningful afterlife (Ecclesiastes 9:2-5).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

McKnight 9: "The Gospel of Peter"

Next is chapter 8 of Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel

Intro: Evangelism Explosion
Chap. 1: The Big Question: What is the Gospel?
Chap. 2:Gospel Culture vs Salvation Culture
Chap. 3:From Salvation to Story
Chap. 4: The Gospel of Paul
Chap. 5: Salvation Takes Over the Gospel
Chap. 6: The Gospel in the Gospels
Chap. 7: Jesus and the Gospel

Chapter 8 is called, "The Gospel of Peter."  What Scot means by “The Gospel of Peter” is basically the gospel in Acts.  From my perspective, it is the gospel in Acts that actually fits almost exactly with what he has been saying the gospel is continuously in the whole New Testament.

For the record, I personally would break it down more precisely like this:
  • John the Baptist—gospel is the good news of God’s approaching kingdom (our God reigns from Isaiah 52:7), including the restoration of Israel, its “return from captivity” 
  • Jesus—very similar to John the Baptist, but with a restoration focus on restoring the “lost sheep” of Israel, and with Jesus seeing himself as messiah within that kingdom
  • Paul—gospel is especially announcement of the inaugurated kingship of Jesus (Rom. 1:2-3), which commenced with the resurrection... of course the death is good news too because he died for our sins
  • In Acts, the story of salvation culminating in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus is the good news
So I agree with Scot more than anywhere else in the book that he has the right sense of what gospel means in Acts.  "The sermons in Acts put muscle and fat on that very 'according to the Scriptures' bone in the apostolic gospel tradition" (117).  "In those early apostolic sermons, we see the whole life of Jesus... if they gave an emphasis to one dimension of the life of Jesus, it was the resurrection" (120). Scot makes a point of the fact that the sermons of Peter and Paul in Acts have very similar content, namely, that their gospel was the same.

He makes a point further that "there is no such thing as gospeling that does not include the summons to respond in faith, repentance, and baptism" (127).  He ventures to say what these are: "faith is the big idea with repentance and baptism as manifestations of that faith" (129).

Very much looking forward to see what he does with all this plowing.  I sense much of the book thus far has been lead up.  What is the pay off?  The next two chapters, I suspect, will tell us.
Two notes if we were to take the discussion of the chapter to the next level.  The first is the question of Acts as a theological perspective in dialog with Acts as a presentation of history.  Scot mentions James Dunn's claim that Paul preaches the same basic message as Peter in Acts.  He does not mention one way of interpreting that fact, namely, that the sermons of Acts are as much a presentation of Luke's theology as they are precise historical memories of apostolic sermons.

The second is the question of the degree to which Acts--or the methods of the early church for that matter--presents us with a model to imitate.  If Acts models how people in a pagan world (and who have never heard of Jesus) come to Christ, how do people who have heard about Jesus all their life embrace him?  The model of embracing affirmation might not be as event oriented.  I think different models might sometimes play out.