Monday, April 30, 2012

Poem by my grandfather...

... Harry A. Shepherd, thinking back on the death of his mother, who died when he was six (1890).  He himself died before I was born, in 1963.

               Maternal Tho'ts
When I think of home and mother,
And the time she passed away,
Both recall a recollection
Of the sadness of that day
When we stood around the coffin
With our eyes bedimmed with tears,
Thinking that was gone forever
Consolations of future years.
Yet we mourned our loss, in sorrow.
Meekly submitting to will divine,
Thinking that upon the morrow
We'd prepare for the judgement time
When with her we'd be reunited,
And our sorrow would be o'er
Then our souls would be delighted
And our loss we'd mourn no more.
Years have passed and memories have flown,
But to our vow we've been untrue,
And some sorrows we have known,
And the past we sincerely rue,
But if our lives we'd have consecrated
To a tho't so truely sublime,
Over sorrows we'd have been elated,
And found reward in a heavenly clime.

Preaching the Law and the Gospel

Saturday I started outlining some material relating to preaching from various literary forms in Scripture. I started with preaching from the narratives of the Bible (after looking at Long yesterday, I see I missed a relevant sub-category of narrative, namely, Jesus' parables). This morning I want to outline briefly what a piece on Preaching from the OT Law might look like.

Law in the Old Testament
The piece might begin by setting forth 1) the Law as a literary unit within the Jewish and Christian canon, namely, the first five books of the OT, the Torah, the Pentateuch. This is a layer of "original" literary context in the sense that these books were brought together and edited together into one unit at some point.  However, 2) there are several sub-genres within the "Law." There are narratives, such as Genesis, much of Exodus and Numbers, etc.

But what this article is concerned with is primarily the legal material in the Pentateuch. How might a Christian preach from the "apodictic" and "casuistic" laws of the Torah? For that matter, how might a Christian preach from any of the prescriptive material of the Old Testament?

Differing Hermeneutics
It might be worthwhile to sketch some of the different (Protestant) approaches to how "Law and Gospel" fit together. For example, both Lutheran and Reformed traditions generally have a three-fold sense of the Law's purpose: 1) curb the sin of the wicked, 2) show us our sinfulness, 3) a guide of what righteousness is. However, the Devil is in the details, especially in arguments over exactly how the Law might apply as a guide.

Much of popular nineteenth century Christianity, however, found itself applying a great deal of the Law directly to today.  The rise of the Seventh Day Adventists is a case in point. Many of the holiness and Pentecostal traditions also had a tendency to consider much of the legal material of the Law still very much applicable to today. Meanwhile, the Lutheran tradition in particular has sometimes emphasized strong discontinuity with OT law.

Categories of Application
Christians since long before the Reformation divided Old Testament legal material into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil. These are not of course the original categories by which either  the Old or New Testaments classified laws. We might reasonably divide the Law into case law (casuistic, that comes in the form of "if this happens then the consequence will be that") and law in the form of a kind of decree (apodictic, thou shalt not, following the form of ancient suzerainty treaties between kings and subjects).

Nevertheless, the three fold categorization is not an entirely inappropriate way of approaching what the NT does with OT law. We might finesse the categories a little to give a largely Pauline hermeneutic for appropriating (and thus preaching) from the OT Law:

1. "ceremonial" category
The NT does not consider a good deal of Old Testament legal material to be binding on Gentile believers. This category especially relates to boundary issues that separated Jew and Gentile ethnically. Thus Paul does not consider circumcision or Sabbath laws binding on Gentile believers. Mark and Acts clearly do not consider food or OT purity laws to be binding on believers.

Christians usually include in this category also sacrificial or "cultic" laws relating to the Levitical system. The book of Hebrews indicates these laws no longer apply. Thus we have laws that some part of the NT considers to be fulfilled in Christ in such a way as that believers no longer need to keep them. These laws can be preached as figures or types of Christ, although certainly they were not perceived that way by Israel originally.

This is the "does not literally apply" but "can be preached as figures" category of OT law.

2. "moral" category
All the legal material that the NT does carry forward fits here.  These are those parts of the Ten Commandments that the NT considers still in force (remembering that the NT does not carry forward the Jewish Sabbath rule). In particular, the NT generally considers all the sexual prohibitions of the OT to apply.

3. "civil" category
Christians debate to what extent the rules relating to the political operation of Israel according to law might apply to today. Should we stone criminals? Interestingly, no one these days seems to argue we should set up a monarchy. In general, immense care and hermeneutical sophistication should be used when trying to apply such laws to today, a quite different context. Such laws must be filtered through a NT lens, as with all the OT.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Polygenism versus Darwin

Came across an interesting tidbit as I'm moping through The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America.  I'm in the middle of the chapters on William James, and it's talking about the impact of Louis Agassiz on his life.  I'd never heard of Agassiz before, but apparently he was hot stuff in the mid-1800s.

He taught deplorable things with a smile and a catchy French accent.  He believed that the skulls of different races corresponded to their relative intelligence and followed the skewed report of a colleague who managed to argue that the European skull was bigger than that of Africans or Mexicans.  Accordingly, he strongly opposed interracial breeding.

He also taught "polygenism."  For him, this meant that God created each of the races in a different part of the globe.  He believed God did this over and over again.  God created animals and then destroyed them with things like floods or, more recently, an Ice Age all over the planet.  Then he created new species all over again.

Of course this doesn't fit with the Adam story either, which implies "monogenism" for the origin of humanity, a single origin.  Of course Agassiz might have thought Adam was only the father of the generally European race.  I'm not sure.

By contrast, Darwin believed that humanity originated from a single point and, in that sense, some Christians in the late 1800s simply believed that Adam was the first human to evolve.  That has been a position theistic evolutionists have taken up to the present.

 But this is all background to what was interesting to me as I read.  The contrast between the two that is of real interest to me is that, for all his peculiarity, Agassiz still thought in terms of "kinds" of animals.  The species came first and variety came within the overarching category.  As Genesis 1 puts it, God created animals and vegetables, "after their own kind."

By contrast, Darwin's approach focused on individuals and built up to species.  Menand quotes Darwin, "I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other" (123).  For Agassiz, the general kind comes first.  The individuals are subsumed within the general category.

Darwin's approach builds the other way.  An individual evolves and we as on-lookers create the category, so to speak.  I suspect I can see where Menand is heading with this analysis, namely, that the late 1800s saw a general shift from the direction of "univerals to particulars" to the direction of "particulars to universals."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Preaching the Narratives of the Bible

One of the challenges of theological education in Spanish right now is that resources are not as readily available. To service our Spanish MDIV, we have sought out as much as is available in Spanish (a lot of it goes out of print quickly or comes from hard to access presses).  We have translated or summarized some English resources.  We will eventually try to create some Spanish resources.

One topic on which we have not found ready materials in Spanish is that of Thomas Long's Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. Thus far we have no plans to get permission to translate it.  We might summarize parts of it and translate them.  Since I have significant interest in this topic, I thought I would sketch this weekend what I consider to be the most important points on this topic, starting with preaching from the narratives of the Bible. Here is an outline:

What Is a Narrative?
A piece on preaching from biblical narratives should first identify what a narrative is.  The three core components are events, characters, and settings, which together constitute plot.  A plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end that involves some tension trying to move toward resolution.  This plot is told from a certain point of view, sometimes through the voice of a narrator.  Meanwhile, the author of a narrative arranges the story in a certain order, and the time spent on certain aspects (narrative time) can differ dramatically from the temporal proportions of real time (story time).

Biblical Narratives
Scholarship on the biblical narratives has raised unique issues relating both to the process by which various biblical narratives were created as well as the parameters of ancient narratives. While different Christians take different positions on these issues, it does a preacher well to be aware of them.
  • unintended meanings created by the juxtaposition of diverse source material
  • assumptions that biblical stories are straightforward history
  • filling in narrative gaps with modern psychological or socio-cultural assumptions
The soundest preaching will be aware of these potential dynamics.

Evaluative Point of View
Key to appropriating a narrative is to ascertain its "evaluative point of view."  This is inevitably God's point of view.  More than anything else, including history, God's point of view in a biblical narrative is the main take-away from a narrative.  Job is an excellent case in point, where the points of view of Job's comforters is less correct than Job's which is less correct than God's.  Then within the canon as a whole, it must be recognized that Job itself represents a point in a developing understanding of God that culminates in the New Testament.  With this in mind, the evaluative point of view of a narrative will preach.

Identifying with Events
The way a narrative flows usually involves significant meaning that will preach.  Narratives often have turning points which by their very nature involve contrast between what is before and what is after.  Narratives often climax, which implies significance.  We can identify with the unfolding of events, which often mirror the unfolding of events today and are full of lessons.  There are lessons of wisdom and foolishness, choices to avoid and choices to emulate.

Identifying with Characters
Similarly, we often see ourselves in the characters of a narrative.  Once we know God's point of view on those characters, we see what is virtuous and what is full of vice.  We adjust ourselves accordingly. We find ourselves in the story and look around, then return to our own lives and move.

Identifying with Settings
We can also find situations analogous to ours in a narrative.  There are settings in space, time, and ideology.  These "places" may be analogous to ours and our attention is piqued.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Psalm 9 Translation

Psalm 9
[To the musician leading on the death of a son, a psalm (attributed) to David]
9:1 I will praise YHWH with all my heart.
     Let me tell of all the marvelous things you have done.
2 Let me rejoice and let me exult in you.
     Let me make music to your name, O Most High.
3 When my enemies turn back,
     they will fall and perish before your face.
4 For you bring justice
     and my case you take on the high seat,
     judging in righteousness.
5 You rebuked the nations;
     you destroyed the wicked;
     their name you wiped out forever and ever.
6 O enemy, [your] devastations have come to an end in perpetuity.
     And you have destroyed cities.
     Their memory perished [with] them.
7 But YHWH remains forever,
     establishing his throne for justice.
8 But he will judge the inhabited world with righteousness;
     he will pronounce judgment on peoples with equity.
9 YHWH will be a refuge for the crushed;
     a refuge for times in distress.
10 And those who know your name will trust in you,
     for you do not abandon those who seek you, YHWH.
11 Sing to YHWH, the one dwelling in Zion.
     Make known among the peoples his doings.
12 For the one seeking bloods, them he [God] remembers;
     he does not forget the cry of the poor.
13 Be gracious to me, YHWH;
     look on my misery from those who hate me,
     you who raise me up from the gates of death.
14 So that I might recount all your praises in the gates of the daughter of Zion.
     I will rejoice in your salvation.
15 Nations have fallen into the pits they made;
     in the net that they concealed,
     [their] foot was caught.
16 YHWH is known [by] the judgment he does;
     by the deed of his palms the wicked is snared.
     (Higgion music)
17 The wicked turn to Sheol,
     all the nations who forget God.
18 For not for eternity will the needy be forgotten;
     the hope of the poor will not perish forever.
19 Arise, YHWH. Do not let man be strong;
     let the nations be judged before your face.
20 Place, YHWH, fear on them;
     let the nations know [that] they are man.

Unpardonable Sin 4

... continued from yesterday
A couple features of this issue have caused great discussion over the years.  One is the question of the unpardonable sin.  When Jesus' opponents suggest he performed miracles by the power of Satan, Jesus warns them starkly.  Attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan is serious business, a sin that will not be forgiven.

Many a sensitive soul has struggled with this concept in self-doubt. Have I committed this sin?  I heard of a man once who participated more faithfully in a church than anyone else and yet was convinced there was no hope for him. In his mind he had committed the sin from which no one can return.

In that light, a bottom line is in order.  If it is the Holy Spirit that draws us to God in the first place, then anyone who truly is seeking God cannot have committed such a sin. In other words, anyone who has committed this sin will not want to come back to God. If you are truly seeking God, you are good to go.

Of course what does it mean to seek God truly?  Many a child is sorry she got caught rather than truly remorseful for doing something bad. Perhaps it is not exactly what Hebrews 12:17 means, but the wording is interesting when it says that Esau, "found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears" (NASB). A truly repentant heart is something deeper that realizing you're in trouble.

But the person who thinks God is always hiding around the corner, waiting to give you a "sinning ticket," has a false picture of God.  God is standing out in the open, looking for any chance to reconcile and welcome you.  The other picture is unhealthy and often leads us to pass on legalistic judgment to others as well.

The take-away from the unpardonable sin is for us to be careful not to miss the working of the Spirit in others.  For example, for years many people in my church wondered if those who spoke in tongues were demon-possessed. I hope that for most it was a sincere question rather than an accusation. Why even take a chance on such a thing?  If speaking in tongues can be from the Holy Spirit, then attributing it to Satan is very similar to the unpardonable sin of Mark 3:28-29. [1]

In general, we should be very careful about judging others (Matt. 7:1) or assuming that God can't work in others in ways he doesn't work with us. It's not just that it is the wrong attitude on our part. It's that we ourselves may miss out on a blessing by way of others.

Another issue raised by Jesus' healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 is the authority to forgive sins...

[1] There is of course a third option, that some speaking of tongues can be a psychological phenomenon that some human brains are wired for. In fact, the gift of tongues could be the Holy Spirit blessing individuals with this sort of wiring. This would explain why we sometimes find tongues-speaking in other religions.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Handling Conflict on the Mission

I just wrote informally on conflict in the context of Jesus' ministry, but I thought it might be worthwhile to formalize my sense of how to handle conflict when you're on God's mission.

When you are on God's mission and you face opposition, you should:

1. Examine yourself.
This involves prayer. It involves reflection and introspection. It can involve seeking out the counsel of others. Are my motives pure?  Is my understanding right?

2. What are the costs of moving forward?
God doesn't usually force others to do his will. He allows us to resist his will. He often lets others stop his best plan because they have the human power to do so.  And the cost of moving forward with God's best plan can be too great to move forward. What will it take to move forward?

3. Make a decision.
There is a time to force God's hand on others. This is especially true when the human cost of not moving forward is extreme.  There is a time when the opposition is "fleshly" and we plow on through. There is a time when the cost is greater than the benefit, and we concede or compromise or "shake the dust off our feet" and move on. There is a time when we wait, sensing that a door will open at a later time.

4. Implement purely.
We should move forward with God's will in a loving way.  We respect those who sincerely disagree and treat them with love. We act without spite for those whose opposition is not pure, looking to their redemption. We pray for those who resist God's will and pray for our own understanding and purity of motive.

Opposition to us today 3

... continued from Saturday
... Who were these teachers of the law?  Mark doesn't identify them as Pharisees and this is just as well, since the Pharisees were primarily located in Jerusalem. [1] Jesus also is not in a big city, just in the seaside village of Capernaum. Most likely, then, these are very local individuals who play some official teaching role in the synagogue.

We can't know if there was an actual synagogue building in Capernaum. The building there now that pilgrims visit comes from over a hundred years later. In general, synagogues at this time were gatherings that usually did not have devoted buildings. [2] We have few archaeological examples of actual synagogue buildings at this point in history. Some did exist, but not in the prevalent way we now assume. Perhaps these gatherings were in homes, as the gathering in this story.

We should not be too quick to condemn these teachers. We know so much about Jesus in hindsight. To them, Jesus was a miracle worker that they definitely needed to check out. But he probably didn't fit their preconceptions of the kind of man God would choose. Wasn't he born under suspicious circumstances? Isn't he an artisan who works in wood and such--on the lower end of society to be sure? [3]

Some opposition is sincere and some comes for dubious reasons. Perhaps these teachers were completely sincere in their opposition to Jesus. Admittedly, it doesn't feel that way as we continue to read the gospel texts. It feels like they were intimidated by someone whose authority called their knowledge and authority into question. And rather than step back and submit to someone greater than them, they used their energies to oppose him.

Opposition usually involves more than just disagreement over the issues. There are usually personal dimensions involved. Sometimes we are jealous of others and what we perceive as their advantages or good fortune. Sometimes we feel embarrassed by them because their strengths seem to expose our weaknesses. Sometimes they make us feel insecure in our position or habits of living. Sometimes such insecurity is real and sometimes it is imagined.

Of course others are wired to enjoy opposing others. Some people have a lust for power and opposing others is their way of gaining more. No one must stand in the way of their ambition. It's not clear to me that the teachers of the law in Mark were of this sort.

Finally, there are a few people who genuinely oppose others because they believe the ideas or actions of another person are dangerous. They of course can be right or they can have a zeal not based on knowledge (Rom. 10:2). At least some of Jesus' opposition probably was sincere, but a great deal more probably was not.

Much of the time, the opposition doesn't seem to bother Jesus.  By and large, Jesus doesn't go looking for opposition, it comes to him. He simply conducts his mission and moves on. He doesn't feel threatened by the opposition. He is confident in what he does. In the case of the paralytic, he substantiates his claim to forgive sins by healing the man.  

We may very well also face opposition and conflict today as we try to do God's will in this world. Unlike Jesus, we may sometimes be in the wrong. There is a time for us to examine ourselves and see if we are on the right path. Are my motives pure or am I on a self-serving mission? Do I genuinely understand God's will or is my own zeal not based on knowledge? I may not be able to see myself clearly. I may need to seek out someone else who I trust to be honest with me.

But we should not always second guess ourselves either. When we have done our best to know God's will, we should move forward with it as best we can. We should not do so with an attitude. Looking down on those who disagree with us is itself a sign that our motives are not pure. Rather, we should have a peace that is not distracted by opposition.

If those who oppose us are praying for us, we should welcome that. How can prayer ever be a bad thing if we are aligned with God's will?  If opposition is self-serving or ambitious, we should beware and be wise as serpents. We usually cannot make others do what is right.  We can only make sure that our own motives are pure and that we are walking circumspectly.  We may need to seek out allies or counsel.

There was a time when Jesus counselled his disciples to "shake the dust off your feet" and move on (Matt. 10:14). You cannot change someone else's heart.  God usually allows them to resist. It is not about winning but about being faithful. We cannot always get everyone on the same page. There is a time to move forward with those who are with us and a time when enough are against us that we should move on and shake the dust off our feet...

[1] So much so, in fact, that E. P. Sanders questions whether Jesus ever even had direct contact with Pharisees proper outside of Jerusalem.

[2] See Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue.

[3] Although most of his work is highly questionable, J. D. Crossan has looked at some of these social dynamics. ***

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Language that Includes

I was trying to draft some sort of a statement that didn't come across as militant but expressed the bottom line of the issue.  Here's my first draft. What do you think?
Sometimes we use language that we do not realize makes others feel like outsiders. Ironically, we can do this when we are actually trying to reach a group that is in the minority or is not dominant in our context. We can do this in our language when we only use illustrations about how “he” does something. I may not only have men in mind, but many at this point of history will hear it that way. In the spirit of not wanting to put any stumbling block in the way of the good news, we should strive to speak and write in such a way as to include everyone we mean to include and speak with a clear voice. If we mean both men and women in what we are saying, then we should consciously include both in our language. If we mean to say that a less dominant group is included, then we should say “we” instead of “they.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wesley, Soterianism, and Oliver Wendell Holmes...

... No, these don't all go together, but I thought it would peak your curiosity more than "Thoughts I've Had Today."

Wesley and Soterianism
I was reflecting today in class about the fact that the ordo salutis ("order of salvation") was the defining feature of Wesley's theology, and I was connecting this fact to my take-away from Scot McKnight's recent King Jesus Gospel that the very terms of the Reformation got us out of focus on the gospel in the process of correcting an overemphasis on the church as the agent of salvation.

Let me put it in my own terms. The focal point of the Reformation was the argument over the role of works in salvation, indulgences in particular. (The other emphases of the Reformation followed naturally on this focal issue.  The argument over Scripture was about the ground rules of the debate. The foci on Christ and grace had to do with the theological framework of the question of works)

The result is that Protestantism has always tended to overemphasize Paul and overemphasize anthropology at the center of theology.  That is to say, the terms of Luther's debate inevitably has led us to focus on the human problem and its solution as the center of theology.  Rather, God should be the center of theology.

Wesley was simply playing out the terms of the Reformation on the details. So he took justification from Luther, extended sanctification from Calvin, appropriated the Arminian wing of the Calvinist tree, and threw in some assurance of salvation from the Moravians for good measure.  Since he was Anglican, he remained closer to Roman Catholicism than Luther or Calvin.

Oliver Wendell Holmes
Finished the second and third chapters of The Metaphysical Club on the plane home yesterday. Felt quite sorry for Holmes in chapter 2 as the naive "all or nothing" abolitionist/idealist got a real life lesson in the absurd violence of the Civil War.  It is a good reminder for anyone who is excited about war.  War should always, always be a last resort when everything else has failed.

But I didn't like the post-Civil War Holmes. He came to consider individual lives as generally unimportant in comparison to society doing its thing.  Rules became simply conventional for him and his big deal was simply following them, no matter who got run over in the process.

Having started quite interested in the man, I ended that section with little identification with him at all.

Nashotah House Theological Seminary

Yesterday I was at Nashotah House Theological Seminary near Milwaukee helping with a faculty evaluation. Let me just say that this place is one of theological education's best kept secrets.
[here are some more pictures]

It is an Anglican/Episcopal seminary, quite the opposite in style from Wesley where I am, but our common heritage popped up time and time again. It also reminded me of my days at St. John's College at the University of Durham.

Here's why Nashotah is an incredible place to study for a large number of future ministers:
  • It is a cross between a monastic community and a seminary.  All students begin the day together in the Anglo-Catholic chapel with morning prayer and Eucharist and they end the day with evensong together. They break bread together. All MDIV students must live on campus, whether married or single. Faculty do all these things with them all day and the seminary even owns the houses the faculty live in.
  • It is a beautiful location in Wisconsin, full of hills, lakes, and trees.
  • It is a safe zone for Anglicans and Episcopals of all kinds. It is Anglo-Catholic in emphasis, but students on both ends of the Episcopal spectrum are safe here. It remains affiliated with the mainstream Episcopal Church and most of its faculty are still in the Episcopal Church.  But Anglicans who have separated from the Episcopal Church will find it the most attractive option to get their education.
  • It is a place for the increasing number of evangelicals who are looking for something more than just the cognitive--the student drawn to the sensibilities of the ancient-future movement. There is a clear path right now from Wheaton to Nashota for students who are looking for something affective to add to a heady start.
  • They will stay relatively small in their on campus ministry as a matter of ethos in order to maintain the intimate feel.  They have several distance programs (MA, STM, DMIN), but the on campus MDIV is around 50 students. They'd be happy to grow to 100, but wouldn't want to go much more than that on campus.
I'm personally quite interested in creating a runaway for non-traditional Anglicans to start at Wesley Seminary where I am and then either go on to Nashotah after an MA, perhaps transfer in their third year, or go from here to do an STM there (which can be done through a distance program).

Great place!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: The Metaphysical Club

I am in Nashota, Wisconsin today... flew last night from Indianapolis to Milwaukee by way of Minneapolis (huh?). I spent some of the plane ride reading the first chapter of a book John Drury recommended called The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.  From what I gather so far, it is a tale of the most formative influence on American thinking in the second half of the 1800's, namely, pragmatism.

The reason why John and I find this subject so interesting is because it seems that a lot of the genius of the IWU Religion Division in the first decade of this century. as well as the founding genius of Wesley Seminary, can be summed up under the heading of pragmatism in the philosophical sense. The term has a negative connotation to some, but there is also a rather profound side to it.

In any case, I read the first chapter, "The Politics of Slavery."  It means to show what pre-Civil War Boston was like and what the father of the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes was like in that era. I'll confess that the chapter created some inner turmoil in me, because of my pragmatic sympathies.

We sometimes say things like, "If so and so were here today, he or she would..."  Likewise, we sometimes try to project ourselves into the past.  "If I had been born in 1830, I would have taken this position on slavery." But of course it is impossible to say who we would have been if we had grown up in a different time and place. Without our memories and formative experiences, we probably can say little other than what our fundamental personality might have been.

No, time travel of this sort only makes sense if we transport ourselves at a certain age and wipe our memory of the future clean, an age after our identities now were largely formed. We're probably talking at least our early twenties. For me, you would perhaps want to send me back in time at about the age of 30, maybe even 40.

Would I have been an abolitionist?  Yes, I would have been strongly in favor of abolition. I would have been in favor of helping runaway slaves continue on their way to Canada or to some place of safety. I would have disobeyed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 if I could get away with it.

But I would also have been in favor of the union, a unionist.  And many abolitionists--according to Louis Menand--didn't give a rip about the union. I was reminded of the Stoics: "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." That is to say, most abolitionists were idealists who largely didn't care about the practical consequences of how they went about getting abolition. Many were "all or nothing" type people, a way of thinking I find absurd in most cases. It often does an equal or greater amount of harm for the good it accomplishes--that is, when it even wins out. I suspect it usually loses.

No, I can see what course I would have supported. I would have supported a course of gradual abolition, following a political path. I look at the Missouri Compromise and I see the masterful art of compromise, turning the trajectory of the nation away from slavery. As a matter of principle, no abolitionist would have voted for it (Menand indicates they didn't hardly vote at all so as not to taint themselves, let alone run for office). And yet I shudder to think what might have happened if the Missouri Compromise had not passed.

Of course many of those opposed to slavery in the North were just as racist as anyone else. Ulysses S. Grant even wrote later that, "The great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution" (11).

The tension between the principle of abolition and the principle of union is fascinating. I would have opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 because I didn't believe in slavery. But I would have to support the authority of the federal government to prevail over the laws of individual states in such matters. So we have civil disobedience against a specific law but acceptance of federal authority in principle.

I have a hunch where the book might be headed. The "all or nothing," "do away with slavery or die" approach of some abolitionists was a path to war, a war that cost more American lives than any war since. And of course the post-Civil War South was a mess for both former slaves and former slave owners. The trajectory of the purist and the anarchist is not entirely dissimilar, the purist just doesn't know it.

I hope I can find the time to continue reading...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Conflict over Spiritual Authority 2

... continued from yesterday.
Jesus' ministry in Galilee starts in Mark 1 with a barrage of miracles. After he is baptized and tempted, he calls followers and begins to heal and cast out demons. He heals Peter's mother-in-law and a man with leprosy. He casts out an unclean spirit on the Sabbath and goes off alone to pray.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Mark 2 then records a number of conflicts that come to Jesus. We want to be careful how we analyze and apply the way these conflicts arise, but there are certainly important lessons to learn from them. As Jesus exercises his spiritual power and authority, it is only to be expected that it would cause some problems with those who were in formal positions of spiritual authority.

The first conflict in Mark comes when Jesus declares that the sins of a paralyzed man are forgiven (Mark 2:1-11).  Certain teachers of the Law who have come to hear him don't think this is appropriate. Only God alone can pronounce sins forgiven. The wording is quite interesting because it probably alludes to the cornerstone of Jewish faith, the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deut. 6:4).

Some aspects of this conflict seem puzzling to me.  Didn't the priests at the temple regularly pronounce sins as forgiven after people offered their sacrifices? Wasn't John's baptism for the forgiveness of sins, with the expectation that those who were baptized would be forgiven? Even today, when people truly pray for God's forgiveness, wouldn't most pastors have confidence to say that their sins are now forgiven?

At the very least, Mark was implying that Jesus had the authority of God. And of course Jesus backs it up by healing the paralytic. He shows that he is not only saying the man is forgiven. He is showing he has the spiritual power to substantiate his authority. [1]

The Jews had a place in their view of the world for a prophet, individuals with authority from God even though they are not in official positions of power. Prophets brought words from God that spoke to current situations. The teachers of the law were already in the house listening to Jesus. We don't know if they were there as skeptics or if they were genuinely curious about whether Jesus was truly a prophet.

What we know is that Jesus did something that did not fit with their understanding. They thought he was blaspheming. He was associating himself too closely with the functions of God himself. Perhaps they genuinely didn't think humans could do such things. Or maybe they thought Jesus was the wrong human to be pronouncing such things.

They were faced with the choice either to alter their understanding or to find some way to continue believing what they already believed. The clear impression we get is that most teachers of this sort were not ultimately interested in accepting Jesus' authority. That left them needing to explain how Jesus could do the miracles he did. The answer was to attribute his spiritual power to Satan himself.

"By the prince of demons he is driving out demons" (3:22). The teachers of the law cannot deny his power, so they deny the source of his power. Jesus indicates that this is a very serious accusation indeed, for they are saying that the power of God is actually the power of Beelzebul. Jesus describes such a thing as an unpardonable sin. It's not a sin against Jesus but a sin against the Holy Spirit (3:28-29).

Jesus tells them that it doesn't work that way. Satan can't cast out Satan without diminishing his own paper.  "If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand" (3:25). The problem is not with Jesus. It is with them...

[1] It's hard to know if there is an implicit connection in this story between the need for healing and the sin of the paralytic. Sometimes sickness was understood to be a consequence of sin, so that healing would be the natural companion of forgiveness. Again, this passage doesn't explicitly make such a connection.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Arminian View of Prayer...

... is basically the view with which most people operate.  It is the belief that prayer changes things.

I don't personally believe that prayer can lead someone to become a Christian. That must ultimately be a matter of each individual. Can prayer make it more likely that someone will believe? I have serious questions about the goodness of such a possibility.

And to be sure, there are some bizarre features of prayer.  God already knows what we need before we ask it (Matt. 6:8).  In fact, we don't know exactly what we should pray for (Rom. 8:26).  Why should we even pray?

The Calvinist view of prayer is that God has already determined the outcome of events before the foundation of the world.  Prayer is simply one move in a chess game God is playing with himself. He causes us to pray as part of his predetermined plan to do something.

But an Arminian will probably see the "laws of prayer" as an opportunity God has given us to impact the flow of human events.  It occurred to me this week that an Arminian might view prayer a little like I view God's relationship to the laws of physics.  Sometimes two bits of metal are on certain trajectories at certain velocities and they crash into each other... and maybe I go to the hospital.

I don't see God always directing such events, although I believe he allows them. In the same way, perhaps God allows prayers or lack of prayers to affect the course of human events.

So perhaps sometimes God will do some things whether we pray or not.  Perhaps sometimes God "quickens" some people to pray because he wants to give them an opportunity to catalyze the changing of things. And finally, God gives us the privilege to pray for our yearnings and requests in prayer. Perhaps sometimes he chooses to do such things, where otherwise he would not have.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Kerygma in Acts 2

I'm so behind in teaching that I had to skip posting today, but here's a short 11 minute vidcast I did for one class.

So much to say about the sermon in Acts 2. I hope I can do a book on Acts after I finish my writing on Jesus and the Gospels.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Conflict with Leaders 1

Conflict seems an almost inevitable part of human life. Even those who try to please everyone eventually get into conflict when the people they want to please are pulling in different directions. "You can't please all the people all the time." Sometimes no matter what choice you make, you're going to upset someone--even if you make no choice at all.

Jesus got into conflict. Most of the time, Jesus didn't go looking for the conflict. It came to him. In that sense, Jesus is not a model for "in your face" zealotry. Conflict seems inevitable, but the only time Jesus sought out conflict was when he threw over the tables in the temple.

Nevertheless, those who like conflict sometimes think they are simply following Jesus' example. For example, there is the rebel, who uses Jesus as a model for being anti-establishment. Jesus "stuck it to the man." But perhaps they miss that Jesus ate with "the man" for a while until "the man" decided he didn't like Jesus.

Others use Jesus as a model of being against liberalism.  It's hard to know even how to make sense of this one. The Pharisees were far more conservative than Jesus was. And Jesus' objection to religious leaders largely had to do with their neglect of the poor and disempowered--hardly a position we associate with conservatism today.

When John the Baptist was arrested, it was Jesus' time to take over the mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. Obviously the crowds liked most of what he had to say. But he also came into conflict with others as he furthered the mission. He came into conflict with those who wanted to follow the letter of the law. He came into conflict with the leaders of Israel. He eventually came into conflict with the state. In this chapter I want to look at Jesus as a model for conflict.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Digitize Theological Libraries!

As I was reading of some of the digitizing projects going on in the world at the Vatican and elsewhere, I thought I would both ask and express my sense that the worlds best theological libraries should be actively working together with publishers to digitize all theological books and resources.

1. We know where things are headed. One day, you will be able to "check out" any book that has ever been written online. Google, Amazon, Logos, they've already done most of the work. The days when you have to have a physical library are numbered.  It's all a question of time and details.

2. But there are significant details. There's no motivation for a scholar or writer to write, there's no motivation for a publisher to publish (their ways are also in serious jeopardy, as anyone can self-publish), if everything written is free on the web.  It's like writing songs and such. There has to be some opportunity for profit or we end up with the equivalent of Eastern Europe in books and music (meaning depressing doldrum).

3. One answer is for access to such books being a matter of membership in libraries, who pay some subscription fee. Or perhaps authors get a certain royalty for every time someone "checks out" their book. Perhaps libraries become the new publishers or, in transition, libraries and publishers get into bed with each other. This already happens when libraries subscribe to certain series.

4. I'm sure some of you out there know more than I do about what is already going on. In particular, what if Brill, Mohr/Siebeck, Cambridge, T & T Clark, and all the pricey international monograph series were to form an electronic consortium to which libraries could subscribe?

Where is the breakthrough going to happen?

Waiting to Return 7

What is Jesus doing now in heaven as he sits at God's right hand? He is waiting, for one thing, until the time for his enemies finally to be put under his feet (Heb. 10:12-13). Hebrews perhaps thinks of those who will face God in the judgment when it mentions Christ's enemies (Heb. 10:26-31). 1 Corinthians 15 points to the most significant enemy to be vanquished at the end: death (15:26).

The other thing that Christ currently does in heaven is intercede for us (Rom. 8:34).  To intercede is of course to serve as a go-between in a very active way, to advocate for someone.  The Holy Spirit is our go-between when it comes to our everyday needs. "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans" (Rom. 8:26). So the Spirit pleads for us to God even though we ourselves do not fully know what we need or what is best for us.

The intercession of Christ is arguably a little different from the intercession of the Spirit.  Christ intercedes for us as a lawyer, as our advocate in the divine court.  "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us" (8:33-34). Jesus is thus the one who intercedes for our acquittal before God on the basis of his blood. Once we have Christ interceding for us in this way, we will be found not-guilty.

John gives yet another function for Jesus "in the meantime."  He has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven (John 14:2-3). Most of the New Testament seems to look for eternity to be on a transformed earth. [1] Paul speaks of how the creation will be redeemed (Rom. 8:22-23). Revelation speaks of a New Jerusalem coming down to earth (Rev. 21:2). Matthew and Luke speak of people coming from all over the earth to eat with Jesus and the patriarchs of Genesis (Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:28-29).

But perhaps the popular sense that we spend eternity in heaven comes most from John and John 14 in particular. Jesus prepares a place in heaven for his followers. And certainly this location fits with what other parts of the New Testament have to say about the time between Jesus' resurrection and second coming. The Parable of the Rich Man in Luke speaks of a beggar going to Abraham's side after his death (16:22). Paul speaks of how being absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:7; cf. Phil. 1:23).

Again, much of what we are saying about Christ's current activities do not come so much from the gospels as from the rest of the New Testament. What we do find a good deal about in the Synoptic Gospels, and in the rest of the New Testament, is Christ's impending return in judgment, as we discussed in chapter 8. "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven," Jesus tells the high priest (Mark 14:62). Acts 1:11 puts it this way: "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

[1] See especially N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church ***.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ascension and Exaltation 6

It seems appropriate to fill in some of the remaining blanks in the story of Jesus, even though it requires us to look beyond the gospels somewhat and into the rest of the New Testament. Both Luke and Acts tells us that Jesus ascended to heaven from the vicinity of Jerusalem. Luke 24:51 says he was taken into heaven, meaning into the skies. Acts 1:9 says that, after he was taken up, a cloud hid him from the eyes of the disciples. Christians refer to this as Jesus' ascension, and many Christian traditions celebrate "Ascension Day" on a Thursday, forty days after Easter.

Based on Psalm 110:1, Christians also speak of the "session" or seating of Jesus on the right side of God's throne: "The Lord said to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet'" (Acts 2:34-35). This verse was probably very important indeed for the earliest Christians as they tried to make sense of Jesus' death and resurrection. Mark 12:35-37 remembers Jesus himself mentioning this verse in his debates with certain teachers of the law.

The key is that the earliest Christians saw Jesus' sitting at God's right hand as his enthronement as cosmic king.  Acts 2:32-33 tell about how "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear."  Acts then quotes Psalm 110:1, making it clear that David did not ascend to heaven--in other words the words are surely about Jesus sitting at God's right hand. Peter's sermon then comes to this conclusion: "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah" (2:36).

The timing of Jesus becoming Lord and Messiah, royal titles, is thus when Jesus sat at God's right hand, after rising from the dead. He was the "heir apparent" before that time, but fully took on the role as king, as "anointed one," "Messiah," after he rose from the dead.  And a number of passages make it clear that Jesus fully took on the title "Lord" at his resurrection. "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that... every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:9-11). Similarly Romans 10:9: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."  To declare Jesus as Lord implies that you believe God raised him from the dead.

"Son of God" is another royal title Jesus fully took on at that point. [1] Romans 1:3 says that Jesus was "appointed Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead."  Acts 13:32-33 again places Jesus' assumption of this title at the point of his resurrection: "What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: "You are my son; today I have become your father.'"

What is Jesus doing now in heaven as he sits at God's right hand? ...

[1] The phrase "Son of God" is yet another case study in how words and phrases can take on different meanings and connotations in different contexts. In the context of Acts and Paul, the phrase "Son of God" seems to be a royal title that a king assumes upon his ascension to the throne.  In a sense, a king of the Ancient Near East was not Son of God one moment and then became "Son of God" the next moment as he became king. Thus Psalm 2 is often considered an "enthronement psalm" in its original Old Testament context.

However, as Christians we also believe that Jesus was "eternally begotten of the Father" and thus that he was always the Son of God in terms of his being, not only his office.  Scholars like Richard Bauckham have argued that the New Testament already starts to have this sense in passages like Hebrews 1:5 (e.g., ***). Others like James Dunn have argued that in Acts, Paul, and Hebrews, the title is still a matter of Jesus' office as king (e.g., Christology in the Making).

We do not have to pick one or the other option when it comes to the question of truth. As Christians we both believe that Jesus was always the Son of God and that Jesus assumed the role of king of the cosmos more powerfully after he rose from the dead.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Amanda (Hontz) Drury on Doubt

Heard a great sermon this morning by Amanda Drury at College Wesleyan Church, best sermon I can remember ever hearing on the subject (I love it when God gives object lessons showing that women can preach every bit as well as men).  One of the lectionary texts for today was John 20, where Thomas doubts Jesus' resurrection.  The sermon should come up on the CWC site sometime this week.

I personally had several take-aways:
  • Don't doubt alone--doubt among friends (although Amanda indicated that the Josh McDowell approach to doubt is less than helpful for the sincere doubter, let me take her one step further and say that the "Oh, you just need to learn a few things" approach to doubt usually comes from those who know far less than they think they know and is just as likely to push the doubter into an even greater crisis).
  • From Karl Barth (pronounced BART): Don't weigh your quantity of doubt against your quantity of faith.  The measure of your doubt doesn't count.  Faith "the size of a mustard seed" outweighs vast measures of doubt (she pitted a bowling ball against a clump of balloons).
  • Wait for Jesus to appear next week.  In John, there is a week between when Thomas doubts the appearance to the disciples and when Jesus shows up to quell his doubts.  It may be more than a week before Jesus makes his presence known to your heart... just keep putting one step in front of the next until it happens.
  • Trust in the faith of others when you are struggling yourself.  For Amanda, she trusted in the faith of John during a hard spot.  You can also read Scriptures and read the creeds and affirmations of faith during a dark spell--focus on what you believe in them, not on what you are doubting.
  • For one of my friends, the main take-away was that you cannot control the "what" of your doubt and you cannot control the "when" of your doubt, but you can control the "how."  Doubt like Thomas did, not like Pilate did.
Great sermon!  Listen to it when it comes up on the CWC site.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Resurrection 5

Mark tells us even less about what the resurrection means than it does about what the death of Jesus meant, although his audience presumably knew exactly what to think.  On the other hand, Matthew implicitly connects both the death and resurrection of Jesus to the future resurrection of the dead. Matthew tells his audience that many holy people from the past were raised to life and emerged from their tombs after Jesus' resurrection (Matt. 27:53).

However, the intriguing thing is that Matthew tells of this event immediately after Jesus' death, along with the curtain of the temple ripping and the ground shaking.  The death thus makes the resurrection possible, but Jesus must rise first.  As in Paul, Jesus' resurrection is the "firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:20).

The Gospel of John also brings out the connection between Jesus and the future resurrection of the dead. "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die" (John 11:25-26).

What is largely implicit in the gospels is explicit in Paul.  Jesus' resurrection is the ultimate defeat of death, the final enemy to be defeated (1 Cor. 15:26). "Just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man" (15:49). We live out our lives on earth in the human form that Adam had.  But when Christ returns, our bodies will be transformed into a resurrection body like Jesus now has. Christ "will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body"(3:21).

But the benefits of the resurrection do not have to wait until Christ's return.  "Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom. 6:4).  In Romans, the primary benefit of the resurrection in view is not the future resurrection of the dead but the power of God to empower a person to live a righteous life right now through the Holy Spirit. This is likely what Paul means when he says that "if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you." (8:11)...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The US's Secret "Laser"

I don't think the US government will mind me leaking that the North Korean rocket broke up as a result of a secret "Laser" that the US has been developing through a little known earmark code-named "Medicare." Ahmadinejad, be warned.

Augustine on when to go non-literal

Do you agree with this comment I made somewhere?
Augustine is a good pre-modern interpreter, in my opinion. If the literal meaning of a text (as he perceived it) did not fit with his theology, he shifted into a non-literal interpretation.

Since one of the ways Protestantism argued against Roman Catholicism was by pushing the literal interpretation and since the modern era honed our skills at reading texts in their historical and literary contexts, we have found ourselves increasingly in a conundrum. Here are some of the strategies that have resulted:

  • Fundamentalism--act like you're following the rules for reading in context, but find a possible way to interpret the evidence to make it come out your way. 
  • Evangelicalism at its best--highlight the distinction between "that time" and "our time," so that you can let the text mean what it meant, but then adjust the application for a different context. Deal with potential issues in your theology rather than playing games with the original meaning of the text. 
  • "Liberalism"--let the text say what it said and then dismiss it as wrong 
  • Theological interpretation--let the text say what it said literally but reopen the door for more than literal interpretations 

Good and Bad Scholarship: Talpiot Hullabaloo

I don't have time to write this morning, but I thought I'd refer anyone interested to some good scholarship on Mark Goodacre's blog about the hullabaloo James Tabor and others have been generating for some time about a supposed "lost tomb of Jesus" found in Israel.

Here's his summary of the situation.

Bad scholarship is when one refuses to let the evidence modify your hypothesis. Tabor and friends are, in my opinion, a good example of bad scholarship. However, they do not represent the vast majority of biblical scholars who are really interested primarily in truth and in following the evidence to its most logical conclusion.

Unfortunately, Tabor and others play easily into America's current problem with "expertophobia," the ironic instinct Americans seem to have that if someone is an expert on a subject, they should be viewed with suspicion because they're probably evil. For example, according to a recent comment in the public sphere, I am a snob for hoping more people can get a college education. This is actually as strong a sign of our decline as a nation as any other. The "greatest generation" didn't feel that way--not at all.

Most experts in a field are exactly that--experts, people who by definition are more likely to be right about that subject than you or me.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Resurrection Appearances 4

continued from yesterday.
The gospels give us several traditions about Jesus' appearances to various individuals after he rose from the dead. Because we do not likely have the original ending of Mark, Mark as we have it does not go on to tell us about any of the resurrection appearances. However, like Matthew, Mark implies that the eleven remaining disciples saw Jesus in Galilee (Mark 16:7; Matt. 28:16-17).

However, in Luke and John, we also hear of an appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem. In Luke, Jesus appears to the eleven the evening of his resurrection (Luke 24:36). In John similarly, Jesus appears to most of the disciples on the evening of his resurrection (John 20:19). Then he appears again a week later, when Thomas is with them (20:26). Then later in John 21 Jesus appears to Peter and several key disciples--including the mysterious "Beloved Disciple"--around the Sea of Galilee.

In Matthew and John, we also hear of Jesus appearing to some of the women who came to the tomb. John 20 tells us of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene by herself (John 20:11-18). Meanwhile, Matthew 28:8-10 tells of Jesus appearing to all the women who came to his tomb before they tell the disciples to go to Galilee.

Any attempt to fit these accounts together is inevitably speculative and creates a narrative that gives a different impression from the gospels themselves in some respect. For whatever reason, Luke seems to compress the time after the resurrection, and he omits any appearances in Galilee.  Matthew and Mark tell of no appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem, while John has a little of both.

Two general scenarios emerge. The one is that Jesus made an initial appearance to the disciples, women, and the men on the way to Emmaus in and around Jerusalem. Then the disciples would have gone to Galilee, received the Great Commission, seen Jesus around the Sea of Galilee, and then returned to Jerusalem before Jesus finally ascended to heaven. This scenario harmonizes all the accounts but is a little strange as a sequence of events. What was the point of going to Galilee if Jesus was already in Jerusalem? Was not Jerusalem where they expected Jesus to become king and thus where they expected the kingdom of God to arrive in full force (e.g., Acts 1:6; cf. Luke 2:25, 36-38)? [1]

The alternative is that the initial resurrection appearances were in Galilee and that the disciples then rushed back to Jerusalem in expectation of the full arrival of the kingdom of God and Jesus' full return as king. Jesus would then have appeared to them further before finally ascending to heaven. While this scenario makes more sense as a sequence of events, it does not fit nearly as well with the way Luke and John present the chronology. And of course the more one deviates from the chronology in the gospels, the more speculative any reconstruction becomes.

So we return to the bedrock of the tradition, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul does not mention the appearances to the women explicitly but mentions Peter as the first crucial appearance, as Luke 24:34 implies. Then Paul says Jesus appeared to the Twelve, whether this refers to an appearance the night of Easter in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36; John 20:19) or to an appearance in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-17).

He appears to a group of over five hundred at once and to James, the brother of Jesus. James would become the leader of the Jerusalem church. We unfortunately do not know how Jesus appeared to James, but it must have been a very convincing appearance, for Jesus' brothers apparently did not believe in him while he was on earth (e.g., John 7:3-5). It is tempting to think that the appearance to over five hundred was the Great Commission of Matthew 28 or the ascension of Acts 1, but those appearances seem restricted to the eleven. Any further attempt to connect it with the gospels or Acts is quite speculative. [2]

Jesus then appeared to the apostles and lastly to Paul. We do not know many of the names of these apostles but we do likely know a few. Barnabas is one (e.g., Acts 14:14).  Romans 16:7 may give us the names of two more, perhaps a husband and a wife: Andronicus and Junia. An apostle was someone to whom Jesus appeared and whom Jesus commissioned to go as a witness to the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1). We thus have evidence of at least one woman who was an apostle.

[1] Of course the most obvious answer is that Jesus and the angels told them to go to Galilee.

[2] E.g., to try to connect it with the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Three Rules for Living

I was trying to get across the biggie of ethics again to my youngest two this morning:

2. Do to others what you would have them to do you.

Then of course my daughter, who goes to Justice Middle School, brought up the person who takes advantage of your generosity to them.  I shifted to a second rule.

3. Love must be tough.

We punish and bring justice first to try to reform and help others. Then at some point we sequester them to protect others from them. Then finally when there is no apparent hope we banish them from society all together.

Of course often more abstract but actually the first rule of living is:

1. Serve God.

Christians do this through the other two, but also through worship.  However, the key effect serving God has on us is that it decentralizes ourselves from the throne of our lives as an idol.  It says that we do not live simply for what is in our best interest but in service to God and others.  It says that truth and the greater good are ultimately more important than us as individuals.

Women at the Tomb 3

... continued from yesterday
It seems very likely indeed that these women found the tomb empty where Jesus’ body had been laid, as well as that they did not initially tell anyone, as Mark 16:8 says. There is first the fact that such specific names are mentioned. For such specific names to be remembered in places far removed from where they were known, surely the tradition started first in the places where they were known, probably well within their lifetime. [1]

Similarly, the fact that they did not initially tell anyone out of fear is scarcely a comment someone would invent. Indeed, Matthew and Luke chose not to mention this little detail even though they were likely copying Mark at this point. The tradition that Paul passes on about resurrection appearances does not mention these women, unless they are part of the five hundred who saw Jesus risen on one occasion.  Their role in the story seems very likely--surely no one in that day would have invented women discovering the empty tomb if it had not happened that way. [2]

We thus have two very interesting likelihoods. First, Jesus’ tomb was empty on Sunday morning. Second, hundreds of individuals were quite convinced that they had seen Jesus alive after his death. [3] If we add a little faith to these two likelihoods, we have Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Obviously if a person does not believe that resurrections can happen, then he or she will find another explanation. But if you believe resurrections can happen, this is the most likely one of all history.

Paul says that the first resurrection appearance was to Peter. This is more than a little intriguing, since none of the gospels clearly tell about the incident. The most we get is an intriguing and allusive comment in Luke 24:34—"he has appeared to Simon." But the story of that appearance is not told, unless John has moved it to his final chapter (John 21).

The way the gospels present the resurrection appearances in general makes it clear that no one of them gives us the full story.  For example, it is easy to think that the Great Commission of Matthew happened outside of Jerusalem right before Jesus ascended to heaven in Acts 1:9. Then we realize that the Great Commission took place in Galilee (Matt. 28:16), a three days journey away from Bethany where Jesus ascends (Luke 24:50).

In fact, Luke-Acts does not mention any of the appearances in Galilee at all, while Mark and Matthew indicate that Jesus' primary resurrection appearances were there.  It would be easy to conclude that there is some artistry involved in these presentations rather than a completely literal presentation.  For example, one of the features of Luke-Acts is to focus the center of his presentation, especially in Acts, on the city of Jerusalem. He has accordingly omitted the part of the resurrection story that took place in Galilee.

Even a brief comparison of the ending of Luke with the beginning of Acts highlights the artfulness of Luke's presentation. If one looks at the timing of Luke 24, you might easily infer that Jesus rises from the dead and ascends to heaven on the same day.  Jesus appears to the men on their way to Emmaus "that same day" (Luke 24:13). They return to Jerusalem "at once" (24:33). "While they were still talking" (24:36) Jesus appears again, and Jesus leads them out near Bethany, where he ascends to heaven (24:50).

But then, when we turn to Luke's second volume, Acts, there are forty days between Jesus' resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3). This is scarcely a difference Luke would expect his audience to miss. [4] It must have surely been understood that Luke was not simply presenting a documentary of what happened but also arranging and presenting the material in an artful and meaningful way.

If our reaction is, "Luke messed up because the two don't seem to match," then we are not thinking about Luke-Acts in the right way. We are thinking it's all about history when in fact it's all about truth, using history as the medium. This is an important paradigm shift you must make if you are to have a deep understanding of the message of the gospels...

[1] Books such as James Dunn's Jesus Remembered and Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses remind us that such traditions would have likely circulated while these individuals were still living.  The details of such oral traditions might vary quite a bit, but a core tended to travel intact.

[2] That is, if someone were making the story up from scratch, surely they would have had men find the tomb empty. For example, in John, Peter and the Beloved Disciple corroborate the fact that the tomb is empty.  See also Luke 24:12.

[3] A good book on this topic is James Dunn's The Evidence of Jesus.

[4] Although I am using the name Luke for convenience, the author of Luke-Acts nowhere actually gives his name, assuming it was a man.  Technically, Luke-Acts is anonymous.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Women at the Tomb 2

... continued from yesterday.
We do not really learn about the empty tomb from Paul. However, he does seem to presume some sort of continuity between the body in which we die and the body in which we rise. "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable" (1 Cor. 15:42). The body with which we are raised is not made up of flesh and blood (15:50), but it is somehow in continuity with our earthly body. So for Paul to believe that Jesus rose from the dead would seem to imply that Jesus' earthly body would no longer be located in the earth.

But it is in the gospels that we hear explicitly about the empty tomb. Mark is again the earliest gospel account. In the final hours of Friday before sundown, before the beginning of Sabbath, they place Jesus' body fairly quickly in someone else's tomb, someone named Joseph of Arimathea. Then early Sunday morning, after the Sabbath is over, some of the women who followed Jesus want to anoint his body with burial spices. Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome (16:1). [1]

When the women get there, they find the stone in front of the tomb rolled away and the body is gone.  In Mark's account, two remarkable things then happen. First, they are told by a young man in a white robe to tell the disciples to go to Galilee. There the disciples and Peter will see him again, as he promised them. The second remarkable thing is that the women do not tell the disciples, at least not initially, "because they were afraid" (16:8).

This is where Mark as we have it ends. True, many versions go on to print twelve more verses, but they are not likely the way Mark originally ended. The earliest copies of Mark that have survived--and the earliest statements about the ending of Mark up until the early 300s--do not have these verses. Perhaps even more convincing is that these verses don't fit here. Mark 16:9 seems to start all over again as if the first eight verses didn't even exist. Accordingly, the vast majority of experts on the biblical text do not think Mark 16:9-20 were the way Mark originally read.

[insert text box on textual criticism]

However, it does seem quite reasonable that the original version of Mark did have something here. We do actually find another, shorter ending in some ancient manuscripts (hand written copies). No one thinks it was the original ending either, but it demonstrates the early sense that something was missing from the ending at verse 8. Indeed, Mark 16:8 as it stands ends with the word "for," a strange way to end a book.

I think it is quite possible that the original ending of Mark went on to tell of an appearance to Peter or the disciples in Galilee, perhaps some earlier version of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20. Matthew was based on Mark, so perhaps in Matthew 28 we catch some small glimpse of the original ending of Mark. Some have mistakenly claimed that Mark does not believe Jesus rose from the dead. This is quite incorrect, since Mark 16:6 clearly proclaims that Jesus is risen. Mark as we have it simply doesn't narrate any of the resurrection encounters...

[1] Matthew seems to identify Salome as the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee (27:56). Additionally, the other Mary is said in Matthew to be the mother of James and Joseph. Luke 24:10 additionally mentions a woman named Joanna. John 20 only mentions Mary Magdalene.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Resurrection 1

I start this chapter on Easter morning, 2012. Today I and Christians all over the world will celebrate that Sunday so long ago, perhaps in the year AD30, when Jesus physically emerged from the tomb in which they had buried him. For Christians, every Sunday is a little Easter, a little celebration that Jesus has risen from the dead. [1]

We say it was after three days, because the Jewish day goes from sundown to sundown. Jesus was thus dead from about 3pm to sundown on Friday (day one). He was dead all Saturday (day two). Then he was dead from sundown on Saturday to the time when he rose early Sunday morning (day three). [2]

Most scholars believe he was buried in a vault something like this one, today located in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher not far from the traditional site of Jesus' burial.

There is another site, Gordon's Tomb, which is located in a garden today and has a rock outcropping that looks somewhat like a skull. Many Christian visitors say it gives them a better feel for what they picture when they read John 19:41, even though it is not likely the original location. [3]

The earliest report of Jesus' resurrection comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. [4] Since Paul wrote this letter around the year AD54, it is a very early report indeed, likely within fifteen years of the event. Paul says that he himself inherited this tradition (15:3), presumably from people like James and Peter in Jerusalem (e.g., Gal. 1:18; 2:9).

It is not at all likely that he is lying, since he has enemies in the church at Corinth and indeed had conflicts with the Jerusalem church. Both groups no doubt would have loved to show him wrong if he was saying false things about such a fundamental tradition. But we have absolutely no evidence that anyone did. It is thus overwhelmingly likely that the tradition Paul passes on here is exactly what everyone in Jerusalem was saying.

Paul doesn't give much detail. He basically gives a list of those to whom Jesus appeared. Jesus rose on the third day (1 Cor. 15:4). He appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve (15:5). [5] There was an appearance to a large group of over 500 people (15:6).  Then there was a second wave of appearances.  Jesus appeared to his brother James and to all the apostles (15:7), ending with his appearance to Paul himself (15:8).

These were all real people, most of whom were still alive at the time Paul was writing. We have good reason to think that many of them suffered considerably in consequence of this belief. The disciple James, Peter, James the brother of Jesus, Paul--all of them were put to death, still firmly believing that they had seen Jesus alive after his death. It is not reasonable to think these individuals were lying...

[1] The Bible nowhere equates Sunday with the Jewish Sabbath.  The Jewish Sabbath was from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. For Christians, Sunday is a celebration of Jesus' resurrection. For this reason, those who choose to give up something for Lent do not have to do so on the Sundays of that period. No Sunday is a day for fasting.

[2] Being dead three days also makes a symbolic connection with the prophet Jonah. Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights (Matt. 12:40).

[3] Although the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is currently within the walls of Jerusalem, archaeology has confirmed that it was right outside the city at the time of Jesus. The Romans usually crucified right outside city walls on a path where people would walk by.

[4] It would be very common to think that the gospels were written first because they treat Jesus, who came before Paul. But the gospels were not written by Jesus or at the time of Jesus. They were written later in the century, likely after Paul was already dead in fact.

[5] This would not have included Judas Iscariot at this point. Either "the Twelve" is used loosely or Paul has in mind those who would be considered the Twelve after Judas was replaced.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Significance of Christ's Death

The earliest gospel, Mark, has only one explicit statement on the significance of Christ's death: Mark 10:45. "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." [1] Matthew and Luke have little more, and Luke even softens this verse. [2] The temple curtain does rip from top to bottom (e.g., Mark 15:38), which may imply that Jesus' death was a final atonement for sins or that those who trust in his death now have direct access to God.  But the Synoptic Gospels do not say what the significance is.

As we would expect, the Gospel of John is more explicit.  "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (John 6:54). So John tells us that Jesus' death is the mechanism by which we can have eternal life. John doesn't specify exactly how it works, but we have good reason to think in sacrificial terms. For example, John seems to have moved Jesus' action in the temple (2:13-25) next to Jesus turning water into wine (2:1-12). The two stories go hand in hand.

The jars into which Jesus has them put water are for the waters of ritual purification (2:6). Turning water into wine may very well then symbolize the transition from Old Testament purification by water to the "wine" of Jesus' blood. Similarly, Jesus "destroys" the temple with his death and raises it up anew when he rises from the dead.

In the minds of the ancients, sacrifices functioned on a deep level. Perhaps most basically, they kept the gods happy, well fed, as it were.  Christian thinkers have long tried to unpack the significance of Christ's death, and the views that relate most to Jesus' death as a sacrifice are the views that see his death as a satisfaction of God's anger toward sin or even some basic satisfaction of the need for justice. Paul puts it this way, "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished" (Rom. 3:25).

Jesus's death shows that God is just, even though he is choosing not to hold us accountable for our past sins.  There is a general sense, then, that Jesus took our place. He died "for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3). Mind you, some have taken this picture of Jesus' death far beyond anything the New Testament says. Paul doesn't treat Christ's death as some mathematical equivalent for the exact amount of punishment our sins demand from a standpoint of justice. [3] "For our sins" is the reason he died, not a statement that he substituted for our exact punishment.

Jesus' death satisfies the order of things. It powerfully demonstrates what God stands for. His grace to us came at a huge price.  It also demonstrates how much he loves us, so much that the Father is willing to sacrifice his own life for us.  Indeed, Jesus himself is willing to die for us.

Christianity has never endorsed a single view of how Jesus' death worked. It was a sacrifice. It satisfied the order of things. Jesus took our place. Jesus showed us God's love and his obedience to death is a model for us to follow. All these pictures of Jesus' death are true.

A final one is the idea that in his sinless death, Jesus defeated the powers of Satan. The image of a "ransom" relates somewhat to this view, as well as to the satisfaction view. Jesus' death "pays off" the price to free humanity from sin and death. It is a metaphor that shouldn't push it too far. The "Christus Victor" view is the one that looks at Christ's death primarily as the defeat of Satan and the defeat of the evil powers that enslave the world.

However it might exactly work, the effect of Jesus' death is reconciliation to those who trust in it. God has "reconciled us to himself through Christ" (2 Cor. 5:18).  We are "buried with him through baptism into death" (Rom. 6:4).  We "have been crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20). We die with him and will thus rise as he did as well.

All this reflection arguably came after Jesus' time on earth. Jesus' death played almost no role at all in Jesus' own early message and explicit mission.  Perhaps only in his very last days did he begins to speak to his disciples of his death as a kind of sacrifice.

This observation does not in any way deny the central and essential importance of his death. However, sometimes it seems like some Christians ignore the bulk of Jesus' message while he was on earth and focus disproportionately on the saving significance of his death and resurrection. We can preach the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection without ignoring the good news of the kingdom he brought while he ministered in Galilee.

[1] We already discussed earlier in the chapter the probable significance of Jesus' words at his Last Supper.

[2] Luke 19:10 simply says "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost," leaving out the sense of Jesus' death as a ransom. Luke has nothing to say about the atoning significance of Christ's death but is instead focused much more on the significance of his resurrection.

[3] A view sometimes called penal satisfaction.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Death, Be not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

by John Donne

Sermon in Shoes (Children's Song)

A few people had never heard the children's song, "A Sermon in Shoes."  One requested I send an audio of it. It was a book in the shape of shoes that a child or two would be chosen to come forward and hold. Then the children would all sing the song from the book, page by page.

Here are the lyrics and an audio. I'm not sure who owns the copyright or where you could get the book. Publisher, you might get some sales if you comment ;-)

Do you know, Oh Christian, you’re a sermon in shoes?
Do you know, Oh Christian, you’re a sermon in shoes?
Jesus calls upon you, to spread the gospel news,
So walk it, and talk it. 
Live it, and give it.
Teach it, and preach it. 
Know it, and show it.
A Sermon in Shoes.

Here's the audio.

Jesus and Divorce 4

... Perhaps on no other subject have Christians more often taken the Pharisees of the gospels as a model. For example, recognizing the spirit of Christ, some have allowed for separation in cases like child molestation or spousal abuse. But to keep the letter of the law, they have forbid official divorce or remarriage after divorce.

Certainly as Christians we have to believe in miracles and the possibility of restoration. We believe an offender can be redeemed and that the offended should forgive. The Christian virtues of patience and hope are commendable. But Jesus also bids us to be "wise as serpents" (Matt. 10:16). Abused spouses can forgive their former abusers from afar, without putting themselves in harm's way again.

Is the institution of marriage an end-in-itself? Perhaps to some extent it is.  The institution of marriage probably does provide stability to most societies on some level, and it surely did in the biblical worlds. However, we should be careful to recognize that it has done so in different ways at different times and places. So biblical marriages range from polygamous arrangements to perhaps arranged marriages within one's extended family. [1] We do not find the small nuclear family as the norm in Bible times.

But the spirit of Jesus far more bids us look at people as what need to be protected, not laws about marriage. People are the ones who are at the table--husbands, wives, and children--not legalities and ideas. To put a wife or husband in an eternal limbo of separation because of a rule, when wisdom says healing best will take place by moving on, seems completely out of sync with the way Jesus thought, especially in the age of the nuclear family. [2]

I remember a well intentioned believer once telling me that a person remained married in God's eyes to whomever you first had sex with. I have even heard someone wonder if a divorced and remarried couple should divorce their second spouses so they can get back with their first partner, believing that the first partner remained eternally the one to whom they are married in God's eyes. This is an extreme example of an idea driving a rule rather than love of neighbor driving our action. And it is thoroughly unbiblical.

Deuteronomy 24 actually prohibited an Israelite man from remarrying an earlier wife if she had later remarried someone else. It is true that two people having sex become one flesh, but this is true of the polygamist in the Old Testament and the prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6. Certainly Paul wouldn't have urged the Corinthians to marry the prostitute, nor would he have urged someone to wait for the prostitute to become available for marriage if she was someone's first. This perspective breaks down into absurdities upon even a little reflection.

The whole line of thinking also treats sex in a way that the Bible never does. The Old Testament, for example, is much more practical. In Exodus 22:16-17, whether a man marries an unpromised virgin he has slept with depends on what her father wants. Polygamy is an assumed practice in the Old Testament (e.g., Deut. 21:15-16), and Jacob became "one flesh" with both his wives and both his concubines. In Hosea 1:2, God seems to command Hosea to marry a prostitute to make a point.

The bottom line is that sex is something distinct from marriage in the Bible. The ideal is certainly that sex and marriage go together neatly. This is God's ideal. But having sex does not mean two people have become married in God's eyes or that they must certainly get married--a potential recipe for disaster. Those who marry only because of a rule are prime candidates for later divorce. There is an ideal, but it is not an exceptionless one.

If Christians have often been legalistic on the front end of getting a divorce, they have also been legalistic on the back end, after a person has been divorced. Perhaps a person can remarry if they were the "innocent party."  Or perhaps they have to wait until their former spouse remarries before he or she can. Can divorced individuals be ministers or does a previous divorce forever preclude a person from becoming a minister? In some contexts, divorce is a kind of unpardonable sin from which one can never escape the "legal" consequences.

There would seem to be serious theological problems with this perspective. Is there any sin for which Christ's death does not atone? Absolutely not. True, we often have to live with the consequences of our sins.  It takes time for communities and individuals to rebuild trust, even if they are willing to forgive. Healing can take time, and surely it does not glorify God to be naive.

But consequences should ultimately be a matter of the real world, not of artificially imposed rules. If I lose an arm doing something foolish, the laws of nature force me to live with the consequences of my actions. It is something quite different for us to insist a person remain unmarried forever after a divorce when nothing precludes the possibility of going on to have another chance at a healthy marriage. Remaining single then becomes an eternal punishment for a past sin, something quite different from a natural consequence.

It seems that this view involves an inferior sense of Christ's atonement. Perhaps his death can forgive the personal guilt of the sin but it can't forgive the social guilt. And it can't restore. We may talk about God restoring the virginity of a girl who has sex before marriage, but we don't believe it can restore a divorced person to a pure state. This perspective seems deeply problematic...

[1] "Endogamous" marriage where one tends to marry "within" the larger extended family to keep possessions in the group.  See Malina ***.  Family is not a matter of a husband, wife, and kids (nuclear family) but includes grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.

[2] In other words, there are some significant differences between family then and now. A wife can get a job and there are safety networks to take care of children. The extended family is now divided into relatively independent nuclear families, all of whom are expected to take care of themselves. We do not live in an "honor-shame" culture, where divorce brings debilitating dishonor to the members of a family unit.