Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Passages in Atlanta

I'm about to get back on a plane this morning with Jerry Pattengale and head back to Indiana.  I had a great time in Atlanta yesterday and gave a presentation last night entitled, "Are Differences in Manuscripts a Problem for Christian Faith."  The visit started with a very long taxi ride by a young man from Ethiopia who was on his third day or so. I knew Atlanta better than he did.

Then I got to see the amazing collection the Green Foundation (owner of Hobby Lobby) has here.  They have on display everything from the oldest Greek manuscript of Samuel (200s) to a strip of p39 (part of John from 200s) to copies relating to Luther, original Erasmus Greek New Testament, the Wicked Bible ("thou shalt commit adultery"), Stephanus, original KJV...  If I were teaching a course on the text of the Bible in Atlanta, this would be on the schedule to be sure.  The exhibition is off to Charlotte at the end of the month.

The paper went well, I thought, not least because I decided to paraphrase the second half of it.  I had initially assumed the audience would be something along the lines of Dan Wallace, who is fairly mainstream when it comes to textual criticism. But I began to sense I would probably have some King James supporters in the room, so decided to move my sensitivity lines a little.

If you're a Bible scholar and in the Atlanta area, come up to Dunwoody and see the exhibit (it's within walking distance of the Marta stop). Thanks to the Green Foundation for a fun night!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Excerpt from Paper: "Charismatic" Copyists

Finishing my paper for Atlanta tomorrow night.  Here's a brief excerpt.
...But I digress again. The original manuscripts of the New Testament were quite possibly around for some time, long enough for a significant number of pretty accurate copies to be made and for their keepers, whoever they were, to recognize early variations. I’m not saying that the earliest Christians had a culture of double-checking. When I look at how New Testament authors use the Old Testament, I feel quite confident that the message was far more what they were interested in than the precise wording or even the historical meaning as we think of it today.

The most radical example that comes to mind of this dynamic of Scripture use in the New Testament is Matthew 2:23: “And he [that is Joseph] went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” It is hard to know exactly what Old Testament verse Matthew is referring to. Judges 13:5 comes close: “the child shall be a Nazirite.” But of course this verse was referring to Samson, and a Nazirite is something quite different from Nazareth. Nazareth was a village in Galilee. A Nazirite was someone who vowed not to drink wine or cut his hair for a lifetime. Jesus was not a Nazirite.

On the other hand, Isaiah 11:1 uses a Hebrew word that looks somewhat similar to Nazareth. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” This passage is often taken messianically as a prophecy about to Jesus, and the Hebrew word for branch is nēzer. In seems to me that the best explanation of Matthew’s quote is a combination of something like these two passages, the form somewhat coming from Judges and the substance coming from Isaiah 11. The hypothesis seems confirmed by the fact that Matthew doesn’t say that this prophecy comes from a "prophet," singular. Instead, he says it was spoken “by the prophets,” plural.

By the way, this was the issue I was talking about that troubled me after my first year of seminary. I concluded that the New Testament authors read the Old Testament more like charismatics than like my seminary professors were telling me to read it. This is why that, even though I myself prefer a more “wooden” or what some call a more “literal” translation, I don’t have a problem with those who prefer The Message or biblical paraphrases. Ironically, one of the factors in Bart Ehrman losing his faith is that he found the variety among manuscripts problematic to his view of Scripture. For him, it was “wild copying,” and it was a major problem. Maybe if he had been a charismatic, he wouldn’t have lost his faith.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost Observed

I don't have time to write much, but I did want to express how fun it would have been to walk through Acts 2 here today.  I've paid special attention to Acts 2 as a Wesleyan, since the holiness revivalist tradition always saw this passage as the disciples becoming entirely sanctified.  That wasn't, of course, how John Wesley himself formulated the idea, and I couldn't name one Wesleyan, Free Methodist, or Nazarene New Testament scholar who thinks that's what Acts 2 is about, but it is an important part of Wesleyan history.

[for the article that was the tipping point away from this interpretation, see]

Although it's hard to say what the future will bring, after I've finished the two Jesus books I'm working on, it would be nice to do two final books covering Acts and the other non-Pauline parts of the New Testament.  If so, Acts 2 will almost certainly get its own chapter!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Evidentiary versus Presuppositional Hermeneutics

I'm working on the Atlanta paper today, but thought I would drop this distinction I've been developing for dialog between varying scholars:

I'm afraid I'm not good enough at graphics to get the diagram quite the way I wanted in the time limits of this morning.  In theory, there might be a line right down the middle of the shaded area to make four basic interpretive approaches.

Broadly speaking, the two basic approaches are 1) an evidence-driven hermeneutic that tries to form its conclusions as much as possible on the basis of the evidence, following something like the scientific method and 2) a presupposition-driven hermeneutic that comes to the evidence with certain presuppositions that drive the limits of what can and cannot be concluded.

The overlap is an area where dialog can take place between those who take these contrasting approaches.  It is an area where those who are primarily presupposition oriented can talk evidence and those who are evidence oriented fall within the presuppositional parameters of those who are more presuppositionally oriented.

Outside the overlap are the points where no discussion can take place and someone in the shaded area or other circle cannot dialog.  For example, a person from the unshaded part of the evidence-driven hermeneutic might have a hard time approaching the text with a sense that miracles might take place or that God actually engages the world.

On the other hand, when a person is so presuppositional on an issue that no amount of evidence would bring a change of position, then a person approaching a topic from the standpoint of evidence will not be able to dialog with that person at all on that particular issue without ultimately discussing presuppositions.

It is impossible for anyone to be completely without presuppositions, and a presuppositionalist who does not engage evidence at some level will appear to be a lunatic.  But this is why, on so many religious topics, we can't talk to each other.  We should not be surprised.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Manuscripts not a Problem for Faith

Thought I'd give the quick outline of the paper I'm giving Tuesday night at 7pm in Atlanta. Tickets are free but necessary through the box office at (770) 804-9427. While they may tell you it's sold out, I hear they often have about 100 at the door.

The event is at the "Passages" lecture hall at the Green exhibit, 1201 Hammond Dr. on the northeast side of Atlanta.  The exhibit has more than 30,000 biblical antiquities, and this is the initiative that has in its possession several new New Testament newly discovered manuscripts from the second century (not on display yet ;-).

1. The NT manuscript situation
It is true that we do not have any of the original manuscripts of the Bible. It is true that of the 5500+ Greek NT manuscripts no two are exactly alike.  It's true that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 individual variations among the manuscripts. With regard to the OT, we are separated from the time of writing by many centuries.  Individuals like Bart Ehrman suggest that it is pointless even to talk about the "original manuscripts" because we don't have them.

The situation with regard to the New Testament is, however, far superior to any other ancient text. If we are not troubled by the situation with regard to Homer or Plato, then we certainly can't be troubled about the NT. The vast majority of differences are simple spelling variations.  There are only a handful of really significant NT passages and none of them change any Christian doctrine or practice.

Is there a place for "conjectural emendations," places where we might suggest that the original text read differently from any text we now have?  It is quite possible but methodologically problematic. Moffatt once suggested that Romans 7:25b was originally at 7:24b.  It would sure read a lot more smoothly if that were the case, but there is no manuscript evidence. Best not to go there.

One good possibility for such a conjectural emendation, however, is 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.  This passage does not fit the train of thought of that section of 2 Corinthians and the passage reads more smoothly if it is removed. 2 Corinthians in general is often suggested to be more than one letter of Paul that has been joined together.  More on this passage later.

2. The OT manuscript situation
With regard to the OT, the situation is much more difficult. The Masoretic text is something like the Byzantine text of the NT (think KJV). It is a standardized text that represents the end of a long process of editing. The Septuagint translation into Greek (LXX) also underwent significant changes over time and exists in multiple forms. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) help where they exist and are substantial.

Basically, the situation is varied. Different sources seem more reliable for different parts (e.g., the LXX of the Pentateuch is helpful, the DSS are helpful for Isaiah, the Old Greek for Samuel, etc...). These sources probably get us to a century or two before Christ. There are still some gaps (e.g., how old was Saul when he began to reign, 1 Sam. 13:1).

3. Problems with the idea of an "original text"
Recent times have seen increasing reflection on the very idea of what an "original text" might be. For example, you often hear scholars talk about the prophets growing as documents over time.  Is Isaiah in its current form the result of several centuries of addition, with chapters 40-55 coming from around the time of the exile and 56-66 from just after, when the whole document reached something like its current form?  Is the Gospel of John something like the final form of a community document that was composed in stages with, for example, John 21 representing a later stage than John 20?

As troubling as such hypotheses can be to the uninitiated, there is still something like a "final form" that might be considered to be something like an "original text."  If so, it would still be possible that some variations would continue forward from different stages of composition. One thinks of Matthew and Mark.  Most think that Matthew used Mark as a primary source, but did Matthew use Mark in something like a "final form"?

For example, what are we to make of Matthew's omission of Mark 7:19 that Jesus declared all foods clean?  Is this an indication of Matthew's theology, that he did not consider all foods clean, at least not for Jewish Christians?  Or was this a clarifying remark that was added to Mark in a later version than Matthew used as a source?

If we return to 2 Corinthians, it is possible that we can speak of a time when different components of this text were independent letters or parts of independent letters (e.g., chaps. 10-13; 6:14-7:1). But at some point, 2 Corinthians took on its current form, which we would then consider to be the "original text" or the "final form." Whether previous versions then influenced the textual history of the later composite document would then be a fascinating question.

Similarly, if when New Testament letters were produced, a copy was made both to send and to keep at the point of origin, is it possible that there could be minor differences between the two copies from the very beginning? Was one copy of Ephesians created for Ephesus with the words "at Ephesus" on it while other copies for the rest of Asia Minor created without those words?

And what of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, the famous "let women be silent" verses, which appears in more than one place in the manuscripts?  Was this in one original copy of 1 Corinthians but then not in the other?  I personally suspect it is a late first century/early second century addition to the margin of some central copy of 1 Corinthians.

4. The focus of Faith
So, it does get a little more complicated when you dig into it more. Are differences in manuscripts a problem for Christian faith?  Not in the slightest. For one thing, we are really only talking about a certain uncertainty and fuzziness around the edges. We are not talking about any fundamental confusion about what the "original" or final forms of these texts basically said.

Take 1 Samuel 11:1.  The DSS add a good deal of information here about Nahash the Ammonite. The NRSV has included it in its translation.  The ESV, NIV, and other translations have not. What does it change?  It neither adds nor takes anything away from faith.  Practically all variations are of this sort.

In fact, in regard to the Hebrew Bible, many Christians would argue that it is not the Hebrew text by itself but the Christian reading of the OT that is important for Christian faith. Hebrews 10:5-7 provides us with an interesting case study. Here the form of the OT text that Hebrews uses is different from the likely original Hebrew form of Psalm 40:6-8. (By the way, this is a real conundrum for a KJV only person, since both forms of the text cannot be original, implying that one of the readings in the KJV text is not the original text... it is an incontrovertible validation of the science of textual criticism).

So which is more central to Christian faith, the original form of Psalm 40 in Hebrew or Hebrews' Christian version of the text?  Surely the latter is more central to Christian faith (this does not mean that the Hebrew wording cannot play a role as well).

In the end, any version of faith that is so strongly connected to individual verses is an out of focus faith.  This is true not only because God the Father and Christ must be at the center of our faith (rather than the "little books" [biblia] or Bible that gives witness to them, the books through which they have spoken and continue to speak).  It is true because the Bible must be read as a whole, as a fullness of revelation, where all the parts are read together (e.g., we don't apply Leviticus as Christians without having also read Hebrews).

It is even more crucially true because no verse comes to us without interpretation. When one looks at the tens of thousands of Christian denominations and groups, it is quite clear that the question of what interpretation of Scripture is appropriate has a far greater impact on us as believers than the question of the precise wording of the original text. The wording is the question of what the text says.

But that is just the beginning of the process.  Most variations on what the text said do not significantly impact the question of what the text meant.  Then the individual teachings of individual texts have to be integrated into a biblical theology that we appropriate for today, finding points of continuity and discontinuity between their time and our time, bringing the insights the Spirit has unfolded about Scripture throughout the ages.

By the time we reach this stage of hermeneutics, there are no textual variations of the original biblical texts that are significant in the slightest for faith.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dale Martin - Theology and Manuscripts

Today I read a chapter by Dale Martin in a volume co-edited by Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace called The Reliability of the New Testament.  His chapter is called "The Necessity of a Theology of Scripture."

Let me just say that I am frequently impressed with Martin's work. I don't think I introduced myself to him in 1995 when he was at Tübingen on sabbatical and I was there working on my dissertation.  He was working at that time on what I consider a tour de force on 1 Corinthians, The Corinthian Body.  His work in that book on our presuppositions about the soul were really paradigm-changing for me.

Perhaps the sentence that captures his chapter in Reliability best for me is this one: "Just as the church is embodied in particular, visible, physical groups of people but must not be identified with any of those groups or even with all those groups gathered together, so scripture is embodied in particular texts, manuscripts, editions, and translations but cannot be identified with any of them, including the imagined 'original autographs'" (88).  This may seem vague, so let me give a few more quotes.

"In the modern world since the dominance of the printing press, we are used to thinking that there is one right edition of every document, and that in most cases we (or at least the experts) can produce it. Realizing that Christian scripture cannot be so published--that no editor or group of editors can deliver 'the' right version, edition, or translation--may surprise modern people, but that is a reflection of the confusion about texts and textuality befogging modern people.  It is also a result of the fact that most modern people, including most Christians, are living with what is an immature and untrained theology of scripture" (87).

He goes on: "the Bible isn't scripture simply in and of itself. It is scripture, the word of God, when it is read in faith by the leading of the Holy Spirit."  He certainly is not opposed to historical readings of the Bible. He just thinks they are vastly incomplete when we are trying to talk about the Bible as Christian Scripture.

It goes without saying that Martin believes that if our faith is focused on being able to know the precise wording of the text, we're way off the mark. But he's saying much more than that. He's saying the whole theology of Scripture that pushes in this direction is way off.

I won't go into much detail. He prefers a theology of Scripture that sees us "entering a space where our Christian imaginations may be informed, reshaped, even surprised by the place scripture becomes for us" (90). He thinks models of the Bible as an "answer book" or a "user's manual" or even as an "authority" are incredibly vague and thus inadequate. The model of the Bible as the narrative of God's people comes closer for him, but he prefers his "space" analogy.

He ends with some interesting thoughts.  He quotes Elizabeth Johnson of Columbia Theological Seminary as saying, "the problem with evangelicals is that they don't have enough faith in God" (92). He says, "The text won't save us. God will save us."  And finally, "Ehrman allowed textual criticism to destroy his faith in scripture because he had an inadequate theology of scripture" (93).


"Orthodox Corruption" of Biblical Text

I'm trying to read through the collection of essays called Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament in preparation for a talk I'm giving in a week. The second chapter caricaturizes Bart Ehrman's text critical rule as "The least orthodox reading is to be preferred."  The claim, which seems generally valid, is that Ehrman functions, for all intents and purposes, with the sense that if when you are faced with variation among manuscripts where one text has wording that is "orthodox" and another has a wording that is problematic for faith, then the problematic one is more likely to be original.

I want to start off with my conclusions. First, Ehrman does seem to function in this way.  It is his consistent practice. Second, there is actually a kind of common sense to his practice, although ironically he probably is wrong on some of his conclusions on individual texts.  Thirdly, it is completely irrelevant to Christian faith. This is an issue of no importance whatsoever to Christian faith (which is why, sadly but understandably, our streamlined 75 hour MDIV at Wesley spends all of an afternoon on the question of the text of the whole Bible, the cost of majoring on the major).

The real rule, set forth by J. A. Bengel (1687-1752), is that the more difficult reading is to be preferred. I'll put it a different way.  A good decision on how an original text read has a good hypothesis on how the other variations in the manuscripts arose.  The idea that later scribes intentionally made manuscripts less orthodox makes little sense, while Ehrman's hypothesis--that scribes intentionally or inadvertantly made the text more orthodox--is a more likely explanation in theory.

A less orthodox reading might be a "more difficult reading" and therefore a more likely original reading. But interestingly, in my opinion, it doesn't turn out to be the case with most of Ehrman's key examples.  Orthodoxy doesn't seem to have been a primary factor in the copying practices of scribes (harmonization of the details, interestingly, was much more significant).

We need to get concrete probably for this discussion really to make sense. Did John 1:18 originally say, "No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten, [who is himself] God... has made him known." Some manuscripts read here "the only begotten, a Son... has made him known."  Ehrman believes that a copier of John intentionally changed "Son" to "God" to make the text fit better with orthodox theology.

Is this possible? Sure? Does it matter? Not in the slightest as far as Christian theology is concerned.  John 1:1 already identifies Jesus as God and even then, we have to interpret what that means.  If single verses cause you to break out into faith sweats, your faith is out of focus. This goes to a contention I've made elsewhere that Ehrman's childhood fundamentalism is still setting the agenda for him as a scholar today. Me? I'm good with either reading.

To put on the scholar's hat, though, I think Ehrman is probably wrong on this one. I consider "the only begotten, God" to be the more difficult reading. For one thing, "only begotten, the Son" is very Johannine.  It's the kind of reading we can see a copier accidentally putting down because they weren't paying close enough attention. There's no theological issue with "only begotten Son." It fits fine with Christian theology. A scribe wouldn't have found it theologically problematic in the first place.

The "external evidence," the lay of manuscripts, soundly favors "only begotten, God."  The second century papyrus p75 has it, as do Vaticanus and Sinaiticus from the early 300s.  In other words, the "oldest and most reliable" manuscripts in this case support "only begotten, God."

Did scribes ever make texts more orthodox?  I'm sure they did.  It's possible, for example, that Mark 1:41 originally read that Jesus was angry rather than compassionate. The chapter has a nice footnote list of possible examples (88, n.129).

Does it matter for theology?  Not in the slightest.  And it's not as if there isn't enough evidence to sort most of it out, even if one does have some neurotic fixation that compels you to know for certain what the precise wording likely was. But this can approach bibliolatry at some point for a fundamentalist--or neurosis if you are an ex-fundamentalist doing his own version of scholarly therapy.

Monday, May 21, 2012

D.A. Carson quote on Culture

I'm generally not a big D.A. Carson fan, but here's a quote that is spot on: "That all exemplifications of faith, Christian and otherwise, are necessarily expressed within forms that are cultural cannot reasonably be denied" (3).  I assume that he recognizes that this must also apply to every word of the Bible as well, thus the principle of the Bible as "incarnated" truth.

From Christ and Culture Revisited

Jesus' Ethic for Individuals 5

... continued from Saturday
Of much more immediate importance to us as individuals is how we should apply Jesus' ethic to our daily lives. If I'm in the seventh grade and someone punches me, do I just let them get away with it? If someone takes my chocolate milk at lunch, do I offer them my dessert as well? If someone is going to beat up my friend, do I jump into the fight to help or do I just pray for them?

I'll confess that I'm not entirely sure what to say. Jesus seems to say not to fight back.  On the other hand, he cast out demons--forces them out. Walter Wink's interpretation is so tempting, that turning the cheek, going the extra mile, were responses that would shame the bully. He gives a version of oppression that makes subservience a position of strength, because the oppressed take charge of their oppression. We are having a say in our bullying by participating in it by choice.

So there were some whites in the Civil Rights era who participated with African-Americans in their social location of discrimination.  Non-violent resistance made a protest against injustice without doing harm to anyone.  People sat in a place they were not supposed to sit and allowed themselves to be dragged off to jail, forced the oppressor to oppress according to his unjust rules. It is hard not to think these sorts of actions fit the spirit of Jesus because 1) they speak to how society should be if love of one's neighbor were truly the rule and 2) they do so in a non-violent, submissive way.

"There is a time for everything," Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, and verse 8 includes a time for war and a time for peace.  When Jesus was on earth, he indicated it was not time to war against the Romans.  It was a time to conform to their games, pay their taxes, and get on with the more important mission of the kingdom. Does that mean there is not a time to fight back or work aggressively for governmental change? Probably not.

Wisdom is knowing when it's time for what. Should we work for justice in the world?  Should we speak out for the oppressed?  Surely the spirit of Jesus says "yes."  The prophets did. They spoke out for the oppressed and against the oppressors. Note that they did not speak out primarily against sin and violations of law--those were more the complaints of the Pharisees and Jesus' opponents. The prophets primarily prophesied for people, not against law-violation.

Standing up for others is always a clearer Christian value than standing up for ourselves. Jesus was standing up for others when he cast out demons. Jesus was standing up for the excluded of Israel when he overturned the tables of the money-changers. But isn't there a time to stand up for yourself as well?

A person can choose to take oppression and thus do it from a position of strength, of choice.  There is surely a time to submit to suffering. When I am the powerful one and someone with less power is striking out at me, there will often be no need for me to retaliate.  Jesus changes the rules when he makes the question one of loving my neighbor. The rule is not, "Make sure justice is done" but "How can I help you?"

But there is surely a time for justice, perhaps precisely because the oppressor is unlikely ever to change. Wisdom is again knowing when it's time for what. Force usually begets more force and escalation. Sometimes the only way to stop a cycle of violence is for a strong person to stand down, to let the last strike go unanswered...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Manuscripts and Faith

I'm giving a paper in 9 days in Atlanta titled, "Are Differences in the Manuscripts a Problem for Christian Faith?" I actually thought this was a rather lame topic, since the answer is so obviously, "No, differences aren't a problem for Christian faith in the slightest."  The answer hasn't changed from the beginning of textual criticism to Bruce Metzger's verdict in The Text of the New Testament to now.

However, in preparation for the paper I've been reading a bit about Daniel Wallace's ongoing debate with Bart Ehrman.  My impression is that Ehrman is quite the showman and plays with the ignorance of audiences to 1) make them think the original text is more uncertain than it is, when 2) he doesn't even actually think that himself.  The first chapter of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament gives the essence of this debate.

From what I can tell, the more things change the more they are the same.  I find nothing in Ehrman troubling that is valid.  And there are a few things in Ehrman that probably aren't valid... and which one wonders if even he believes. So I feel just as up to date on "textual criticism and faith" today as I did when I finished seminary.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Force is the Exception 4

continued from yesterday
... By contrast, the earthly Jesus modeled for us what it looks like when we are out of power or it is not God's will to use what power we have to bring change to the structures of society. Of course some have argued that Jesus gave us an example for all times and all situations. They argue that Christians should never engage in violence such as war and that a person should never strike another, even in self-defense. [1] God is the one who fights for us. We are not to fight for ourselves. Even then, God's fighting is full of love for all individuals involved.

These voices are important because they are surely more correct than incorrect. The usual responses to them are also well known. "What about Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple?" Some have argued that Jesus only used his whip to drive the animals out of the temple court, not the people (John 2:15). [2] As honorable as this interpretation is, it seems based more on wishful thinking than the text itself (Mark 11:15).

It seems that Jesus could get "righteously angry" and act accordingly. And although this was only one occasion in an entire ministry without violence, it showed that force was an option on some level. Non-violence was apparently not an absolute for him, even though it was the default, the standard for the vast majority of cases.

Another response looks to the Old Testament, where God seems to command Joshua to obliterate whole cities entirely, including animals (e.g., Josh. 6:21). We have to be careful when applying texts such as this one, for the Old Testament is not complete in its understanding of God without the New Testament. Even within the Old Testament itself, there are often multiple perspectives to be considered. Nahum with its delight over the destruction of Nineveh must be balanced by Jonah with its concern for Nineveh. Ezra with its commands to divorce foreign wives must be balanced by Malachi's hatred of divorce.

The Christian approach to war that seems to take the whole Bible best into account is sometimes called "just war theory."  It believes that war can be justified from a Christian perspective if four conditions are met. [3] First, the impending damage from an aggressor needs to be "lasting, grave, and certain." Second, every other means of putting the aggression to an end needs to have been ineffective or impractical. Next, the war should be likely to be successful. Finally, the use of force should not result in a greater evil than it solves.

These principles seem to capture the Christian spirit, where the use of force is a course of last resort.  Force is never used to advance one's own territory or ambition. One always tries non-violent means to resolve situations first. The goal of war is not to devastate the enemy but to protect one's own or others.

Can one wage war and not violate love of neighbor and love of enemy?  Certainly one can wage war to protect one's own people.  One can wage war to protect the people of the country you are fighting.  The problem is that the true intentions of a leader arguing for war will not always be clear. We often do not realize our own true intentions. Any reasonable doubt at all argues against the use of force.

Then there is the question of justice. Would a nation attack another in the name of justice, if it were following Christ's example?  If the answer is simply to get back at the other nation, the answer is no.  But such matters are also very complex. You may have heard the old Latin saying, "If you want peace, prepare for war." The idea is that strength is in itself a deterrent from the aggression of others.

Again, we are prone to hide our true intentions and hatefulness behind such honorable sounding sentiments. And few of us will ever be in a position to make such decisions, although we vote for those who do. For example, following just war theory, a Christian would not have supported the American invasion of Iraq.  Not only was imminent danger from Iraq uncertain, it turned out to be non-existent. Even after the war, it remains to be seen whether, in the end, the resultant situation in the Middle East and the world is better than before the war.

Yet many Christians at the time almost considered it unchristian even to have questions about the Iraq War. This is an indication of the extent to which popular Christianity is removed not only from the actual example of Jesus but from Christian understandings that have been accepted since the time Christians had a voice in such matters. It calls us as believers to be much more cautious in our support of American military action in the future.

The case of World War 2 was much clearer. Hitler had shown his aggression in the most obvious of terms. It even astounds the mind for us to realize now what he was doing to Jews and others behind the scenes, things that were not obvious at the time. For nations like Britain, the question was as much one of survival as of winning. Many today even fault England for engaging in dialog too long. The most balanced position would seem to be that there are very rare occasions where Christians might support a war in the spirit of Jesus.

Of much more immediate importance to us as individuals is how we should apply Jesus' ethic to our daily lives...

[1] Some key names in this reading of Jesus include John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens.

[2] Yoder, Politics.

[3] This approach is often associated with Augustine in the 400s. The current list is largely taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2309.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Watch out for Power 3

... continued from Wednesday.
Jesus addressed a specific context in Galilee, although the Gospel of Matthew presumably wanted its audience to see this teaching as applying to them as well. However, we at least have to ask the extent to which Jesus' teaching on non-violent conformity was local or timeless and universal. What exactly might Jesus say--or Paul for that matter--if he were addressing a democratic society or one where the state at least seemed less evil? This is the difficult task we face together of working out faith in a world that is much different in many respects than that of Jesus, and we have to "test the spirits" carefully when people like me make suggestions.

The first thought that occurs to me is that Jesus would probably tell us to be very, very careful when we try to wade into the world of politics and power. You've heard the saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  It's not in the Bible, but it fits the sense we get in the gospels that the vast majority of the humans in power in the story--except for Jesus--are morally questionable. The high priest, Pilate, the Jewish leaders, they are not the ones to model oneself after.

Sure, there are some with power who are true seekers.  Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the centurion, they are the exceptions. But in general, "it it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24), where wealth is a form of power.

Christians believe that although Christ had all power, he "emptied himself" of that status and willingly took on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7). Paul says that we are to serve each other this way as believers.  And we should not too quickly dismiss Jesus' instructions to the rich young man when he told him to "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor" (Mark 10:21). How easy it is for us to slough off this statement as just something for this one man, while obsessing on more peculiar statements like "Women should remain silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34). Jesus' trajectory away from money and possessions was completely consistent throughout his ministry. [1]

Yet we do see individuals with significant resources and possessions in Scripture. While we need to linger longer on the warnings of Jesus and the New Testament against wealth, it is true that this trajectory is not absolute. Those with power can do good in this world and in the kingdom. God can use a pagan king like Cyrus to accomplish his will (Isa. 45:1). There is a time for the Christian statesman and the Christian patron.

I think of the curious statement Jesus makes in Matthew 10:16 to be "shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." A snake has power. Surely that's why we fear them so much, especially in places where the primary snake is a rattlesnake, a cobra, or a black mamba.  The dove has no thought of harming others. It hardly has any sense of its own danger.

The two images together are striking, to have the power to harm but to be harmless. Surely this is Jesus' philosophy of power. There is a rare person who can have immense power and yet use it for good. We may all think we would be the exception. The ambitious Christian will no doubt gladly smile, raise his or her right hand and say, "Yes, yes, I seek power only to do good." But it will not be true in the vast majority of cases...

[1] By contrast, numerous women ministered in the early church from Priscilla, who led the way in discipling Apollos (Acts 18:26), to Phoebe, who was a deacon (Rom. 16:1), to Junia, who was an apostle (Rom. 16:7).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Turn the Other Cheek 2

... continued from Monday.
So the ethic Jesus taught in relation to secular authorities was an "interim ethic," not in the sense of an ethic only for while he was on earth but only for the time before Jesus returned. There would be a time for confrontation of the worldly powers. But God would take the lead and now was not the time.

Neither Jesus nor any of the New Testament authors were addressing a situation where it was at all likely that believers would be able to transform the structures of society. The presumption of both what Jesus and the New Testament says is that you will be in the position of the weak and disempowered. Jesus' ethic is thus an ethic for the oppressed and powerless in society.

Even then, we should not assume that the specifics of the approach Jesus took at a specific time and place in history is meant to be the approach for all times and all places. Jesus largely advocated non-violent conformity to the will of the Romans. "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles" (Matt. 5:41). "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well" (5:40).

Walter Wink famously suggested that these were actually actions of non-violent resistance. [1] By responding in these sorts of ways, you shame the person.  "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also" (5:39).  You thus force the person to strike you back-handed, an allegedly shameful way to hit someone.

Perhaps Wink captured a valid dimension of Jesus' rhetoric. But Matthew 5 puts these comments in the category of not getting revenge.  The Old Testament Law says, "Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Deut. 19:21).  But Jesus says, by contrast, "do not resist an evil person" (Matt. 5:39), and the next paragraph is about loving one's enemies. The attitude Jesus advocates here is not one of defiance--not even non-violent defiance--but conformity with loving hope toward one's oppressor.

By the way, it is revealing once again that Jesus has the authority to modify Old Testament Law.  The sequence in Matthew 5--"you have heard but I say"--is not simply a deepening of the law, as we saw in the previous chapter.  Jesus modifies the Law in a substantial way. The Law says "Show no pity." Jesus says in effect that his "fulfilling of the Law" (Matt. 5:17), using the love commandment as the guide, shuffles and changes some of the Law. Here is another example where, at least on an individual level, the normal practice of Deuteronomy is negated. [2]

Jesus addressed a specific context in Galilee, although the Gospel of Matthew presumably wanted its audience to see this teaching as applying to them as well. However, we at least have to ask the extent to which Jesus' teaching on non-violent conformity was local or timeless and universal...

[1] E.g., Engaging the Powers.

[2] However, a key distinction is that Deuteronomy primarily targets a "civil" context.  This is the context of societal justice.  Jesus is addressing an individual context.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: Wells and Fences

I was reading this week a little in Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch's The Shaping of Things to Come.  I was especially interested in the section called "Wells and Fences" (47-51). This is the place where they talk about the difference between "bounded sets" and "centered sets."

I find this an incredibly fruitful image for Christian universities and denominations.  I don't think many of us like the attitude of those who are preoccupied with where the fences go, where the boundary lines are. We don't like a preoccupation with who is "in" and who is "out."  Frost and Hirsch see this as the way the "attractional" church is oriented, where the goal is to get people to come into the group.

The "centered-set" approach, in the minds of Frost and Hirsch, looks at people more in terms of how far they are from the center, which in a Christian setting is Jesus.  Here's how they play this idea out:
  • "We believe that a centered-set church must have a very clear set of beliefs, rooted in Christ and his teaching" (48).
  • "In a centered-set church it is recognized that we are all sinners... The centered-set church will see everyone as equally fallen" (49).  
  • "In the incarnational mode the emphasis is well and truly on a cross-cultural Go-To-Them mentality" (49).
I'm way late to the game in thinking that there is a good deal of great stuff to build on here (the book came out in 2003).  I'll only throw out a few reasons why a hybrid of sorts is in order:
  • Historically, Christianity has been a bounded-set.  From a Pietist perspective (and to a large extent a New Testament perspective), the Holy Spirit has been the primary boundary marker.
  • A more sophisticated model thus has to take into account the distinction between the so called "visible" church and "invisible" church.  From a historic standpoint, there are boundaries.  We just are not in a good position to know precisely what they are in terms of who is in and who is out.
  • The Frost-Hirsch model also needs serious revision on two counts: 1) beliefs are a very flimsy basis on which to formulate a center, since it is the "heart" that is the center of a person's moral being and actions flow from intentions as a second order of business. Beliefs are the most insubstantial element of a person's moral make-up.
  • Additionally, 2) to build the centered-set approach off a sense that we are all sinners is wrong-headed in several respects.  It is not only based on a blatant misreading of the biblical texts but it flows from a mistaken moral standard of perfection in action.  Purity of intention is the moral standard, not performance.
  • Finally, Christianity cannot be sustained merely by "going to them."  This is in part the failure of the emerging church.  Without some structured organization, movements fizzle over time.  The house church movement is perfectly legitimate but Christianity will not persist without more structured organizations as well.
I'll stop there.  I am interested in what a hybrid might look like, one that has very general and inclusive boundaries around a center that then has very fuzzy edges.  Perhaps another day...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Conflict with the State 1

Thus far in this chapter we have looked at some of the conflicts Jesus had over his authority and some of the conflicts he had over differing values. In this final section, I want to look at the way Jesus engaged the secular authorities of his day, especially the Romans. Jesus really didn't get into conflict with the powers of the "state" until the end of his earthly mission, but he had some things to say along the way.

One of Jesus' most famous sayings on this topic comes in Mark 12, when some individuals are trying to trick Jesus. They ask Jesus "Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?" (12:14). If Jesus says "no," they can perhaps get him in trouble with the Romans. If Jesus says "yes," then perhaps they can get him in trouble with those who think he is the messiah, the king of the Jews.

Jesus' asks to see a coin and gives his well-known response, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (12:17). The saying drives a strong wedge between matters of God and matters of the secular government, as if they are two distinct kingdoms that have nothing to do with each other. Unsurprisingly, different Christian groups have seen in this response slightly different models for how Christians should engage the culture around them. [1]

Some have taken Jesus to imply a kind of isolationist position, as if Christians should not get involved in broader culture or politics. The Amish would be an extreme example of this approach, but there are Christians who refuse to vote or engage political issues today. Some Christians have traditionally been "conscientious objectors" who do not participate in the wars of a country.  Those things are the realm of Caesar and a Christian should stay out of them.

The Lutheran tradition has generally taken a different tact. Jesus seems to say to pay the tax. In a fascinating story in Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus indicates that they should not have to pay the temple tax. But so that they will not cause trouble, he has him go fishing.  In the mouth of the fish he catches is a four drachma coin, with which Peter pays the tax for himself and Jesus.

So the Lutheran tradition has usually taken the approach that we are in these two kingdoms at the same time. They have nothing to do with each other, and they are in conflict with each other. It is impossible to reconcile the two to each other. So our lives are full of contradictions. The lives we live in the secular world don't fit with the lives we live in the spiritual realm.

Both of the above approaches seem extreme. If we look a little more closely at what Jesus might have meant, there is first the matter of coinage and money. The world of Galilee was primarily an agrarian world and a world of trade. In our world today, we cannot escape using money. But in Jesus' world, money might easily be seen more as a foreign element, the stuff of taxes and foreign powers. The coin with Caesar's face on it has nothing to do with God. Give it back to Caesar.

The words of John 19:11 to Pilate capture the situation well: "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above." In the background of Jesus' conformist approach was surely the belief that God was going to come and judge the Romans in due time.  As Paul would later put it, "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? ... God will judge those outside" (1 Cor. 5:12-13). [2]

So the ethic Jesus taught in relation to secular authorities was an "interim ethic," not in the sense of an ethic only for while he was on earth but only for the time before Jesus returned...

[1] The classic here is H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. There have been a number of responses in recent days, including D. A. Carson and others***

[2] Interestingly, Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 to indicate that, when Christ returns, we will take part in the judgment of the world. It's just not a function he saw Christians performing in the meantime.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not Being Hypocrites 4

... continued from yesterday
Standing in the background of these sorts of judgments is our picture of what God is like. Is God's primary feature his justice, understood in the modern sense? Then perhaps punishment is his primary action in relation to humanity and the world. Then perhaps wrath toward wrongdoing is the primary lens through which to view him. [1]

This is not Jesus' understanding of God. For Jesus, God is like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He is yearning and longing for the return of his son who has gone astray. He demands nothing of the returning son. There is no legal process for his return; no forms have to be filled out. Instead, he throws him a party.

The God of Jesus does dispense final judgment, as I explore in chapter 8. But mercy is his more dominant mode of operation and justice understood in the sense of stopping those who oppress the weak. This is a key distinction. Many think of prophetic anger and divine justice in terms of punishing those who deviate from some abstract law or rule. By contrast, prophetic anger primarily had to do with those who oppress--it was about being for people more than being against sin in some abstract sense.

There are just a few key lessons to take away from Jesus' conflict with various leaders of Israel over values. The first is of course to have the right values. Justice, mercy, and faithfulness is the short list Jesus gives in Matthew 23. Justice is about standing up for those who are weak or oppressed. Mercy is about making exceptions to the rules because you see the possibility to grow and learn a lesson. Faithfulness is about living always with God and the greater good in view, not my own selfish good.

A second application is to "major on the major," not to "major on the minor," as the saying goes. What is really important? When you are focused on what is truly important, you will make exceptions when it is appropriate. You will see when it is appropriate to ignore purity rules or Sabbath laws. Jesus says at one point, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?" (Matt. 12:11). The "rules" are meant for our good, and most of them are not absolute rules, meaning that there are exceptional situations.

Finally, it's bad to be a hypocrite.  A hypocrite is someone who wants to look like she has Jesus' values but really is only putting on a show. The outside looks clean, but the heart is evil and full of the bones of the dead. Some of us don't even realize we are hypocrites. The human heart has an amazing capacity for self-deception. Often we cannot change ourselves, but coming clean with ourselves about our true motives is a first step. God and others can bring us the rest of the way.

[1] Sometimes this view is confused with a focus on God's sovereignty, his being in control. But this is a circular line of thinking--it assumes what God would want if he were in control. God can be in control and insist that justice is the primary focus, or God can be in control and insist that love is the primary focus.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Standing for the Right Things 4

... continued from yesterday.
Jesus calls this approach to morality hypocrisy, putting on a good show on the outside while having nothing of value on the inside.  One of the most striking images Jesus gives in this chapter is that of a "whitewashed tomb" that is clean on the outside but inside is "full of the bones of the dead" (Matt. 23:27). So it is all too easy to give the appearance of doing all the right things--dotting all the i's, crossing all the t's, and filling out all the paperwork in triplicate--when in reality one's heart is far from God (cf. Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

In the end, it all boils down to the twin love commandments that the previous chapter explored: love God and love neighbor. We are faithful to God, centering our lives around his interests and values more than around ourselves. And we know that his values more than anything else are to love one another (1 John 4:7-8).

As I argued in chapter 3, justice in a Jewish context was not about making sure wrongdoers are punished. That's what we mean by the word "justice."  In a Jewish context, justice was about making sure that those like widows, orphans, and the poor were taken care of.  When Micah 6:8 says that the Lord requires Israel "to act justly," the prophet is thinking more than anything else about things like having "dishonest scales" (6:11). The prophet is thinking of the rich who cheat the people of Israel (6:12). It is from passages like this one in the Prophets that the phrase "social justice" comes.

The teachers of the Law that Jesus rails against were unjust in similar ways to those the prophets indicted.  At one point, Jesus said that these people "devoured widow's houses" (Mark 12:40) at the same time that they make lengthy prayers and enjoy the most important seats in synagogues and in banquets (12:39).  To clean the inside of their cup, Luke 11 says, they need to be generous to the poor (Luke 11:41).

One of the most fascinating parts of Matthew 23 is the fact that these Pharisees, although they acted exactly like those from the past who persecuted the prophets, somehow thought they were different from those who persecuted the prophets. "You say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets'" (23:30). It's something we need to be careful about today, that we don't find ourselves opposing Jesus' values while thinking we are standing up for him.

For example, we can certainly debate about the best way truly to help the poor or to address those who are illegally in the country. But there is little room for debate about what Jesus' values would have been. He would have strongly advocated to help those who are in need in the most holistic sense. A lot of Americans earn plenty of money but are "poor" in the sense of being overwhelmingly in debt. Jesus would have advocated a course of action to heal their lives and habits every bit as much as to heal those in a cycle of generational poverty, unable to see a way of living that is not dependent on the government for help.

We can debate about the best specific course of action in each case. What is clear beyond any reasonable doubt is that Jesus would have pushed to help them in the most wholesome way. He would not have advocated an approach that says, "They've made their bed. Now they need to lie in it." Justice for Jesus was not about making sure those who messed up got their "just desserts." It was quite the opposite, actually.

That is not to say that experiencing consequences should not be part of the equation. The key is that the function of consequences is to teach a person how important it is to do better. The function for Jesus would not be to punish them because they have violated some rule or law. That is where some Christians end up making the rules the goal, like Jesus' opponents did, rather than the true underlying goal and value, which was to help those in trouble.

An important moment in my own spiritual pilgrimage was an Easter morning in 1987 when I read through the book of Galatians.  It dawned on me that my "rule-oriented" approach to Christianity was not that of Paul and Jesus.  Imagine my surprise to realize that my way of thinking about God was actually much more like that of Paul's opponents and Jesus' opponents than that of Paul and Jesus themselves!

So when my forebears criticized Martin Luther King Jr. for being a law-breaker, they were on the opposite side of Jesus.  Jesus would have seen the injustice of making African-Americans being forced to sit at the back of a bus and would have eagerly broken human laws in favor of the divine principle. The example he has left us is of someone who followed the rules when they were innocuous, but of completely ignoring them when a matter of injustice was involved.

So whatever we think about laws of immigration or about securing our borders, there is no reasonable doubt about what Jesus' approach would be to a specific human in need in front of him. His approach would not be, "Sorry, Charlie, you broke the law and now you're going to starve to death."  His first thought would be, "What is the most loving thing to do for this person in front of me," not "Now you're going to pay for breaking the law."

Standing in the background of these sorts of judgments is our picture of what God is like...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Intentions are the Key 3

... continued from Wednesday.
The problem is that the Scriptures inevitably have to be interpreted and, even once we interpret them, we constantly have to apply them to new kinds of situations. If the Law says, "you will not do any work on the Sabbath," then the next question is, "What exactly is work?" For example, how far would a person need to walk on the Sabbath before he or she had worked? Or does walking even fit in the category of work at all, or playing on a playground?

There is a certain personality that is driven to clarify these sorts of issues, to do away with ambiguities. If you tell me I must honor my father and mother, then what does that look like? What if my father is abusive? What if my mother is an alcoholic?  It is always honoring to obey your parent? I don't want to disobey the commandment, so what exactly do I need to do in each circumstance?

If I am not to kill, then is capital punishment killing? What about war? Is killing in war a violation of the commandment?  These are exactly the sorts of questions that the "traditions of the elders" tried to answer. Some Pharisees no doubt were strict because they wanted to make sure without a doubt that they were doing the right thing. Others no doubt enjoyed the rules a little too much and became legalists who lost sight of the point.

The kinds of personalities that are wired to answer these sorts of questions can be very helpful to us. They're the kinds of people we want to help us organize an event or keep our financial records. They're detailed people who can make the difference between a good idea that never happens and something great in the real world.

And we should not be too quick to criticize how many rules the Pharisees had.  The Law in the Bible may have had 613 rules, according to popular count. But we have far more traffic rules.  Does everyone in the car have to wear a seat belt? How far do I have to stay behind the car in front of me or turn off my brights because of oncoming traffic? Rules can come with good intentions, and they can also take over and strangle the life out of us and others.

It is at this point that Jesus turns to the question of attitude. Some Pharisees, like so many Christians, lost sight of the main point. It comes down to our hearts. Evil comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. What you eat can't really make you unclean in any meaningful sense. Uncleanness is a matter of a person's heart or intentions. Out of the heart come the evil things that truly defile us (Mark 7:21-23).

This is Ethics 101.  Jesus here gives us the core fundamentals of what is important to God. Yes, the specifics of what we do can be important. If I kill someone, that is very significant, no matter why I did it. But God's evaluation of me is solely based on my intentions. Did I intentionally kill the person? Why did I do it? Was I trying to protect someone? Was I negligent?

Notice that what I know is the least important element in the moral equation. The implication would seem to be that my specific beliefs are the least important aspect of who I am as I stand before God. Paul also says that "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23).  He is saying that far more important than what I believe is that I act with complete commitment to God in relation to whatever I believe.

Wrong beliefs can be harmful to myself and others, to be sure. It is important not to harm or wrong others--even with good intentions.  But in the long run, my attitude is the first and most important order of business as far as morality is concerned.

This is the recurring critique of the Pharisees in the gospels. [1] They "strain out a gnat and swallow a camel." They may go to great lengths to keep a little gnat out of their cereal bowl while crunching on some rather large cockroaches.  Jesus didn't criticize the Pharisees for being strict. He didn't have a problem with them tithing a tenth of various spices--a tenth of my mint to the temple, a tenth of my cummin, a tenth of my dill (Matt. 23:23). He didn't criticize them for straining out the gnats.

The problem was that they missed the really important aspects of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. In fact, the individuals in view here used the technicalities of the Law to get out of keeping these core values. While the purpose of taking an oath is to guarantee to someone else that you are telling the truth, some apparently swore by things they thought didn't count so that they could give the appearance of telling the truth while still lying. So they swore by the temple or altar instead of the gold in the temple or the sacrifice on the altar (Matt. 23:16-19).

Jesus calls this approach to morality hypocrisy, putting on a good show on the outside while having nothing of value on the inside...

[1] See chapter 3 for the important reminder that not all Pharisees were this way. For example, Nicodemus in John 3 is a Pharisee and some Pharisees became Christians and yet were able to remain Pharisees too (cf. Acts 15:5; 23:6).

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Traditions of the Elders 2

... continued from Sunday.
... But before we go any further, we should probably be a little more precise about exactly what "rules" we are talking about. It is common to call some of the rules Jesus didn't pay much attention to as the "traditions of the elders." For example, the Pharisees ask Jesus in Mark 7:5 why his followers ignore traditions about how they wash their hands. Jesus’ reaction is fairly typical. He points out that their priorities are out of whack. They pay a lot of attention to their own traditions and yet miss the blatant values of Scripture.

As an example, Jesus points out how some individuals use traditions about dedicating things to God in order to get out of taking care of their parents.  They simply say, "all the resources I would have used to take care of my parents belong to the Lord," and then they can't take care of their parents (7:11-13). "Sorry, Dad and Mom. I gave away all your food and clothes to God."

This sort of legal maneuvering in the service of injustice is exactly the kind of thing that really angers us today. A person may know how to use the technicalities of the rules to get out of doing the heart of why the rules are there in the first place. Some institutions get bogged down with bureaucratic nonsense and process, and never actually accomplish anything. We hate it in government, when it seems like nothing ever gets done or when a criminal gets off on some technicality.

It is easy to place the blame on the fact that these Pharisees were following human traditions rather than the Bible itself. That is indeed an element of the passage. They are following "merely human rules." What is harder is to see how often we do exactly the same thing.

For example, once when I was a boy and visiting a worship center, I was told that I could not swing on the playground because it was Sunday. The logic went something like this. We are to "remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy" (Exod. 20:8). According to Exodus 20:9-11 and other places in the Old Testament (e.g., Neh. 13:15-21), what this means is not to do work on Saturday.

 But in the interpretation of this person, Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath, so a Christian shouldn't work on Sunday. Further, what is the work of a child?  Is not playing on a playground the work of a child? Therefore, children should not play on a playground on Sunday.

Now it didn't harm me to have to leave the playground. But it is helpful to realize that it was exactly this sort of logic that led the Pharisees to insist people wash their hands before eating. It had nothing to do with hygiene. It had to do with the purity rules of Leviticus. They were trying to make sure that you didn't inadvertently make yourself unclean because of accidentally touching something unclean. They were being extra-holy.

Some Protestant traditions have built this warning into their core statements. The Methodist tradition drew from the Anglican tradition a statement that the Scriptures "contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man or woman that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." [1] It reminds us immediately of Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees in Mark 7.

The problem is that the Scriptures inevitably have to be interpreted and, even once we interpret them, we constantly have to apply them to new kinds of situations...

[1] Taken from the Discipline of the Wesleyan Church (2008). However, the Wesleyan is simply drawing from Wesley and the Methodist tradition, and Wesley took the statement from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Generous Sovereignty

I'm at a retreat as part of the formation of the new Misio Alliance, meant to be another option for evangelical-minded individuals that is not the Gospel Alliance or Emergent Village.  How to frame the alliance is one of many topics of discussion.

It occurred to me today that one dimension of the distinction this group is trying to frame might be a phrase like "generous sovereignty."  A lot of us are often criticized for not believing in the sovereignty of God, but that's completely off.  What we believe is that God, in his sovereignty, loves everyone in the world and wants everyone in the world to be restored.  We don't believe that God fixed the deck before dealing His hand in creation.

In His generous sovereignty, God gave choice to humanity.  In His generous sovereignty, he reaches out and gives light "to everyone coming into the world."  His discipline is restorative rather than punitive.  "God is love" is the verse in 1 John 4:8, not "God is justice."

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Conflict over Values 1

I've been dripping through a chapter on the conflict Jesus got into with various leaders around him.  My last post on the subject finished a section I'm calling "Conflict over Authority."  Now I want to start a second section called "Conflict over Values."
Jesus' first conflict in Mark is about whether he has the authority to forgive sins. His second conflict follows almost immediately. Some scribes and Pharisees have problems with the fact that Jesus accepts an invitation to eat with many tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:14-17).

I've already explored Jesus' interest in the lost sheep of Israel in chapter 3. In this one, I'm interested in the fact that Jesus' values got him into conflict.  One of Jesus' values was that people trump rules for their own sake. So it was more important to Jesus to reclaim the tax collectors and others of Israel who had gone astray than to worry about Levitical purity rules. The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates these priorities as well--saving a life trumps purity rules.

Another story in Mark 2 takes it even further. If redeeming the lost trumped the rules and saving a life trumped the rules, Jesus interaction over plucking grain showed that even basic hunger could trump the rules for him. In Mark 2:23-28, he and his disciples are passing through some grain fields on the Sabbath, on Saturday. Some Pharisees criticize this followers for violating the fourth commandment, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping in holy" (Exod. 20:8).

What is truly interesting about Jesus' response is that he does not say what we might expect.  He does not say, "You Pharisees don't understand what this commandment is really about." What he does is tell about an incident where a high priest gave holy food to David and his men to eat, something that was only lawful for priests to eat (Mark 2:26). His point is that it was appropriate on that occasion to make an exception to the rule.

We should probably keep in mind that there is an implicit comparison here between David the king and Jesus the messiah. Jesus may not be saying that just anyone is allowed to pluck grain on the Sabbath. He may be saying that he is about to be king just as David was about to be king, and therefore it is appropriate to make an exception. Jesus is "Lord even of the Sabbath" (2:27). His authority trumps even that of  Scripture and the Ten Commandments.

But before we go any further, we should probably be a little more precise about exactly what "rules" we are talking about...

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Book Review: Peter Enns 2

Way back in January, I blogged on the introduction to Peter Enns' recent book, The Evolution of Adam.  I've finally finished reading the first two chapters.  The second chapter is called, "When Was Genesis Written?" and Enns' purpose is to build to answer the basic question of the original, intended meaning of Genesis 1.  By the way, I saw earlier in the week that James K. A. Smith of Calvin College had written a response to Enns' book.

To determine the original meaning of Genesis, Enns first asks when Genesis was written. His basic conclusion is that "the Old Testament as a whole is fundamentally a postexilic document" (32).  In this age when Israel had been shaken to the core by the destruction of Jerusalem, "The Old Testament is not a treatise on Israel's history for the sake of history, but a document of self-definition and spiritual encouragement."  Or as he says elsewhere, "The creation of the Hebrew Bible... is an exercise in national self-definition in response to the Babylonian exile" (28).

In terms of scholarship, these are not controversial claims.  Of course Enns is probably wishful when he uses phrases like, "virtually unanimous" and "virtual scholarly consensus." In many circles, especially popular circles, the conclusions seem very controversial.  It gets to the question of "What is a scholar?"  Is it a person with a PhD? Is it knowing and understanding the arguments on all sides of an issue? Are there certain issues where an evidentiarily based conclusion is so inevitable that to hold a different position automatically disqualifies you from being considered a scholar--or at least an evidence based scholar?

So Enns presents the inductive evidence pointing away from Moses as the author:
  • Genesis never mentions Moses or says he is its author. 
  • Moses is always referred to in the third person throughout the Pentateuch: "he did this," "he said that," "Moses wrote down this law" (Deut. 31:9), and of course Moses went up into the mountain and no one knows where he's buried till this day (which sounds like it's being written a bit later).
  • More references that sound like the events of these books took place in the very distant past--the bed of Og can still be seen in Rabbah (Deut. 3:11); at that time the Canaanites were still in the land (Gen. 12:6), a situation that continued until the time of David.
Then there are stories that seem repeated but using different words for God.  Abraham and Sarai pull one over on Pharaoh and YHWH strikes Pharaoh's house (Gen. 12). Then a little later Abraham and Sarah pull one over on Abimelech and Elohim comes after Abimeleh (Gen. 20). This is not an isolated incident.  This repetition of the same basic story with a different name for God happens repeatedly throughout the Pentateuch. (James McGrath pointed out this phenomenon in a couple psalms as well). Enns' final point is that the Hebrew of the Pentateuch does not likely reflect Hebrew at the time of Moses.

Enns does not in any way deny that much of the material within the Pentateuch might go back to Moses. He also does not deal much with the main reason why this is an issue, namely, NT instances where Moses is implied to be the author, including instances where Jesus seems to imply that Moses is the author (e.g., John 5:46-47).  Interestingly, there are only a few times where the NT implies that the author of the Pentateuch is Moses.  Most of the attributions to Moses are attributions to the material in the Pentateuch, not to Moses as author of the whole sha-bang.

Enns doesn't spend much time on this issue.  He pretty much only addresses it in a footnote: "Jesus here reflects the tradition that he himself inherited as a first-century Jew and that his hearers assumed to be the case" (153 n.19). So our question is whether Jesus taught in the categories of his day or in these sorts of references intended to give answers to these sorts of questions.

While this debate is very old, there were some things in the chapter that I learned. Enns presented some of the ways in which Chronicles differs from Samuel. He does this to argue for how the exile affected the self-understanding of Israel--and thus setting up his argument for the overall purpose of the Pentateuch.  In 2 Samuel 7:16 God tells David that he will set up his, David's, kingdom forever. In 1 Chronicles 17:14, the same passage, God tells him he will set up my, God's, kingdom in my, God's house, the temple. So this is arguably a reorientation away from David's dynasty (since it would not be in place at the time of Chronicles) to the temple and God's kingdom.

We are of course free to disagree with Enns. I do think, however, that there is not much to object to here in terms of inductive scholarship.  Smith is perhaps right that there is a more fundamental question we will have to address if we are ever going to move past these sorts of debates. Are these things a matter of gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, testing the hypotheses, and reaching evidentiary consensus? If so, then there won't be much debate about Enns conclusion. The scholarly consensus will be "virtually unanimous."

But there is another approach, one that comes to the Pentateuch with its conclusion in hand. It assumes it must take the references of the NT as bindingly literal attributions of authorship. So it applies its intellect to finding ways to argue around what it considers to be the apparent evidence. So Moses' death was added later or God told him ahead of time and he wrote it down as prophecy. So the references that sound later are updates to the original Mosaic text. Or perhaps differing strands of source material were combined by none other than Moses himself.

There can be no rapprochement of these two approaches. They involve decisions one intentionally or unintentionally makes prior to interpretation. I fear, however, that to insist that only the second approach is valid will lead many of our children, especially those that look into these issues in detail, to lose their faith.

I recommend we not focus on these sorts of things and go spread the good news instead.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Schenck University

I have an idea for this summer I thought I would share and get input from the great cloud (i.e., you, whoever might be reading this). Here's the essence:

1. Using some medium (Google Hangouts, Vimeo, etc...), I would record a programmed series of lectures on Hebrews over the course of the summer, probably two a week.  It would be a kind of video commentary that could be packaged and sold as a DVD at the end, maybe with some edited version of the "Explanatory Notes" I've done in the past.

2. I would roll these out in conjunction with some chat or interaction time, perhaps on this blog, perhaps on Facebook.

3. I would store them on a site I have called "," which I just noticed is down for some reason.  The videos and explanatory notes would be free (but of course I'd put up a Pay Pal link on the side just in case someone wanted to waste their money ;-).

4. I would also offer a sample undergraduate and graduate syllabus for what a Hebrews course might look like.  For some appropriate fee (significantly less than taking a course somewhere), if a person wanted actually to produce the papers and artifacts from these syllabi (and including a final, recorded interaction between me and the person), a person would have the kind of artifacts that could be brought to an accredited institution and evaluated for "credit by assessment."  In other words, a person might be able to get undergraduate or graduate credit if they presented the artifacts to a college or seminary, including my feedback and recorded final interview.  This is an extension of the open course ware out there right now.

Independent Studies
The same thing I've suggested above for Hebrews could, in theory, be done with anything I would be qualified to supervise given my academic credentials.  I can't promise what an academic institution would accept for credit by assessment, but most institutions have this possibility tucked away in their catalogs.  If a person wanted to "do a course" with me, we could design one together for an appropriate amount and produce artifacts for that university or seminary.  We might even clear it with the university or seminary ahead of time.

Classic Book Reviews
If I might do the above in the summers, throughout the year I might video or audio record book reviews of classics, chapter by chapter.  For example, I'm looking at Varieties of Religious Experience and The Origin of Species right now in conjunction with more contemporary things I'm

Any feedback or suggestions?

Forgive Sins 5

... continued from before
A final issue raised by Jesus' healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 is the authority to forgive sins. Given the association between sin and sickness in their minds, perhaps these teachers of the law had the mindset that the paralytic's condition was God's judgment on him or his family for something he or they had done. In that sense, what authority did Jesus have to pronounce forgiveness if healing did not accompany? Perhaps in their minds, if God forgave the man, God would heal the man. Of course Jesus made his line of questioning moot when he went on to heal him.

We might leave the issue there if we did not find an intriguing charge by Jesus to his disciples in John 20. It is the evening of Easter Sunday. Jesus appears to ten of the disciples (minus Thomas).  He breathes on them and invites them to receive the Holy Spirit, perhaps John's equivalent of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Then comes Jesus' startling pronouncement: "If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

This statement would not be shocking if Jesus were merely saying, "When you know I've forgiven someone, feel free to announce it to them."  It then becomes an empty statement.  "If you make it through the traffic light, you have made it through the traffic light."  Yeah?  So what?

What is shocking is that Jesus seems to be saying one or both of two things. First, someone may want to have their sins forgiven and I am giving you the authority to keep them from being forgiven. Secondly, there may be people who do not want their sins forgiven that you can forgive anyway. The first is problematic because it implies an unloving, unchristlike attitude to the point of causing someone's condemnation. The second is problematic because it implies that we can dispense out salvation to those who have not made an act of faith.

It would be nice if this were merely a statement about healing. Jesus would be giving the authority to heal and thus, by implication, to repair the consequences of sins in some situations. Surely at least we can take the statement that far. Jesus has given the church authority to administer discipline and, if you would, penance in consequence of sin. Penance is a sacrament in the catholic tradition that helps a person work through their guilt by doing some act of repentance. Afterward, that person's sin is considered forgiven.

While Protestants generally have strong reservations about such things, perhaps there are elements of such practices that are not only biblical but healthy. In my tradition, the Wesleyan tradition, we used to talk about doing restitution for a wrong you had done. In effect, it amounted to a kind of penance for a wrong you had done. You "made up" for something you had done by doing something.

The high Protestant traditions, especially the Lutheran tradition, has rightly suggested that we cannot earn God's forgiveness by any amount of "work" of this sort. That must remain our core theological position. Forgiveness for sins is given to all who genuinely seek God and repent, who turn in their hearts in a new direction. This is a matter between them and God into which no human can interfere. I cannot stop someone from coming to God and, ultimately, I cannot help someone come to God beyond a certain point if it is ultimately his or her choice.

But I can be a channel for them to feel God's forgiveness.  Restitution and penance resonate with the human psyche, with the way we are built. We may not be able to "feel" forgiven without action of some sort. I'm reminded of a famous scene in an old movie called The Mission, where a notoriously wicked man cannot feel forgiven for killing his brother. [1] Although it is unnecessary, the priest finally charges him to carry a large load of armor on his back through the jungles of the Amazon.

At one point, he struggles to the top of a waterfall with the tremendous load on his back. He is almost to the top but then, in his weakness, is pulled back by the load. He is in danger of falling back down to his death. The priest comes and cuts the rope holding it and the weight falls to the bottom of the waterfall. Suddenly the man starts crying uncontrollably.  The load is lifted.  He feels forgiven.

As a Protestant, I do not believe that penance or restitution is necessary to have God's forgiveness for sins, nor do I believe that anyone can keep someone from forgiveness if he or she genuinely is seeking it from God. But I do believe that God has given the church the authority to discipline those who do wrong and that the church can require a person to do certain acts to demonstrate repentance and feel forgiveness. This authority has been abused in the past and is a sacred charge, but it is the best way for us to apply these striking words of John 20.

One additional word on this verse seems appropriate. There are times when we can experience doubt or uncertainty about God. Particularly in this day and age, there are many challenges to old ways of thinking that can confuse and cause doubt. Some are not bothered. They have the mixed blessing of not being troubled with ideas that don't fit the ideas with which they start out. [2]

However, most of us at some point have questions. A growing phenomenon today is when older saints in the church begin to have questions near the ends of their lives. Similarly, it is quite normal these days for those in their late twenties to experience serious questions about matters of faith.

In those instances, fellow believers can play a significant role in having faith for those who are doubting. I've heard of ministers having faith for older saints, even for former church leaders, on their death beds. And I've heard of younger believers having faith for fellow Christians questioning in their twenties.  I remain firmly a Protestant in my sense that faith is a personal and individual matter. But perhaps we have also missed out on the role that the body of Christ can play as channels of God's grace and forgiveness to one another, as well as a means of grace through discipline.

[1] info***

[2] It's a mixed blessing because it is overwhelmingly unlikely that any one person starts out with all the right ideas. Those who are blissfully unchanged by any new thought are people who inevitably spend their lives in ignorance about many things.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Prophets versus Priests

I'm close to climbing out from under the mountain of grading. In the meantime I was reminded while reading a paper of the never-ending tension between institution and charisma. Both are legitimate. Both are important. At any one time one or the other may be more crucial. The pendulum constantly swings between them.

The priests in this typology represent the institution.  They represent appointed roles and set rituals. They represent stability and perpetuity. The prophets are ad hoc. They arise to need. They stand outside the appointed order. We see both types throughout history and throughout healthy organizations.

So the overseers and deacons represent order and structure. The New Testament prophets represent the Spirit and innovation. Constantine, rightly or wrongly, has come to represent institutional Christianity. The figure of the house church represents spiritual Christianity. There's Whitefield the preacher and Wesley the "method-ist."  There's the Episcopalian and the charismatic. In organizations there's the innovator and ground breaker, then there's the administrator and process-creator.

It's not one or the other. It's both/and--and sometimes one more than the other. Structure perpetuates. Charisma keeps things fresh...

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Lethargy of Grief

The day drags on, we trudge along,
The daze of nothingness our song.
One task is done, another comes,
Mindless motion, brain is numb.

The facts are clear, their value not,
We watch without a sense of plot.
We go to sleep, we come awake,
We move our feet, for motion's sake.

The picture's there, we grab the phone.
We then remember that they're gone.
The crying's stopped, that part is past,
Now strangeness joins the acting cast.

A moment in, a moment out,
A mystery, without a doubt.
Perplexing incongruity,
Unreason near insanity.

"Vanity of vanities," the preacher says,
And glances at the stoppéd clock.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

My third Paul book...

I noticed that the third and final book in my Paul series is now available through Amazon.  It is called Paul: Prisoner of Hope and covers Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Philemon and the Pastoral Epistles.  Two devotional books are also written and on the way.

The earlier two volumes are, first of all, Paul: Messenger of Grace, which covers 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

Two devotional Bible study books go with it (one on 1 Thessalonians, one on Philippians).

Finally, there is my book on Romans, unfortunately named Paul: Soldier of Peace.  It has been selling pretty well so seems to have scratched an itch somewhere.

Two devotional Bible study books go with it (one on the first 8 chapters, the second on the rest).

The Jesus series is up to bat now.  Immense thanks to Wesleyan Publishing House for doing this series with me!