Saturday, June 30, 2012

3.1 What was Matthew thinking?

I have now completed two chunks of reflecting on my own hermeneutical autobiography.  I'll at least continue through this third chunk.  The two previous ones were:

1. Learning to read in context and
2. Determining the original text

In the first group of posts, I talked about my earliest realizations about what it means to read the Bible in its literary and historical context.  In the second, I talked about my early struggles with questions of manuscripts and the original text.  This group has to do with the way the NT reads the OT.
When I was in college, Dr. Marling Elliott was, at least in retrospect, a very influential teacher for me. His classes moved at a turtle's pace, mind you.  He had little set agenda.  The class could easily set an agenda for him. Every once and a while he would stop and ask, "Are we doing any good here?"  Every class was like a Rogerian counseling session.

But he was incredibly intelligent and he did a good job of raising questions.  He was completely non-directive.  He mainly wanted to facilitate our own processing of issues. Who knows what he actually thought about them.

I applied the fundamentalism of my pre-college years to his classes as well.  At one point I wrote a paper trying to reconcile the gospel accounts of Peter's denial historically, for example.  If I move on to a fourth chunk of reflections, I'll return to it.  In this chunk, I remember him in a Gospels class raising the question of how Matthew was using the Old Testament when it quoted Hosea 11:1.

Matthew quotes this verse and says that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus stayed in Egypt until the death of Herod the Great, "in order that it might be fulfilled that which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt I called my Son.'" I was well acquainted with the page at the back of my Thompson Chain Reference KJV that had a chart of all the prophecies from the OT that Jesus had fulfilled.  I just had never actually gone back to read any of those passages in context.

Dr. Elliott took us back to Hosea 11:1-2 and we read it, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son, but the more they were called, the more they went away. They sacrificed to the Baals and burnt offerings to idols."  It sure didn't seem to be about Jesus.  In fact, it wasn't even a prophecy.  It was talking about the past, about the exodus. What was Matthew thinking?

At the time, I always smiled when things like this one came up.  I was confident there was an answer and that I could figure it out. If Dr. Elliott gave an answer, I don't remember it.  My thoughts always wandered like a fly buzzing around the room, only occasionally knocking into the professor... and perhaps occasionally dozing in some corner.

At the end of my first year of seminary, though, I still had no answer.  It was troubling me greatly.  Was God asking me to make an irrational leap of faith?  Was it a test?  Would God ask me to force myself to believe a lie to show my submission to him?

This was the issue that I brought to my pastor at home in the summer, the one where he suggested perhaps the original manuscript of Hosea or Matthew read something different. It was a nice try, but there are no textual variants in relation to these passages.  At the time I tied the question to inerrancy, which I don't now.  I assumed that the question was whether Matthew was right or wrong about the meaning of Hosea.

I now believe that it is rather the fundamentalist approach to Scripture that is wrong and that it was perfectly appropriate for Matthew to read Hosea in a figurative way like other Jewish exegetes of his day...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

In the News...

A number of things in the news of some significance.

First, a German court ruled that parents could not circumcise their children because of the potential bodily harm without the consent of the child. It is unclear to me what real effect this ruling actually will have in the German legal system, but it reflects the perennial struggle between religious freedom and government as an arbiter of individual rights. Do Jewish and Muslim parents have the right to have their children circumcised when a child is too young to have a say in the decision?  The potential religious consequences of this discussion are staggering.

It reminds us of recent debates over whether a public catholic institution must provide insurance to its employees that involves contraception or previous decisions about providing life-saving intravenous blood transfusions to children of Seventh Day Adventists.  Or can a photographer refuse to shoot a gay wedding on the basis of religious principle?  I do suspect that we will do better in the future if we focus on rights to follow our own religious beliefs rather than expending our energies trying to force the rest of America to follow our religious beliefs.

Second, there was the recent decision of the Obama administration not to deport individuals who would otherwise have been able to stay in the country if the Dream Act had passed.  It's clearly a political move on Obama's part in light of the coming election, but it is also clearly something he believes in and tried to get passed earlier.

Finally, there were the Supreme Court rulings on Obamacare today.  I am not expert enough to know whether the health care law will be beneficial or not.  One thing is sure, there is no such thing as complete objectivity. I would like to think that Supreme Court justices are more objective than the vast majority of people.   But they regularly disappoint what "both sides" think is objective. ;-)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Four Fold Sense of Scripture

Excellent piece on this found here, by the way.

By the time of the Middle Ages, Christian interpreters of the Bible had come to classify the interpretation of Scripture in terms of four "senses" that the biblical text could have.  The default would be to take a biblical text literally, the "literal sense."  We might say today that the literal sense of a text is when the words are taken in their normal way.

As a side note, the English use of the word "literally" has changed to where people often mean something like "really."  Take the English idiom, "he went through the roof," which means to suddenly get really angry.  Someone might say, "He literally went through the roof," when what they mean is that he really "went through the roof."

This is not what the word "literally" means when we talk about the literal sense of certain words.  In fact, to literally go through the roof in this context would mean to take the words in their normal sense, meaning that a person's body passed through the physical structure of the roof above one's head.  The literal sense of a text is thus the meaning it most naturally had at the time and place it was written, the meaning its author and audience would most likely have assigned the words at the time of writing.

Mind you, medieval interpreters were not well equipped to distinguish between what the normal sense of words would have been for the authors of the Bible and what seemed to be the normal sense of the words to them as readers. To approach the normal sense of words in the Bible in their original terms, we have to know how the people at the time of writing were using the words. Such meanings were functions of the socio-cultural worlds in which the authors and audiences of the biblical texts lived, and we do not always have clear access to such "deep structures" behind language.

Although the medieval interpreters came to speak of four possible senses to the words of Scripture, they really only boiled down to two categories--literal and non-literal.  Either you read the words for what they normally mean or you read them in some other, non-literal way.  So one of the four senses of Scripture is the literal, and the other three are all non-literal ways of reading Scripture.

The three non-literal or "spiritual" ways of reading Scripture are the 1) allegorical, 2) moral, and 3) anagogical.  The allegorical sense sees a teaching or truth in the text by taking the words in something other than their normal sense.  The moral sense sees ethical instruction about how to live by taking the words in something other than their normal sense.  The anagogical or future sense sees teaching about what is still to come, including heaven or the afterlife, by taking the words in something other than their normal sense.

Lest we dismiss these sorts of readings out of hand too quickly, it is important to recognize that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in all these ways. Further, many Christian teachers today use these sorts of methods without realizing it, especially prophecy teachers.  In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul makes an allegory out of the Genesis story of Hagar and Sarah. In 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, Paul interprets the Deuteronomy command not to muzzle the ox while treading the grain morally, concluding that the real meaning of the command has to do with materially supporting those who do ministry work. And Hebrews 4:8 arguably read Psalm 40 anagogically when it took the "rest of God" to refer to something future rather than the entrance of Israel into Canaan.

The Protestant Reformation seriously questioned the use of allegory in interpretation.  Allegory is when the elements of a biblical text are made to correspond to truths that were not part of the original meaning. The classic example comes from Augustine's allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The man who is mugged is Adam, who is mugged by the Devil and his angels. The priest and Levite are the Law, which cannot provide salvation. Christ is the Good Samaritan and the inn is the church. Obviously none of these meanings were originally part of Luke 10.

In the early 1500s, Martin Luther wished to get back to the teachings of the Bible and prune back the accretions of the Middle Ages. But if Scripture could be taken allegorically, there was nothing to stop the Roman Catholic Church from claiming that its later teachings were simply the appropriate spiritual interpretations of the Bible. It was thus somewhat inevitable that the drive back to "Scripture alone" (sola scriptura) would emphasize literal interpretation over "spiritual" interpretation.

But this trajectory introduced a two-fold problem for Protestant interpreters.  First, there is the problem, as we have seen, that the New Testament texts themselves at times use allegorical methods. The second problem is that the first centuries of the church are arguably central for core Christian understanding, since it was in the 300s and 400s that our current beliefs about the Trinity and the divinity of Christ were really hammered out in detail. One might argue that "spiritual" interpretation played a role in the formation of these core Christian beliefs.

To address the first problem, Protestant interpreters developed a category called "typology," which they distinguished from allegory, even though this distinction was unknown to the ancients. Typology supposedly was when a New Testament author took an Old Testament passage in a non-literal way but in a way that built on some truth that was intrinsic to the Old Testament passage itself on its own terms. So when Hebrews warns its audience to continue in faith until Christ returns and contrasts the Israelites who did not enter God's rest in Canaan, the correspondence is very analogous.

The moral or tropological sense finds some ethical instruction by taking some passage in a figurative sense.  When non-literal interpretation is divided in this way, allegory comes to apply more to finding teaching in a text and the moral sense has to do with finding ethics in a text that was not straightforwardly ethical in that way before. Paul's thus finds an ethic about supporting ministers in instruction that was literally about oxen.

One might suggest that the bulk of dispensational prophecy teaching about the future, from its rise in the 1800s under John Darby to its most recent manifestations with individuals like Tim LaHaye, is a variety of anagogical or futurist interpretation.  Few of the texts such schools of prophecy use are actually read in context.  So Mark 13, which so clearly relates to the destruction of the temple in AD70 is taken to prophesy a temple that is yet to be rebuilt.

The aversion of Protestantism to allegory led to an important distinction that we should keep in mind in any future discussions.  Although there is still often resistance to the existence of allegory in the biblical texts, it is clear that not everything in the Bible is literal.  A parable, for example, is meant to be interpreted symbolically at least to some extent.  When Jesus says the kingdom of God "is like" something, he is using simile.

It is thus better to distinguish between the "plain sense" of the Bible and spiritual or a "fuller sense" (sensus plenior) to a text than to distinguish between literal and non-literal.  The plain sense of a text is its original sense, whether it was originally meant to be taken literally or originally meant to be taken as a metaphor, allegory, etc.  The question then becomes whether it is appropriate for us to allegorize the text in ways that were not originally intended.

If I were to found a university...

When we went about designing a seminary, we started with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we believed a pastor should have and worked backward to the curriculum. This is not the traditional way of doing education. The traditional way is to have a set of standard courses that correspond to classical subjects that have been around in some form or another since ancient times. You start with the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  Then you add the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

The traditional university potentially faces the same crisis that seminaries have. They are perceived to be irrelevant to what a person actually needs to know with a price tag that can infuriate. Universities do have a major advantage that seminaries don't. Eighteen year olds don't go to college just to get educated. Honestly, it's much more about the social life.

If we were to design a college or university from scratch these days, we would ideally start with what students actually need to know, be able to do, and what attitudes they need to have to do them.  Then we would work backward to a curriculum to get them there.
Mind you, the best universities have been back filling their curricula for years.  And very targeted disciplines have been required to do these sorts of things to meet state standards and such.  If you are studying nursing or education, your field is well sorted.

There is the additional problem that a lot of students don't know what they want to do.  It is perhaps only natural that colleges tend to start with the bottom part of the triangle above, liberal arts, then go to the top part to train specific skills, while slipping in some theoretical depth for those who want it--or you can get that in graduate school.

Ideally, though, you would know the specific career you wanted to go into from the start and you would first learn the very concrete skills you need to be able to do it well.  Then you would add theoretical depth to understand the "inners" of why you do things that way.  Finally, you would study what it means to be a virtuous and full human, especially in the context of the life you plan to lead. At a Christian university, this is the place where faith especially comes into play.

What distinguishes a university from a technical school more than anything else is the bottom part of the triangle. Without a sense of history, of culture, of art, of virtue, of the place of science in the world we live, we cannot intelligently participate in the governing of society.  The problem is that these areas are often not taught in ways that make their relevance clear, nor are they usually taught in relation to a person's trajectory in life.

If I were founding a university, I'd try to do what we tried to do with the seminary.  Focus especially on the skills and knowledge necessary to do the job, while adding as much theoretical depth as possible while still remaining affordable. And in the university setting, you would add the element of "training to be human," the liberal arts, but taught in a way that makes their relevance to life clear.

Augustine's On Christian Doctrine (Part 2)

I began this evaluative summary Monday.  For the full text of Augustine's On Christian Doctrine, see here.
Augustine goes on to discuss how to resolve ambiguities of pronunciation or of syllabification (since the words were run together).  Some can be resolved by the rule of faith, in other cases one can consult the original Greek.

In chapter 5 of Part 2, Augustine gets into the more difficult question of the metaphorical. He sets down this rule: "We must beware of taking a figurative expression literally."  In retrospect, it seems fairly obvious that Augustine often blurred that which was actually intended literally in the biblical text with his figurative or figural interpretations of them. As it were, he adopts a God-like perspective to determine what was figurative and what was literal, rather than following the literary clues of the texts themselves inductively.

So he places much of the Jewish Law into the category of figurative, using the example of opposition to Jesus healing on the Sabbath in chapter 6. The Jewish leaders take the figurative Sabbath law literally.  Perhaps he is correct about God's mind here (the problem is always how we can know this), but he is wrong about the texts themselves.  Nothing in the Old Testament texts themselves would lead a person to take them figuratively, and even Jesus himself in Mark 2 only claims an exception to the Sabbath law, he does not make an allegory out of it.

The problem, Augustine asserts, is that people mistake the sign, the symbolic cue, for the thing itself to which it points. They mistake the sign for the thing signified. The thing signified is spiritual, and it must be our focus.  Jesus and the apostles have handed down very few rites, baptism and communion for example. Augustine considered the spiritual meaning of these fairly obvious.

Chapter 10 then addresses the opposite situation where a person takes a literal form of speech as if it were figurative. Here Augustine sets: down a fundamental rule: "Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative."  What you must take literally in Scripture, therefore, is any instruction relating to the love of God and one's neighbor (purity of life), and you must take literally any teaching relating to the catholic faith (soundness of doctrine). On the negative side, we must take literally any instruction in Scripture that tells us to avoid lust.

So any biblical teaching that seems to ascribe some sinful action to God must be taken figuratively, just as any teaching ascribing holiness to humanity.  Augustine also shows some awareness of the importance of context and intention when assessing morality. What is appropriate for one time may not be at another, and the same action can be either virtuous or sinful depending on the intention of the person doing it. Blindness to our own context can also hinder us from seeing points where our own customs are out of sync with love of God and neighbor.  Meanwhile, others can fall into a sort of relativism because they are aware of how culture affects what one considers right and wrong.

But the rule to "do to others as you would have them do to you" is universal.  It cannot be altered by the customs of one's people. So here is the rule again: "carefully turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love. Now, if when taken literally it at once gives a meaning of this kind, the expression is not to be considered figurative" (chap. 15).  Or again, "If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative" (chap. 16).

From our standpoint today, we can see that Augustine blurs together interpretation and appropriation. Whether a text is figurative or literal, in the first instance, depends on whether the author was using words in their normal senses for the time and place when he or she was writing, not on whether its content suits our theology. However, we as Christians, on the other hand, rightly make decisions on how to appropriate texts by their relation to the law of love or the rule of faith, both of which we believe are literally instructed and taught in various places in Scripture.

The symbolism of some passages can be clarified by those same symbols elsewhere.  So a passage where the symbolic meaning of a shield is unclear can be clarified by another passage where it is.  It is also not problematic if a person gives an interpretation to one Scripture that fits with a clear interpretation elsewhere.  Once again, Augustine here is reading texts theologically rather than in terms of what they originally meant. The original meaning of a passage is a function of its individual context, not of meanings of other passages written in quite different contexts.

Knowledge of tropes or literary devices helps clarify meaning. These are numerous and learned in school, things like allegory, parable, metaphor, and irony.  Augustine ends Book 3 of On Christian Doctrine with seven rules found in the works of someone called Tichonius relating to finding allegorical meanings in Scripture.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bob Lyon, Jesus, and Divorce

The Wesleyan Church has, probably, less than ten Bible scholars in its ranks at present.  Of course everyone thinks they can speak to the original meaning of the Bible.

I dug up this excerpt on the subject of Jesus and divorce, taken from an article by Bob Lyon, who taught at Asbury until his death. It is in a volume titled, Interpreting God's Word for Today, published by Warner Press in 1982.  Its contributors are Bible professors who taught at Wesleyan approved institutions at the time--and therefore while we do not have to agree with Dr. Lyon's train of thought, it stands within the parameters of Wesleyan thought.

I share it to give a sense of how many factors can go into making decisions on these sorts of things.
One example might be given to show the illegitimacy of a nonhistorical approach. The issue of divorce-remarriage adultery is presented in Mark 10:llff.; Matthew 5:32, 19:9; and Luke 16:18. The main problem has to do with Matthew’s exception clauses. Both John Murray and John R. W. Stott resolve the issue dogmatically.[59] Both studies reveal a deep concern for Christian marriage as well as a thorough acquaintance with the background data. Yet both studies are ultimately unsatisfactory because they fail to ask certain necessary historical questions.

How did the varying forms of the saying(s) originate? Is one a derivative of another? Is there a merging of two originally separate topics (divorce and adultery)? Murray regards Matthew 19:9 as “the most pivotal passage” in the New Testament, not because it is the truly authentic (i.e., dominical) statement but because it is the most complete; that is, it has both the exception clause and the remarriage clause.[60] And Stott refers only to the form of the Pharisee’s question found in Matthew.[61] Both presume Mark and Matthew carry the same teaching; Mark omitted the exception clause because he assumed the exception. 

But what about the community for whom Mark prepared his Gospel? Did it, or could it, assume an exception? According to Murray, the “silence” of Mark and Luke respecting the right to divorce does not itself prejudice the right to divorce. But are Mark and Luke silent? Did their communities believe they were silent? Do not both Mark and Luke give a rather clear word?

More important, neither Murray nor Stott asks the historical question, "What did Jesus say and how do we explain the various forms of the saying(s)?" From the four texts we come up with the following statements from the lips of Jesus:

(1) Remarriage following divorce constitutes adultery (Mark 10:11ff.; Luke 16:18);
(2) Except in a case of porneia, remarriage following divorce constitutes adultery (Matt. 19:9);
(3) Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Luke 16:18; Matt. 5:32);
(4) Whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery.

Murray, whose treatment of the texts is much more extended that Stott’s, never asks if these are all separate sayings of Jesus or different versions of a single saying in response to the Pharisees. More important, perhaps, he does not treat the question whether the sayings have anything to do directly with the question the Pharisees asked. In this connection two observations are crucial:

(1) these sayings all relate to the question of adultery and not directly to divorce-that is, they answer the question of what constitutes adultery;
(2) except for Matthew 19:9, none of the sayings in their present context are spoken to the Pharisees who asked the question.

In terms of a historical-rather than dogmatic-approach, it seems Jesus answers the question of the Pharisees solely on the basis of Genesis 1 and 2, and that the various sayings derive from another context involving a discussion of the commandments. Whether they represent separate sayings or variant forms of a single saying is another matter deserving further study. The dogmatic approach fails methodologically because it begins by assuming Matthew and Mark say the same thing. One may come to that conclusion, but one cannot begin there.

Also, Mark and Luke are not, as Murray contends,[62] silent concerning any grounds for divorce. What they say would have to be considered by any common standards of literary analysis to be both clear and unequivocal. It is as arbitrary to interpret Mark and Luke on the basis of Matthew as the reverse. The evangelists must be heard and their community traditions recognized in their own right.

The problematic element in Murray’s study is seen in his variant conclusions. On the one hand, he rightly perceives that in the mind of Jesus, divorce “could not be contemplated otherwise than as a radical breach of the divine institution."[63] Yet elsewhere he says that Jesus “legitimated divorce for adultery,"[64] and indicates that divorce following porneia is not a sin[65] even though, as he says, it is a radical breach of the divine institution.

A historical approach would offer a less arbitrary analysis as well as probably more integrated conclusions. In the last analysis, the approach of Murray and Stott reflects a thoroughgoing legalism that focuses on texts rather than a broader perspectival approach to Scripture that recognizes the diversity of the biblical witness. Precisely at this point one finds the critical error of the dogmatic approach to exegesis. Ultimately, this “textual” approach ignores the diversity of the apostolic witness for the sake of uniformity.

By contrast, the historical approach is able to accept the multiple witness to Jesus as Messiah and to develop a better picture of primitive Christian faith. In this connection, we note that the second-century church, when faced by skeptics with the embarrassment of seeming contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospel narratives, rejected out of hand the neat solution offered by Tatian’s Diatessaron. Instead, the Church preferred the fourfold witness with all its ambiguities, rather than accept any reduction in the apostolic witness. That diversity is still crucial, and the exegete as historian-rather than exegete as dogmatician-will be faithful to it.

Scripture is a product of history; it grew out of the history of God’s dealings with people. And the documents of Scripture reflect all the diversity of history. Evangelicals, of course, also believe they possess a fundamental and basic unity that reflects the all-encompassing purpose of God. The full scope of the biblical revelation comes to expression when we show an interest in this diversity equivalent to our concern for the unity in Scripture...

Augustine's On Christian Doctrine Book 3 (Part 1)

What follows is the first part of a summary and comment on this classic hermeneutical work by Augustine.  If you want to read this classic Christian (and philosophical) piece, you will find it here.
In Book 2 of On Christian Doctrine, produced in AD397, Augustine set out his understanding of how words indicate meaning.  Words are "signs" that point to meanings.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, a twentieth century philosopher, called this the "picture theory" of language.  You might think of it like a cartoon.  When I read a word, a picture that is the meaning for the word appears in the bubble above my head.

This only works some of the time. Wittgenstein pointed out that the meanings of a lot of words and "signs" can't be pictured.  For example, you can picture a rude gesture but you can't picture its meaning. Other examples I might give include the word "is" or the word "righteousness." I personally do not even picture a "wild goose chase" and yet understand the phrase perfectly well all the same.

Wittgenstein much more soundly proposed that the meaning of words is not in some pictured definition but rather in the way we use them in certain contexts. In certain contexts or "forms of life," as he called them, we play certain "language games" with words.  If I yell "fire" in a crowded room, you know that what I have really said is to leave the room as quickly as possible if you don't want to burn to death.  If I yell "fire" as the commander of a group of men with rifles pointing at a blindfolded criminal, I'm probably telling you to shoot the person to death.  More examples could be provided.

By the way, it is in Book 2 of Augustine's On Christian Doctrine that he gives what was no doubt becoming the consensus of Christians at that time concerning the books of the Old and New Testament. The canon of the Old Testament, as it is called, included the so called apocryphal books that Martin Luther would later remove from the Protestant canon. The canon of the New Testament corresponds to the list of books that had first appeared only three decades previously in the 367 Easter letter of Athanasius.

Book 3 deals with the question of Scripture's ambiguity and especially when we should read the Bible literally and when we should read the Bible figuratively. Some ambiguity can come from matters of punctuation (chap. 2). Here we need to keep in mind that texts of Augustine's day (and this was true of the original biblical texts as well) largely did not use punctuation to separate words from each other, let alone one sentence from another (it's called "continuous script," or scriptio continua in Latin). All the punctuation in our Bibles is a matter of interpretation.

Augustine of course teaches that decisions about punctuation should be guided by the "rule of faith" when one cannot resolve an issue on the basis of context.  For the Christians of the earliest centuries, the rule of faith was that sense of basic Christian beliefs, core Christian thinking, the "deposit" of faith left by the earliest apostles. For Augustine, it was this basic Christian theology that resolved issues of ambiguity.  We might put it this way: when in doubt, go with an interpretation that results in an "orthodox" meaning.

This approach brings out a crucial issue. It seems beyond question that the original meaning a biblical text had was a function of its historical and literary context. That is to say, the meaning a biblical author or a biblical audience would have understood by the words of a biblical text is a function of how words were being used at that point in time and place and that they would have understood the words of one verse in the light of the words that had come just previously.

What we will find repeatedly in Book 3 of On Christian Doctrine is that Augustine's decisions on the meaning of a text follow context unless that meaning bumps up against the rule of faith.  In that case, he will shift into a figurative meaning that fits with the rule of faith and consider that the meaning God intends the text to have. He is by no means unique in this approach. We can easily find it in other interpreters of the time (e.g., the first century Jewish writer Philo), not least the New Testament authors themselves.

Since the Protestant Reformation, there has been reluctance to interpret biblical texts figuratively unless it was clear that the biblical authors themselves were being figurative originally. For example, we can interpret the story of Sarah and Hagar allegorically in Galatians 4 because that is the way Paul takes the story there. An allegory is where someone interprets the characters or various elements of a story as representations of something else that is unrelated to the original sense.

So Sarah in Paul's interpretation becomes a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem, while Hagar symbolizes the earthly Jerusalem. This interpretation has nothing to do with the original story of Sarah and Hagar, which was about two women who fought over their children.  Paul's interpretation is allegorical.

Evangelicals of the twentieth century have arguably tended to modify Augustine's approach. Follow what seems to be the most likely contextual meaning of the biblical text unless it comes into conflict with the rule of faith (that is, the "orthodoxies" of the evangelical tradition or the particular faith community of which one is a part). If they conflict, then find other possible ways to read the text in context such that it fits with the rule of faith. In this way, evangelical hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret texts) has avoided the kinds of non-literal interpretations of pre-Reformation interpretation while still trying to read the biblical texts in context. One of the purposes of this summary is to help us wrestle with these questions of hermeneutics.

Interestingly, Augustine considers some ambiguities of punctuation to be relatively unimportant.  If context is not clear, if the rule of faith does not dictate a particular interpretation, he leaves it up to the individual.  Punctuate however you like if neither the context nor the rule of faith give you a clear sense of how to punctuate...

The rest tomorrow

Sunday, June 24, 2012

2.4 Implications of Textual Criticism

1. My early realizations about context

and continued with last weekend's start of discussing issues of the biblical text:
2.1 Issues of the Biblical Text
2.2 Manuscripts, Manuscripts
2.3 Common Sense Textual Criticism

Now the last of this group of reminiscences:
Those who wrote my church's statement on Scripture were careful to specify that they were talking about the "original manuscripts." In other words, they acknowledged the validity of textual criticism and legitimated modern translations for those who chose them. Stephen Paine, one of the primary influences on the Wesleyan Methodist's statements on Scripture, was actually involved in the translation of the original NIV.

There are theological implications here.  If we accept the majority position, then the version of the New Testament that dominated Christianity from around 400 to 1950 was not exactly the same text as the ones the New Testament authors wrote.  It was mostly the same to be sure, but perhaps as much as 5 percent different.  The bottom line: God was not particularly concerned that Christians use the exact wording of the original texts.  The message was what was important.

I might add that this is an implicitly fundamental value of Protestantism, implied by our fundamental sense that the Bible should be translated into the vernacular language.  You can't translate the particulars of wording.  Languages just don't do things the same way. So more than anything it is the message one translates.

Anyone who knows me will know my love of Greek and Hebrew and I am very interested in determining as much as possible the original wording of the Bible's books.  But the implication here is that God does not require the original text in the original languages to speak through Scripture, indeed that it is not a priority for him at all.  It implies that those who hate The Message because it is a paraphrase are out of touch with the way God has operated for the last 2000 years.  It implies that those who have opposed the NIV2011 because of switches from singular to plural, to capture an originally intended inclusiveness, are misguided--sincere but misguided. It implies that it is not a high priority for God that we "get back" to the original wording in the first place.

It may also have implications at the very least for arguments over verbal versus conceptual inspiration. I don't think God has a problem with any word in either the original texts of the Bible or the Byzantine textual tradition.  But it looks like God is really not so concerned with the precise wording. This at the very least tips the scales more toward "conceptual" rather than "verbal" inspiration. Conceptual inspiration is the idea that God breathed the fundamental message into the biblical authors and the precise words came more from them.

I'm not, by the way, saying that there may not be instances where God was very directive in the precise wording.  Nor do I mean to preclude the possibility of some mysterious duality of both human and divine verbal inspiration. It is probably best for us not to pin it down.

It is distressing that people have faith crises over textual criticism and that people fight over which version of the Bible they use. Looking at the example of the biblical texts, God apparently was not worried about such things. In fact, when you consider that we are so limited in our end of understanding, so prone to see our own meaning in the words, it is quite absurd to stake our faith on minor details of wording.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

2.3 Common Sense Textual Criticism

My weekend series of hermeneutical biography.  It started with...

1. My early realizations about context...

and continued with last weekend's start of discussing issues of the biblical text:
2.1 Issues of the Biblical Text
2.2 Manuscripts, Manuscripts

We now join that show in progress...
In the end, it was not the so called "external evidence" of the manuscripts that convinced me to switch sides on matters of the biblical text. I was nowhere near knowledgeable enough to know whether the majority model about manuscript traditions was correct when I took the course in textual criticism at Asbury with Bob Lyon. I still don't know all the details.  The consensus model is basically that at Alexandria, as especially embodied by manuscripts like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus and even earlier papyri, there was a fairly conservative copying tradition, the Alexandrian tradition.  This is the most reliable manuscript tradition.

Then there is the Byzantine tradition, which generally corresponds to the Majority Text and what would become the Textus Receptus, the "received text" first put together when Erasmus first set the Greek New Testament to type. There was also the "Western" tradition of the Italic manuscripts and a few key Greek manuscripts like D, Codex Bezae. From time to time other textual traditions are also suggested.

This was all a fine story but I had no clue whether it was true or not when I went to seminary.  I remember Dr. Lyon asking me after class once if I was a closet textus receptus guy. ;-) It made sense to me in general that an older manuscript was closer to the original than a later one. But in the end, it was common sense that prevailed.  The basic rules of textual criticism, collected and perfected by Westcott and Hort, but originated in the years before them, made consummate sense. "Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted," because a thousand copies can be made of a bad manuscript.

Here's the mother of all rules: That reading is most likely to be original that best explains how the other variations would have arisen.  There it is, so simple, so commonsensical.  If one manuscript is missing a line other manuscripts have, and you can see that the same word would have been located about a line apart, then it's reasonable to assume that some copyist's eye skipped, from the end of one line to the end of the next, leaving out a line.

What this implies is that the "more difficult reading" is more likely to be original, because it is more likely that a copyist would smooth out roughness of some sort rather than mess it up.  So, ironically, the Byzantine tradition is a smoother, more harmonized text than the Alexandrian.  The majority of manuscripts at Colossians 1:14 read, "in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins."  The fact that modern translations omit the italicized phrase is no conspiracy, some lack of faith in the blood (after all, the blood is mentioned in 1:20). Rather, the earliest manuscripts lack the phrase and some scribe likely added it accidentally because he was thinking of Ephesians 1:7 where all manuscripts, including the earliest ones, have the phrase.

Conspiracy theories about modern translators are thus pure nonsense, based on ignorance of the manuscript situation. Disagree with textual scholars you may, but don't vilify them.

Let me use as an example the most famous of manuscript issues, the longer ending of Mark, Mark 16:9-20.  The words of this text are attested early in some church fathers. However, it is not clear that those earliest church fathers were quoting Mark. They could have been drawing from something else. The earliest Greek manuscripts we have of Mark don't have these verses, and a couple key church fathers from the 300s and 400s indicate it was a minority reading at the time. The earliest manuscripts have nothing after 16:8 and there is another shorter ending in some manuscripts.

It was not the preceding paragraph that convinced me that 16:9-20 were not in the original.  It was simply reading the flow.  In Mark 16:1-8 the women, including Mary Magdalene, come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away. A young man appears to them, announces Jesus' resurrection, and instructs the women to go tell Peter to go to Galilee to meet him. But they don't. They tell know one because they were afraid...

And then it begins all over again: "Now after he had risen early on the first day of the week..."  Now he is appearing to Mary Magdalene (with no mention of the earlier scene), who did you know he had cast seven demons out of? She goes and tells the disciples. Wait, what about the earlier statement that the women told no one?  The verses that follow read like a summary of stories from other gospels (e.g., the men on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24 are in Mark 16:12. The Great Commission from Matthew 28 is in 16:15).

In short, Mark 16:9-20 know nothing about Mark 1:1-8. It reads like someone has inserted this summary of resurrection appearances from somewhere else. It is thus the "internal evidence" that convinced me that the vast majority of textual scholars were right on this issue.  And it was the consistent alliance of the internal evidence with the textual traditions of the so called Alexandrian tradition that brought my secondary confidence in the prevailing sense of the external evidence. If you apply the commonsense model to the variations in the text, it consistently aligns with the manuscript tradition Westcott and Hort considered most reliable.

So in the case of Mark, the best explanation of the situation, in my opinion, is that the original ending of Mark was lost very, very early. It's possible Mark originally ended at 16:8 but I suspect there was originally more here. Two endings were added over time to try to make up for the abrupt sense of ending. The longer ending was taken from some early second century synopsis of the gospels, but a shorter one was created as well.

Since the longer ending is a more pleasing ending than an abrupt ending with the women telling no one, it was the reading that gained currency in worship and in copying. Thus the majority of manuscripts--mostly medieval since the older ones wore out--have the longer ending. But the older and more reliable ones don't. There's no conspiracy to take words out. There's no fiendishness to try to end the gospel on a dubious note. There is simply the following of the evidence to its most likely conclusion...

Friday, June 22, 2012

When others are mad at you/accuse you...

It has been personally helpful to think of myself as ultimately responsible to God rather than to humans.  This can be a cop-out or an excuse, but I mean God as the ultimate knower of truth.  I submit to what I can best ascertain is what God thinks, as opposed to what those around me think.  And if you need a proof text, how about Romans 8:33?

So when others are angry at you or are accusing you of wrong or berating you:

1. What if any truth is there in what they are saying?
Some are prone to dismiss the criticism of others out of hand, those who cannot take any criticism even when it is constructive.  We must always consider that there may some truth to what they are saying, often is.  By the same token, some are too quick to accept the criticism of others when it is in reality the others who have the problem.

2. If there is nothing valid in their criticism...
Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.  Why get upset when they're the one who's an idiot?  If I'm confident there's no truth to what they're saying, why should I be bothered?  For some, being angry in response can indicate there's actually some truth to what they're saying.  Of course there's a point where you say enough is enough and let a person know you're not going to have any more interaction with them if they're going to continue berating you inappropriately.

3. If there is something valid and you can change...
Then resolve to change and forget about it.  You can't change the past and if you've done all you can do, it's over.  Don't accept continued blame if you've truly changed.  There can be consequences in some circumstances, but at some point the accuser can actually become the wrongdoer after your "sins" are atoned for.

4. If there is something valid and you can't change...
Then you need to remove yourself from being in a position to wrong another or fail again.

We as humans are prone to self-deception.  Seek the counsel of others, often more than one.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wesley Seminary now in ATS

Last night Wesley Seminary (@IWU) was officially voted in as Associate Members of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).  President Henry Smith of IWU and of course our fearless leader Wayne Schmidt were here for the event.  Our MDIV degree was approved three years ago by the Higher Learning Commission, but this membership represents an important benchmark in our maturity as a theological institution.

We now begin the accreditation process with ATS.  The association recognizes that the face of theological education--and education in general--is changing and will actually consider today and tomorrow changes that coincide fairly nicely with the way we have designed our program.  In fact, the ATS magazine In Trust has mentioned us more than once as an example of where much of theological education is going.  Our own Joanne Solis-Walker is featured in the edition they passed out last night.

Many thanks to God for a seamless coming to this significant point in our development!

Hebrews Video Commentary 1:1-4

A few years ago I had recordings from a class I taught that went all through the book of Hebrews.  Due to the fact it was moderated by a third party, it was basically lost.  Here I begin a new series, stored on YouTube.  This is Hebrews 1:1-4.  My written Explanatory Notes follow it below.

Explanatory Notes (Hebrews 1:1-4)

This is one of the most elegant Greek paragraphs in the NT. It is a single sentence in Greek periodic style. 

1:1 Although God spoke formerly to the fathers through the prophets in many and various ways, s
The first two verses present a contrast between an age in which God spoke in many ways to the fathers through the prophets and the way He is speaking now. Now He speaks in a singular way, through a Son, who is of course the Son of God par excellence, Jesus the Messiah.

1:2a in these last days he has spoken to us through a Son...  
The phrase "in the last days" is of course a Septuagentalism drawn principally from the language of Jeremiah. It is no coincidence that Jeremiah is also the place where we hear the new covenant language that Hebrews also uses. By adding the word "these," the author makes it clear that these are the days to which the prophets of the OT were pointing in their prophecies.

1:2b ... whom he appointed as heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds, 
The last part of verse two places Christ both at the beginning and end of the creation. The point is not so much a matter of presence but of purpose. As the heir of all things, he has ultimate significance in relation to the destiny of the world. This implies that Christ is also the beginning of all things, the very purpose of creation.

The majority of scholars would see in 1:2 a reference to Christ's pre-existence. This is of course possible. However, it is also possible that the author is saying something subtle about Christ as God's wisdom for the universe. Elsewhere the author seems to refer to God "the Father" as the creator in a way that distinguishes Jesus from him in creation. It is possible that the author is telling his audience that the creation finds its purpose and destiny in Christ, the very reason for its existence.

1:3a ... who as a reflection of his glory and an impression of his substance, 
The statement that Christ is a "reflection of glory" is an allusion to Wisdom 7:26, where wisdom is said to be a reflection of eternal light and an image of God's goodness. Wisdom is the only place where the word "reflection" occurs in the Greek OT. Christ thus seems implicitly compared to God's wisdom, as in other parts of the NT (which offers another piece of evidence that the reference to Christ as agent of creation is an implicit comparison of him to God's wisdom in 1:2).

Some argue that the word for reflection should be given an active sense "radiance" rather than "reflection." But given the passive nature of "impression" or "stamp," "reflection" seems more likely.

1:3b  ...and bearing the universe by the word of his power, This statement could refer to Christ as sustainer of the creation or the agent of creation again.

It reminds us of the Colossian hymn, where allusions to Christ as the logos or word say that "in him all things hold together" (1:17). We could mention parallels in Philo to the logos having this sort of "gluing" function. In Hebrews 1:3, of course, the word for word is hrema rather than logos. This does not create difficulties for a logos type interpretation of the statement, since Christ would be the one compared to the logos and the word of power here would be the word of the logos.

In general, Hebrews does not compare Christ to the logos. This verse would be the most likely candidate. An allusion to the logos could support either the idea of Christ as agent of creation or of sustaining the universe. Given that this participial phrase modifies "he sat down," it may refer to Christ as eschatological creator of a new creation who as exalted Lord "brings" it by his powerful word.

1:3c  ...when he had made a cleansing for sins...
The first four verses of Hebrews are known as the exordium. This mini-introduction gives us in many respects a brief overview of some of the material covered later in the sermon. We have already seen the author set the stage for the two ages--formerly/last days. This statement anticipates the main topic of Hebrews teaching--the full sufficiency of Christ's death to take away sins.

1:3d ...he sat at the right hand of Majesty in the heights
This is the heart of the "who" clause we have been in since verse 3 began. As a reflection of God's glory, as an impression of his substance, bearing the universe by his all powerful word, after he had made a cleansing for sins, under these circumstances, he sat at God's right hand. The implication seems to be that it is the exalted Christ who is the reflection of God's glory and the impression of God's substance.

The statement is of course an allusion to Psalm 110:1--"The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." This verse features significantly in other parts of the NT as a reference to Christ's enthronement as cosmic king after the resurrection. 

1:4 ...having become as much greater than the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Verse 4 signals the theme that will preoccupy the rest of Hebrews 1, namely, Christ's superiority to the angels. We note the timing--it is after he is enthroned that he becomes greater than the angels. Hebrews 2 speaks of how Christ "was lower than the angels for a little while." In the exaltation, he becomes greater than the angels.

His superiority to the angels corresponds to his more excellent name--Son. This is a name that reflects Christ's cosmic kingship. To say that he inherits this name at his exaltation is to say what Acts 13:33 and Romans 1:4 say. Son of God is a royal title that applies most meaningful to Christ as he is enthroned as king at God's right hand.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Doing Word Studies

I have put on YouTube 2 videos on how to do word studies on the Bible.  Here they are:

Avoiding Word Fallacies (involves some theory of how words take on meaning):

How to Do a Word Study (more the mechanics of doing it)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Intriguing Question of Day at ATS

I'm at the Chief Academic Officers part of the Association of Theological Schools meeting in Minneapolis today.  Here is the random question someone asked that I found most intriguing today:

When so many great learning videos are online, when students can watch instructors at MIT online, what will we do in the traditional classroom to make it worth the educational consumer's while?  Assuming they're not going to come to our colleges to hear us lecture--since whether we like it or not there's a good chance they can get better on YouTube at home--how will we change the college classroom so that it gives a student something they can't get in a video lecture they find on the web?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sermon Starters: 1 Samuel 16

Preached again yesterday at College Wesleyan.  The podcast of one of the two services is at:

The text is when God has Samuel go anoint David as a replacement king for Saul. There were three threads I tried to use while going from person to person in the story (which made it a little unwieldy, I suspect).  There was of course the thread of fathers since it was Father's Day, a minor thread but it popped up here and there. The main thread turned out to be the fact that both God and life bring unexpected changes of plans into our life to which we must respond. The original title and what was originally meant to be the main point was that "God looks on the heart."

I began with Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.  He thinks he has his life all planned out but life brings him unexpected and unwanted interruptions that change his plans because he is a good person and reacts accordingly.

Choice is central to morality.  I don't believe God orchestrates all the surprises in our lives. He gives us choices. He lets us experience the consequences of other people's choices. This means it is not always God who brings the unexpected into our lives.

Sure, you can sin unintentionally, but this sort of wrongdoing is rather morally insignificant.  Sin in its most meaningful sense is when a person chooses to do wrong or chooses not to do good.  Similarly, virtue is when a person consistently chooses to do the right thing and not do the wrong thing.  I suggested that it takes a greater amount of virtue to do the right thing when you don't want to than when the virtuous comes naturally (as an aside, I am not referring to the person who has made virtue a habit after years of discipline).

God looks on the heart means that God evaluates us by our intentions and motivations far more than what we believe or even what specific actions we do.

He is not expecting to have to anoint a new king. He is not perfect, but 1 Samuel surely wants us to think of him as a person whose heart motivations are good. He is faithful, but those around him are not. Israel is not. Saul is not.

A minister cannot be assured of numerical or external success just because he or she is doing the "right" things. This is a subtle version of the prosperity gospel. God gives those around us a choice so a minister can be doing all the right things in complete faithfulness and his/her ministry go completely flop. Jesus was not able to do many miracles in Nazareth and the most righteous person of all history died on a cross. God gives others a choice, so our faithfulness (or cleverness in leadership) cannot guarantee external success.

I thought it appropriate as an aside in the sermon to address the last verse of 1 Samuel 13 which was read. It says that God regretted he made Saul king. This statement cannot be literally true if God knows all things. It must be "goo-goo gah-gah" talk to help us/Israel understand that God was really displeased.

As an aside here, let me note that the author of 1 Samuel probably took it literally and thus did not understand that YHWH was omniscient. This is yet another example of how there is a progress or flow of revelation throughout the biblical text.  The view of God in, for example, 1 Samuel is not as complete as the view of God in the New Testament--at least not from a Christian standpoint.  One must not simply apply the texts of the OT to today without first running them through the NT. The other alternative is of course Open Theism, which I do not espouse.

Samuel is assigned a hard task, the task of anointing a king while another was on the throne.  It didn't turn out too well for Lady Jane Grey in the 1500s. Sometimes God gives us hard tasks too.  I thought of a martyr who was killed in the last 6 months in the Middle East.

But sometimes a big task like martyrdom is as simple as walking out of your house in an uncertain context. This martyr got on a plane to go to the country and went about his life and ministry there. It was as simple as doing one step at a time, and I sang the children's song.

Their unexpected moment was when the prophet showed up in town (by the way, I only mentioned it in one of the services but there was a half truth God sanctioned in this passage--don't tell them you've come to anoint a new king... just say you've come to offer a sacrifice). This was scary. Has he come to visit us with judgment for the Ba'als we have in our closets, the Asherah poles out back? Is he a messenger of Saul who's heard we've been grumbling? Worse yet, is he here behind Saul's back so that Saul's going to come and massacre us?

Sometimes life or God bring things into our lives and our job is simply to live through it. I've received a couple phone calls of that sort, such as when my father died. I've done some acting and just before going on stage, there can be the impulse to run away.  P.S. This can happen right before preaching too, the impulse to get back in your car and drive to Starbucks.

There's nothing you can do but just take the next step.  One way to get through these sorts of things is again by taking one step at a time.  It may seem like a long way to the end of the sanctuary, to get through the funeral, to get through the trial. But it is much easier to think of taking one step, then another, then another, and before you know it, you've come to the other side.

Jesse wasn't expecting one of his sons to become king. And he wasn't expecting it to be the runt.  David was an afterthought. He thought surely it would be his strapping son Eliab. (of course the story doesn't actually say that he knew what Samuel was doing).  God had rejected Eliab, because God looks on what's inside.

True, externals are important from a human perspective. If you want that job, you had better look the part. But it turns out that cleanliness is not next to godliness in God's eyes. God is interested in how we look on the inside.

It's important for us as parents to look at the inside of our children. Why did they do what they did?  Did they understand what they were doing?

We also should never view someone as a lost cause. God always is looking to redeem the person everyone else has labeled "bad." But few people are absolutely bad. Almost everyone has a little good in them that God can develop and redeem. We at least have to approach others that way, as if everyone is potentially redeemable.

Certainly not expecting to be called in from shepherding to become the next king. He may not even have known how good his heart was. Of course he also messed up big. But he repented big as well.

So how is your heart?  Not, how is your head. Not, how are your actions, although they are important too.  How is your heart.  You may not understand what Wesleyans mean by the term "entire sanctification," but the first step is to give those parts of your heart to God that you have been keeping from him.  What intentions and motivations might you have that are not on the same page as God?

Have you messed up? Can't do anything about the past but move on changed. Are you in a trial or facing a hard task?  Take that next step, and the next one, and the next one.  Are you playing at looking good?  Make it real, with God's help.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

2.2 Manuscripts, Manuscripts

My second weekend post in my hermeneutical autobiography series.  Yesterday I started writing on my pilgrimage on the subject of the biblical text.

Incidentally, this is my first Father's Day without my father on the earth. May God allow me to stay on the earth with my children for as long as I had him with me. But come what may, may they never have any doubt of my love for them and of my earnestness for them to have blessed lives.
Here are some of the things I learned in my last two years of college and my first year of seminary.  We do not have any of the original "autographs" of the New Testament (let alone the Old Testament).  All we have are copies of copies of copies (it's possible that a couple of the oldest fragments could be copies of the original or copies of copies of the original, but this is pure speculation and in the end we're talking about a couple fragments smaller than a driver's license).

I don't remember ever worrying about the fact that we don't have the original Mark or Romans or Isaiah.  Indeed, my questions were on the other end of things.  Are the many medieval manuscripts that basically read like the King James more original or are the older manuscripts that were discovered in recent centuries more reliable?

I was introduced to Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort and their 1881 edition of the Greek New Testament that, for the first time, printed their "eclectic" Greek text as the main text and put the "textus receptus," the Greek text behind the KJV, in the notes.  An eclectic text is one where the editor has tried to make a decision on what the most likely original wording of the text was instance by instance.  Accordingly, their Greek text--or the one behind modern translations of the Bible--does not follow any one Greek manuscripts but picks what it thinks are the best variations among all the existing manuscripts.

I actually wrote a paper for Bob Black's church history class at Southern Wesleyan University (SWU) arguing that the two key manuscripts Westcott and Hort favored (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus), dating to the early 300s, might have been ones commissioned by Constantine under the supervision of Eusebius (2 of 50 some manuscripts).  And since Eusebius did not take the orthodox position in the Arian controversy (he favored that Christ was of similar substance to the Father--homoiousios--as opposed to what became the orthodox position by Athanasius that Christ was of the same substance of the Father--homoousios) I argued that perhaps these two manuscripts were faulty.  Indeed, perhaps the reason they had survived was the fact that they were bad manuscripts.

I am now embarrassed at how illogical the paper's argument was.  It is a great example of how something that sounds rather smart to an outsider--and may even involve some smarts in putting together--can be completely misguided.  It is an example of the conclusion driving the argument, rather than the evidence driving the argument.  It is an example of trying to argue for something that is possible (but fits with one's preconceptions) rather than trying to argue for the probable.

Don't criticize me if I don't always adopt convenient arguments for possible conclusions that we find desirable.  I know what special pleading is because I used to do it.

Dr. Black was as gracious in his grade as he was insightful in his comment.  Most of the variations do not smack of theological conspiracy.  They are more a matter of spelling and grammatical variation.  Indeed, there is only one variant I can think of that anyone might argue would have had a bearing on the Arian controversy--1 John 5:7.  If the KJV version of this verse is original, then we would indeed be losing the most Trinitarian verse in the Bible: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one" (KJV).

But it is more likely you'll be hit by an asteroid this evening than that this verse was original.  Funny how the most potentially Trinitarian verse in the Bible never came up in the Trinitarian controversies of the 300s and 400s!  Indeed, it appears in only about 8 of the 5500+ Greek manuscripts of the NT that exist, often in the margin, and never in a hand that is older than the 1400s. In fact, the primary editor of the Greek text behind the KJV wouldn't even have put it into his Greek text if the Roman Catholic Church had not produced a manuscript with it present.  His comment was that the ink was still wet.

Not only do the variations between Sinaiticus and Vaticanus have nothing to do with Eusebius' theology, but we now have papyrus manuscripts that are older than these two.  In other words, the variations of these manuscripts pre-date Eusebius.  He and Constantine thus cannot be the "fiends" who altered the text. In the end, I would conclude with those who think that it is the text behind the KJV that has been altered, not that behind most modern translations.

It can be hard to get one's head around what most textual scholars are claiming here. To us, it looks like the KJV is old and modern translations are new.  But in reality, the KJV was based on a small number of late medieval manuscripts, most of which dated after the year 1000.  Modern translations are based on manuscripts that go back to the 100s and 200s.  In terms of the Greek text, the NIV is about 800 years older than the KJV.

In the end, it was not the so called "external evidence" of the manuscripts that convinced me to switch sides...

Saturday, June 16, 2012

2.1 Issues of the Biblical Text

For the last few weekends, I have been sharing a little of my own pilgrimage in the understanding of Scripture.  Last Sunday I finished a first group of posts I called, "Reading Out of Context."  This weekend I want to start a second group I'm calling "The Original Text."
I was raised on the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.  But as I approached my teen years, the New International Version (NIV) made its debut, and some in my denomination began to advocate for using it. I remember one camp meeting in Indiana when my parents were taken aback by someone who suggested they were potentially hurting the faith of their children by not using the NIV. My sense of our response was that we understood the Bible just fine in the King James.

I was in high school in the early 80s when Christian radio and engagement in public and church related issues began to rise. We lived in Florida near Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Dr. D. James Kennedy, one of the early Christian activists of the sort we now consider the norm of Christian Republican politics. Dobson was on the rise. I went to hear creationist-evolutionist debates in high school, interestingly at the same time I was learning how to think critically and objectively in an excellent public high school.

I felt God was calling me to be a minister in the middle of my first year of college at Southern Wesleyan and soon I found myself learning Greek.  Over the next three years I would learn about "textual criticism," the branch of biblical studies that tries to determine the original wording of the biblical texts. I believe somewhere in that process, my mother bought me a copy of Edward Hills' The King James Version Defended. I'm sure I could still find it if I did a bit of searching.

In those days I felt like a pilgrim without a guide. I wanted to read so much but almost no book could hold my attention.  In college I would often read the same sentence over and over and over again and my mind would run from the page faster than the period at the end of a sentence. I was not like those I envy who can't put a book down and seem to be able to read Kant or Heidegger without a guide.

For the next 10 years I would find myself uncertain on many things.  I would read Donald Guthrie's New Testament Introduction and he would give one side to an issue so well I would find it convincing. Then he would give the other side and I would find it convincing as well. (By the way, what a tribute to objectivity, that he could convince me for a moment of a position to which he did not himself hold!) It seemed as if there were so many possible variations and it was never quite clear to me which was the most likely. It was the same on issues of the biblical text.

I remember thinking that at some point you begin to draw some conclusions. Somewhere in the vast sea of scholarly uncertainty you find something convincing. Once you have made one decision, then other decisions become more likely. I remember thinking of it in these terms. Of course now the big consensuses of scholarship seem rather obvious to me. But one could argue that I have only become comfortable with them.

I hope that is not true. In any case, because in effect I had to start from scratch and generally started from the minority position in most things, I believe I know the most convincing arguments for the majority positions.  And because it has taken me so much effort to get my head around such issues--and because I am so easily bored--I am more likely to communicate the reasons for majority positions in a palatable way...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sermon Starters: 1 Samuel 8

I preached yesterday at College Wesleyan in Marion on 1 Samuel 8.  I imagine the sermon will be available on iTunes in a few days:

The text is where Israel comes to Samuel wanting a king.  Here are some of my notes.  The passage is a paradox because Israel's desire for a king is a rejection of God.  Yet for Jesus to come as messiah, a king must be established.  Thus, paradoxically, Israel's rejection of God is the path by which God brings about his plan.

The bottom line of the sermon was thus that no one need worry about messing up God's plan.  God will get the world where he wants it to go.  I likened God's interaction with the world to a chess player who knows every possible (and actual) move we will make and already knows what counter-move he will make in response.

1, The people illustrate that it is not just enough to have a good strategic plan.  Their plan in itself was very sound.  A strong central leader who is full-time, around the clock, and you know where to go to find him (it was a him they were looking for) is not a bad organizational move.  After all, the charismatic prophets were not centralized and God raised them up here and there on a "need to have" basis.

From the perspective of Israel, they only rose after they were already in trouble, often for decades (from God's standpoint, Israel only got in trouble because of its sin).  The external threat was real, as the Philistines were fierce, scary dudes who were in on the Iron Age from the ground floor.  And Samuel's sons weren't going to be the ticket in next gen leadership.

So the people's plan was very reasonable.  1 Samuel just seems to indicate that it wasn't God's timing, that they didn't trust God, and probably they didn't want to hear what his plan was.

2. Samuel has God's mind on what's going on. The people are rejecting God. But Samuel has missed a few things too. He's trying to set up his own succession plan in his sons, not dissimilar from the kind of royal succession plan the people are interested in.  He doesn't acknowledge their corruption in the story.

And of course, from a canonical perspective, he doesn't see the whole picture of God's plan. He seems to know nothing of Deuteronomy, and he certainly knows nothing about some future messiah.  He comes off as being someone who wants to keep things the old way, the prophetic way and doesn't realize that, even if the timing is off, there is a new way coming in God's plan.

He illustrates that none of us knows the whole plan, the whole story.  We need each other.  We all have blind spots that the loving (and sometimes not so loving) words of others can reveal.

3. Meanwhile, God is in control.  He is not fooled.  He knows the heart.  He is concerned with us but we can't knock him off track. He often lets us experience the consequences of our actions (and unfortunately the consequences of the actions of others).  He does not force us to take his preferred route.

The ideal is for God to work through us, where we are on the same page with his plan.  But if not, he will work around us, like an artery of the heart that grows around one that is clogged.  Unfortunately, if we are not attuned to God, we may not even realize that the blood no longer flows through us, that God is flowing around us.
This is a great text.  I tried to preach it in a way that swam in the waters of historical and theological complexity in which these waters swim.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

1.4 Memory Verse Hermeneutics

This is the last in a first group of posts talking about my hermeneutical pilgrimage.  I'm calling the group:

Reading out of Context
1. Stages of Hermeneutical Development
2. Does History Matter in Interpretation
3. Meaning is Always Local
Historical context is something you can't get fully from the text of the Bible itself.  The Bible gives great clues, to be sure.  And it needs to give the deciding vote.  One problem that scholars of the Bible can have is knowing too much.  A scholar may know a parallel to a biblical text somewhere that they try to make a connection with when that other text has absolutely nothing to do with the passage you're looking at.  It's sometimes called "parallelomania," looking for parallels to shed light on a biblical text and finding ones that are completely irrelevant.

The problem is that the bulk of historical evidence has been lost to history.  Those who wrote things were usually the privileged--who hardly represent the majority of those who lived and died in the ancient world.  Was the author of Genesis really aware of the Babylonian Enuma Elish or the Gilgamesh Epic? It's a very legitimate question.

It thus was rarely this sort of historical evidence that convinced me on various issues.  More than anything, it was the inductive Bible study method I learned at Asbury Theological Seminary.  This is a method that gathers its primary evidence from the biblical texts themselves in order to draw the most likely conclusions about the original meaning.  It's called "literary context."

Once you ask the question, "what did the verse say that comes right before the verse I'm reading," everything changes.  What comes right before the verse that says, "I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil" (Jer. 29:11, KJV)?  It's a letter to Israelites who are in exile in Babylon.  They are the ones God is talking to.  If the text is also for me, it is only for me indirectly in terms of what it really meant originally.

It's popular to see Isaiah 14:12 in relation to the fall of Satan from heaven before Adam sinned: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" (KJV).  In our dictionary, "Lucifer" is one of the names of Satan.  But it wasn't at the time of Isaiah.

The NIV translators are not evil perverters of truth by translating it "morning star."  Even the slightest read of the verses that come before this one make it clear that this passage was not originally talking about Satan but about the King of Babylon (cf. 14:4).  I'm not saying it couldn't have an additional meaning, a "fuller sense."  I'm just saying that's not at all what it meant originally.

I was raised on the King James Version and I still love its lofty prose, but it is interesting that it often lists each verse independently, like a list.  The disadvantage is that you then can tend to see individual verses as stand-alone statements of truth.  You don't read them in paragraphs.  You may lose a sense of the literary context and literary flow.

So we are trained as children in Sunday School to memorize memory verses.  I'm all for it.  I often find myself quoting verses and excerpts from verses.  I think it is great when the way someone talks breathes and echoes Scripture, where the text regularly leaps from a person's sub-conscious.  The down-side is that if one focuses too much on small snippets of biblical text, then you are not as likely to get a sense of its context.  You will have a tendency to read it wrongly.

So the first stage of my Bible reading was what I initially called the "mirror-reading" stage.  You come to the words of the texts with a host of assumptions, a "dictionary" you inherited from wherever you grew up speaking whatever language you spoke with all the assumptions of that particular culture and subculture.  You will define words like "Lucifer" in accordance with the way you've heard the word used.  You will define the words of your memory verses in the terms you have heard.

But you will not come to the text with its historical context.  This is something largely assumed by the text.  After all, the most significant, most central assumptions in the communication of two people are often the things they don't say to each other because they already know them.  So it takes a great deal of unlearning and relearning to be able to read the books of the Bible for what they really meant.  The tendency to find in the Bible what you already think is almost more difficult to overcome than smoking. At least a smoker knows he or she is smoking and needs to quit.  We often aren't even aware we are reading the Bible out of context.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

1.3 Meaning is Always Local

Last weekend I started a weekend series in which I am trying to capture somewhat of my journey with Scripture.  Last Sunday's post ended with me in college trying to decide whether the historical context of Scripture really made any difference for me today.  Would God have allowed the text to have teachings or instructions that were not "timeless."
... Let me illustrate with an issue where 1 Corinthians comes into conflict with current Christian practice: head coverings for women.  I grew up around people who took this letter's teaching on women's hair to apply directly to women today. "For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head," says the King James Version (KJV) of 1 Corinthians 11:10.  11:15 then goes on to say, "if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering."

Now the experts don't actually agree on what Paul is exactly talking about here.  Is it simply talking about long hair on a woman or a special braid?  Or is he talking about a veil to cover the hair, my personal favorite?  I grew up hearing that the passage was about women having long hair and men having short hair, and the custom in my circles was for women to heap their hair up on their head in a bun, a "Wesleyan wad," as it were, to have "power" on their heads.

So the question presented itself.  Is there something about Paul's instructions to the Corinthians here that applied to the Corinthians but would not apply to twentieth century (at that time) North America?  Why would God allow something in the timeless answer book that only applied to back then and not to today as well?

I can shed a lot more clarity to this question now than I certainly could then.  My starting point is again to recognize that at the very least, 1 Corinthians 11 meant something to the Corinthians.  After all, that's who Paul says he is writing in 1 Corinthians 1:1.  He does not say, "and to all you women who will be reading this letter in two thousand years, you need to cover your hair too."

Sure, there are instances where you might argue that a passage in Scripture wasn't aimed at its original audience but was a prophecy only to be understood in the distant future.  I'm sure I'll come back to that later.  Suffice it to say, there is much less of this sort of prophecy in Scripture than you might think and the first order of business is always to see if a text made sense at the time it was written in the categories of its own day.

But the books of the Bible overwhelmingly say they were written to people who have been dead for a very long time.  That is the place to begin to understand the first meaning of the books of the Bible. Any other approach opens up the door to a "semantic free-for-all," meaning that these texts can come to mean almost anything. While in the end I think some of this looseness is perfectly appropriate, we need to be clear that it is not the first, original, historical meaning of the Bible. The first meaning of a biblical text is what it actually meant in its original context, not what it means to us today.

Let me also say that the response, "Ah, but what did it mean to God," is a bit of a cop-out.  After all, if you're talking about a meaning the text did not originally have, who are you to think you know what was really going on in God's mind at the time.  There are some good come backs to this question, such as "Well, the New Testament tells me with regard to the Old Testament" and "God clarified what he was up to later on in the church through his Spirit." Those are of course faith responses that may very well be correct.

In fact, I believe answers like those are necessary from a Christian perspective. But it does not change the original meaning, which is what these texts meant in the light of what words meant at the time these books were written or reached their "final forms." The first meaning of a biblical text is what it actually meant when it was first written.

So the first meaning, the default meaning of 1 Corinthians is what the words of 1 Corinthians meant when Paul wrote them to Corinth in the early 50s. I understand so much more about this sort of thing now than I did in college. This is not just the stuff of a dictionary.  The meaning of words is a matter of how they are used in relation to a place and time, a culture and a social setting.

Meaning is always local, in the first instance, and universal meaning is simply instances where all the local meanings are the same everywhere.  This is an incredibly important insight and fundamental to the meaning of anything, anywhere.  The meaning of something is the function of something in a specific context, and universal meaning relates to instances where the function of something is the same no matter where you go.

As one of my seminary professors used to put it, "Context is everything."  Common meaning builds up from particulars.  It does not play out down from some imagined, vastly oversimplified universals we project onto God's mind--as if he thought in such pre-school categories. To hear so many people talk about the universals in God's mind, he is less than a kindergarten student in the sophistication of his thought.

So to understand 1 Corinthians in its first meaning, we must know what hair meant in ancient Corinth, in its socio-cultural matrix.  The question of what hair means to God is an interesting one but one that must be put on hold if we want to understand 1 Corinthians.  Maybe the meaning will be the same for us, but it is beyond question that hair did mean something to the Corinthians and they would have read 1 Corinthians in that light. To understand 1 Corinthians I must first know how their categories might differ from mine.  Otherwise, simply by doing what they did I may actually be doing something quite different in terms of its meaning.

Obviously I did not have this depth of insight at the time and I will simply leave the question of historical meaning here for now.  I'm sure I will have opportunity as I continue, to return to the fundamental historical insight over and over again.  I would sum it with the following, seemingly incontrovertible logic:

1. The biblical texts were, in the first instance, written to multiple ancient audiences who understood those texts in terms of what words and actions meant at that time.

2. The meaning of words and actions for them is often different from the meaning of words and actions to me.

3. Therefore, the original meaning of the words of Scripture are more indirectly applicable to us today than directly applicable.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Question: Do Mistakes Need Atonement?

One of the issues that came up at the Wesleyan General Conference is whether unintentional sin needed Christ's atonement.  The orthodox answer is yes.

Here's a question for the day.  Do mistakes of the mind qualify as unintentional sin and therefore need atoned?  Since Jesus was fully human and did not practice "omniscience" on earth, did he make mental mistakes?  If so, did they need atoned?

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Greek-man Begins...

My Greek for Ministry class begins tonight online... and so also begins my occasional vidcasts.  Here's the first.

Wesleyan General Conference Decisions

I know many will feel the opposite but I thought yesterday went very well at the Wesleyan General Conference (GC).  Here are four things that make me think we are on the right track as a denomination. I am very encouraged.

1. First, the GC voted to change its structure to one General Superintendent (GS) with four Executive Directors. I could see both sides to this debate (former GS Lee Haines made a fine counter-speech) but, in the end, I think they made the right decision for two reasons:
  • Our most gifted leaders are currently not at all attracted to enter denominational leadership. I think this is because, for good or ill, the idea of being part of a relatively weak three person pow-wow is not attractive to them. The down side is that the position might now be very appealing to megalomaniacs, the testosterony, and individuals who mistake their own personalities for God's. It's a trade off ;-)
  • It shows "large organization" rather than "small church" thinking. Lee Haines mentioned that Roy Nicholson, a GS from the 1950s, thought the one GS model had been horrible. But I can't imagine he knew as much about leadership as even I do now (as a naturally-born leadership idiot), given the massive literature out there these last 50 years.  In particular, I doubt he knew how to delegate and set up a support structure. He probably thought the GS needed to kiss every baby in every church.
2. Second, the GC voted to continue with Joanne Lyon as that one GS.  Mind you, I'd rather have someone else leading a parliamentary procedure, but I firmly believe she is the right person for the job. I've been disappointed to recognize that there is still some resistance in the WC to a woman as the top person. But I celebrate that the GC, in my opinion, did the right thing. I believe she is the right person for this time.

3. We had a proposed memorial on sin to put in our Articles of Religion.  I was so pleased that the denomination voted it down in order to come up with something better.  Three reasons: 1) the other GCs of the Philippines and Caribbean were not consulted (if it had been passed, I was hoping those other conferences would vote it down to make it clear to the North American Conference that they are now our equals and can't be taken for granted on such important issues); 2) accidentally, it was written with no awareness that the article right before it already said half the same thing; and 3) it was poorly written, seemingly spliced together from various emails from key people... and in 1940s H. Orton Wiley language to boot.  Thank you church for taking the time to do it right!

4. The church voted to include marital violence as a legitimate basis for divorce.  Now, mind you, it makes our denomination look bad that we are even having to discuss this question. For one thing, although I'm not sure how to get around it, we are still operating with a "bounded set" mentality when it comes to membership, one that is overly preoccupied with who is "in" and who is "out."  A "centered-set" approach is more concerned with our core values rather than about how individuals measure up to it.

In my opinion, however, large segments of our denomination remain legal-oriented, or fundamentalist, when it comes to the Bible.  For example, if we think that a "biblical basis" for divorce can only be limited to a specific statement along the lines of "Divorce can be allowed when a husband beats his wife," then we not only are legal-oriented in our hermeneutic but we do not have the Wesleyan spirit of the 1800s on issues like slavery and women's rights.

Why was Jesus against divorce? Why was Malachi against divorce? Surely it was primarily because divorce was a form of (non-physical) violence against wives. By the way, ironically this is what Malachi 2:16 is talking about--not sure how that passage read in context does anything but support the proposal.  God hated divorce in Malachi because it was a form of violence against wives!!!

I believe Jesus' prohibitions on divorce were, in the first instance, surely meant to protect women. If so, then it is then ironic in the extreme that we find ourselves hesitant to allow for divorce in a case where a woman's life may be in constant danger. Although it is complicated and a matter of debate, it is quite possible that the prohibitions on wives divorcing husbands related more to the expansion of Jesus' message to a broader Mediterranean context than to his original Galilean audiences.

In terms of our heritage, the "principle" approach to a biblical basis is exactly the approach Luther Lee took on slavery. While the "fundamentalist" hermeneutic of his day looked to specific Scriptures that allowed for slavery, he looked to the ideal values of the biblical text instead. In that sense, the "principled" approach to issues such as this one better fit the founding spirit of the denomination than the "legal" approach.

Yes, I realize there is the potential for slippery slopes.  But I liked what one speaker was trying to say on the floor yesterday. Which side do we want to err on--the side of protecting the oppressed or worrying about whether someone is going to get by with something?

After all, I doubt God is fooled.