Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Great Worship at Wesley Yesterday

Yesterday was the yearly worship convocation at Wesley to kick off the new year.  We have 8 classes going this week including a lead off class in English for about 18 new students and we have about 8 students I think in a lead off class in Spanish. It was a very lively and multi-ethnic service, with our new professor Kwasi Kena on the piano and new professor Safiyah Fosua leading.

Very exciting!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why do you believe?

I'm in the middle of a second edit of the philosophy book I've written.  I've been doing a chapter a day.  Today I am reading through the chapter on the existence of God.  I thought I'd ask you, whoever you are, Why do you believe in God?  What books or resources have been meaningful to you in this regard?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

5. Postlude: The Effect of Scripture

With this post I end the long hermeneutical autobiography I started two months ago.   Here are the "chapters":

1. Learning to Read in Context
2. The Text of the New Testament
3. The NT Use of the OT
4. Sources behind the Bible

Now the conclusion:
Where am I today in my hermeneutical pilgrimage?   I once heard Keith Drury say something to the effect of "The fundamental purpose of Scripture is to form a holy people."  As usual, he intuitively senses a position that can be backed up with an immensity of scholarship

1. Scripture is for us today.
It is fascinating to reflect at how deeply ingrained the sense is that what we are to do with Scripture is to uncover the hidden, to "get back." Prior to modern times, there was the impulse to find the secret meaning.  "Here's what God is really saying here."  There was a penchant for the allegorical, the mystical, or the spiritual meaning.

The modern era didn't change the impulse, it only channeled it. So now the pre-modern person studies Greek and Hebrew to get a secret meaning, or Rob Bell knows something about ancient Jewish tradition that you've never heard of.  Or we do a word study to get some secret truth. Often these impulses are no more modern than before historical criticism. They are just new expressions of the medieval drive to find secret meanings.

For those who truly understood history, the impulse became to "get back" to the original meaning. The pre-modern meanings above became anathema. Now we are on a quest for the historical Jesus, not the Jesus of Nicaea, not even the Jesus of the gospels. The Bible became a dissected frog.

We are now in a better position to reflect on our prior selves. If the Bible is either communication to us or action on us from God, then Scripture is Scripture when it has some effect on us. That simple observation puts the focus of Scripture's function not on the past but on the present. Scripture is Scripture when it has an effect on us today. That means that, as Scripture, whatever has happened in the past is only as effective as what happens in the present.

Let's say there was a perfect play back on your own 20 yard line in football.  Maybe there was a perfect pass or a perfect sneak. Maybe your team rushed up the field to the opposing team's 10 yard line with plays that will be put in textbooks and played over and over again on TV. But if you never get into the end zone, there won't be any score. Scripture as Scripture for us is only effective to the extent it communicates or has the proper effect on us.

In that light, how bizarre is the obsession and myopia involved in "getting back." So we say the Bible is inspired in the "original manuscripts" that we do not have.  But can I be inspired when I read it? For me as a reader, it doesn't matter how inspired it was 2000 years ago if I don't hear or experience it rightly today. Why are we so inculturated to ask about matters of its original moment?

This lays bare how anemic past debates about historicity and authorship have been. They are drives not to hear God today or experience God through the Bible today but to put an artifact from the past on a pedestal.  What becomes important is not so much what is in it but the high idea of it in itself. Indeed, we are willing to ignore its plain meaning over and over again to preserve the lighting in the museum show room. We want to bow before an icon of God's past action and marvel at its glory.

But the Bible is not to be worshiped. It is to be experienced. God is to be worshiped through the Bible. God is to heard through the Bible. God is to be experienced through the Bible. All those things happen now, not in the original manuscripts.

That brings us to bolster our sense of the role the Holy Spirit and the Church inevitably must play in our use of the Bible. Perhaps God did implant hidden meanings in the past in the Bible. But I think we would be far more on point if we recognized that God can inspire us in the moment of reading to hear and experience him. Similarly, most Christians are unaware of how much Christian tradition impacts the way they read the Bible and, presumably, this is also part of God steering Scripture to its desired effect on us. The Bible is a sacrament of divine encounter.

2. Scripture is formative.
There is a tendency to think about the Bible only in cognitive terms. I read the Bible to know things. This is also a shallow sense of Scripture. God wants to do things to us through Scripture. Human understanding is a flimsy thing. It changes so often without us even realizing it. For most of us the words of "truth" we say are a game we play to express our irrational feelings and justify our desired actions.

By contrast, it is the very nature of narrative to draw us into the story and this is a predominant genre in the Bible. So it is easy for God to expose our hidden motives as we get in the story and see ourselves. Even the instruction and prophecy of Scripture come in the stories of ancient Israel and the early church and God can find us in those stories as well if we don't rip the words out as self-standing timeless propositions of philosophical truth. I can identify with the emotions of the Psalms and find myself soothed.

The primary function of Scripture is thus to form us.  First, it is to form us more than me, although forming me is part of forming us. We read Scripture in communities of faith. Second, our hearts are the primary target of formation because the heart is God's primary concern. God is primarily concerned with making us people who love him and love others through Scripture.

As God forms our attitudes he also is forming our actions, the way we live together in this world. How shallow is the "answer book" sense of the Bible in this light, whose focus is on certainty in understanding. But my understanding is only as important as it joins with a right heart and right actions. I believe in truth, but for most of us, our understandings are only epiphenomena, a front for our emotions and wills. The most important truths have always been existential.

3. Scripture is historical.
For all my attempt to get into proper focus what is really going on and should be going on in our reading of Scripture, the Bible does in fact come from the past.  To set the proper focus on what Scripture does today does not negate the fact that God has spoken in the past, and the Bible is the primary place for us to see what God hath wrought upon the earth.

The Bible in its original meaning is history. Most profoundly, its books are part of the history of God walking with humanity. The pre-modern constructs history out of the biblical text.  The modern sees the texts as part of history. The post-modern recognizes that the texts were part of history and yet affirms the importance of us getting inside the stories within the texts.

So there is much to learn about God from the way he spoke to ancient audiences through each of these individual texts. There is much to learn about us from the way God formed the people of God in the past. I can be formed as I observe the past formation of others, and I am the people of God just as they were.

So God inspired, spoke, and formed the people of God in the past through the individual books of the Bible and he inspires, speaks, and forms us as the people of God in the present through the Bible. God does not err in what he speaks or in how he forms. It thus goes without saying that the Bible is inerrant in all that it affirms and infallible in what it does, for it is God that affirms and acts through it.

But we should not get it out of focus. Scripture is not an end in itself.  It is a means, an instrument through which God speaks and acts on us. We submit to God and Christ, and the Bible is the messenger.     We must resist bibliolatry, trying to encapsulate God in a tangible object. God is not contained by the Bible, nor can the depth of his understanding be captured in human language.

Friday, July 27, 2012

CNN in Trouble

I was listening to a piece about how CNN has drastically lost market share.  The general reason identified is that while FOX appeals to conservatives and NBCNews (formerly MSNBC) appeals to liberals, CNN has at least had the aim of neutrality.

But most people aren't interested in neutrality. It's not exciting.  Where's the passion in Spock as a host?  People want to hear someone who foments the passions they already have.

Yep, that's pretty much my sense of things.  I at least think I've noticed recently that Chris Matthews on NBC has started badgering conservatives on his show.  Sad.  I used to think he more or less tried to be neutral.  But you've got to earn a living...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Assad is Toast

You know it. I know it. It's been clear for a couple months now. It's just a matter of time. At some point, someone will pull him out of a drainage pipe and kill him. They never learn.

Then again, maybe he'll flee to Iran.

Rights aren't inalienable

Even Jefferson didn't really mean it in the Declaration of Independence.

"So Tom, life is an inalienable right?  What if a person murders someone?  Can we take his life in punishment?"

"No, I wasn't talking about that," Tom answers.

"What about in war, can I take someone else's life in war, especially if he's a British soldier about to shoot me?"

"No, I wasn't referring to war," Tom said, looking at me like I was stupid.

I'm not sure where I picked up the idea, but somehow I emerged from high school thinking that the rights of the Constitution were absolute, meaning without exception. Turns out this is not only wrong, it is impossible.

Freedom of religion is not absolute.  If my religion pushes me to kill other people, I can't practice it.

The right to bear arms is not absolute.  There's nothing to keep the government from prohibiting a criminal from having a gun... or from banning assault rifles from the general populace, since their sole existence is to kill lots of people as quickly as possible.

Freedom of speech is not absolute.  I am not free to blog plots against the government or say certain things about the president.

Living in society requires everyone involved to surrender some portion of their individual freedom for the common good.  Then we hire police to enforce the "social contract" we have made.  

No rights are absolute.  We are not living in a jungle or in some primitive culture where justice is administered by rogue individuals. There is no Batman.

Taxes are a given. We do not have the right to drive 100mph within the city limits as part of the contract because that wouldn't be good for other pedestrians who are part of the social contract with me.  The trick is the give and take.

What is the sweet spot between my individual freedom and the common good of society?  There is no right or wrong answer, only ones that benefit more or less people.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Some Important Greek Conjunctions

I don't have a snappy post for this morning, so here's a vidcast lecture I created for my Greek class. Some of the ones I've posted here were actually done live originally, but this one was canned to get through all the material.  17 minutes

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Psalm 10 Translation

Psalm 10
10:1 Why, YHWH, do you stand at a distance? 
     [Why] do you hide for times in the distress?
2 In the pride of the wicked [man], he persecutes the poor;
     They are caught in the schemes that they devise.
3 For the wicked [one] brags about the lust of his soul;
     And blesses the one taking spoils, [whom] YHWH hates.
4 The wicked [man], like the pride of his nose, will not seek,
     God is not [in] all his schemes.
5 His ways are twisted every time;
     Your judgments are high from his sight; 
     At those who oppose [him], he snorts at them.
6 He said in his heart, "I will not be moved,
     From generation to generation that [I will not be] in harm."
7 Of cursing, his mouth is full, and deceits,
     And fraud is under his tongue, trouble and wickedness.
8 He sits in the blind spot of villages;
     In the hiding places he will murder the innocent;
His eyes against the unfortunate lurk.
     9 He lies in ambush in the secret place like a lion in a den;
He lies in ambush to seize the poor;
     He will seize the poor when he draws [him] in his net.
10 He crushes, he crouches,
     And he falls with his mighty ones [on] the poor.
11 He said in his heart, "God forgot.
     He has hidden his face.
     He will never see."

12 Arise, YHWH.
     God, lift up your hand.
     Do not forget the miserable.
13 Why do the wicked despise God?
     He says in his heart,
     "You will not come looking [for me]."
14 See that you, you have looked at trouble and grievance,
     To take [it] into your hand on you.
The poor person surrenders [to you].
     You are the helper of the orphan.
15 Break the arm of the wicked,
     And the evil one pursue in his wickedness
     [Until] you will not find [him any more].
16 YHWH [is] king for ever and ever;
     The nations perish from his land.
17 You hear the longing of the poor, YHWH;
     You prepare their heart;
     You attend your ear.
18 In order to judge the fatherless and crushed,
     Not allowing again the man from the land to terrify.

Monday, July 23, 2012

1.3 Mark continues

I sent off my draft of the first Jesus book to Wesleyan Publishing House yesterday.  It's probably a little too long which is a potential pain. It's sometimes easier to write from scratch than to edit down something, but we'll see what they say.

So now back to the second book, toward which I've written two posts, the last of which is here.  The first book was about Jesus: The Essentials, the basics or core of Jesus. I'm sure WPH will come up with a better title. The second volume is then about the specific presentations of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. No doubt the outline will develop but here's my basic sense of the second volume:

1. Mark's Basic Story
2. The Hidden Jesus (special themes in Mark)
3. The Virgin Birth (Matthew and Luke)
4. The New Moses (Matthew's 5 sermons)
5. Jesus the Rabbi (special themes in Matthew)
6. God's Movement (Luke's history of God's doings)
7. Jesus the Savior (special themes in Luke)
8. Signs and Glory (John's different approach)
9. Jesus the Way (special themes in John)
10. Jesus the Divine Word (John and beyond)

Now to continue Mark...
Mark 1:1 begins with a simple enough statement: "The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah." The NIV2011 translates the opening verse well for a couple reasons. First, the phrase "good news" is better than "gospel" because it would be easy for us to think that Mark is only saying that this verse was beginning the Gospel of Mark.  But when Mark wrote, the idea of a gospel book hadn't happened yet.

In fact, it may very well be that the idea of a gospel book started right here, with the way Mark worded this verse: "the beginning of the gospel."  Mark meant the beginning of the good news, but it's easy enough to see how some later reader would think of the whole book as a gospel, a new type of literature or genre. If an ancient person had found a scroll of Mark on the street and picked it up, no doubt they would have thought of it as some kind of biography.

Of course there is no birth story.  This might have seemed as odd to an ancient person as it does to us.  How do you have a biography without a birth story?

Then again, we look for different things in the childhood of a famous person than the ancients did. We live in the shadow of Freud, where we want to know the "formative influences" on a child. How did her parents treat her? What kind of a relationship did she have with her mother?

The ancients saw identity in much more fatalistic terms. If the child later became great, there must have been signs of greatness from the very beginning, surely. Were there notable omens at the time of birth? What early indications were there of the later greatness?

Mark simply begins with Jesus' baptism by John.  He hits the ground running with this compact, first gospel. In chapter 4, I'll give some of the reasons why most think Mark was the first of the gospels we now have. Of course we can speculate that some of the traditions about Jesus were written down before Mark, but Mark is the earliest we have for sure.

The good news is about Jesus, the Messiah.  The NIV2011 goes with the Hebrew version of the word "Christ."  Messiah means, "anointed one," and has clear connotations of Jesus' kingship.  Christ is simply the Greek translation of it. Many manuscripts also have "Son of God" here, which is also a royal title that comes from the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 2; 2 Sam. 7:14)...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

4.4 The Theology of the Gospel Writers

Apart from the conclusion, I'll wrap up my hermeneutical biography with this post.  This last clump of posts has roughly been on the subject of "Sources behind the Bible" and has included thus far:

a. Splicing the Gospels Together
b. Harmonizing not Advisable
c. Creativity in Telling the Story

I'm calling this last post, "The Theology of the Gospel Writers."
... I want to end with the question of the theological point of view of biblical narratives.  If we are focused on the theology of the gospel writers, then we get back what fundamentalism took away from us in the twentieth century and more. Before the rise of historical criticism, Christians largely read the gospels theologically.  True, they assumed precise historicity too, but it was not the focus.  The truth, the theology of the text was the focus.

The rise of historical criticism forced the issue. Arguably, it was usually pushed in a way that was unhelpful, even hostile to faith.  The assumption was--this is not historical, it's false.  It is no surprise that fundamentalism responded in kind--this is historical, it's true. Neo-evangelicalism has been more sophisticated in its response, but often has still not freed itself from this dichotomy.

A more helpful response would have been that the standard "historical=true" was wrongheaded in the first place. The fundamentalist, like the modernist, both assumed that truth was a matter of history and that the goal was to get back to the original history. Again, I am not denying the fundamental historicity of the gospel story. If Jesus did not perform miracles, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, those would be serious issues.

But truth is not always a matter of "it happened exactly this way." For example, we have no reason to believe that the Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Parable of the Good Samaritan ever actually happened.  They are parables, not historical stories. Yet they are as true as any history book.

No one would ever criticize Charles Dickens for making up The Christmas Story. Can you imagine someone telling you in anger, "I can't believe it.  There never was a Tiny Tim!  What a liar that Dickens was!!!"  We would think this person was rather weird. I'm not suggesting that the biblical stories are novels. I'm suggesting that truth is not limited to history.

In fact, I have come to see both the fundamentalist and modernist view of history as two-dimensional and impoverished.  What a richness to the gospels is missed! These stories were told for a reason. They were told in the way they were told for a reason.

I was privileged to begin serious study of the New Testament in the 80s.  Biblical studies at this point was at an interesting juncture.  First, the wave of trends was just leaving something called "redaction criticism."  Redaction criticism in itself was a move in the right direction.

For about 100 years, biblical studies had been obsessed with "getting back" to the historical Jesus. It was a little like the man who first excavated Jericho.  He was so preoccupied with getting back to the ruins of Jericho in Joshua's day that he plowed through layer after layer of earth. We now know that the ruins he finally got to were way older than Joshua's day and he had not too tidily discarded the relative layers in what I believe now is a huge pile off to the side.

So it had been for about 100 years.  John was discarded early on because it was so symbolic.  Matthew and Luke were boiled down to Mark and a hypothetical sayings source.  Then Mark was recognized as having a theology, so it was discarded.  Then a search started to piece together some picture of Jesus from individual sayings.  In all this quest, Jesus evaporated into a handful of unusual sayings that we knew Jesus had to say because they were so bizarre (e.g., "let the dead bury their dead").

Now don't get me wrong, there were a lot of discoveries that were part of this 100 year quest for the historical Jesus.  I dare anyone to go head to head with someone who knows their stuff on some of these things. To the point, my biggest problem with this quest is that it has a "got to get back" mentality that sees all as lost until we can get back to the history. Then, so the idea goes, we'll hit pay dirt.  It throws away what we have in lieu of some speculative thing we don't have.

Again, I'm not discounting the legitimacy of pursuing history nor am I denying the essential historicity of the gospels. I'm saying that truth is not limited to historical events.  In the 70s, even secular scholars were tired of the search for scraps of historical certainty. They began to ask a different question.  If Luke has used Mark as a source, then how does the way he has edited Mark reflect his theology? How does the way Matthew has edited Mark reflect his theology?

So Luke has a tendency to emphasize Jesus' good news to the poor.  For example, it is possible that he has taken Jesus' appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth in Mark 6:1-6 and creatively moved it to become something like an inaugural address (Luke 4:14-30).  He arguably makes it the frontispiece of Jesus' ministry.

What does this tell us about Luke's theology, if this is true?  It would tell us that Luke wanted to highlight Jesus' ministry to the poor, the enslaved, the disempowered as a key focus of his earthly ministry.  Is this true?  Absolutely. Is it historical--yes, even though Luke may show some creative licence in the way he presents and emphasizes it.

Now I'm not going to die for this interpretation.  I'm only saying it is a perfectly reasonable reconstruction given the overwhelming likelihood that Luke used Mark as a source. And I am saying that we gain a better understanding of truth by it rather than losing truth or, worse yet, thinking this would be an error of some kind.

Still, one of the potential problems with redaction criticism, such as in what I just mentioned, is that it is still somewhat speculative.  The 80s thus saw the rise in biblical studies of "narrative criticism." Narrative criticism leaves the question of sources behind almost altogether and asks, "What is the meaning of the text as we have it?"

Narrative criticism was a great boon for evangelicals getting their PhD's in the 80s.  Prior to the 70s, a lot of evangelicals ended up doing strange dissertations because they believed in the essential historicity of the Bible. So they might do a PhD on some aspect of Greek or Hebrew grammar, or they might study the history of how a text had been interpreted.

But with narrative criticism, it didn't matter whether you believed the text was historical or not.  The focus was the text as it stands.  So your PhD advisor might not believe any of the story actually happened and you could believe it all happened and it didn't matter, because you were both interpreting the text as it stands.

The only rule here is that you can't mix the gospels.  You have to interpret Mark's world as Mark's world and not let Matthew or Luke interfere with it.  But this is just good inductive Bible study anyway. So Matthew emphasizes Jesus as an apocalyptic teacher.  Mark emphasizes the hiddenness of who Jesus is and the centrality of his suffering.  Luke emphasizes Jesus ministry to the poor and downtrodden.  John gives us Jesus the Word and the importance of faith in him.

None of this takes away whatever was legitimate about the historical criticism that came before. What it does is that it puts the focus on the text as we have it.  Its goal is the truth of the text, not some quest for the truth hidden in the history buried within it. We are able to hear God in the text as it stands.

Postmodernism in the 90s only clarified and extended our sense of now as the moment of meaning.  No matter what the text has meant in the past, the only meaning it has for me is the meaning it has for me now.  I am not back then.  I am only here now.

Again, don't get me wrong. I believe the text had a meaning.  I believe that is a meaning not only worthy but important to try to identify.  But I can only understand that meaning--any meaning--from where I sit inside my head today, now.

In my final post(s) next weekend, I'll suggest some ultimate take-aways from this hermeneutical pilgrimage and how the Bible might best form us as Christians today.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

4.3 Creativity in Telling the Story

I'm winding down my series for the last couple months on the weekends giving a bit of my hermeneutical autobiography.  The previous "chapters" have been:

1. Learning to Read in Context
2. The Text of the New Testament
3. The NT Use of the OT

This final group is on Sources behind the Bible and has included thus far:

a. Splicing the Gospels Together
b. Harmonizing not Advisable

Now for the next to last post in this "chapter" before the conclusion.
... And what if a great deal more artistic license was allowed in telling the story in the ancient world than we would use today?  What if the gospel writers at times deliberately re-presented events in slightly different ways?  It's not an error if it is permissible according to the genre rules of the day.

To me, a comparison of Luke 24 with Acts 1 makes this point.  Both are written by the same author to the same audience and presumably without too long a time between them. Yet they give interestingly different impressions of the timing of things after Jesus' resurrection.

By the way, that leads me to another clarifying thought.  The impulse to harmonize is so in the weeds on harmonizing that it usually misses the big picture.  The gospel accounts sometimes seem to differ from one another in terms of the details of the story.  They give the impression of differing with each other.  The impulse to harmonize so assumes the importance and divine need to harmonize that it misses the obvious point--there is material that gives the impression of needing harmonized.

Which is more important, that I be able to hear the word of God or that somewhere, hidden beneath the surface, is some ingenious reconstruction that can resolve apparent tensions, even though no one else can see it?  It's the same mindset that leads a lone individual reading the Bible to think s/he has found a hidden, prophetic, meaning that no one in history has ever seen before. If the purpose of the Bible is in part for God to communicate with us (even this understanding of Scripture is deficient, since the primary purpose of Scripture is to form us), then the harmonizing impulse surely assumes God has failed on some level. If, on the other hand, God is completely unconcerned with harmonizing, then it isn't an issue (and it certainly is not an error).

Back to Luke 24 and Acts 1.  Luke 24 gives the impression that Jesus rises and ascends to heaven on the same day or at least very quickly. Jesus rises the first day of the week (24:1). Jesus meets the men on the road to Emmaus that same day (24:13). When they realize it is Jesus, they get up and return to Jerusalem immediately (24:33). While they are talking that night, Jesus appears to them (24:36). He leads them out to Bethany and is taken up to heaven (24:50-51).

This is an easy one for the harmonizing impulse.  Luke 24:50 doesn't give its timing.  So you could fit 40 days--or 30 years--through that verse. But the big picture person steps back and says, "But that's not really the impression the text gives. No one would have guessed there were 40 days there on the basis of Luke 24 alone, inductively." And of course there are 40 days when we get to Acts.

I have long since concluded from instances like this that the gospel writers did indeed feel the freedom to be creative in their re-presentation of the story of Jesus in order to bring out certain themes and, especially in Luke's case, to make the story artistically beautiful. This is an instance where the same author writing to the same audience seems to have felt that freedom.  And we get that impression all the more when we consider that Luke does not mention the trip of the disciples to Galilee and Jesus' appearance to them there in Matthew 28--a three day journey each way (the Great Commission is given in Galilee). I do not consider this omission an error in the slightest, since I believe Luke omitted the trip to Galilee to simplify the story and make it artistically smooth.

It seems very difficult to me, therefore, not to conclude that precise historicity was never the intention of the gospel presenters--or God's. And since error must be judged by the intended target, then the gospel writers did not err in doing so. We on the other hand do err if we demand that the gospels be harmonizable and if we read them as if they are videotapes of what happened. It shifts our reading of the gospels and other biblical narratives toward the point of view of the stories rather than the precise history of the story. I am not at all saying that they do not give us history or that the history behind them is unimportant. I am saying that the precise details of the history behind them was not the focus.

In the last post in this "chapter" I want to sketch out what it looks like to read the narratives of the Bible more for their theological point of view than for their precise history. I do want to mention, however, where an honest comparison of biblical narratives leads.  It leads to the conclusion of pretty much all experts on the gospels--that they have a literary relationship with each other.

For well over a hundred years, it has been the position of the overwhelming majority of experts on the gospels that Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a primary source.  The wording of the narratives is so similar to each other that this is beyond reasonable doubt. It is not just in the words of Jesus, which in any case are in Greek rather than his original Aramaic (and no two translations are the same). It is also in the narrative framing of his words and even at times in summaries of his doings. There is no reason why God would have dictated it in this way, since they are not exactly the same. Why would God dictate word for word and occasionally vary the word for "and"?

This is another reason why the harmonizing impulse to say "this similar even just happened twice" doesn't work.  From the standpoint of sources, it is Matthew or Luke's intentional re-presentation of the same story. I will spare you countless examples, but it makes my point about creativity in re-presentation.  And I will spare you further details on other consensuses or majority positions on sources elsewhere in Scripture.

I want to end with the question of the theological point of view of biblical narratives.  If we are focused on the theology of the gospel writers, then we get back what fundamentalism took away from us in the twentieth century, and more...

Friday, July 20, 2012

Edmundson on Online Education

Mark Edmundson has written an Op-Ed in the New York Times on online education that, from where I sit, is strangely out of touch with the cutting edge of online education.  Mind you, I don't know many professors who would rather teach online than onsite, and I don't know many students who would rather take classes online than onsite.

Doesn't matter.  The overwhelming majority of the adult college market right now is online and will be for the rest of history as far as I can tell.  The just out of high school crowd is a little different, since for them college is as much a social phenomenon as a learning one.

This line is very revealing: Online education "tends to be a monologue and not a real dialog."  Really?  Maybe if a professor videos a lecture of him/herself.  I can imagine that there are a lot of newbies to online education that are just trying to transfer the live classroom to recordings without actually adjusting the pedagogy.  Let's be clear here, from what I can tell Coursera is not state of the art online education.  It's recorded onsite education. It's great for a hobby on the side.

But that's not normally the way those of us who have been in the business for 15 years are doing it.  Any video pieces are usually limited to 10-20 minutes or less.  Lecture is anathema in online education.  Rather, it's about problem based and collaboratively-constructed knowledge.  Good online education requires great intentionality in design and great facilitators in implementation.

There is lots of discussion, way more than in a traditional classroom.  Everyone has to participate or else you're not counted as present.  There is way more writing than in a traditional class and teaching an online class is far more demanding than teaching a traditional one.  Students expect feedback and they expect it within a week.  No strolling into class and just talking.  No one paper at the end of the semester that the student never gets back.  It's massively demanding.

There are potential downsides we're working on.  Online teaching doesn't generally attract genius professors.  That requires new innovations. For example, I've heard of some courses that bring in world class scholars (who aren't the course professor) for a live 30 minute dialog via Adobe Connect, Skype, or some other platform. But let's be honest, most traditional college classes aren't taught by geniuses either.  In fact, most geniuses are actually pretty bad teachers.

I do agree with Edmundson a little about learning from students.  If a professor learns too much from students about the subject they're an expert in, they aren't much of an expert.  I don't learn much from students when I'm teaching Greek (although I do learn from questions I don't know the answer to, which in part is a sign that I'm not as much of an expert as I could be). Again, a comment more on the average professor in America perhaps than anything else.

All of that is to say that in these days of high bandwidth, there is almost nothing the traditional classroom does that can't be done online--including seeing the face of every student via Adobe Connect.

Have time for an MDiv on Tuesday?

We're gearing up for another group of new MDiv students here at Wesley Seminary this Fall.  Do you live in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Kokomo, Warsaw... anywhere within a couple hours of Marion, Indiana?  If so, and you can free up your Tuesdays from 9-4 this Fall, you can start your Master of Divinity degree in a close-knit community of students face-to-face with Bob Whitesel in "The Missional Church."

There are two weeks of intensives that begin in a week here on campus July 30 (Pastor, Church, and World with Lenny Luchetti, Cultural Contexts of Ministry with Kwasi Kena). But not sure whether you want to dive in all the way?  Try Bob Whitesel's Missional Church class this Fall to dip your foot in the water.  Or just take the course to sharpen your sense of God's mission!

Wesleyan pastors who fully enroll can take courses at $202 per credit hour (after the Wesleyan pastor's scholarship)--an incredible deal for seminary.

Here are some of the books you might wander through: Emerging Churches (Dan Kimball), The Shaping of Things to Come (Alan Hirsch/Michael Frost), Sticky Church (Larry Osborne)...

If you're interested, fire me an email: ken.schenck@indwes.edu

Does pure math exist?

Sometimes I long to have a profound thought or to encounter one.  When I was doing my education, I encountered them often.  I don't know if you've ever felt the way I used to feel when something would blow my mind. I'm trying to think of an example. One that comes to mind is when I began to think that universals are aggregates of like-minded particulars (at least as we experience them) rather than Platonic absolutes expressed in the material world.

Those moments come less often these days. You get older.  You think you have stuff mostly figured out. I thought of another one, when I had the thought that scientific theories are really just very precise myths expressing the mystery of the world.  Still myths, just a lot more precise in their expression.

Why am I writing this? Because I couldn't think of anything interesting to blog today, let alone profound.  Sometimes when I can't sleep at night I'll google, "something profound."  It's not very consoling.

So here's a stupid question.  I've always tended to think of the kind of math they do in physics and other sciences as an imperfect version of pure math.  So in quantum physics they use "statistical mechanics."  You can't have a precise sense of things so you approximate using statistical methods and probabilities.

So I always viewed this sort of applied math as an inferior version of pure math, where everything is tidy and exact, an imperfect shadow of the Platonic ideal.  But is it possible pure math is only a simplistic shadow of applied math, an abstraction from the real world?

What do you think?  Hey, I had to write something to get us off the topic of health care... ;-)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Living the Love Command: Health Care

continued from yesterday
...Another issue that has embroiled the United States in recent years has to do with whether the government should orchestrate a system that provides health care to all Americans as much as possible. Such laws are incredibly complex and involve multiple angles. For example, there is the question of whether such a system would break America financially and thus inadvertently cause far more harm than any good it might do. There is the question of whether the United States government would administer its part of such a system efficiently, or whether such programs tend to turn into cumbersome bureaucracies.

But there are also some philosophical and theological questions that are often raised for which we have clearer answers from the values of Jesus. Would Jesus object to a tax on me that would benefit others? Certainly he would object to an oppressive tax, one that did harm to me and especially one that primarily functioned to make someone else rich. But the New Testament unanimously teaches that believers should pay taxes (e.g., Mark 12:14-15; Rom. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:13) and unanimously discourages hoarding personal wealth.

At the very least, Jesus would commend those who give to others who are truly in need. “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). Surely a normal person, the person Jesus has in mind, would want medical help when he or she needs it. Giving so that others might have medical help is thus very much in keeping with Jesus’ values.

Most of us are not the sort of expert who could speak authoritatively about whether a particular law might be a good one or might be effective to provide health care to all people. But the initial bias of the Jesus follower will inevitably be that if it were possible for me to contribute in such a way that more people would have health care, then my spirit will want to do that. The bias of a Christian toward the goal is not ambiguous—it is toward helping others in need. Only the way in which that need might best be provided might be ambiguous for the Christian.

Although we shouldn’t have to provide further support, the New Testament is full of instruction that unequivocally endorses this attitude. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4). “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10).

There are other questions of course. Even though this is the attitude Christians should have toward helping others, should a Christian support forcing those who do not have the mind of Christ to contribute to the help of others. I personally believe that God grants a good deal of freedom to others to disobey his will. He will set the world straight eventually, but for now he largely lets us self-destruct with our own selfish and sinful behaviors.

The case is different when my selfish behavior and freedom hurts someone else. So God surely would want me to stop a murderer from exercising his or her freedom to murder. So at what point does providing for the health of others, including saving the lives of others, move out of the realm of God’s allowance for personal freedom and move into the realm of moral obligation? At what point do we fine the priest and the Levite for not helping the mugged Israelite, and make it a law to be a good Samaritan?

The end of the whole discussion is that specific legislation will be complicated and will require the expertise of many to determine whether it is advisable or not. What is clear theologically is that Jesus would have supported a system that provided health care to those who did not have it. He would have spoken harshly to those who resisted it for selfish reasons, just as Matthew 25 speaks to those who could have helped the hungry and thirsty, but chose not to do so. The spirit of Jesus is clear, even if we might take different positions on how to work out those values.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How Greek Participles Work

Here's a 33 minute overview of how Greek participles work:

Living the Love Command: Immigration

Warning: This post may be annoying to some.  Walk away as desired.  I am filling in a gap in a chapter in the Jesus book on applying the command to love one's neighbor.
What does it mean to live out Jesus' priorities today, especially for those who live in the United States with its current issues? An important warning should precede any controversial discussion of this sort. Principles and values are one thing. Playing them out politically is something quite different.

I have often found that when there is significant debate over an issue and the issue seems like a slam dunk to me, I'm probably missing something. There are usually extremely intelligent people on every major side of a debate, and presumably every one of them sees something true in the debate. Usually, if we can calm down and actually listen to each other, everyone can gain something.

I also believe we as humans are prone to blind spots. We are prone to rationalize our true motivations, to make ourselves seem purer and more noble than we are. We are prone to take positions based on the "herd" to which we belong rather than sound reasoning. We are prone to oversimplify things and make things black and white that are actually gray.

So what would Jesus' values be in relation to an issue like illegal immigration?  Those who are most in favor of hard core tactics in relation to illegal immigrants usually say things like, "These are people who are breaking the law who must be punished."  "These are people who are taking away the jobs of the people who actually are from here." "These people bring drugs and criminal activity into the US."

It seems to me that it is appropriate for a country to be careful who comes in and out of its borders, to protect its people.  The spirit of Jesus surely values protecting the innocent in one's own country, as well as those in other countries! But it is hard to hear Jesus saying anything in the previous paragraph. Should there be laws about borders and should there be enforcement of those laws? Surely. But when the response to something is out of proportion to the cause, something else is going on, something psychological and beneath the surface.

Jesus never put law over people. Rather, he disregarded the law when it came into conflict with people, as we've seen. And there is often not a little hypocrisy in those who like the "law" argument when it comes to the issue of immigration. Do you speed? Do you fudge on your income taxes. Do you ever use the stop sign rule, "No cop; no stop"?

There is nothing intrinsically more significant to the imaginary line between the US and Canada than the sign that says 55mph or the law to wear your seat belt.  It is a man-made line, a legitimate one, but one created by one people to keep other people out. Immigration laws are human-made laws, not divine laws. Such laws change regularly, unlike biblical instruction about adultery or falsely accusing someone.

No one who reads the gospels on their own terms could conclude that Jesus would let a stranger in the land starve to death, a value deeply ingrained in the Old Testament Law (e.g., Exod. 22:21; Lev. 25:35). If an immigrant commits a violent crime, s/he should be prosecuted for the crime, not for being an immigrant, whether legal or not. Certainly there should be some consequence for a person being in the country illegally.  Otherwise laws over boundaries become meaningless.And there is a legitimate argument that making too many exceptions to a law only encourages more law breaking.

But one has to suspect that the furor over immigration that arises from time to time is as much about immigration, period, as it is about illegal immigration. This is the case because this is not a new story. It is a story that has been repeated all over the world time and time again throughout history. It happened when the Irish came to America. It happened when Italians came to America or the Chinese. Americans still tell Polack jokes as an artifact of an earlier immigration wave.

What is usually going on in these situations is a fear of the other and a fear of how the other group might change our traditions and our ways of life. The only thing new about Hispanic immigration today is the fact that white Americans may not be in the majority in the future.  Of course there really is no such thing as "white."  "White" is simply the word we use for all the non-African, non-Asian past immigrants who have been here long enough to blend together--English, Irish, German, Swedish, Dutch, and a host of others.

Jesus would demand that we not judge others because of how they look. I have a number of family members who were born and raised in the United States but who have one parent from a foreign country. Some of them have darker skin than others. Those with the darker skin get stopped more often by the police and sometimes get followed around in stores. Again, you cannot be a true follower of Jesus and approach others in this way.

Jesus would demand that we love the illegal immigrant and that the consequences of illegality in our laws be just but loving.  If our legislators were ever to cross the line, then Jesus’ example is one of law-breaking. The founders of my church were abolitionists, who were willing to break the law of the land when the lives of slaves were at stake. In the same way, it is possible that there would be a time when our commitment to Jesus’ values would require civil disobedience on matters relating to immigrant individuals.

It is not my intention to try to spell out precisely what that would look like or exactly what circumstances would call for that sort of action. It is only to say that in God’s eyes, it is just as important for the immigrant to have a job as the citizen. The foreigner is every bit as important to God as the person born in the USA. And if the foreigner is God’s child, s/he is more deserving of God’s blessing than the natural born.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Since Stephen Covey died this week (from injuries sustained in a bike accident), I thought I'd finally pick up the book that's been sitting on my desk waiting to be read for well over a year now: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  After thumbing through it I can see what an impact this book has had on American business culture, not least including the church business. I can hear the presentations and PowerPoints of countless mediocre copyists, throwing around words like "paradigm" and flashing the picture of the beauty/hag to talk about self-perception (now I know where that picture came from).

But it does seem a quite remarkable book.  I didn't realize that I had already read it... in the language of American culture.

1. Be proactive.
How many times have I heard this sentiment.  "We can see where this is headed.  We need to be proactive."  I can think of leaders at IWU who've used this principle and forestalled trends that hadn't even gained steam.  And I can think of crises where leaders ignored impending data they were warned about years in advance to no avail.

2. Begin with the end in mind.
Mind you, this book is full of psycho-babble of a sort.  It's not too bad (although the animated movie Hoodwinked came to mind where the evil bunny has written a Personal Mission Statement).  But this principle is now the key to good education practice.  A good educational system is one that is "outcomes driven."  You know exactly what you want the student to know when a course, degree, or program is over and you design things with that goal in mind.

3. Put first things first.
I smiled when I saw this.  Wasn't this a motto at IWU before World Changers?  If so, then I have no doubt that then President Barnes or the board got the motto from this book. It's intuitive for some.  Very difficult for others.

This is where the "4 Quadrant" model comes from that I learned from Russ Gunsalus and have used to frame my own activities as an administrator.  Quadrant I activities are pressing and important.  They inevitably get the focus of our attention.

Quadrant II activities are important, but not urgent.  These are the ones we can easily put off but can't afford to.  The danger is that Quadrant III activities will suck up all our time--things that are urgent but ultimately not too important.  This is the biggest problem area for so many of us.  In a business (or church), these are the tasks we need to delegate to others.

Quadrant IV activities are finally the not urgent and not important.  People we consider failures at life are those who spend all their time on these sorts of things (watching TV) when there are important Quadrant I and II things that need to be done.

There's quite a nice list in between Habit 3 and 4.  Covey calls them six major deposits for building up your "emotional bank account" with others (a cheesy way of talking about your trust level with others).
  • Understand where other people are coming from.
  • Attend to the little things.
  • Keeping commitments
  • Clarifying expectations
  • Showing personal integrity.
  • Apologizing when you make a withdrawal from the "emotional bank account."
  • Unconditional love.
4. Win-Win
I immediately thought of the movie, Letters to Juliet when I saw this phrase.  It's another phrase tossed about in pop culture.  In Letters, the fiance keeps doing selfish things that push his bride-to-be away.  He calls it a "win-win" for both of them, but really it is always a "win-lose" for him.

Lose-Lose is pretty much how Congress has been operating of late.  If both sides have a win-lose mentality, then usually both will lose.

5. Understand first, then be understood.
This is common sense relational advice.  "Diagnose before you prescribe," which amounts to the advice not to jump to conclusions.  Listen before you leap.

6. Synergize
Another word that has trickled throughout American entrepreneurial culture.  "Look for synergies."  It's looking for common energies heading the same direction independently and then hooking the two together to see what happens.

7. Sharpen the saw.
The final habit is about renewing yourself as a person. Paying attention to your body, your soul, your mind.

Great book!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Liberal = Dying?

Quite a bit of buzz around the blog universe over Ross Douthat's recent New York Times article, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?"  The article seems to have been sparked by the recent meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops in Indianapolis and its clear trajectory while the church is in massive decline. The article captures what is very apparent in the seminary world right now, that liberal doesn't sell very well.  

A former colleague of mine who went to Princeton in the seventies used to joke that all the professors he had were ex-fundamentalists angry about how stupid they used to be and whose primary goal seemed to be to get the students to become just like them.  I don't think Princeton is like that at all any more, but it reminds me of a seminary I recently heard of where some professors don't even go to church. Not a good sign for a place whose job is to train ministers.

But lest I feed the fire too much, I should make it clear that fervor and truth are two different things.  Truth doesn't always sell very well either.  What sells is self-interest, and pleasure stands at the very center of self-interest, including excitement and fervor.  If people are angry, then what will sell is an opportunity to vent their anger.  If people are scared, then what will sell is a place of safety. And it will always be the perception of safety that sells, not necessarily the reality of it.

So what do you think?  What "sells" in a church and how does that connect to what is true?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hebrews Video Commentary 2:1-4

The video commentary on Hebrews continues.  Previous posts include:

Hebrews 1:1-4 (encomium)
Hebrews 1:5-14 (catena of celebration)

Now an 8 minute commentary on 2:1-4:

Explanatory Notes (Hebrews 2:1-4)
2:1 On account of this, let us hold fast to the things we have heard lest at some time we drift away.

This is a conclusion that follows from the previous chapter.  "On account of this," is "because Christ is greater than the angels."  Angels are only ministering spirits sent for those about to inherit salvation.

The things we have heard are the "word of salvation" first spoken by the Lord that the author will quickly mention.  Drifting away is not just a hypothetical for the author but a real possibility. If we do not remain faithful, we will not make it.

2:2 For if the word that was spoken through angels became firm and every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment...

The author is constructing a "lesser to greater argument," also called an a minore ad minorem, an a fortiori, and in Hebrew, a qal wahomer argument. If something is true of the lesser angels, then it will certainly be true of the greater Christ. The idea that the Jewish law was brought to Moses through angels appears in intertestamental Judaism and several times in the NT (e.g., Gal. 3 and Acts 7).

2:3a ... how will we escape, if we neglect such a great salvation that received the beginning of speaking through the Lord...

If the angels, along with the prophets, were mediums of God's revelation in the old covenant, Christ is the one through whom God has spoken his most recent logos. Christ thus does not appear to be directly equivalent to the word itself in Hebrews' imagery.

Interesting is that what is contrasted is the punishment. Christians often conceptualize the OT as a time of punishment and the NT as a time of grace. It is not so for Hebrews. If the punishment of disobedience was large in the old covenant, you can imagine it will be large under the new covenant.

2:3b ... and was confirmed to us by those who heard him [the Lord],

This single comment effectively eliminates Paul as the author of Hebrews. It would be completely unprecedented for Paul to place himself not among those who had direct contact with the Lord but with those who did above him (Peter, etc...). Paul rather considers himself equal to the apostles and an eyewitness (1 Cor. 9:1).

2:4 God confirming at the same time both with signs and wonders and various powers and dispensations of the Holy Spirit according to His will.

Interesting is that the train of thought seems to indicate that it was the apostles who did signs and wonders. Since the audience knew these people, we cannot pretend as if these signs and wonders were merely legend. Those second generation Christians who passed on the word of salvation must have done wonders.

4.2 Harmonizing not Advisable

This is the second in this last group of posts.  The first was splicing the gospels together.
For more than one reason, I've come to view what I did in this paper as deeply problematic. I hope it is fairly obvious how strange this way of thinking is, "harmonization thinking."

Say two people are describing an event.  One says a girl with a red dress came up.  Another person says a girl with a yellow dress came up.  Our first impulse is not to say, maybe there were two girls that came up, one with a red dress and one with a yellow dress.  Is it possible? Yes.  Is it the most probable scenario? No.

This way of thinking focuses not on what is most likely to be true, but on whether it is possible to maintain what I want to be true.  It's called special pleading.  Say three people are telling you about how Billy Graham healed a blind man in Marion, Indiana.  One says he healed a man named Bartimaeus when he was on his way into town to speak at IWU (Luke 18:35).  One says he healed a man named Bartimaeus as he was leaving town (Mark 10:46). A third person says he healed two blind men leaving town (Matt. 20:30).

Now Rev. Graham may have healed three men nearby Marion at the same point in his ministry, two of which had the same name, but we would chuckle if a child suggested this option to us.  We certainly would think twice about letting a person who thinks this way in real life do surgery on us or decide whether we should go to war.  It's just bad thinking.  It's thinking that is not interested in the truth but in preserving its own ideas at any cost, no matter how irrational.

Any sane person is going to say that these are three different versions of the same event.  Either going into or coming out of Jericho, Jesus healed a man named Bartimaeus.  Matthew, by the way, has two of something in more than one place where the other gospels have one (e.g., the donkeys going into Jerusalem).

I mentioned Harold Lindsell's book earlier, The Battle for the Bible.  His suggested harmony of Peter's denials was that perhaps Peter denied Jesus six times, three before the cock crowed once and three before the cock crowed twice.  But see how different this explanation is than any of the gospels themselves.  In order to preserve his idea about what the Bible can and cannot do, he has created his own gospel account.  It is far more different from the other gospels than any of the gospels are from each other!

This is the second reason why harmonization thinking is problematic.  The first is that it is just bad reasoning--it makes Christians look stupid and inadvertently disgraces God in front of the world.  The second is that it inadvertently twists the biblical texts.  It rejects any one of the biblical accounts in deference to its own version.  It is thus, ironically, hateful to the biblical text.  It violates what the biblical texts actually say in order to make them look like what it wants them to say.

It is thus, ironically, inherently deeply disrespectful to Scripture in the name of a supposed "high idea" of Scripture. The earliest Christian "harmonizer" we know is Tatian.  He created a single gospel out of the four gospels.  For a time in Syria, some Christians used it in their worship. But in the end, Christians decided to live with the tensions between the four gospels.  Tatian's Diatesseron did not become Scripture but the four separate gospels now in our canon.

Harmonizers run the risk of losing the distinctness of each gospel, the richness of the uniqueness of each gospel, because of the false uniformity they insist the gospels must have.  They throw away the parts of the Bible that don't fit with their preconceived notions about the Bible. It is a "high view" of an imaginary text and a quite "low view" of the actual biblical text.

The third reason why harmonization thinking is problematic is because, in the end, I can't see how it could possibly be right from a standpoint of the evidence.  Is it possible there were six denials? Yes.  Is it possible there were three blind men around Jericho?  Yes.  People with quite a lot of intelligence have come up with the most spectacular "what if" scenarios in the name of harmonization.

So is there an event where you know for sure it's the same event (in other words, not one like Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple where you can just say Jesus did it twice) and there seems to be a detail of the story that can't be resolved by adding characters to the story (three blind men, two servant girls, and an extra man who'd been in Gethsemane).

One candidate is the question of whether Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or the day before Passover (John).  In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples in the evening (e.g., Mark 14:12).  But in John, the high priest does not go into Pilate's building so he can eat the Passover, meaning that the Passover meal has not yet happened (John 18:28). It is the day of preparation before a Sabbath that would be a very high day indeed, a Passover that coincided with the Sabbath (19:31).

I'm sure that ingenious solutions have been proposed.  I seem to remember someone suggesting that Jesus and the temple were following different calendars, with Jesus on the accurate one and the temple off.  Brilliant!  Is it likely at all?  Not in the slightest.  Truth is usually the most probable reading of the evidence, not a possible reading that fits with what I want the truth to be.

So, once again, we set up our children for potential faith crisis when we teach them to read the Bible in this way.  A person can only sustain cognitive dissonance for so long, and it is ironically those who are most militant about harmonizing who are most likely to become angry atheists later. Why are so many ex-fundamentalists so angry?  They would tell you it's in part because they hate themselves for being so stupid.

And it is entirely unnecessary. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.  The point of the story of Jesus healing a blind man is not how many blind men there were.  It is that Jesus healed a blind man.  The point is surely the power of Jesus over sickness and his compassion on the rejected of society.  Notice how insidious it is for us to get focused on going in, coming out, how many in the light of the real point!!!

And what if a great deal more artistic license was allowed in telling the story in the ancient world than we would use today?  What if the gospel writers even at times deliberately presented events in slightly different ways?  It's not an error if it is permissible according to the genre rules of the day...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

4.1 Splicing the Gospels Together

I think that, apart from a conclusion, I'll make this group of posts the last cluster in the series I've been doing on weekends giving somewhat of my hermeneutical autobiography.  The previous clusters have been (I'm linking to the last of each group of posts):

1. Learning to Read in Context
2. The Text of the New Testament
3. The NT Use of the OT

This last cluster will deal with how I came to view the diversity of the biblical stories and the idea that various narratives of the Bible have combined sources.
For this last group of posts, I return to Dr. Marling Elliott's Synoptic Gospels class (Matthew-Mark-Luke) in college at Southern Wesleyan University.  My earliest exposure to issues of "higher criticism" were in high school under the shadow of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and Dr. D. James Kennedy.  I'm not 100% where or when, but I was exposed to Josh McDowell's More Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Harold Lindsell's Battle for the Bible.

Inspired by this breed of zealous apologists, I decided to write my final paper for Dr. Elliott's class on the parallel accounts between the gospels on the three denials of Peter.  We used, by the way, a great textbook for that class, Kurt Aland's Greek-English Synopsis of the Four Gospels.  No one who knew me back then will be surprised to know that, despite good intentions and probably more than one start, I had very little of the paper written as the day before the due date rolled by.  Yes, it would be yet another all nighter I would regret.

So I started by comparing Matthew with Mark. I was simply going in order. (I wasn't convinced at that time that I should start with Mark--that would come in my second or third year at Asbury.)  It seemed fairly easy.  For example, Mark mentions that they were warming themselves for the first denial, which Matthew doesn't say.  But Matthew doesn't say they weren't warming themselves. No problem.

There was the minor variation in Mark about the cock crowing twice but that was easy enough to harmonize.  Matthew just doesn't mention the crowing in the middle that Mark mentions.

It does say in Matthew that it is a different servant girl with the second denial, while it is the same servant girl in Mark.  I don't remember what I did with that one.  I think I might have suggested that two girls were part of the second denial.  Mark mentions the new girl.  Matthew the old one. I moved on to Luke.

Luke was pretty easy to fit with Matthew and Mark.  Luke has the fire that Mark has.  Luke has someone else for the second denial, like Matthew. For the third denial, Luke has only one person making a point of Peter's Galilean accent.  But that's no problem, many people includes several single individuals within it.

It must have been around 4am in the morning when I got to this point of the paper.  This is easy, thought I.  I can figure any problem those faithless scholars throw at me, thinks I.  Then I started John.

It is interesting that the King James version of John gave me greater issues than the NIV or another version might have.  In the KJV, you get the impression that it is at the door that a servant girl questions Peter (18:16-17).  But there is the fire nearby as well (18:18), so perhaps the fire was near the doorway.

No biggie, except that John seems to have the movement the opposite of the Synoptics.  In Matthew and Mark, Peter's first denial is by the fire and his second is by the doorway.  In John, the first denial seems to be at the doorway and the second at the fire. But again, perhaps the two were very close to each other.

There is the added dimension of the beloved disciple.  But in such cases harmonizing simply says this is another layer, something we didn't know from the other gospels. I think I was struck, however, by this whole new layer of the beloved disciple, completely absent from Matthew-Mark-and Luke.

So now in the second denial, they ask him if he was one of Jesus' followers.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one or another servant girl asks this. But the "they" of John are "slaves and officers" (18:18).  But this is doable.  A "they" can include any number of people, from male slaves to servant girls.  Of course, are we still at three denials then?

The third one is a bit more difficult. In the Synoptics, some people notice Peter's Galilean accent and ask him about it. But the person who asks Peter in John is someone who had been in the Garden of Gethsemane and seen Peter, a relative of the person whose ear Peter had cut off. It's a different question and a different person. Again, it could be a group of people I suppose, some of whom asked one thing, some of whom asked another.

I was out of time.  I wasn't really happy with the paper. I suspect it had the character of some papers I've since read, where you get the distinct impression that the person wrote it in one sitting and never went back to edit earlier parts of the paper as their thinking developed.  I printed the paper off on my dot matrix printer and turned it in exactly on time.

For more than one reason, I've come to view what I did in this paper as deeply problematic...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Preaching the OT Law...

I've been working a little on the question of how to preach the OT Law.  How do you preach the sacrificial laws of Leviticus or the rules on how to build the tabernacle in the last chapters of Exodus?  how do you preach OT civil legislation about stoning people?

In the case of the sacrificial system, Christians believe Christ as satisfied it a la Hebrews.  The same with the sanctuary.  I can only think of two ways to preach it: 1) in terms of the principle of God meeting people where they are at and 2) figuratively in terms of Christ.

How would you preach/teach these parts of the OT that the NT considers part of the "old" covenant?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sin and Sickness

Another missing piece from the first Jesus book...
Before we leave the topic of the miracles Jesus did, I should mention a connection the New Testament sometimes makes between sin and sickness that may seem strange to us today.  For example, in John 9 Jesus and his followers come upon a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples immediately assume that it was the result of someone's sin.  "Was it him or his parents?" they instinctively ask.

In this case, Jesus denies it.  The man was not blind because of anyone's sin. But the New Testament does not deny that physical sickness can result from sinfulness. We have a tendency today to "demythologize" such things.  Sure, if you are promiscuous, you are bound to get some disease. Sure, if you are completely self-indulgent you are likely to get liver disease or lung cancer.

But this is scientific, normal cause-effect thinking.  The biblical writers saw a potential connection between sin and sickness in a way that would not normally occur to us.  For example, Paul tells the Corinthians that some of them have become sick and some actually died as a punishment for the divisive spirit and cliquish spirit they have shown when eating the Lord's meal together (1 Cor. 11:30).

James 5 makes this same connection when it talks about praying for the sick.  The elders of a church are to pray for the sick. "The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven" (Jas 5:15).  James doesn't explicitly say that some sickness results from sin, but it seems implied.

The same connection may be there in Matthew 9 when Jesus first pronounces the sins of a paralyzed man forgiven and only later heals him.  The nearby teachers of the law believe Jesus is blaspheming when he thinks he can pronounce the man's sins forgiven. [1] However, the fact that Jesus also heals the man presumably shows that Jesus does have the authority to forgive sins.  After all, if the man's sins were connected to him being paralyzed, then the authority to heal presumably implied the authority to forgive sins.

There are great dangers with associating sin with sickness today.  We can fully believe in healing as Christians and yet strongly affirm that it is not God's will for every sick person to be healed.  If sickness were always--or even primarily associated with sin, then forgiveness would often involve healing.  It just doesn't seem to work that way.

Jesus has also made it clear that it is not our place to judge the intentions of people's hearts (Matt. 7:1). There are many overt actions a person may do that are obvious enough.  A person is planning to blow up something and accidentally blows up himself.  But it would be very wrong indeed to presume that someone is sick because of some sin he or she had done. Indeed, such an approach to sickness would likely reveal an evil heart on our own part, a hateful spirit.

So while the connection is real in the Bible and we should not say it cannot be so, we are probably right, in the end, only to connect sin with sickness when there is a natural, cause-effect relationship.  For example, anger, rage, and bitterness can indeed facilitate high blood pressure and heart disease. Gluttony and overindulgence can indeed lead to diabetes and many other sicknesses. Any other connection is best left to God.

[1] This is a little puzzling, since presumably priests pronounced people's sins forgiven all the time after they offered the appropriate sacrifices.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

NT Wright on Jewish Afterlife

I think if I were working on my doctoral dissertation today, I would blog through my resources. I think best by writing in front of an audience--like thinking out loud--which is why blogging works for me. Teaching is not about talking, but I learn best by talking to others about something I'm trying to learn (my apologies to former students).

I'm trying to get my brain back into the groove of the topic of the afterlife in Jewish literature, which I worked extensively on 10 years ago. I thought I might jot down some notes on some of the key dialog partners to remind myself of thoughts I used to have.  Having notes on the web is much better than note cards, since you can search them. ;-)
In The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright's second chapter deals with relevant pagan views of the afterlife, with the conclusion that death is a one way street in them. Chapter 3 then goes through the OT, with a similar conclusion to others, namely, that the OT does not really have a category for a meaningful, personal afterlife, with the exception of Daniel 12:2-3.

He does consider Psalm 73 to say a little more--God receives the righteous person to glory. And Psalm 49:15 speaks of God ransoming the psalmist from the power of Sheol. This last verse in particular might easily be read in terms of some sort of separation of the dead, although it might have referred to being saved from death originally.

Of most interest to me, however, is his classification of afterlife belief in Second Temple Judaism.  His categories are:
1. No future life (Sadducees)
a. Dr. Bauer at Asbury once pointed out to me one thing that Wright says here: "They denied it because they were the conservatives" (131). Pop Christianity has the Sadducees pegged as the liberals, imposing modern social categories on the NT world. But at least on this issue, the Sadducees were the ones most in continuity with the OT as far as the belief (or rather disbelief) itself.

b. This is where Wright treats Acts 23:23, a key verse for processing the spectrum of resurrection belief at the time.  His key insight, in his opinion, is that this verse is about the intermediate state. "What the Sadducees denied, then, was on the one hand the resurrection, and on the other hand the two current accounts of the intermediate state" (133). He is opposing the view of Viviano and Taylor, JBL, 1992. I think he is partially right and partially wrong here.

c. In this section is the quote, "resurrection was from the beginning a revolutionary doctrine" (138). I believe Wright developed this a little in The New Testament and the People of God.  He footnotes here Alan Segal in relation to the rabbis (in The Resurrection, 1997, 113).

d. Other Jewish books he mentions are of course Sirach, Tobit, 1 Maccabees, 1 Baruch.

2. Disembodied afterlife
These are Jewish documents that Wright sees as rejecting resurrection while believing in afterlife. They include Pseudo-Phocylides, Testament of Abraham, 1 Enoch 103:3-8, 4 Maccabees, maybe Jubilees 23:30f.

He sees the dualistic framework that often underlies this view in 4 Ezra 7, perhaps in a comment attributed to Johanan ben Zakkai (bBer. 28b), although presumably these individuals believed in eventual bodily resurrection.  He mentions funerary inscriptions from Williams Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 3, 1999, 90f.  Finally there is Philo.

3. Resurrection
"All the evidence suggests that, with the few exceptions noted already, it was widely believed by most Jews around the time of the common era" (147).

a. He starts with aspects of the Greek translation of the OT that reflect resurrection belief. Hans Cavallin's work (1974) has a section on this as well. Whereas Isaiah 26 was likely figurative originally, in the Greek translation it becomes pro-literal resurrection (26:14, 19).  Hosea 6:2 also, originally figurative, is now literal. Deuteronomy 32:39, Psalm 1:5, 21:30. The LXX of Job 14:14 makes it say exactly the opposite of what it said originally, as does Hosea 13:14. Job 19:26, while ambiguous originally, now clearly refers to resurrection. There is an extra statement of resurrection in Job 42:17.

I personally suspect that reflection on Scriptures like Isaiah 26 and Ezekiel 37 were catalysts for resurrection belief.  What was originally meant figuratively came to be taken literally.

Wright assumes that these are all bodily resurrections. With regard to Isaiah and Hosea he says, "No second-Temple reader would have doubted that this referred to bodily resurrection" (148). I have questions about the evidence for this statement. What does the LXX of Hosea mean when it says we will be raised to live in God's presence?

I also don't buy the old argument that vekroi must always mean "corpses."  This is potentially the etymological fallacy alive and at work in scholarship today. It doesn't matter that the word meant corpses originally. How did the word come to be used in common parlance.

"All the indications are that those who translated the Septuagint, and those who read it thereafter... would have understood the key Old Testament passages in terms of a more definite 'resurrection' sense than the Hebrew would necessarily warrant" (150).

b. 2 Maccabees, of course

c. He treats 1 Enoch here, which I think is mixed.  25:4-7 is fair enough.  In The Parables of Enoch (51), the righteous and holy become angels. Cf. 62:13-17, 91:10.

Wright acknowledges that 103:4 might be more about immortality than resurrection (citing Schurer 2.541).  Cf. 104:1-4.  This is a point where I am arguing for something different (cf. Collins).  I think there may be another category here (cf. Testament of Moses 10:8-10).  Psalms of Solomon 3:11 is less than clear (see p. 162 n. 135).

Apocalypse of Moses is clear resurrection (13.3), as is Sibylline Oracles 4.179-92.  TJudah may have a partial resurrection of the righteous (25.4).  Transformation in TBenjamin 10:6-9.  And of course 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch.  Eventually Pseudo-Philo (189-90) and the rabbis.

Wright changed my mind some time ago on the Wisdom of Solomon. It is not purely dualistic but does seem to look to a physical resurrection.

Josephus gives us the famous passages on the Jewish groups and their beliefs, somewhat hellenized to be sure. The Essenes are portrayed as dualists, the Pharisees are seen to hold to a resurrection of tje righteous but not the wicked. Much to return to here.

Wright wavers a bit on the Essenes. He thinks the external evidence points to resurrection belief and plays up two very exceptional fragments among the DSS: 4Q521 and Pseudo-Ezekiel. He also mentions 4QH 14, 19. John Collins is more definitive here (Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Many thanks to Wright for this superb work.  I gave a paper that ran through Jewish literature on the afterlife and categorized these sorts of positions in 1999, presented at the Historical Jesus section of SBL. Wright came up and asked for a copy of the paper afterwards. He was working on this book at the time. Of course he did a much better job with the topic than I did... ;-)

Monday, July 09, 2012

Life Reflections on the Kingdom

Filling in some missing pieces in my first Jesus book...
“Your will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.” We do not know when Jesus will return to earth and God will set up his eternal kingdom. Should we just wait and do nothing in the meantime? The gospels themselves urge us to press on.

I remember singing a song growing up in church that said, “We’ll work, till Jesus comes.” The song perhaps found its inspiration in John 9:4: “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” We find a similar idea in the Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19, where a man goes off on a journey to be crowned king. He leaves varying amounts of money with his servants (a mina was an amount of money) and tells them to “Put this money to work until I come back” (19:13).

What are we to do while we wait for Jesus to return? In John 9, the “work of God” Jesus does is healing a blind man to show the power of God. In Luke 19, Jesus tells the Parable of the Minas after the tax collector Zacchaeus has decided to stop cheating people and to give half of his possessions to the poor. Accordingly, being a good steward of what Jesus has left us in the parable directly has to do with using our resources to help those in need.

But we can extend the idea of “occupying ourselves” until Jesus’ return to anything we might do in this world to try to live out Jesus’ values and to bring the values of his kingdom into the world. First, is God king in our individual lives? We cannot control so much of what goes on around us. We certainly cannot control what other people do, at least not for long. Often we cannot even control ourselves.

But I have more control over myself than I do most anything else in life. I can control my attitudes. I often cannot control my circumstances or how other people treat me, but I can work with God to control how I respond to life and others, as well as the choices I make.

A good first step in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth is for God to be king over my life. When I know what God wants me to do, what the right or wrong thing to do is, will I commit with God’s help to make the right choice? Charles Sheldon once urged his congregation to ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” in every choice they made for a week. Although people unfortunately have vastly different ideas of what Jesus would do in various situations, it at least gets us to where we are not doing things that we are pretty sure God doesn’t want us to do!

It is also not God’s style to force the world to conform to his will, at least not for now. If it were his way, then evil would have stopped a long, long time ago. God will bring his kingdom with force in his own good time. In the meantime, the model of Jesus is one of “wooing” the world to God by showing the world his love. It is one of doing good in the world, of healing the sick, helping the poor, themes we will explore in later chapters.

Some tried to make God’s kingdom come by force in the days of Jesus (11:12), but God will come in force on his schedule. Our task as Christians is not to try to force America or any other nation to become a Christian nation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to influence our world for good, especially when we are talking about helping others and making the world a better place.

There is an important distinction here. We demonstrate the spirit of Jesus when we stand against the oppression of others, when we stand for others. This is something quite different than preaching against sin in the sense of rule-breaking. Standing against oppression comes from a different spirit than making sure sinners are punished. The first is the spirit of Jesus, the second is a vindictive spirit hiding under the disguise of righteousness.

So let us work till Jesus comes. Let us work at helping others, using the “mina” or “talent” (Matt. 25:14-30) God has given us to help others. May the Spirit work through us to perform miracles in the lives of others. Let us try to influence the world to love one another and to serve its true and ultimate king.

And when we can stop oppression or work to change unjust structures of society, that is a good work. This is not forcing the world to serve God. It is forcing the world not to oppress others. We have witnessed movements in the last two hundred years that have abolished overt, public slavery. We have witnessed the empowerment of women in Western society for women to have the same opportunities and voice as men.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This is the way things will be in the kingdom of God. If it is possible to see the structures of modern society become a place of this sort, a color blind, gender blind society, then we will be doing good work till Jesus comes.

The kingdom work that Jesus did while he was on earth focused primarily on inviting everyone who would to be included, especially those disempowered in Jewish society. No one needed to face the coming judgment of God on the world. And God would be particularly angry at those who refused to allow in those who wanted to come.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

3.4 Progressive Revelation in the OT

Continued from yesterday. This is last in a series of four posts on how my sense of the NT use of the OT developed over time.

1. Crisis reading Matthew
2. About how the NT reads the OT spiritually
3. Reading the OT in context

Now the final post in this clump:
I have inevitably come to the conclusion that evangelicals can only maintain the inerrancy of the OT, and read the OT in context, if we adopt a sense of progressive revelation. The revelation of the OT hit the target for which God intended at the time, but it was not as complete a target as the NT. Obviously a non-Christian Jew would disagree, but this is the perspective a historic Christian must inevitably take.

We thus witness the "lights coming on" throughout the pages of the OT when we read it in context. These issues are a little more debatable than the ones in my previous post, but still I think would command a solid majority of experts. For example, most of the OT does not deny the existence of other gods. Christians may want to say that they were really demons but in the worldview of most of the OT, they are called gods.

This means that the Israelites were more henotheists than monotheists.  They believed there was only one God who should be worshiped by Israel and that he was the God of gods. But they did not deny the existence or power of the gods of the other nations. We see this dynamic in Psalm 82, where the psalmist discusses the coming judgment of the nations through a picture of YHWH presiding over a council of the gods who were the patrons of the other nations.

Inevitably then, even Israel's understanding of God develops throughout the pages of the OT.  In the earliest parts of the OT, God seems to cause evil directly. He sends an evil spirit on Saul. He tempts David (2 Sam. 24:1). The later pages of the OT will come to see "the Satan" as the temptor/tester on God's payroll, setting us up for the even fuller understanding of James, who says that God does not tempt anyone. A mature understanding of Scripture must not thus simply apply Job's picture of God to today without processing it through the NT.

Genesis 1 was likely in dialog with the other creation narratives of the day rather than some simple but straightforward presentation of creation from which we might dialog with the details of modern science. What it poetically indicates is that God did not fight or struggle with other gods when he made the world. The world came into existence at his command, not in some conflict between competing gods.

The OT has almost no sense of meaningful life after death. That light only firmly comes on in Daniel 12:2-3.  I used to think that Job's wife was incredibly hateful to tell Job to curse God and die. I thought she was basically wanting him to go to hell. Then I realized that she had no sense of an afterlife. She was actually being merciful in her mistaken thinking.  She was saying, "Curse God. He'll kill you. Then it will all be over."

Now the OT becomes a crucial phase of God walking with his people in the time leading up to the Christ.  It becomes a consummate example of God meeting humanity where it is, in its understanding. It becomes three-dimensional rather than simply a mirror in which we see what Christians later fully came to believe--indeed what Jews later came to believe (since this progress of revelation is also necessary to get them to their current understandings as well in many respects).

Before I finish this clump of postings, a word is in order about how I have come to view the way the NT refers to OT authorship. It should be clear by now that I believe the NT authors could be truthful and yet read the OT out of context.  A crucial "a-ha" moment for me was when I realized that, for the NT authors, a key way in which God-breathed "teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness" was through allegorical and figurative interpretation. It is the incorrect assumption of many who quote 2 Timothy 3:16 that this verse is talking only of the literal meaning of OT texts.

My position is thus that the point of NT use of the OT is the truth being brought out from the OT text, not what that text meant originally. This has natural implications for the way the NT references the OT. Consistent with what I am saying, the point of the NT use of the OT is not the authorship of OT books but the truth being brought out from the text being referenced. It makes perfect sense that the NT, even Jesus, would reference the OT by way of the names that were thought at that time to be the original authors because God meets us where we are at.

Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time knows that inductive Bible study approach comes into conflict with traditional authorship of some OT books. For example, the Pentateuch talks about Moses. It does not read as if Moses is the author.  Genesis nowhere mentions Moses and has comments that would inductively point to a time when Israel had a king.

Reading the OT on its own terms requires us to read its texts inductively, not to come to those texts insisting they must line up with the way the NT or later Christian tradition interpreted them. Those are true meanings too but they may not always be the original ones.  Inerrantists can do this because authorship was surely not the point of the NT use of the OT.  It is simply part of the envelope in which the true message came.

Obviously you are welcome to disagree. But this is how I have held my faith together and been able to justify my church's position on Scripture as a scholar. If I seem to take difficult positions easily, it is not because I haven't struggled with them or have a personality that wants to adopt the most controversial positions. Anyone who knew me in college or seminary knows how completely false a picture of me that is!! It is because I struggled deeply with these issues 20 years ago and came to consider them inevitable if we are to have any claim to be a people of truth--indeed if Christianity is to be true.