Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Reformation Day

Today is Reformation Day.  495 years ago today, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral to start a debate.

Immense impact! It caused Roman Catholic political power over Europe to disintegrate. It led to political independence of individual nations like never before. It set in motion the tens of thousands of Christian splinter groups that exist today. It took rising individualism and put it into warp speed, democratizing religion. It would eventually facilitate the rise of secularism and higher criticism of the Bible.

I am a Protestant.  I think Popes and cardinals can be very spiritual people, but no more than any other Christian.  I believe God can raise up prophets from nowhere and the Spirit can reveal himself directly to anyone. I'm not fond of doctrines like purgatory, and I'm glad ministers can marry like everyone else.

Having said that, I hope we Protestants are allowed to be objective about our own tradition as well.  Is it not possible that the Roman Catholics scored some points in the debate or were more right than Luther in some areas? I come from the Wesleyan tradition, which came out of Anglicanism. I view Anglicanism as somewhat of a moderating form of the Reformation, somewhere in between the high Protestantism of the Lutherans/Reformed and Catholicism. As a Wesleyan I am more apt to critique Luther than some other Protestants are.

So despite the longstanding arguments between Wesleyan-Arminians and Calvinists, the Lutheran tradition is actually further away from us in some key respects than the Calvinist. For example, Luther drove an incredibly sharp wedge between faith and works, so much so that Lutherans don't like to talk about sanctification, about becoming more holy in this life.

By contrast, the Wesleyan tradition is closer to the catholic on this issue.  We believe not only that God wants to make us more and more righteous in this life.  We believe that you can walk away from God after he forgives you by deliberate acts of defiance.  With Paul, we believe that "We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).

Do we believe in sola fide, "by faith alone"?  We would say we do. Lutherans and Calvinists might say we don't.  We would say we do because works never help a person become justified. They might say we don't because we believe that human will (by God's grace) cooperates with God's will in faith, and because our lack of cooperation with God's will, which leads to sinful deeds, can "unjustify" us. (By the way, Paul is on our side)

I would say that all Christians today believe in sola gratia (by grace alone) and sola Christi (by Christ alone), including the Roman Catholic Church.  This is an area where the RCC has itself reformed its understanding.  It is only by the grace of God that anyone can be saved.  No human could ever have enough merit on his or her own to deserve God's favor.  It is purely a matter of God's grace and anything we do is in response to that grace.

Similarly, it is only through Christ that anyone can be saved, by God's design.  Although the Roman Catholics have priests, sacraments, and heavenly intercessors like Mary, they are all understood to be channels through which Christ's merits flow.  The RCC today would agree that salvation is through Christ alone, mediated further through other channels.

Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) is another one where the Wesleyan-Anglican tradition is more open to tradition, experience, and reason as channels of truth than some versions of Protestantism (the so called Wesleyan Quadrilateral).  Prima scriptura (Scripture first) might be a better designation.  Of course Luther and Calvin freely engaged the church fathers, so Wesley is probably not much different than them on that score.

But he lived during the Enlightenment, and so reason of that sort arguably flows in his veins more than them. Similarly, he was influenced by Pietists and was accused of being an "enthusiast," so experience of that sort arguably also flows in his veins more than them.  Can we just say that a Wesleyan might be more open to natural revelation and pneumatic exegesis than your average evangelical or fundamentalist?

So Happy Reformation Day!  Three cheers for Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Zwingli, Knox, Zinzendorf, Arminius, and Wesley!  [Add the fountain head of your Protestant group here]

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Poem

The boys and girls went out to play.
They took a snake and turned to say,
"A stick, a rope, a pole, a hose."
They swung it round and touched their toes.

When someone said, "I'd put it down,"
They hiked their nose all over town.
Still more, they looked at her askance,
And oft began at her to glance.

Say who are you to tell us what
And where and when and how and but?
We like to play, and play we will,
And of it we will have our fill.

But you had better out of here
Your lies, your trash, your evil fear.
In fact, it's not enough to go.
You're poison and upon you woe.

They grabbed her, raised her, took her out,
Dumped her down, began to shout.
They threw their stones, and she was done.
And they returned to have some fun.

Happy Birthday Dad...

My Dad would be 88 today if he were still on earth.  Just a few days over seven months now.

Love and miss you Dad... I'll have a Starbucks in your honor... I guess I do that almost every day :-)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Elaine Bernius on Joban Dialect

Caught a brief preview today at the Theological Research Seminar of Elaine Bernius' dissertation on the dialects of Job.  What fascinating and painstaking work!  She considers concentrations of words in various categories like Israelean, "foreign," Late Biblical Hebrew, and Standard Biblical Hebrew, while also considering of course extra-biblical sources like Dead Sea Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew.

In general, she believes the dialectical elements of Job's comforters may be a stylistic feature, a deliberate projection of foreignness on them, pointing especially toward the east.  Aramaic words would then not be particular evidence for lateness but more a stylistic element.  Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that her adviser would be delighted if God turned out to speak Standard Biblical Hebrew. :-)

Very impressive!

End of the Century Wesleyan (1990s): Black and Drury

Only one chapter again today from Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan ChurchSo far it's been:

Chaps 1-2  About Wesley and the origins of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in abolitionism
Chaps 3-4  About its activist early days that were low church, pro-women (and anti- some other things)
Chaps 5-6  The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8  Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church
Chapter 9   Multiple Ministries
Chapters 10-11 Roaring Holiness 20s
Chapters 12-13 Institutional Solidification (30s/40s)
Chapters 14-15 Prelude to Merger
Chapters 16-17 The Wesleyan Merger
Chapter 18 The Decade of Evangelism (1970s)
Chapter 19 The Decade of Church Growth (1980s)
No drastic events in the Wesleyan Church of the 90s, but time marched on.  United Wesleyan College closed and Indiana Wesleyan skyrocketed with its adult and online programs. The church grew to where there were more churches overseas than here at home. We went down to 3 general superintendents and Ken Schenck was ordained (not mentioned ;-).

Church Membership has been one of the biggest issues in the recent history of the WC.  Large congregations in certain locations have struggled with parts of the Wesleyan membership rules that are more our culture than biblical (e.g., drinking).  The solution over time has been two kinds of membership: 1) covenant membership for those who are firmly Wesleyan in tradition and 2) community membership for people who attend local churches, are clearly Christians, but who don't hold to all our traditions. It's a complicated issue, and it remains a work in progress.

We had worship wars in the 90s as those who liked "traditional" music (meaning whatever they grew up with) fought those who wanted "contemporary" music.  The contemporary folk often thought they were enlightened, and the traditional folk often thought they were spiritual.  Both were wrong.  Tiny congregations stayed traditional.  Large congregations went contemporary.  Middle sized churches either went to multiple services or alternated styles.

The most significant thing about the Wesleyan Church in the 90s was actually something that happened on the side, namely, the founding of World Hope with Joanne Lyon at its helm.  This great NGO did Jesus work in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of its civil war with prosthetics and has helped people all over the world start micro-businesses, providing for and empowering poor people, including women, in impoverished nations.  They have also worked against human trafficking.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Luke's Birth Story

We've seen that Matthew's birth story focuses on Jesus as the promised king.  It leads in Matthew 1 with Jesus' royal lineage and then shares the story of the wise men, where even Herod the Great recognizes that Jesus is king.  Luke, who may have known of Matthew's gospel, decided to highlight a different aspect of Jesus' birth. [1]

If Matthew emphasizes Jesus as king, Luke highlights the humility of Jesus' birth. Rather than being welcomed by kings, Jesus is greeted by shepherds, some of the lowest in society.  Luke focuses on the role of women in the story, individuals with low status in that world.  One of these is the prophetess Anna, who had been a widow perhaps for as much as sixty years--again, individuals usually overlooked and disempowered in that world.

We are so used to splicing together these "Christmas stories" that we often miss that each of the gospels has something unique to contribute to our understanding of Jesus.  It's interesting to wonder how our Christmas plays would be different if we only had Matthew or only had Luke. For example, if we only had Matthew, we would think Jesus was originally from Bethlehem and only later moved to Nazareth in the north to escape persecution (Matt. 2:1, 22-23).

Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist. We would not know from Matthew, Mark, or John that Jesus and John the Baptist had any family connection. From Luke we also learn that John the Baptist is of priestly lineage, something we are not told in any other gospel. It is intriguing to speculate if John was an Essene or if some early believers had been Essenes. John baptized not far from the most famous Essene location on the northwest side of the Dead Sea.

[insert textbox]
The Essenes were the third of the three best known religious groups among the Jews of Israel, the others being the Pharisees and the Sadducees. [2] Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we knew of them primarily from some scattered comments in ancient writings like those of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish thinker Philo. Since the Dead Sea Scrolls were probably the library of an Essene community, we have since been able to form a more extensive sense of who they were.

There seem to have been different groups of Essenes, some of whom were stricter than others (just as the Pharisees had different schools as well). Some married and lived in cities. Others separated themselves from society and were celibate. At least some of them were much stricter than your average Pharisee. For example, the community at Qumran by the Dead Sea viewed itself as a substitute for the temple while the temple was impure and they lived by the purity standard of priests.

Their sense of purity seems to be closer to the Sadducees than to the Pharisees, which makes sense if they had a significant priestly background at some point of their history. They seemed to have shared their possessions in common.  They probably had a more "apocalyptic" outlook on soon coming events in which God would judge the world and those in the true assembly or church would be saved. They perhaps had a stronger sense of eternal punishment and hell than other Jewish groups. They have also provided us with some of the clearest examples of the expectation that a Messiah was coming to restore and purify Israel.
[end textbox]

Another feature of Luke's birth story are the number of songs in them...

[1] The majority position of experts is that Matthew and Luke are independent of each other but used common sources like Mark and another collection of Jesus' sayings.  However, it would explain a few other similarities if, in addition to these sources, Luke also knew about Matthew's gospel. See Mark Goodacre, Questioning Q, ***. The real answer to how it happened may be more complicated than any of us would imagine.

[2] One of the best overviews of Judaism in the lead up to Jesus is James VanderKam's An Introduction to Early Judaism ***.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Grudem 10: The Knowability of God

Grudem continues...
This is a relatively short chapter with three main points. First, we cannot currently know God unless he reveals himself to us (149). Several proof texts are mentioned, including Matthew 11:27, "No one knows the Son except the Father, and non one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (RSV, italics his).  For Grudem, Scripture must filter any other way of knowing God as well, including natural revelation. "The Bible alone tells us how to understand the testimony about God from nature" (italics his).

His second and third points respectively are then that 2) we cannot never fully understand God but 3) we can know God truly. God is infinite and we are finite.  Therefore, we can never fully understand God. This is how Grudem defines the word "incomprehensible," not that we cannot understand God but that we cannot understand him fully.

This is true not only about God in general, but also that "we can never fully understand any single thing about God" (150). And it is not only true now but also in the age to come. Our inability to understand God fully is not simply a matter of our sinfulness but of our finitude, the fact that we cannot comprehend the infinite. "There will always be more to learn" (151).

It is important nonetheless for Grudem to qualify that we can still know God truly. "All that Scripture tells us about God is true" (151). Further, more important than facts is the fact that we want to know God as a person (152). Christians have the far greater privilege of knowing God personally above mere knowing facts about God.

Much in this chapter is commendable.  It seems beyond question that we cannot know God fully or completely because he is infinite and we are finite.  Surely Grudem is also right that it is more important to know God relationally than to know God cognitively. Finally, it seems possible that there are some facts we can know about God that are not skewed in any way. For example, "God knows everything there is to know about the creation" seems like a true statement that is absolutely true and completely literal.

To say something is literal is to say that we are using words in their ordinary sense. If I say, "he went through the roof," I am not speaking literally.  To go through the roof literally is no doubt to die of massive head injuries from your body being propelled through all the wood and roofing materials.  If I say "I have a son" and am talking about my dog, I am speaking figuratively.  If I say, "I have a son" and am talking about my son, I am speaking literally.

It seems quite likely that much of our knowledge of God is figurative to some extent, not completely literal.  To say much of what we believe about God is figurative is to say that we are saying true things about God but we are describing him by comparing him to something in our world that we can relate to.  "God is my fortress," not because he is a literal building structure I can hide in when someone is trying to attack me, but because he is like that.

So when the Christians of the 300s and 400s wanted to describe the three members of the Trinity, they described them as "persons."  I accept this language as true.  Is it literal, or is it God helping the early Christians find something in our world that expressed what the members of the Trinity are like? The principle of revelation, one that Grudem fails to appreciate, is that God primarily speaks to humanity in terms we can understand. By contrast, Grudem seems to think that God reveals himself to us in his own absolute categories, that he lifts us up to his level more than he reaches down to ours.

Thus we return to the underlying problem with his hermeneutic, that he implicitly reads the Bible as a document that stands outside of human context.  He treats the words as propositional statements of absolute truth rather than as words in genres written in situations in cultures, as God speaking to humans at particular times and places largely within their own categories and "language games." The meanings of the Bible were comprehensible to those to whom its books were first revealed; therefore, its original categories were largely those of the audiences to whom they were first revealed.

The Bible primarily gives us pictures of God, snapshots at particular times and places. Most of what we know of God we thus know more by analogy than on a fully literal level.  But yes, surely we can know some things about God literally as well, without saying he is "like" something we can relate to. And Grudem is surely very right to say we can know God personally and relationally--by far the most important way that we can know God.

Matthew's Genealogy

I mentioned in the previous chapter that Matthew was Mark with five large sermons inserted, along with birth and resurrection stories added at the front and the back.  I personally like to think that Matthew was thinking of Moses and the first five books of the Old Testament when he did this. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are the five books of the Law in the Old Testament. I would argue that Matthew was implicitly comparing Jesus to Moses, implicitly claiming that Jesus is the final and definitive Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the Jewish Law.

So the first two chapters of Matthew give us material that Mark doesn't have.  Matthew 1 gives us Jesus' royal genealogy.  Although most of us find such things boring, there are some nuggets of insight hiding in this list of names. And it's important to know that in the ancient world, your family or genealogy was one of the biggest factors that told who you were.

We like to think in our world that we can be anything we want to be, anything we set our minds to do. We are an individualist culture in North America. We decide our own destinies. I don't have to do the job my parents do.  I can be a Republican even if my parents are Democrats. I don't have to live in the city my parents live in. I don't have to stay poor just because I come from a poor family, and I don't have to socialize with high society even though my parents did.  In America, we believe in setting our own destinies.

Not so in the ancient world--or in most of the world.  In most times and places, humans have been members of herds, not individualists. Despite our individualism, you can still see traces of this human instinct even in America.  We call it peer pressure in teens but in adults you see it in political parties and religious affiliations. I can know a lot about you even by what cable channel you watch all the time.

In the ancient world, identity was largely a matter of one's genealogy, gender, and geography.  What family are you from?  Are you male or female?  What is your race and ethnicity?  You were assumed to be a particular type of person depending on your answer and, chances are, you conformed to these expectations as part of your own culture.

So when Matthew gives this long genealogy of Jesus, he is telling his audience who Jesus is.  The answer is that Jesus comes from a royal lineage.  Jesus is the son of David and is thus eligible to be king. Matthew divides Jesus' family tree into three groups of 14. This is probably because 14 is the number of David's name.

In ancient times, the letters of the alphabet did double duty as numbers as well.  Since Hebrew largely does not write its vowels, David's name is D-V-D or the numbers 4-6-4, which add up to 14.  By dividing up Jesus' lineage into three groups of 14, Matthew poetically shouts out "David," "David," "David."  The Gospel of Matthew thus begins by announcing that Jesus is king.

Another very interesting aspect of the genealogy is the way Matthew mentions certain women.  It mentions Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and of course Mary.  What is interesting is that there is something somewhat scandalous about each one.  All of them except for Mary, for example, were foreigners, non-Israelites.  Jesus' family tree thus embodies the fact that the gospel is good news for the lost.

There was something further scandalous about most of them in other ways as well.  Tamar dressed as a prostitute to get Judah to do his fathering duty. Rahab ran a house of prostitution. Bathsheba had an affair with David, and Mary got pregnant before she and Joseph were married. Again, the implication is that God wants to save the sinner and that he loves those who have lived in shame.

These two aspects of Jesus' family tree--his royal identity and his embrace of the lost--prepare us for his birth story...

Friday, October 26, 2012

What God Intends

By now the passing comments of Richard Mourdock in an Indiana Senate debate have made their way around the nation and have become part of the presidential debate.  When asked his position on abortion, he said:

"I know that there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view but I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize that life is a gift from God, and I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen."

The first part of his comment allows for abortion when there is a competing claim on life between the mother and the unborn child.  The second half relates to the question of making exceptions when there isn't a competing life claim.  For example, in the case of rape, is that an exceptional situation?  His answer was that it is not. Being consistent with his view that we have a human being, probably even from the point of the initial zygote where sperm and egg join, he cannot justify abortion in that case because it is taking a life.

There are all sorts of ethical and theological issues here.  For example, does a blastocyst hours or days after conception have the same moral status as a three month old or six month old fetus?  If so, then IUDs and the day after pill should be made illegal (so in Mourdock's position, a raped woman should not be given a day after pill to make sure she doesn't get pregnant from the rape).  Does a fertilized egg have a soul?  To what extent can the religious views of an individual be forced onto American citizens who do not share that view?

But those debates are very old.  Mourdock did not say, "I believe a life is a life and thus that even in the case of rape a woman can't have an abortion."  He went further to say that God intended her to get pregnant.  This is the Rick Warren, purpose-driven-life perspective.

It is not a Wesleyan perspective.  Wesleyans believe that God has given humanity free will in some measure. Accordingly, not everything that happens is God's perfect plan or directive will.

I would go further to say that God gives the creation some degree of freedom as well.  Let's call it "the laws of nature."  God does not decide every time whether I'm going to stick to the ground or fly off into space.  He made something called the law of gravity.

The result is that God doesn't micromanage the creation.  God allows everything that happens because he is sovereign, in control of everything.  But God does not direct everything that happens.  Otherwise, God becomes the direct author of evil, which James 1 disallows.  This is a potential inconsistency in Mourdock's position.  If God intends the pregnancy, he must explain why God did not intend the rape in the first place.

In the end, this is the age old problem of evil.  The best explanation--and even it is admittedly not perfect--is that God has allowed evil to exist in the world for a time.  Evil happens.  Some Christian thinkers, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, prefer to think that God orchestrates and directs every single thing that happens.  There would thus be no difference between God and Satan, for God would make Satan do everything he does.

At least the "free will explanation" distances God from evil. It says that God, for some reason, has allowed evil and suffering to exist for the moment, but that he will eventually destroy it once and for all, for good.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Literary Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

I'll be writing a devotional book on the Sermon on the Mount in the next couple months.  Although the structure of Matthew 5-6 gelled with me a long time ago (rightly or wrongly), it's only been in the last week that Matthew 6-7 have.  Although I use the Sermon on the Mount as an example of how to survey a text, I've always been a little less confident about the second half than the first.

Here's just a thumbnail of how I see the structure:

Matthew 5:3-16 Beatitudes
Kingdom Introduction--presents the values of the kingdom.  It involves some contrasts that will play out throughout the sermon--between now and not yet, between the visible and the heart, between true blessedness and superficial blessedness.

Matthew 5:17-20 Key Verses
These verses are ground zero in the sermon.  They are a general statement that plays itself out in the rest of it in two ways: 1) Jesus, as the new Moses, gives the fulfilled, the complete, perfected, and authoritative interpretation of the Law and the Prophets and 2) that fulfilled interpretation is true righteousness, a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.  These verses also form an inclusio with 7:12, which returns to the theme of summing up the Law and the Prophets with the Golden Rule or what we know from Matthew 22 as the love commandment.

Matthew 5:21-48 The Fulfilled Law
In this series of contrasts, Jesus plays out what he means by fulfilling the Law.  It's not merely the superficial, external rule but the playing out of the love principle in the heart in each area.  In some cases, this shakes up and shuffles an OT law (e.g., eye for eye). The chapter climaxes with the general principle in 5:43-48.  The fulfilled law not only loves ones friends but one's enemies as well.  This is what it means to be complete or "perfect" as our heavenly Father is complete (5:48).

Matthew 6:1-7:12 True Righteousness
This section plays out 5:20 and what exceeding righteousness is in contrast to the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  First, their righteousness is only acting (6:1-18).  It is external rather than a righteousness of the heart.  It is a righteousness for now rather than for the kingdom.  It is a righteousness for the world rather than for God and the kingdom.

They lay up treasures on earth (6:19-24).  They judge others when in fact their heart is guilty of the same things (7:1-6). If they focus too much on receiving honor in the here and now, the visible (remember the topsy turvy values of the Beatitudes), one can also focus too much on the troubles of the visible and the moment.  The worrier is also wrongly focused on the current mourning (cf. 5:4), on the current crisis before the kingdom comes (6:25-34).

So the person in current need, before the kingdom comes, should ask and seek from God, who is a loving Father (7:7-12; cf. 5:43-48).  And we are to be complete as he is complete and do to others what we would wish them do to us (7:12).

Matthew 7:13-27 Be Wise!
The sermon now concludes with several warnings.  The most central one is to be a wise builder.  Someone might hear this sermon and do nothing with it.  That's like a foolish builder.  That person's house will fall.  The wise builder hears the "rock" of the sermon and applies it.

Relatively few will do that.  The gate to life is narrow.  Even some of those who pretend to hear are only faking.  There will be false prophets who, like the scribes and Pharisees, pretend to go along with the kingdom but whose heart isn't really with it. By the time Matthew was writing, this was probably a comment on people in his context.

Finally, like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, not everyone who claims Jesus as Lord on the Day of Judgment will make it. Those who are only playing at it will be cast out into outer darkness, even though they may have done spectacular external things.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Treasures in Heaven (Matthew 6)

Treasures in Heaven
Matthew 6 plays out another aspect of the key verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).  If someone hearing this verse actually knew some Pharisees, the verse would have been terrifying.  Really?  More righteous than a Pharisee?  No hope for me!

Pharisees were known for how carefully they kept the Jewish Law.  They were so serious about keeping the Jewish Law that they had developed extremely specific rules that spelled out very concretely what it might mean to keep the Sabbath holy or not to covet.  While it's easy for us to condemn them or dismiss them as hypocrites, we can develop our own traditions about how to keep the rules too.

For example, when I was a young boy, I once visited a church on a Sunday evening that was very strict on keeping Sunday as a Sabbath.  Taking Exodus 20:6 very seriously, they did not believe in working on Sunday.  In the hour before the evening service, I visited a nearby playground and was swinging. An older person came up to me and told me I needed to leave the playground because it was the Sabbath. Her thought was that, for a kid, playing was my work.  I should stop swinging--that is working--because it was the Sabbath.

It is really ironic to me now to realize how similar this person was being to some of the ancient Pharisees.  Being so zealous to keep the Law, they played out the rules into every area of life.  The problem is not so much their eagerness to keep God's Law but the fact that for some of them the rules became an end in themselves.  Some of them apparently lost sight of what was much more important to God--loving people. [1]

So to say that you had to be more righteous than the Pharisees would have been terrifying to an average Jew.  Although today we assume they obviously fakers or evil, Pharisees enjoyed great popularity among most Jews. We have to make ourselves feel the shock of this statement.

When we get to Matthew 6, we begin to understand what Jesus is saying.  The righteousness of Israel's teachers of the Law is a this-worldly righteousness.  It is a righteousness for show.  The stereotypical Pharisee Matthew has in mind is an actor, a hypocrite who is playing at acts of righteousness but does not have truly heavenly values...

[1] We should remember that the Gospel of Matthew is probably harder on the Pharisees in its presentation because the community that produced Matthew was probably in serious tension with the Pharisees.  Most experts think that Matthew was written after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, when the Pharisees were perhaps the only major Jewish group left. With them in power, they became the leaders of Judaism and thus the perhaps main Jewish opposition to Christian Jews.

Brain Rule #5: Repeat to remember

My summaries of the book Brain Rules continue...
Chapter 5: Short Term Memory
In the late 1800s, Hermann Ebbinghaus did a groundbreaking study on memory, and we regularly mention some of his conclusions still today.  Medina gives us one of the most famous: "People usually forget 90 percent of what they learn in a class within 30 days" (100).  Ebbinghaus' conclusion was that different memories have different life spans.  The more a person repeats the memory to oneself, especially at intervals apart from each other, the more likely it is to stick long term. "Spaced learning is greatly superior to massed learning."

Backing up a little, there is more than one type of learning.  "Declarative memories are those that can be experienced in our conscious awareness" (101).  The names of the planets or what color shirt someone was wearing are these kinds of memories.  By contrast, nondeclarative memories are memories of which we are not consciously aware, like the motor skills that enable us to ride a bike.

Declarative memories involve four steps: 1) encoding the memory, 2) storing it, 3) retrieving it, and 4) forgetting it (98).  Chapter 5 is about the process of encoding memories. The most famous example of this process not working is a person known as H.M. He suffered a head injury that caused him serious seizures, and a neurosurgeon removed part of his temporal lobe (behind his ears) in the early 1950s. The result is that he was not able to convert short term to long term memory. Many years later, he could not recognize himself in the mirror, because his long term memory only remembered his face from his late 20s.

Interestingly, when your brain gets new input, it breaks it apart and distributes it to different storage places in your brain.  "It is like a blender left running with the lid off" (104).  For example, vowels and consonants go to different places, as one woman who suffered a particular stroke experienced (105).  The question of how the brain keeps such distributed information together is called the "binding problem."

For our experiences, the encoding is automatic.  Other memories, like memorizing a Social Security number, require "effortful processing" (107).  There are three other kinds of encoding.  Semantic encoding has to do with the meanings of words. Phonemic encoding has to do with sounds and structural encoding has to do with shapes.

The big question, again, is how the brain keeps track of the different pieces of a memory in the different parts of the brain. Despite our ignorance of the answer, Medina gives three key observations. First, "the more elaborately we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory" (110).  The more connections we make to a memory, the more likely we are to remember it, especially if we make a personal connection to it.  "More complexity means greater learning" (111).

Secondly, "A memory trace appears to be stored in the same parts of the brain that perceived and processed the initial input" (111). "The neural pathways initially recruited to process new information end up becoming the permanent pathways the brain reuses to store the information" (112).  "The brain has no central happy hunting ground where memories go to be infinitely retrieved." Instead, memories are stored in multiple areas.

Finally, "Retrieval may best be improved by replicating the conditions surrounding the initial encoding" (113). Where were you when you learned something?  What mood were you in at the time? You've probably heard to retrace your steps when you can't find something.  It's a sound suggestion.

Medina ends the chapter with three suggestions to improve your encoding of memories.  They all boil down to what Medina calls "door handles." The more associations, the more handles you have on the door to the memory, the more likely you are to be able to remember it.

So, first, give real world examples (114-15).  The more examples, the more likely you are to remember.  The more personal an example, the more likely you are to remember. The more you connect new information to information already stored in your brain, the better you'll remember.

Secondly, give compelling introductions when you are speaking (116-17).  "Introductions are everything." "The events that happen the first time you are exposed to a given information stream play a disproportionately greater role in your ability to accurately retrieve it at a later date."

Finally, associating learning with a particular environment can enhance the encoding. The example was given of a family that was trying to teach its children both English and Spanish at home.  The breakthrough came when they designated one room in the house as the "Spanish room" where only Spanish was spoken. The familiar setting helped the family encode Spanish memories in that room.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Decade of Church Growth (1980s): Black and Drury

Only one chapter again today from Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan ChurchSo far it's been:

Chaps 1-2  About Wesley and the origins of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in abolitionism
Chaps 3-4  About its activist early days that were low church, pro-women (and anti- some other things)
Chaps 5-6  The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8  Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church
Chapter 9   Multiple Ministries
Chapters 10-11 Roaring Holiness 20s
Chapters 12-13 Institutional Solidification (30s/40s)
Chapters 14-15 Prelude to Merger
Chapters 16-17 The Wesleyan Merger
Chapter 18 The Decade of Evangelism (1970s)
A few things of note happened to the Wesleyan Church in the 80s.  One was the move of its HQ back to Indianapolis.  This was to go closer to the city and closer to the airport.  If we were going to be engaged with the world, we would need to be able to get there.

There were also some changes to our core documents, our Articles of Religion and our membership commitments.  A paragraph on God the Father was added. The most major change was on divorce.

Previously, adultery was the only thing mentioned as a valid basis for divorce.  This was expanded to include any sexual sin such as incest or bestiality.  The word porneia in Matthew 5 and 19 is usually taken to mean sexual immorality of any kind.  More controversial was what divorce did to membership. Previously, the "guilty party" in a divorce lost membership and was not allowed to remarry. Now, membership was not involved with the issue.

The WC launched missions in Europe in the 80s, when Ken and Marilyn Blake went to Munich, Germany, where I was last year at this time.  Since then we have a number of small works scattered here and there in Europe. On the whole, these efforts have not yielded much fruit, a sobering reality and one that deserves serious reflection. As we are poised to have a church in Cuba after over half a century, I hope significant reflection is going into the question of contextualization.

But the biggest feature of the 80s was probably the growth of large churches in the WC and the beginning of serious church planting by those churches.  Kentwood Community Church, where Wayne Schmidt pastored, has to be a model for how to grow in a way that isn't gimmick or shallow but discipled growth with depth.  Although he is now the head of Wesley Seminary at IWU, under his leadership Kentwood went on not only to have "children" churches, but grandchildren and great grandchildren.

John Maxwell led the church in the charge to grow and even set up a Round Table for the pastors of the largest churches in the denomination. They were all following the lead of Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church.  Of course not all the church was as gungho as others. Some of these pastors were seen as a bit arrogant and even shallow--numbers for numbers sake.

The large church of the present day is hopefully a little less "attractional" and moving well beyond the seeker sensitive model.  The shift from attractional to missional is a shift from a self-centered church that competes with other churches for people and builds off of "transfer growth" to a church that is centered on what God is doing and wants to do in a community.

The attractional church also tends to be a homogeneous church, a church that only draws people who look like itself.  Usually this ends up being white middle class families.  Wayne Schmidt at Kentwood was a pioneer of reaching out to its diverse community with the aim of looking like the same multicultural mix of people around it.

Finally, Willow Creek has acknowledged in the last ten years that its almost exclusively seeker sensitive approach, which only aims at the entry level person, was ultimately a failure.  It is now acknowledged everywhere that a church needs to be leading its congregation into deeper and deeper faith, primarily through small groups.  A large church thus must have its people meeting in smaller discipleship groups to be a fully functional church.

In fact, you might think of the healthy megachurch as a collection of smaller church communities within a larger whole.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount begins with some famous verses called the Beatitudes or the “blesseds” (Matt. 5:3-12). For example, the first one is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). I was in a Bible study once that was going through the Beatitudes. One of the first questions we asked was, what does it mean to be blessed?

The first suggestion was that it meant to be happy. In fact, that’s how Today’s English Version translated it once upon a time: “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor.” Somehow, though, happy seems like a pretty anemic translation of the word “blessed.”

In that Bible study, a woman from Africa suggested that the word might mean something like “honored.” I thought it was interesting that the idea didn’t really resonate with the group. Inside I was thinking that she probably came the closest of anyone in the room.

Unlike North America today, the ancient world was an honor/shame world. Those of us in America prize things like thinking for yourself and making up your own mind. We prize rugged individualism and the “self-made man. Self-reliance, individual achievement—those are our values.

Not so in the ancient world. In the ancient world, the goal was to be honored by your group and not to bring it shame. So the person who was prized was the one who most fully displayed the values of the group. Meanwhile, the thing most to be avoided was bringing shame to your group by showing outsiders that you were not measuring up.

To be blessed by God is thus to be honored by God. All the Beatitudes embody the contrast between now and what is not yet. Now, those who weep and are grieved do not seem blessed. They do not seem to be honored now. But that is only now, for the moment. When God’s kingdom comes, they will be comforted (Matt. 5:4). In that day, they will have reason to rejoice.

Those who are poor in spirit, who realize that they are completely dependent on God, may not seem blessed now. They may not seem as prominent to others now because they do not stand in the marketplace and boast of their own righteousness, like the hypocrites mentioned later in the sermon (e.g., Matt. 6:2). But they will be rich in the coming kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3). [1] It will belong to them.

The rest of the beatitudes continue with similar contrasts. The meek do not usually gain high honor in this world, except perhaps at their retirements and funerals. More often, they go through life unnoticed because they do not push themselves to the front. In this world, it is the assertive and ambitious to tend to advance. By contrast, the meek will inherit the earth in the coming kingdom (Matt. 5:5).

God will fill those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, even in this life (Matt. 5:6). Those who are merciful now, will be honored with God’s mercy on the Day of Judgment (5:7). Those who make peace now, they are especially honorable to God (5:9). Those whose hearts are pure in motive, they will have the privilege of being with God for all eternity (5:8).

Right now, those who are persecuted for serving God do not seem honored. Those who are mocked and insulted seem more to be objects of shame than reward. But when God’s kingdom comes, it will all be reversed. They will inherit a great reward from heaven then. They will receive the same honor that the prophets of God have, even though they were persecuted at the time (5:10-12).

These are great reminders to us. We should not go seeking persecution. There are and have always been some twisted souls that actually seek out persecution to get praise. They ironically are still functioning with earthly values, only trying to get honor through putting on a godly show. They are the hypocrites of Matthew 6 we will talk about below.

The kingdom blessed are those who live out the Christian life because they are serving God. They do not do it to get acclaim. They keep doing it when they are mocked or persecuted. Their goal is simply to give honor to God, and God will reward them in the coming kingdom.

[1] The phrase, “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew probably does not refer to heaven as the place where we will spend eternity. Matthew 8:11 seems to indicate that the kingdom of heaven will be on earth. “Kingdom of heaven” simply seems to be Matthew’s way of saying “kingdom of God” in Mark. He may say “heaven” because it is the place where God is, as a matter of respect}

Friday, October 19, 2012

At Ephesus 1 (another excerpt)

I lasted almost three years at Ephesus before I was kicked out of town.  It was also there that a number of problems in the churches I'd planted came to a head.

A couple years ago I found out that some Christian missionaries had made their way into my churches in Galatia and told them it was nice of me to get them in the door, but that if they really wanted to be part of the people of God, they would have to go all the way and convert fully to Judaism--get circumcised.  I was furious.  It was one thing for the Judaizers to do their own thing in Palestine.  It's another for them to mess with the Gentile churches I had planted.

I was light years away from tippy toeing around on this subject.  I had circumcised Timothy way back when, something I almost regret now.  Like I said, his mother was Jewish.

Now these Christian Jews were using it against me.  "Look," they said, "even Paul circumcised Timothy, showing that the ideal is for you to get circumcised."

I was livid. Normally when you write a letter, you have a section after saying hello where you thank God for something.  Normally I'd say something like, "I thank God as I pray for you."  I completely skipped that section in this letter.  In fact I was so angry I said some things in that letter I probably shouldn't mention.

But it was like they were slapping Jesus in the face. It's like they were saying, "I appreciate you dying and all, but I think I'll try to do it on my own."  But as I discovered in Damascus, that's just not what God is looking for.  God wants to give the Gentiles a free gift.  And it's like these Christians are wanting them to say, "No thank you."

It's an insult to Christ.  These particulars of the Jewish Law, these works of Law that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes love to debate over, they're just not what God is looking for.  God was looking for the cross.  It is the faithful death of Jesus that God is looking for.  There's nothing we can do to earn it.  We just have to trust in it.  Anything else is an insult to God and his Christ.

Then there are the Corinthians. Soon after I left the city, a new believer named Apollos went there. Priscilla and Aquila had helped him come to believe in Jesus. He was a university boy.  He grew up in Alexandria.  If I had an elementary knowledge of rhetoric he had gone all the way. He even had known that famous Jewish philosopher, Philo.

He went to Corinth and was able to bring a number of people to Christ that I had not, especially among the city's elite. For example, there was Erastus, the city's director of public works. You know in politics, you have to see and be seen, and the number one place where festivals and public events take place is in the pagan temples.

Apollos had a solution for Erastus.  "Do you believe that these other gods exist?" he asked.

"No," Erastus said.

"Do you believe an idol is anything but a pretty block of stone or wood?" Apollos asked.

"No, an idol is nothing in the world," Erastus answered.

So Apollos told Erastus that he could go ahead and eat at those pagan temples knowing that Asclepios didn't exist.  He could marvel at the ignorance of those around him who actually thought they were real gods.

I can see Apollos' point, but it made me uncomfortable.  Aren't there demons in those temples?

I thought God gave me a good answer.  When you're in the marketplace, don't worry about the meat. Don't ask where it comes from.  We all know it probably came from a nearby temple but God owns all the goats in the world anyway.  Eat it with thanksgiving.

But don't go to a pagan temple.  What is that going to do for the faith of other believers who will be tempted to go back to those temples too.  Maybe your conscience is strong enough but you might lead them astray.

If you're at someone's home, don't ask where the food came from.  But if you're there with another believer and you find out the meat came from a temple, then don't eat it for your brother's sake.  It's not about your rights or freedoms.  It's about building each other up and not putting any stumbling block in front of anyone else...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Paul versus Peter (another excerpt)

I thought last night went well, very thankful.  Here's another excerpt from my novelistic portrayal of Paul:
When we got back to Antioch, it was clear that John Mark had been talking.  I could see that my decision not only to accept Gentile believers but to pursue them actively was going to cause a lot of controversy. I received a word from the Lord that I should go down to Jerusalem and lay out what Barnabas and I had been doing.  It seemed very important to have the support of the so called "pillars" of the church in Jerusalem.

Of course I knew I was right.  And God speaks to me every bit as much as to Peter.  Am I not an apostle?  Didn't Jesus choose to reveal himself to me?  Didn't he commission me to go and witness to his resurrection?  I would go up to Jerusalem, but I already knew God's will on the issue.

Barnabas and I took Titus with us as an object lesson.  He was a young Gentile who had believed. We thought it would make the issue real to them.  Were they going to consign him to destruction when he clearly had faith?

They agreed.  I think they viewed him a little like the aliens and strangers in the land of Israel of old. They were not Israelites, but Israel was to treat them kindly remembering that they, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt.  Neither James nor Paul forced Titus to be circumcised.  I'm pretty sure it was their preference, that the best scenario of all was for him to convert fully to Judaism and get circumcised.  But they didn't compel him.

Their main concern was that I remember the poor in Jerusalem, and in fact that is exactly what I am doing right now as I prepare to depart from Corinth for Jerusalem.  After I leave here we will pick up key representatives of the churches I have founded here in the Diaspora and they will each take an offering from their church to give to the Jerusalem church.  I won't handle any of the money, so no one can accuse me of anything.

I was elated.  Barnabas and I returned to Antioch very encouraged.  Little did I know the firestorm that was about to erupt.

It turns out that James was very concerned about a slippery slope.  He had acknowledged that Gentiles didn't have to become Jews to escape God's coming wrath.  They didn't have to keep purity laws or observe the Jewish Sabbath to be saved.

But he was worried that some Jewish believers might get the idea that they didn't have to worry about these things anymore either.  He was insistent that they needed to perform these sorts of works of the Law just as much as ever.  He sent some representatives--and Peter--up to Antioch to make sure that the Jewish believers were still holding the line.

Frankly I don't think Peter cared.  In fact, it is ironic that it was exactly these sorts of issues that kept James from believing in his brother Jesus when he was on earth, because Jesus flaunted all the rules about purity and the boundaries of the Law. I can just hear what James probably told Peter, "Peter, you are the apostle.  You are the one Jesus first appeared to.  People see you as the leader.  You have to set the tone."

So Peter comes to Antioch and, all of a sudden, after so many years of Jewish and Gentile believer having fellowship together and eating together, they separate apart.  Now the Jewish believers are all concerned that they will become unclean for eating with uncircumcised men.  It became a kind of "separate but unequal" situation.

I couldn't stand it any more.  I stood up in front of a whole assembly and called Peter a hypocrite to his face.  It was completely absurd.  I had kept the Law.  As far as the righteousness that is in the Law, I had been blameless.  Peter hadn't fully kept the Law a day in his life.  It was a complete joke.

I lost that argument, and it created real barriers between me and many in that church to this day.  When it came time to go back out on a second mission, Barnabas and I had to part ways.  Sure, the surface issue was about taking John Mark, but it was really about the fact that our sense of the mission had changed.  He believed it was important to submit to the authority of James and the leaders in Jerusalem. I believed it was a hindrance to the gospel and had no intention of following their instructions on Jew and Gentile believer eating together.

So we agreed to disagree and went our separate ways.  He took Mark and returned to Cyprus.  I grabbed Titus and headed off for Asia Minor.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Paul's "Conversion" (part of tonight's presentation)

From my presentation tonight:
But while I was on my way to Damascus, Jesus stopped me and tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I had it all wrong.  Everything was exactly the opposite of what I thought it was.  The things I thought were important weren't important, and the things I thought were evil were actually good.  God rocked my world and turned me around 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

This changed everything.  It was going to take some time to work through.  It was going to take some prayer and it was going to take some reflection.  God led me to a man named Ananias in Damascus and he told me everything he knew about what Jesus had did and taught.

But you know, I found out that Jesus' followers were still trying to figure things out too.  Although he had warned them, no one was expecting Jesus to die.  Like me, they thought that messiahs were winners.  Messiahs won and kicked the Romans out of town. They had gone to Jerusalem expecting the heavens to open and for God to crown Jesus king of Israel before the whole world.

Then after he died, they weren't expecting him to rise again.  Of course as a Pharisee, I knew what resurrection meant.  If Jesus had risen from the dead, then the resurrection was beginning, the beginning of the end, the restoration of all things.  If Jesus rose from the dead then he was the last Adam, the one to undo all the problems created by the first Adam.

Of course my thoughts would only develop over time as I thought about such things.  I would more and more come to understand that sin and death had entered the world through the first Adam.  God had made us to be full of glory, but Adam's sin made us lose that glory.  And it wasn't only us humans but the rest of the creation too.  The creation decays and disintegrates because of Adam's sin.

Jesus is the antidote.  Jesus' death sets everything right again.  The cross was God's solution to world's problem.

I hadn't anticipated that.  I thought that what God wanted was for us to keep the Law perfectly.  And I did.  I had lived blamelessly, as far as the righteousness in the Law.  I had kept the works of the Law perfectly, as I understood them as a Pharisee.

But it wasn't what God was looking for.  The cross was the solution.  Therefore, my works of Law were not.  Works of Law must not play any role in being right with God, but rather trusting in the faithful death of Jesus on the cross...

The Wane of Classic Biblical Studies

The reason why I think the herds of classic historical-critical biblical scholars will increasingly wane is because all the feeders for the traditional guild are either redirecting or waning.

1. The Ascendancy of Theology
Probably the greatest feeder of traditional biblical studies over the last half of the twentieth century was evangelicalism. You could count on a steady stream of evangelicals whose love and focus on Scripture led them to pursue the original, historic meaning of Scripture with a vengeance. Of course many of these individuals stopped being evangelicals along the way. At mainline seminaries of the seventies and eighties you might find any number of ex-fundamentalists teaching Bible, whose main goal seems to have been to knock any residual fundamentalism out of their students by confronting them with various conundrums from the biblical texts.

Now, evangelical scholars are increasingly embracing the theological nature of their biblical enterprise. The classic canons of inductive Bible study increasingly yield to theological interpretation. While the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) has its rising share of these sorts of sections, it may be that parallel groups like the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) or the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) will better satisfy the old thirst. In either case, I predict the number of SBL groups following a more historical-critical approach will increasingly decline.

2. The Force of Populism
The rise of the teaching church, the mega-church that has the resources to create its own educational wings, will increasingly allow grass roots Christendom to avoid those elements of biblical studies it finds inconvenient. Local churches can now self-perpetuate their own particular mirror readings of the Bible, finding in Scripture whatever it is they want to find.

So if it is a Calvinist teaching church, you get a Calvinist interpretation/approach to the Bible. If it is a Baptist church, you get a Baptist approach. If it is charismatic, you get charismatic. If it is non-denominational, you get the Baptist approach. :-)  This democratization of the Bible's meaning completely by-passes the classic historical-critical hegemony and allows each interpreter to do what is right in their own eyes.

3. The Rise of the Non-Religious
I think classical biblical scholars forget that it is people with faith who have fed the interest in the Bible. Why were there so many droves of aspiring Bible scholars at SBL in the late twentieth century?  It was the growing opportunity for students with faith to study at the table. I was there among them, excited to be at my first SBL, to give my first paper.

For a very long time, classical biblical studies “bit the hand that feeds it.” It was a bait and switch.  "You love the Bible, come study with us (... so we can teach you not to love the Bible)."

But education is a business, and you can’t give consumers a product they don’t want for too long before they find another company. With the rise of non-faith, the fastest growing segment of the faith population, there will be less and less interest in biblical studies, period. This inevitably means that “Bible outlets” that don’t deal in the kinds of product the two groups above give will be reduced to antiquarianism.

So universities often have a small classics department… and with the rise of the non-religious, classic biblical studies will also become a very small element in an also smallish religious studies department.

All these factors work together to suggest that classic biblical studies, which was such a large phenomenon at one time, will increasingly wane, much to the frustration (and puzzlement) of classical biblical scholars.

Do you agree or disagree, and why?

P.S. This also means fewer jobs for PhDs in biblical studies.  And when there is demand, it will more be for theological interpreters.

Dead Scholar Walking, part 1

Pumped to present tonight in Charlotte at the Passages exhibit.  Giving my first person presentation of Paul's life and ministry.  I think it's really enjoyable (as such things go) and thought provoking, since I don't follow the Brucian script...

Well, boarding's beginning, so I can't finish the post.  My thought is that the time when everyone wanted to hear original meaning scholarship on the Bible is on the wane for several reasons.  The once plenteous herds of biblical scholars at SBL will increasingly wane.  More to come...

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Decade of Evangelism (1970s): Black and Drury

I am pressed for time so will only do chapter 18 today from Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan ChurchSo far it's been:

Chaps 1-2  About Wesley and the origins of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in abolitionism
Chaps 3-4  About its activist early days that were low church, pro-women (and anti- some other things)
Chaps 5-6  The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8  Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church
Chapter 9   Multiple Ministries
Chapters 10-11 Roaring Holiness 20s
Chapters 12-13 Institutional Solidification (30s/40s)
Chapters 14-15 Prelude to Merger
Chapters 16-17 The Wesleyan Merger

Now chapter 18.
It is interesting to watch how the Wesleyan Church rode the waves of American evangelical culture in the last decades of the twentieth century.  So in the 70s we did door to door evangelism like everyone else. Then we would continue with church growth in the next decade and eventually leadership development.  Of course there's nothing wrong with any of these. It just seems that we have mostly been a follower denomination rather than one that leads the way. 

I was only a child but those days of the Four Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion made an impression on me.  After all, Dr. D. James Kennedy's church was in my home town of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  I remember going to hear John Maxwell's "Evangelism Principles in Action" for the Florida district.  I still remember him talking about how much easier it was to say "WESSS-LEYAN" than "Church of Christ in Christian Union."  He held the attention of a kid who had trouble paying attention to anything, which was quite a feat.

My local church implemented "GRADE" with its Andrews, Timothys, Barnabases, and Abrahams.  To this day I like the pattern.  The Andrews are evangelists, the Timothys are disciplers, the Barnabases encourage, and the Abrahams pray.

Still, he was part of my childhood guilt network.  He made you feel guilty if you didn't witness to the person sitting next to you on the plane, the taxi cab driver, the cashier in the check out line.  It would only dawn on me a long time later that he was born to evangelize, an off the chart extrovert who could sell ice cream in a blizzard. It wasn't hard for him to talk to strangers.

The General Board's statement on abortion in 1971 was interesting: "Because of the sanctity of human life and the unique potentialities of the fetus we reject the practice of abortion as a technique in population control, or for personal convenience, social adjustment or economic advantage. We believe it may be employed therapeutically to safeguard the health or life of the mother, but only after spiritual, medical, and psychological counseling has been obtained. We believe an appropriate and morally acceptable alternative to abortion is to arrange for immediate adoption upon birth" (238).

This is a very interesting statement.  It is interesting because it was hot off the press, fresh. Today we are so used to our position on abortion that it seems obvious to us. We can't even imagine that a Christian would take any other position. So today we would never refer today to an "unborn child" as a "fetus." That's become politically charged language.  Indeed, it is fascinating that Black and Drury repeatedly say "most" were in favor of this position, implying that some Wesleyans at the time were not.

Finally, some Wesleyans in the 70s and 80s wanted to participate in the charismatic movement.  The general church pretty much stomped on this one.  Wesleyans who spoke in tongues were pretty much driven out of the denomination.  A study was commissioned to conclude that tongues in the Bible were simply speaking in unlearned human languages from somewhere on the planet.

I personally believe that is true of Acts 2, but it is almost certainly not true of 1 Corinthians 14.  You get the feeling some times that the general board sometimes has appointed scholars in order to rubber stamp what they already wanted. Of course that's not true scholarship. True scholarship has to be willing to come up with a different answer than it prefers.

And of course the application of Scripture isn't as simple as just interpreting what it meant originally either. So much of the church still functions with a fundamentalist hermeneutic. Rather than get a sense of the whole Bible, we jump from individual texts directly to today.

Today, I would say that the Wesleyan Church in general has a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on tongues.  It's not allowed in public worship, but I doubt that many Wesleyans would try to stop you today from praying in tongues at home, maybe not even in a small group that was open to it.  But the WC of the 70s forbade all of these.

By the way, as an example of the hermeneutical process, neither the fact that Paul allowed interpreted tongues at Corinth nor the fact that he forbade uninterpreted tongues there automatically tells us what God wants us to do in a specific local congregation today.  We will have matured hermeneutically when we begin to understand these sorts of things.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Grudem: 9 The Existence of God

Grudem continues...
After finishing seven chapters presenting a certain Reformed understanding of Scripture, Grudem proceeds to the doctrine of God. The first, somewhat brief chapter deals with the existence of God. How do people know that God exists? Grudem gives two basic answers: 1) an inner sense all humans have and 2) evidence in Scripture and nature.

Grudem builds his case for an inner sense off a couple "proof texts." One is Romans 1:21, where Paul seems to imply that Gentile unbelievers have no excuse for not believing in the true God. What can be known about God should be plain to them because God shows it to them (1:19).  They instead became fools. Grudem then jumps to Psalm 14:1, where it is the fool who says there is no God.

Why then do some people not see it? Grudem points to sin as the culprit (141).  In one sense, "everything that exists gives evidence of God's existence" (142, italics his).  Only sin blinds people from seeing it.

Both the Bible and nature provide this evidence. Scripture everywhere assumes that God exists.  But the heavens also tell the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

Grudem does give very brief summaries of the four main philosophical arguments for the existence of God (143):
  • The cosmological argument is the argument that because every known thing in the universe has a cause, the universe itself must as well.
  • The teleological argument is the argument from design. "Since the universe appears to be designed with a purpose, it must have an intelligent and purposeful creator.
  • The ontological argument is an argument that the greatest possible being must be a being that actually exists, since otherwise it would not be the greatest.
  • The moral argument is the argument that our sense of right and wrong and the need for justice must come from a God who is the source of right and wrong.
Grudem considers all of these arguments valid because they all lead to the correct conclusions.  "The universe does have God as its cause, and it does show evidence of purposeful design, and God does exist as a being greater than which nothing can be imagined, and God has given us a sense of right and wrong and a sense that judgment is coming someday" (144).  But Grudem only believes a person can come to saving faith by believing the testimony of Scripture.

Grudem also believes that "God must enable us to be persuaded" (144). Satan blinds unbelievers from seeing the light of the gospel.  Only God can overcome our sin and enable us to be persuaded of his existence.

In a way, I was looking forward to getting to Grudem's section on God.  After all, I believe God exists. I believe God is all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present.  I expected largely to agree with him. Yet his fundamentalist approach to such topics taints his approach chapter after chapter.

Notice the tension in this chapter between Grudem's use of Romans 1 to say that everyone has an inner sense that God exists and his use of 2 Corinthians 4 to say the god of this world has blinded those who do not believe.  No doubt he could propose a way to hold these two comments together.  The problem is that he rips such verses out of their contexts in specific arguments Paul is making to specific communities.

It is probably Jews who don't believe in Jesus that Paul speaks of Satan blinding their eyes in 2 Corinthians 4:4, but we shouldn't construct an entire theology of why people don't believe from such a passing statement.  Was he being a little poetic?  Was he drawing an image from his context?  Did he really mean us to think that everyone who doesn't believe is directly being blinded by Satan?

In Romans 1, Paul was likely drawing on the book of Wisdom, chapters 13-15 (Grudem would no doubt disagree because he doesn't like the Apocrypha).  But again, was he really making a statement he would want us to construct a systematic theology out of?  His point was that people should know better than to think that an idol is really a god. I'll confess that I have never fully followed the train of thought in Romans 1 that idolatry leads to sexual immorality. I can see that this is the train of thought in the book of Wisdom as well and thus that it made sense to many Jews at the time.

But to what extent was even this argument not so much about each individual statement but about where it was leading, namely, to the conclusion that all have sinned and thus stand in need of God's grace?  In the end, my point is only that Paul was not writing a theology textbook on the question of whether everyone has an inner sense of God's existence.  The fundamentalist rips a proof-text from a context and makes it a statement of propositional truth. The true biblical theologian looks to the spirit of all Scripture, realizing that most individual texts are pictures in a collage, moments in a flow of revelation.

Most people in history have believed that God or gods exist.  Not everyone does, especially these days. I would like to believe that at some point in everyone's life, God reveals himself to everyone at least a little, enough for them to move toward him or to reject that tiny bit of light.  But this is something  different from everyone having some built-in "inner sense" of God's existence as part of their human make-up.

Grudem is of course a Calvinist.  He believes in the end that God only turns on that light for certain people.  I think this is why there is something a little strange about the way he approaches the classic arguments for the existence of God.  He does not really talk about them as rational proofs--he does not really treat them as real arguments.  He just says that their conclusions will make sense to you if God has opened your eyes. The arguments in themselves can't convince you, but you will find them convincing if you already believe.

He is probably half right.  The first two arguments--that the universe needs a cause and an intelligent designer--make enough sense.  I doubt that many will come to Christian faith because of them, but if you have faith, they make enough sense.

The third one, the ontological argument, is probably incoherent in its classic form.  It seems to say that because a greatest possible being can exist in my mind it must also exist in the real world. It mixes apples and oranges.  There may be a more profound version of it but I have never heard one that really made sense to me.

Further, the moral argument is far from clear in a world whose history is filled with people who had no conscience. Cultural anthropology reveals that culture shapes our morals immensely, and that any core sense of right and wrong among humanity is extremely limited. Grudem can say that Christians will be on the same page morally if God opens their eyes. But I don't think missiologists will agree, apart from some very basics.

I believe it is reasonable to believe that God exists.  I also believe it is possible that, if our minds were not "fallen," God's existence would be obvious to everyone.  I am not so sure, however, that even those who believe in this life will find any rational proof for God's existence to be absolutely compelling as a philosophical argument.  That is to say, belief in God will ultimately remain a matter of faith in this life.

The Sermon on the Mount 1

The best known of the five big sermons in Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount. We may miss some profound aspects of this grand sermon if we merely think of it as a sermon Jesus gave on one particular occasion. By the time you finish this book, you will hopefully realize that the main goal of the Gospel writers was not merely to record the things Jesus said and did but also to tell us truths about Jesus by the way they presented the things Jesus said and did.

For example, some of the material in the Sermon on the Mount is in both Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6. Now it is quite possible that Jesus preached similar things on more than one occasion, but that is not the best explanation for what we find in these chapters. We have good reason to conclude that Matthew and Luke were drawing on a common source for this material. [1] If this idea is true, then the differences between the two are significant, because they probably represent something Matthew (or Luke) was meaning to say about Jesus.

What is the significance of the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is on a mountain?  Is it merely the fact that Jesus said these words on a mountain?  Or has Matthew set these teachings of Jesus on a mountain in order to tell us something about Jesus? Again, this whole line of thinking can be a little troubling when you hear it for the first time. We are programmed merely to think of the Gospels as historical presentations without realizing that ancient writers felt freer to be creative in the way they presented history than we would expect.

So is it possible that Matthew wanted us to think of another word from God that was given on a mountain in the Old Testament?  Is it possible that Matthew wanted his original Jewish audience to think of Moses and the Law when they read the Sermon on the Mount?  If so, then the key verses of the sermon, 5:17-21, take on a rich meaning.

Matthew 5:17 says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."  Now the Law and the Prophets is a shorthand for the entire Old Testament Scriptures. [2]  But the next couple verses go on to talk about commandments in the Law and the rest of the chapter shows how Jesus fulfills the Law.

The point is that the Sermon on the Mount gives Jesus' authoritative interpretation of the Law.  It implicitly compares Jesus to Moses as the law-giver.  Moses gave the Law.  Now in this sermon Jesus gives the fulfilled Law.  The sermon closes with the people getting the point: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (7:28-29).

[1] Because it was German scholars who first explored this issue, they called the hypothetical source "Q" after the first letter of the German word for "source," Quelle.  Scholars like Mark Goodacre believe it is more likely that Luke used Matthew as a source directly for this sort of material ***. My point in the main text comes to the same conclusion either way.

[2] The three sections of the Old Testament in the Jewish division are the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.  The "Law and the Prophets" is thus a shorthand way of referring to the whole Old Testament by referring to its two main parts.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Choosing and Evaluating Church Curriculum

This morning I found myself summarizing a chapter by Keith Drury called, "Choosing and Evaluating Curriculum.”  It's in a book called Discipleship That Transforms.  As usual, it is crystal clear and eminently practical.

Curriculum is “a planned sequence of learning experiences that organizes learning and change in an orderly manner to accomplish the spiritual development of people” (192). Or to unpack his definition:
  • Good curriculum is planned—it plans learning sometimes over ten years or more.
  • It is sequential—it asks about the best order to learn material.
  • It is organized and orderly.
  • It asks not only about what people need to know but how they need to change, especially in terms of spiritual development.
Here are some important terms often used in relation to curriculum (193-95):
  • Goals and objectives: Goals are long term (over months and years) while objectives are more short term (in a unit or single lesson).
  • Outcomes: The direction of education these days is more toward talking in terms of outcomes—what should a student know, be able to do, or just be in general at the end of an assignment. Preferably, the outcome should be measurable, something you could demonstrate was accomplished.
  • Cognitive-affective-behavioral: These are types of outcomes. Cognitive refers to things someone might know. Affective outcomes relate to feelings or attitudes. Behavioral outcomes have to do with actions or skills.
  • Educational mission: What is the entire multiyear curriculum plan trying to accomplish? Drury gives an example: “To help individuals recognize God as revealed in Scripture, respond in personal faith, seek to follow him as fully devoted Christians, be incorporated into Christ’s church and become actively involved in God’s mission in the world, as they live in the full power of the Holy Spirit growing to Christian maturity” (194).
  • Scope and sequence: The scope is the range of material to be covered. The sequence is the order of material to be covered.
  • Area or theme: Sometimes a scope and sequence can be broken down into themes (e.g., salvation, vocation, etc.).
  • Teaching strategy: The pattern used to move through each lesson in the curriculum, taking into account factors like age level readiness and attention span. Here is an example: 1) hook (capture interest), 2) book (study the Bible), 3) look (examine life—apply), and 4) took (enact into life).
In a local church, Drury recommends the following as a process for selecting curriculum:
  • Organize the decision-makers. Who should decide?
  • Establish your evaluation criteria. How will you evaluate curriculum?
  • Examples include age appropriateness, whether it fits your theology, how expensive is it, how much preparation does it require of teachers, how widely can you use it among groups, does it give application or only talk theoretically, etc.
  • Weight the criteria. Which factors are most important to you?
  • Send for samples and documentation.
  • Evaluate the curriculum materials.
  • Make a decision.
  • Plan periodic assessments of the material.

The Story of Matthew (3.2)

... continued from yesterday.
The scholarly story of Matthew is not as romantic as the one we hear more often. Normally, we hear of how Matthew was a tax collector that Jesus called to be a disciple.  Then later Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote down his reminiscences of Jesus' earthly ministry. We get the impression that Saint Matthew sat down one day (or two) and the Holy Spirit inspired him to write down his memories of his time with Jesus two or three decades earlier.

God's inspiration of the Gospel of Matthew was probably a little more complicated and less romantic.  The book of Matthew itself is anonymous.  Nowhere in its pages does it tell us who its author is.  There is an early tradition by a man named Papias who wrote this: "Matthew collected the sayings [of Jesus] in the Aramaic language, and everyone translated them as best they could." [1]

It is not clear that Papias was talking about the Gospel of Matthew as we have it. Nevertheless, at some point early on, the heading, "The Gospel according to Matthew," started circulating as the title of this document.  It is the only name we have offered from the ancient world for the name of its author. My sense is that these sort of traditions usually preserved some kernel of truth but also that they also usually got a little mangled and romanticized.

Here is the scholarly story. The Gospel of Mark was written first, probably in the late 60s or early 70s of the first century, probably primarily to a Gentile Christian audience. Then a Christian Jew, sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem, perhaps in the 70s, took the Gospel of Mark and created the Gospel of Matthew out of it.

[insert text box on the Synoptic Question]

I should probably stop and remind you that God can inspire a person to use sources just as much as he can dictate to you.  In fact, on the romantic model, Matthew was remembering things.  That is, his memory was a source, helped by the Holy Spirit. Certainly 1 and 2 Kings mention sources like the Annals of the Kings of Judah, and Jude quotes a book called 1 Enoch.

So what did the author of Matthew add to Mark to make the Gospel of Matthew?  Basically, Matthew adds five large sermons scattered throughout. Then he added the Virgin Birth and resurrection details on the front and the end.  If you take Mark and drop these sermons into it, add the introduction and conclusion, then you have Matthew.

Now the author of Matthew had to have a source for these sermons. One possibility is of course that the source of these sermons was a collection of Jesus' sayings that in some way went back to the disciple Matthew. While this is mostly speculation, it would be typical of how traditions often worked in the ancient world. The Gospel of Matthew would get its name from one of its major sources but the precise story would have grown a little. [2]

The fact that there are five sermons has not been lost on interpreters of Matthew, since the cornerstone of the Jewish Scriptures is the five books of the Law, the Pentateuch.  Could it be that the author of Matthew was thinking of the Law when he added these five sermons? [3] After all, Matthew arguably presents Jesus as the authoritative interpreter of the Law, and as we will see, the way it tells Jesus' birth story makes us think of Moses.

Was it the disciple Matthew who put this all together? On the whole it seems more likely that material from Matthew was a source for the Gospel than that the actual disciple Matthew put the Gospel together into its current form. It's certainly possible, just not the most likely conclusion. For example, why would an eyewitness (Matthew) draw on a non-eyewitness (Mark) as his primary source? And although Greek was certainly spoken in Palestine, the only evidence we have of Matthew suggests he preferred Aramaic (or Hebrew).

Nevertheless, I will refer to the author of the Gospel as Matthew. If this sort of issue is annoying, it's important to realize that half the things that upset us are actually traditions we have learned about the Bible rather than things in the Bible itself. The Gospel of Matthew does not tell us who its author was--the titles were surely added later. But since we grow up forming our faith around the Bible as we know it--or the version in which we read it--we can feel like our faith is being challenged when in fact it is only our traditions about faith that are in question...

[1] My translation. Found in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16. Three elements of this translation are highly debated.  Did Matthew collect sayings or stories?  Was it in Aramaic or Hebrew?  Did people translate or interpret them?

[2] One problem with this speculation is that the sermons of Matthew are not exactly "translation Greek."  Some of it could be, although it is virtually impossible to trace it without wild speculation. Assuming the Gospel of Matthew used a written source, it would likely have been a Greek source.

[3] B. W. Bacon is often credited with first developing this idea. ***

Friday, October 12, 2012

Scholars, Consensus, and a Story (3.1)

Scholars are notorious for disagreeing with each other, as well as with having bizarre ideas. I personally believe that not all scholars are created equal.  In particular, some are more objective than others.  In the area of religion, some people become experts only to defend the positions with which they started. Others try to nail out the details of a position that was wrong to begin with, and they predictably end up in a wacky place.

I personally take a lot of stock in consensus.  When those who are truly experts on a subject pretty much agree on something, I take that very seriously.  There is an important caution here.  For example, the book of Hebrews was the focus of my doctoral work and I have published two books and several articles on it.  I think it is fair to consider me an expert on Hebrews.

But I am not an expert on the Gospel of John.  A position I have on John doesn't count as much intrinsically as if a Johannine scholar were to speak. Frankly, even on the subject of Hebrews, I am more of an expert on some aspects than others.  So when I speak of consensus on something like the Gospel of Matthew, I mean experts on Matthew more than I would mean a New Testament scholar in general.

So I have a PhD in New Testament.  I have written a New Testament survey textbook.  So I have explored a little the question of how the gospels were created. Am I an expert on that subject?  Maybe we should say I am more of an expert than your pastor probably is, but less of one than those for whom this subject is their specialty.

Nevertheless, I want to tell you a story.  I think it is a story that most of those who truly are experts would agree with.  I want to tell you the story of how someone started with the Gospel of Mark and ended up with the Gospel of Matthew...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mark: The Cross Makes the Messiah

So far, we've seen that Mark highlights Jesus trying to keep his activities and identity somewhat hidden.  In fact, while Jesus clues his disciples in and they believe he is the Messiah, they do not understand that for Jesus to be Messiah means for him to die.  This observation brings us to the third and most important distinctive of Mark's presentation. The cross was the focal part of Jesus' mission.

Mark teaches the resurrection...

However, at least as we have it, the resurrection is more like the epilogue of the Gospel of Mark. The climax of Mark, the point of the story where the tension reaches it highest point before being released, is at the crucifixion.  Indeed, it is with the confession of the soldier by the cross. [1] Three times in the latter pages of Mark, Jesus predicts his impending death.  Three times the disciples don't get what he is saying.

But the reader can sense the foreboding. The disciples may blissfully think they are going to Jerusalem to be part of the renewed kingdom, but the reader knows what is coming.  The reader can hear the ominous music in the background. The tension is rising, building, and there is a sense of inevitability.

After Jesus and his disciples have started toward Jerusalem--and after Jesus has made his third prediction that he is going to die--James and John obliviously ask Jesus if they can have thrones on either side of him in the kingdom. The end of his response give us the only real substantial peek into the significance of Jesus' death for Mark: "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." This is effectively the purpose statement of Jesus' earthly mission in Mark.

We naturally read a statement like this one now and think of the incarnation, the fact that Jesus existed before he was on earth and "came" down to earth. [2] Experts on Mark debate whether this is exactly  what Mark was thinking, since Mark doesn't clearly speak of the incarnation elsewhere. But as Christians it is fine for us to read it this way, since we believe in the incarnation. In either case Mark is telling us that the focal point of Jesus mission was to die for the sins of many.

No doubt those who first heard this saying immediately thought of some in Israel as the "many." But Mark was not likely written for a non-Jewish, Gentile audience. When Mark 7 is presenting Jesus' encounter with some religious leaders over washing hands, Mark takes the time to explain what the Jews do to keep from becoming ceremonially unclean (7:3).  Mark speaks of Jews in the third person, as someone else, not as if the audience itself is Jewish.

Similarly, it is interesting that Matthew, the most Jewish gospel, does not mention Mark's conclusion that Jesus was implicitly declaring all foods clean when he said that unclean was something that came from the inside out, not from the outside in (Matt 15:17; cf. Mark 7:19). We cannot know for certain, but is it possible that such a conclusion was far more controversial for Matthew's possibly Jewish audience as opposed to Mark's primarily Gentile one?

So when Mark tells us that Jesus came to die for many, it potentially included everyone, not just Jews.  We all know what a ransom is from the movies, but we shouldn't push the image too far, as some in Christian history have.  God is not paying off Satan to get humanity back--or some other overreading of the analogy. Jesus is simply dying to free us from the consequences of our sins and the sins of those before us.

We get the barest hint of what this means when the temple curtain rips in half in Mark 15:38. The temple provided atonement for sins. Perhaps this is Mark's version of Hebrews. Atonement for sins is now accomplished.

The rest of the New Testament also fills in some of the details for us as Christians. We cannot know entirely what Mark himself thought Jesus was freeing us from.  The earliest Christians may have thought Jesus' death was freeing Israel from the consequences of its sins as a nation enslaved to foreign powers like the Romans. Acts 1:6 mentions the disciples asking Jesus if he was then going to restore the kingdom to Israel.

But in Paul's writings we get a more universal sense of Sin and its power.  Jesus' death frees us from the power of Sin in this life (e.g., Rom. 8:1) and from the power of death in the next (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54-55; Heb. 2:14). Mark does not go into such details. His ministry brought freedom from the power of demons or from the power of sickness, but his death is surely about a much more profound liberation still!

The cross in Mark is therefore not the low point of the story. In a massive reversal of significance, the cross turns out to be the high point of the story, the climax.  This is the ransom taking place.  This is the moment of liberation from the consequences of sins.  The centurion by the cross gets it, a non-Jew of all people. [3]  He sees how Jesus died and immediately comes to the right conclusion: "Surely this man was the Son of God!" (15:39).

Far from showing Jesus was a fake, Jesus' death on the cross was the very focal point of his earthly mission in Mark.  After Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah, he rejected Jesus' subsequent prediction that he was going to die (Mark 8:31-32).  But Jesus in turn made it clear that it was Peter who didn't understand how things worked.  The cross would in fact be the high point of Jesus' mission as Messiah. And though Peter and his disciples did not get it, the Roman centurion did.

[1] Cf. Rhoads and Michie, Mark as Story.

[2] Cf. Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[3] Again, cf. Mark as Story.