Thursday, January 31, 2013

Brain Rule #12: Exploration

So we finally reach the end of the book, Brain Rules.  Here's where we've been:

Rule 1: Exercise
Rule 2: Survival
Rule 3: Wiring
Rule 4: Attention
Rule 5: Short-Term Memory
Rule 6: Long-Term Memory
Rule 7: Sleep
Rule 8: Stress
Rule 9: Sensory Integration
Rule 10: Vision
Rule 11: Gender
Rule 12: Exploration

Rule #12: "We are powerful and natural explorers."

Medina ends the book with these words: "The greatest Brain Rule of all is something I cannot prove or characterize, but I believe it with all my heart... it is the importance of curiosity" (279).  Medina's mother fed every passing interest he had growing up, from dinosaurs to space to mythology, even atheism. At the other end of life, his 100 year old grandfather demonstrated a fascination with new knowledge.  The point is that Medina believes we are built to be life-long learners and we are only taught to go to sleep intellectually by society.

Until just after the year 2000, it was commonly thought that the brain did not generate any new cells after birth. But it is now recognized that the learning sections of the brain continue to generate new cells throughout life and that these cells are as malleable as a babies brain cells. Medina believes that our brains developed the ability to learn and improvise from "chaotic, reactive, information-gathering experiences" early on as a species (271).  "One of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas."

A good deal of this chapter addresses child development and indeed Medina's own engagement with his own children. Forty years ago, it was generally believed that we start out more or less as a "blank slate" on which our experiences write.  Today, we realize that a lot of the human brain comes pre-wired with various drives and processes.

A baby less than an hour old can stick out its tongue in imitation of someone else sticking out his or hers. We have "pre-loaded information gathering strategies" (267). For example, we have a kind of cell called "mirror neurons" that imitate in our minds the things we see. Our right, pre-frontal cortex predicts and evaluates when we are wrong about something.  Then something called the "anterior cingulate cortex" signals that we need to change our behavior.

We are wired to test hypotheses.  We get bit by a snake or a bee, we don't get near it next time. We make observations with our senses. We form hypotheses about what is going on. We experiment. We draw conclusions.

Our brains develop in predictable ways. At 18 months, we learn that objects continue to exist even after we do not see them, such as when you hide a cup under a cloth. The "terrible twos" are when we can really distinguish our own wills from those of others.  We begin to experiment with doing the opposite of what our parents want us to do to see what happens.

Medina ends the chapter and the book with ideas about how educational institutions might be structured to capture the exploratory dimension of the human mind.  He thinks medical schools might very well be an excellent model. They have 1) consistent exposure to the real world. For example, you often learn on site at a hospital.

Secondly, they give constant exposure to people in the real world, using faculty who work in the field as well as teach. Finally, they give exposure to individuals engaged in practical research, research laboratories. He gives another example of how you might set up a college of education that studies the brain, but he thinks this model might be used with other areas of education too, such as a business school.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Brain Rule #11: Gender

My summaries of the book Brain Rules continue...
Chapter 11: Gender
Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.

Stephen Jay Gould said the following about the nature-nature controversy, the question of whether our inherited genetics or the environment we grow up in affects who we are more: "It is logically, mathematically, and scientifically impossible to pull them apart" (252). Society has expectations of men and women that affect our perceptions and expectations.  Our "sex" may be biological, but "gender" is mostly a matter of social expectations.

In one experiment, a corporate executive was said to be a male to one group, a female to another.  With no other difference in the description, the group described the male as likable and competent, the female as likable and not very competent.  Two other groups were given the same descriptions with the added information that the executive was a superstar on the rise.  They again described the male as likable and very competent, the female as very competent but unlikable, perhaps even hostile.

The genetic differences between male and female come from our different chromosome make-up.  Women have two X chromosomes. Men have an X and a Y chromosome. We know now, of course, that the man determines the sex of a child.  The woman contributes an X chromosome to the child. Then the man either contributes another X chromosome to make a girl or a Y chromosome that makes a boy.

The X chromosome is much longer (some 1500 genes) than a Y one (less than 100)--and the far more significant of the two. The default setting of a mammalian embryo is to make a female. A small gene in the middle of a Y chromosome called SRY will make the embryo become male.

Because a female has two Xs from which to chose, she genetically shuts off half the genetic material somewhat randomly, some from the father and some from the mother. But the male has to use all the X material from his mother.  This implies that a male is more genetically biased toward his mother. It also implies that a male has more at stake if a gene on the X chromosome is damaged.

There are also some regular differences in the brains of men and women.  Men tend to have a much larger amygdala than women, the part of the brain that creates and remembers emotions. The amygdala of a woman also tends to interact more with the left side of the brain, male amygdalas with the right. This is not the right brain-left brain folk tale (both sides of the brain are used in both creativity and analysis). But the right side of the brain tends more to get the gist of things, the left side more the details. It thus does seem to be true that women tend to remember more the details of an emotional event while men more remember the gist.

Male brains generate serotonin about 52% faster than women do. Serotonin is sometimes connected to the regulation of mood and maintenance of a sense of well being, but brain scientists strongly disagree over such things.  The precise significance of brain differences relating to the size of the amygdala and the rate of serotonin production are not agreed.

Studies of differences between male and female brains have to do with populations rather than individuals. That is to say, these analyses have to do with large groups of men and women rather than any individual male or female in particular.  Just because most male or female brains would seem to function in a particular way does not mean that all do.

There are, however, some observable trends. Men are more likely to have mental retardation than women. Men tend to have more severe cases of schizophrenia than women. But women are twice as likely to experience chronic depression than men.  Men are more likely to be anti-social or be addicted to alcohol or drugs. Women are more likely to have anxiety.

Women tend to be better at verbal communication than men, and they use both sides of their brains when speaking and processing verbal information. Men primarily use one of the hemispheres. Women tend to cement relationships through conversation, while boys seem to do it by "commotion," by physical interaction and competition.

When boys jockey for status, the dominant one tends to give orders, the less dominant tend to withdraw.  In some studies, women tend not to give top down orders.  If the male leader says, "Do this," the female more likely to say, "Let's do this." Intimacy among females often involves sharing secrets.

Medina's ideas have to do with paying attention to gender differences.  He suggests in the workplace that  an employers might experiment a little with teams of varied gender arrangements to see how it affects projects. He suggests that women are not more emotional than men but that they have more details of emotional experiences to deal with than men do. In the classroom, he suggests that boys or girls may need some separate attention to keep social dynamics from preventing them from reaching their potential.

Brain Rule #10: Vision

My summaries of the book Brain Rules continue...
Chapter 10: Vision
Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.

"We see with our brains" (224). In the previous chapter, Medina has talked about the model that sees our senses sending information to brain centers and then on to higher regions of perception. He suggests that the process is much messier, involving interaction with other senses early in the process and a "top down" element of interpretation that results in differing interpretations of the same experiences.

Our vision is a great illustration of this messiness.  For one thing, processing of vision seems to start not at our vision center at the back of the brain but with the retina itself at the back of our eyes. Our retina takes light patterns and makes partial "movies" called "tracks" (225). One of these tracks involves outlines and edges, another processes motion, another has to do with shadows.

Perhaps as many as a dozen little amateur "filmmakers" send these movies simultaneously to the back of the brain for integration and further interpretation. If one of these tracks is defective, a person may not be able to discern motion or some other central element of vision. The tracks go to the thalamus and then emerge in greater combination.

Eventually the information flows in two streams.  The ventral stream recognizes what an object is along with its color. The dorsal stream recognizes location and whether something is moving. The "association regions" mentioned in the previous chapter work to integrate these electrical signals.

Far from the brain seeing exactly what is there, it makes some guesses and fills in some blanks.  It fills in the blind spot in our sight, for example.  The brain takes the differing images coming from each eye and combines them together so that you only see one outside picture.  People with Charles Bonnet Syndrome actually hallucinate people and things that they know are not there.  Their brain simply fills in the details wrongly.  The brain devotes about half of its resources to the act of seeing.

A lot of what we see is actually our brain guessing what is out there based on prior experience.  Many will be acquainted with "phantom-limb" experiences.  This is where the brain continues to feel a limb that is actually no longer there. Some individuals experience pain in this limb that no longer exists. One way to alleviate that pain is to put a mirror up against a remaining limb so that it looks like there is another limb beside it.  Sometimes, the vision convinces the subconscious enough that the pain will diminish.

An average person might remember 10% of a lecture.  If pictures are combined appropriately with the lecture, that figure goes up to 65%. The dominance of vision over all the other senses begins in infancy.  It is reflected in our very DNA, where scientists would say vision has taken over massive amounts of genetic material devoted to smell previously, about 60%.

Medina ends the chapter with some ideas. For example, he suggests that we throw out our old PowerPoint presentations, the ones with way too much text on them and no pictures. "Less text, more pictures" (238) brought USA Today criticism in 1982 when it started, but it is the most read newspaper in the United States today. Pictures grab attention because the brain is wired to pay attention to color, orientation, size, and motion.  It helped us survive in the Serengeti in an earlier phase of the species.

Software allows people today to create simple but effective computer animations. Medina tells how his career choice was inspired by an early animated short in 1959 called Donald in Mathmagic Land.  "We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words" (240).

Brain Rule #9: Sensory Integration

My summaries of the book Brain Rules continue...
Chapter 9: Sensory Integration
Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.

One model for how we process information from our senses goes something like the following.  It starts with sensation--our five senses are stimulated by our environment (sensation). Then you might think that the thalamus, an egg shaped structure in the middle of the brain, routs those sensations to the respective sense corners of the brain (routing)--sight, sound, etc. Finally, their conclusions are merged and sent to the higher parts of the brain for perception of what they mean.

Although the evidence is not definitive, Medina thinks it is leaning toward a messier process.  In this model, the senses begin to confer with each other almost immediately.  The overall process is much the same except that perception is going on from the very beginning as the senses interact with each other.

Perception involves both "bottoms up" and "top down" activities. Association cortices in the brain connect the sense data that has come up from our senses and been processed by the key sensory areas of the brain (bottoms up) with past experiences and memories that it relates to them (top down). The result is that two people experiencing the same sensory stimulation can have different perceptions based on their past experiences. Accordingly, we have no guarantee that we experience the world as it actually is.

Our varied senses confer with each other in the process of perception, all along the way. If you see a video where someone says "ga" and the sound "ba" is dubbed over it, many will hear something like "da," a compromise between your sight and hearing (McGurk effect). On the positive side, the use of multiple senses in learning improves the likelihood of retention.

"When touch is combined with visual information, recognition learning leaps forward by almost 30 percent, compared with touch alone" (208).  Multisensory learning can improve learning 50 to 75 percent. Richard Mayer puts down several rules for multimedia presentations:

  • We learn by words and pictures better than from words alone.
  • Learning is better when words and pictures appear at the same time rather than one after the other and close to each other rather than far apart.
  • Learning is better when extra information is included.
  • Students learn better from animation and narration than from animation and on-screen text.

Unlike the other senses, electrical impulses from smell bypasses the thalamus in routing and go directly to destinations in the brain like the amygdala, which controls emotions. Smell can thus have a powerful and immediate effect on us.  The Proust effect is when smell evokes strong memories. Smell stimuli also go directly to the decision making center of our brain.

As far as ideas, Medina suggests that the first part of a lecture involve multisensory stimulation. The combination of smell with a sales environment can significantly improve sales of particular items. Medina suggests that pairing particular smells with particular learning content would improve memory if that smell were reintroduced during testing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Immigration Reform

I want to praise Marcus Rubio today for a few reasons.  First, I appreciate those who are willing to meet in the middle to get things done.  Second, I commend that he is smart enough to realize that Republicans will continue to lose elections by increasing margins around the country if they don't change their tune on immigrants.

Most of all, it's hard for me not to think that the "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants without a criminal record is not only the most civilized and humane option, not only the most American option, but the most Christian option.  I realize it is not without its complications--it inadvertently encourages more illegal immigration.

But it has the right spirit.  America at its best has always welcomed peaceful immigrants who want to be a part of us. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and God insists on protection of the stranger in the land, since the Israelites were once strangers in Egypt.  Objections usually either sound morally immature or even like pretenses hiding deeper motives that aren't so pretty. Not always the case, of course, but I suspect more often than not.

And since this potential legislation fits with the Wesleyan Church's white paper on the topic, I'm allowed to take sides. :-)

Bishop 6 (Institutions, Connecting)

Now chapter 6 of William Willimon's Bishop, "Bishops Body Building."  Previous chapters were:

1. Methodists, Alabama Conference in Motion
2. Summoned to be Bishop
3. Bishops Sending Pastors
4. Bishops Cultivating Fruitfulness
5. Bishops as Change Agents

Highlights of chapter 6:

1. "I want to say a word for anxiety" (91).  This book just hammers home over and over again Willimon's sense that the status quo of the UM church is the death, death, death of the church. He clearly doesn't want to put anyone at ease.  He wants any Methodist reading his book to become very anxious.  "It is more important to prod and empower than to pacify" (96).

2. He considers retired bishops and clergy some of his biggest opponents.  This is simply another form of "those who had the most invested in what you are trying to change will often most oppose change."  After all, to admit that Willimon is right is to admit that a generation of bishops were angels of death for the UM church.  The years of decline are on record: 1969-present.

3. "A bishop without enemies must not be showing up to the office" (92).  Of course I think any reader with a healthy EQ by this point of the book will infer that Willimon has a bit of a caustic personality. "The conference leaders whom a bishop inherits will not be the leaders a bishop needs" (94). Ouch.  Very optimistic.

4. Asking lots of questions, listening, admitting failure, etc.  Good stuff

5. More complaints.  Seniority system killing the church and it's not even official policy.  "Equitable compensation" is killing the UM church financially to prop up churches that can't support themselves because they are dying.

6. In 1987, Bishop Earl Hunt suggested that one of the key responsibilities of the UM church was to guarantee the survival of the small membership church.  Oops. Most Christians attend churches of 200 or more. The top 25 Methodist churches have more people attending than everyone in 54 of the UM's 62 conferences. Most people are currently not attracted to small churches.

7. Willimon ended the chapter by discussing the UM colleges and seminaries.  I guess a retired bishop can tell all about the failures of "hotshot" college presidents in recent memory.  It reminds us all how important a transition in presidency is (hint, hint).  The instance he mentions took Birmingham-Southern College down the drain in a very short amount of time.  Hopefully IWU will pick someone who is financially wise and has an eye for opportunity.

8. Willimon says that at least 3 UM seminaries ought to merge or close. I like that the UM church now dispenses funds to its seminaries on the basis of how many UM students they have. Let's just say that a number of UM seminaries have the reputation of not being very Methodist (or even Christian).  I have nothing at all against non-Christians teaching Bible--it just seems a little questionable at a seminary that trains Christian ministers for a specific denomination.

9. On the other hand, Willimon is inconsistent when he celebrates that the UM church has increasingly been cutting off training at non-UM seminaries.  To be consistent, he should celebrate training at seminaries that will equip UM ministers to do the mission he is saying it needs to survive, and that doesn't look to be Methodist seminaries. If a Wesley Seminary at IWU or an Asbury does it as well or better than the official ones, then the UM church should be embracing us.

I've heard that Asbury Seminary trains more UM ministers than all the other Methodist schools combined.  I would venture to say that they are also the more missional Methodist pastors Willimon is looking for. Yet I haven't a doubt that the UM church would cut off Asbury in a blink if it could (it's not officially UM). It's probably the fact that Asbury's alumni fill the church that keeps them from doing so.

Let's face it, the UM church is not going to survive on the ministers coming out of its own seminaries.  Too few ministers coming out of most of them, a preponderance of good theologians who won't grow any church coming out of the others.  Duke you will always have with you... just don't look for it to rescue its denomination.

I might give a shout out to my friends at United, which looks to be about the only innovative UM seminary of the lot.  I also have a sense that sometimes they feel like the black sheep of the family... for actually doing the kinds of things Willimon says the church must do if it is to survive.  Meanwhile, an Ashland is cut off the list in a failing attempt to keep that other Methodist school in Ohio on life support.  Ashland is another example of a school that fits well with the Wesleyan tradition and trains the kind of minister that will grow churches, even though it is not UM.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Inerrancy 5 (What God Intended 2)

1. A Little History
2. The Authority of God
3. Different Kinds of Speaking
4. What God Intended 1
5. What God Intended 2
It is at this point that Wesleyans may disagree on what God's point to the original audiences was.  What was the point and when was God meeting them where they were at?  For example, I don't know any Wesleyans who think that the world is flat or that heaven is straight up in the sky.  Some Wesleyans probably do think of hell as located in the middle of the earth, but certainly not all.

But I suspect most Wesleyans would be fine with thinking that when Paul says every knee will bow "in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10), the picture of the world he had in mind was not the point.  It sounds like the picture of a "three-story" world, with skies/heavens above and the dead beneath. Since all the other literature of the time seems to have taken such imagery literally, it would be natural to think that Paul did too.  In fact, Paul seems to think heaven and the sky had three layers, with God in the top layer of sky/heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2).

But these pictures of the universe were not Paul's point in these passages--or God's.  Rather, these are surely examples of God speaking within the frame of reference of those to whom he first spoke.  Most Wesleyans would surely be fine with saying that the structure of the universe was not what God was affirming in Philippians 2:10 but rather the fact that all humanity would eventually submit to the lordship of Christ.

We have inherited more of an issue when it comes to other passages.  For example, Wesleyans would not agree on how to apply the principle above to Genesis 1.  Some see the point of Genesis 1 being to tell us more or less about the science of creation (e.g., the timing, the order).  Others think the point was more to contrast God and his creation with the gods and other creation stories of the day, where gods fought and chaos nearly won. Neither Wesleyan believes Genesis 1 was in error, although they might disagree on what God intended to say to Israel through it.

You have probably had someone tell you at some time, "That's not the point." A person responds in this way when you focus on a detail that distracts from what he or she is really trying to communicate. In the same way, affirming inerrancy doesn't guarantee we will all see the same point in a passage.

Let's say there is a barn with a traditional archery target on the side.  One person may shoot to hit the target.  But let's say that all I want to hit is the side of the barn.  If I hit the side of the barn, then I have not missed the mark.  Wesleyans will no doubt disagree on what God was shooting at in various passages.  We all agree that he hit whatever his target was.

Some see that target as very narrow in relation to the passages that stood at the center of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century.  Other Wesleyans do not. The key is that both are doing their best to listen to all the passages. Arguably the worst thing would be if we were to feel pressure to twist the apparent meaning of one passage because we thought it didn't fit with another.  Hopefully none of us want our idea of inerrancy to cause us to trump the text with an idea we have about the text.

When details seem to conflict, a broader sense of inerrancy can look for the inner harmony of two passages without having to harmonize all the details.  This approach can allow us to listen better to each individual biblical text on its own terms.  A narrower view, well-intentioned though it may be, can inadvertently lead us to alter one text so it will fit better with another in our mind.

Was the authorship of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, or Isaiah part of the point of a quote in the New Testament?  Or was it only an expected frame of reference, given what everyone thought at the time?  Wesleyans will disagree on this question. Some will strongly say it was very much part of the point. Others will say it is equally valid to listen to what the Old Testament texts seem to say about themselves inductively, even if they pull in a different direction from how the New Testament references them.

Another point on which Wesleyans will disagree is the extent to which God unfolded an understanding of him (and of theology in general) throughout the pages of Scripture. For some Wesleyans, fully developed Christian theology is there from the very first words of the Bible.  Others will see a development of understanding within the Bible's pages, with the New Testament having a more complete understanding of theology than the Old did.

Both of these Wesleyans, however, believe that God revealed himself truthfully to each audience of the Bible within the limits he intended.  They may disagree on the extent to which God met each audience within their own framework of understanding.  They may disagree on when God was asserting information and when he was primarily doing other things.  None of them think that the Bible erred in achieving what God intended at any point.

The strength of this approach is that it allows us to let the Bible say what it actually seems to say. Again, the potential problem with inerrancy in its fundamentalist form is that it can force a person who actually wishes to listen to a biblical text to trump the most obvious meaning of the text with an idea we have about the text.  We cannot doubt that God unfailingly achieved his purposes when he inspired each book of the Bible.  The real task is to wrestle together to hear appropriately what those purposes were.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Brain Rule #8: Stress

My summaries of the book Brain Rules continue...
Chapter 8: Stress
Rule #8: Stressed brains don't learn the same way.

What is stress?  Medina mentions research that identifies stress with three simultaneous factors.  First, a person will experience an aroused physiological response measurable by an outside party. Second, the thing causing the stress must be perceived as aversive.  Finally, the person experiencing it will not feel in control of the stressor.

The body's response to stress was meant to address situations that lasted for seconds--like getting away from a saber-toothed tiger.  The body releases adrenaline.  It also releases a hormone called cortisol that kicks in with extra power.  The problem is chronic stress, when the system does not return to normal. Our arteries get damaged, develop scars, and clog. Our white blood cells and immune system are weakened and we get sick more easily.

In an instant, stress greatly improves our memory. But prolonged stress cuts our memory and ability to make decisions by as much as 50%. Cortisol disconnects neural networks and kill cells in our hippocampus, the part of our brain that works to form long term memories.

A protein called BDNF counteracts the force of the cortisol, but chronic stress can completely shut it off to where you won't even remember a traumatic event.  It can bring a debilitating depression that does not even try to escape a situation when it could. Some people can handle stress better than others. But at some point, stress becomes toxic, what the researcher Bruce McEwen calls the "allostatic load," the tipping point when your body begins to lose to stress.

The rule of this chapter is that "stressed brains do not learn the same as non-stressed brains" (184).  They don't do much learning at all.  "One of the greatest predictors of performance in school turns out to be the emotional stability of the home" (183).  "Children living in high-anxiety households would not perform as well academically as kids living in more nurturing households" (184).  For example, it is not divorce per se but overt conflict in a home that predicts grade failure.

Stress is an enemy of the work place too. Depression kills problem-solving abilities.  It drastically increases health care costs.  It often leads to firing, requiring the need for training new workers.  The type of stress in the workplace, the employees home life, and the balance between stimulation and boredom determine whether a workplace is stressful. One of the worst formulas for workplace stress is when much is expected of a person but he or she does not have control over the outcome.

Medina ends the chapter as usual with some ideas.  The stability of a home is so crucial to the learning of a child that parental training to reduce stress on children would be ideal. Medina would make education a "family affair" from a week after birth.  Since the typical time of having children and some of the most productive work years for a person coincide, Medina's perfect world would see child care at places of work and marital training to help new parents cope with the new found stress of a new child.

Inerrancy 4 (What God intended 1)

1. A Little History
2. The Authority of God
3. Different Kinds of Speaking
4. What God Intended 1
For some, the words of the Bible more or less have a single meaning for all time.  Such individuals normally take its words more or less propositionally and thus see all of those meanings as without error.  For them, the meaning of the Bible for its first audiences is the same as its meaning for us today no matter where we might live in the world. For this person, the Bible's inerrancy is rather straightforward.

For other Wesleyans, the more you read the Bible in its historical context, the more complicated the meaning of the Bible becomes.  In the last section, we saw that different words "do" different things.  They express emotion. They command things. They promise things. They make assertions. A proper definition of inerrancy relates primarily to assertions of truths.

Other descriptive terms seem more appropriate for promises--that they are unfailing.  Commands are authoritative.  Expressions of emotions can be cathartic. In the last section we hinted that different parts of Scripture might do different things and that to flatten out all these purposes into assertions is probably to miss out on the richness of the Bible's meaning.

Now we want to look at another element in the equation.  The meaning of words is a function of how they are used in a particular time and place. That is why the words of the King James Version and Shakespeare are hard for most of us to understand. That is why languages come in and out of existence. Every year, new words--and new meanings to old words--are added to the dictionary, while other words and meanings are removed.

The first meaning of the Bible's words--the meaning their original, first audiences understood--was a function of what words meant at the time.  This claim seems beyond dispute. To understand 1 Corinthians as it was first understood, we would need a Webster's AD50 Corinthian dictionary (which of course does not exist). In the next section we will ask whether God might have intended more than this first meaning.  But if the books of the Bible were really written to the people the books say they are, then the first meaning was surely a meaning they largely understood.

This is a significant point.  The books of the Bible do not say they are written to us.  They say they were written to them. For all the fighting that has taken place over the "literal" meaning of the Bible, the  books of the Bible literally say they were written to someone else. On this point there is not the slightest debate.

What I am getting at is that the first sense of the Bible's inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expressive dimension was a matter of what God was intending for its first audiences.  In other words, it was a contextual inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expression. Again, we will look at how these dimensions relate to us in the next section. In this section we want to talk about the first meaning, to them.

Surely all Wesleyans would accept at least some differences between how God related to ancient Israel and how he related to the New Testament Christians.  For example, every Wesleyan would surely accept that God's command to Israel to offer animal sacrifices no longer applies literally to us today. God did mean it literally to ancient Israel and they sacrificed lots of animals.  But the literal command is no longer God's command to us today.

We would encounter more disagreement on how, say, the Sabbath commandment applies to today. Some Wesleyans would argue that the New Testament says nothing that retains the Sabbath commandment in the new covenant at all (Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16). Other Wesleyans believe the command not to work is still literally in force, only that it now applies to Sunday instead of Saturday. But no Wesleyans observe the Sabbath law on Saturday--the original meaning of the command.  Accordingly, all Wesleyans acknowledge that the Sabbath law applies differently to us today than it did to ancient Israel.

My point is that, at least on some level, all Wesleyans would accept that some of the commands of Scripture related to a particular context that no longer applies to us today, that the meaning and implication of Scripture can play out differently for us than it did for them.  Some would broaden this principle to say that it is God's normal mode of operation to meet people where they are.  This is the principle of incarnation, where God "takes on the flesh" of those to whom he speaks. Otherwise, how would they understand?

From this point of view, every moment of revelation in Scripture was a moment of God meeting his people where they were at.  He met them within their categories of understanding.  His revelation of truth was revelation within their framework of understanding.  His commands had to do with the significance of actions in their historical-cultural context.

If God revealed himself in Swahili to me, I would not understand.  Similarly, we would expect God to meet ancient Israel in the categories of an agrarian, farming world, rather than in the terms of a modern monetary economy. This implies a potential gap in application.  Commands to ancient Israel on lending have to be understood, in the first place, within the matrix of the economy of ancient Israel. To apply them directly to today would be to rip them from their world and change their meaning.

All these considerations have a direct bearing on what we might mean when we say that the original meaning of the books of the Bible was inerrant or infallible or authoritative or expressive.  In the first place, it was without error within their frames of reference.  It was unfailing to them within the parameters God set for the original purpose.  It was authoritative to them in their particular circumstances.  And it was expressive for them.

The inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expressiveness of Scripture is not limited to these original parameters.  But the original contexts provide us with the first meanings of the Bible, the original ones.  Whatever the inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and expressiveness of the Bible is, it first expressed itself then.  It started with what God intended for them, in their worlds...

Friday, January 25, 2013

Radio, Relativity, the Quantum

The last book I bought on my way out of Germany a year ago was one called, The German Genius.  It's an attempt to address the fact that all anyone seems to know about Germany these days is the Nazis.  I jumped in the middle this week and read chapter 25, "The Discovery of Radio, Relativity, and the Quantum," a chapter about end of the century Germany in science.

Germany was clearly the world leader in physics at the end of the 1800s/beginning of the 1900s.  In fact, I have to believe that the world would look a lot different in terms of science and technology if that idiot of all idiots Hitler had not driven many of the brightest German minds in physics out of the country because they were Jews (Einstein, for example).  Perhaps the Germans would have been the first to the moon, for example.

Here are some of the highlights of this chapter:
  • In 1888 Hertz invented a device that could send electromagnetic waves across a room.  He thought the discovery was "of no use whatsoever," but he had produced radio waves that we now use in all our communication, remote controls, etc.
  • In 1895 Röntgen discovered x-rays
  • In 1900, Max Planck gave birth to quantum physics by suggesting that energy increased and decreased in discrete packages called quanta.
  • 1905 was the "annus mirabilis" of science (wonderful year).  Einstein published three papers, the third one gave birth to he special theory of relativity. It argued that time moves faster or slower depending on the speed something is traveling.
  • Richard Dedekind defined continuity in math not in terms of "nothing between" but in terms of numbers connecting both to what comes before and after.
  • Georg Cantor invented set theory and argued that some infinite sets are bigger than others.  Yet he also proved that the number of points on a line segment is equal to the number of points on a plane figure.
  • Frege and Husserl are mentioned in relation to the philosophy of number but their contributions are not completely clear to me.  I have taken from Frege myself the parable of "sense and reference" in the meaning of words.  Wittgenstein undermines this model significantly, but I still find it useful in many circumstances.  It's the idea that a word has both a sense and a reference.  The reference is what it points to in the real world.

    I have little interest in Husserl.  I feel sorry for him and the way his life ended.  He thankfully passed before Hitler rounded him up but Heidegger apparently left him out to dry after he lost his post at Freiburg.  In general, though, I have little interest in the phenomenological school of philosophy, which seems to reign supreme across the map of my philosophical world right now.  
  • Finally there's Hilbert.  He and Einstein developed the notion of "infinite dimension Euclidean space" or, as it is called, "Hilbert space."  He and Einstein developed general (rather than special) relativity.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

New Quests

1977 was a particularly important year in the history of biblical studies.  It was the year in which E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of the landmark books of the century in the study of the New Testament. [1] It was not the first book nor was Sanders the first scholar to argue that the predominant "Lutheran" paradigm for understanding Paul was anachronistic. Nor has Sanders' work gone without critique.  What the book did was change the tide toward reading Paul against his Jewish context.

Sanders' book reflects one of the most significant turning points in biblical studies because, after it, the interpretation of the New Testament could no longer simply read Paul or Jesus against the backdrop of the Christian history of interpretation. [2]  Sanders forced interpreters to read Jesus and Paul against their Jewish context--and an authentically understood Jewish context rather than the "straw man" Christian tradition had developed and so long utilized.

Perhaps the central claim that Sanders' book disputed was the idea that Judaism was a religion of "works righteousness." Judaism, so the dominant interpretation went, was a religion in which you tried to earn your salvation by doing good works.  Paul then counters this form of religion with a religion of grace, whereby an individual is saved by grace alone (sola gratia) and by faith alone (sola fide). The impact of the Protestant Reformation on this interpretation of Paul and Judaism is obvious.  Martin Luther saw in Paul's conflict with his opponents the ideological conflicts he himself was having with the Roman Catholic Church.

What Sanders did was to free us from these interpretive lenses by methodically working through the texts of Second Temple Jewish literature themselves, showing that this portrayal of Judaism as a "graceless" religion simply could not stand up against what the texts themselves said. What he found instead is that the grace of God is almost without exception the presupposition of any expectation that a person's actions might play a role in a right standing before God.  Jews did not keep the Jewish law in order to "get in."  They kept the law to "stay in." [3]

Sanders' famous phrase is "covenantal nomism."  Jews kept the law as a response to God's grace, not to earn it.  A Jew was, of course, born into the people of God.  Such a person did nothing themselves to get in.  Rather, keeping the law was simply God's expectation to stay in the people of God. To be sure, Sanders was criticized by some Jewish scholars for worrying about some distinctions that really were not of concern to Jews themselves. Jacob Neusner, for example...

[for more along these lines, see my overview of Romans: Paul: Soldier of Peace]

[1] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977).

[2] The theological interpretation of the early twenty-first century, while representing a shift back in confessional circles toward reading the New Testament against its later Christian context, does so not on historical-critical grounds but on hermeneutical grounds. The earlier Christian interpretations of Jesus and Paul were done unreflectively and uncritically--such scholars thought they were reading Jesus and Paul in their historical context.  By contrast, theological interpretation at its best is done more on the basis of textual polyvalence and a postmodern hermeneutic that is more self-reflective.

[3] E.g., Paul, 420.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Brain Rule #7: Sleep

My summaries of the book Brain Rules continue...
Chapter 7: Sleep
Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.

We spend about a third of our time on the planet sleeping.  Those few people who have "Fatal Familial Insomnia" and cannot sleep eventually die.

Randy Gardner, the father of sleep research, came to the conclusion early on that we have two opposing drives inside us with regard to sleep.  Both of them are active all the time, whether we are awake or asleep.  The one is the "circadian arousal system" (process C).  It tries to keep us awake.  The other is the "homeostatic sleep drive" (process S).  It wants to put us to sleep.

Neither of these "armies" ever win the war. They lead us through a rhythm of being sleep and awake, and this rhythm takes place whether we are in a cave or outdoors.  After 16 hours of active consciousness, process C will generally lose to process S.  Eight hours later, process S usually loses and we wake up.

We do vary a little in our sleep needs and preferences.  About 1 in 10 are "larks" whose bodies prefer to get up at least by 6am, the early birds.  They're most alert about noon.  About 2 in 10 are "owls" whose bodies want to stay up to all hours of the night.  They're most alert about 6pm. The rest of us, about 7 in 10, are "hummingbirds" who are somewhere in the middle.

Sleep research has shown that those cultures that institute naps have recognized something research has substantiated.  Humans do well to have an afternoon nap.  Audiences lose attention.  There are more traffic accidents than at any other time of the day.  A 30 minute nap in this zone of the day significantly improves productivity.

Sleep helps learning and lack of sleep hurts it.  Allowing someone to sleep on something improves insight, as much as tripling the benefit of learning.  In short, "Sleep is rather intimately involved in learning" (163).  Apparently, the brain consolidates its learning during sleep.

Medina ends the chapter with some possible suggestions.  First, work schedules would optimally match "chronotypes" (larks-owls).  "Twenty percent of the workforce is already at sub-optimal productivity in the current 9-to-5 model" (165).  During teenage years, more individuals are owls than even in adulthood, suggesting that high school shouldn't start too early in the morning.

Creating space for employees to have an half-hour nap in the afternoon would probably increase their performance 34 percent. Finally, sleeping on things will generally improve our learning.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Grumbling about MLK

I'm reminded again today of how many white Christians tend to grumble about setting aside a day in honor of what Martin Luther King Jr represents in the US story.  And I'll make my yearly confession that when I was in my teens, I was one of them.  I now look back at myself with great embarrassment.

Was I denying that African Americans have something incredible to celebrate in that they are not slaves, that they have the right to vote, that they don't have to sit in the back of the bus or go to second rate schools?  It's embarrassing as a Christian even to say such things.  It is doubly embarrassing as a Wesleyan, since we were founded in support of abolition.

Am I denying that Jesus would rejoice that a part of his world, created in his image, had come to a place of liberation and empowerment?  Is there any question that he would rejoice with those who rejoice?  How can anyone who loves their neighbor as themselves--and thus puts themselves in the shoes of an African-American living in the early 60s, not rejoice at what MLK helped come to pass? There is no ambiguity in the answer.

Am I angry that the understanding of the nation as a whole, which often can see the big picture that we can't see when we are in our own tribe, our own county, our own state, our own region, was right to force the South to give equal rights to blacks?  Am I grumbling that the civil rights movement worked?  Am I grumbling that Governor Wallace repented in later life of his "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" speech?  It's embarrassing as a Christian even to suggest such things?

Why was I grumbling?  From the standpoint of Christ, there is no answer that is not ultimately embarrassing. May the Lord help me to see myself and my assumptions!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Administration and Leadership

For years I've mused at the fact that, especially in academia, good administrators often get promoted to leadership positions (e.g., department chairs, Deans, etc...).  The problem is that administrators often aren't good leaders.

They don't tend to be risk takers.  They tend to be good managers (not necessarily good human managers, but good systems managers).  They are good at setting up systems.  They are good about setting up processes. They tend to be good bureaucrats.

You need these people or an organization won't be able to grow.  Without someone with these gifts, an organization will waste massive amounts of time in inefficiency.  However, the irony is that, if they are the ones making the decisions, an organization can soon become encumbered with red tape and get bogged down.

Places become drudgery to work at.  In leadership, what was originally a breath of fresh air (because of how much work they are saving) eventually turns to the dark side and they gunk up the works and an organization begins the downward part of its cycle.

I think most people are on a spectrum between massive administrator and entrepreneurial leader.  There are a few people who are both.  Joel Green, who used to be Provost at Asbury, comes to mind.  He could do it all.  Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle.  But we can picture the stereotypical bureaucrat and the stereotypical disorganized visionary.

What I've observed can happen in academia and in church organizations is that often those who are most visionary don't want leadership positions because of the administrative work.  Meanwhile, those who like administration take those positions and then the organization becomes stale.  You end up with visionless people making the key decisions.

I think an effective organization will have just the right mix of both at the right times.  The goal is for strategic visionaries to make decisions informed and supported by gifted administrators.  The visionaries have to let the administrators bring efficiencies, and the administrators need to let the strategists make the decisions.

The top leader of the organization, I believe, should always be a strategic type person, not a stereotypical administrative type.  We have this now in the Wesleyan Church with Joanne Lyon, for example.

My two cents...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Schenck's Commentary Faves 2

Colossians Recommendation

It's been over two years since I made a commentary recommendation.  For Wesleyans, I've recommended the NIV Application Commentary series if you are going with a series.  But ideally, you would buy commentaries a la carte, one by one.

Anyway, I'm willing to recommend Joel Green's 1997 commentary on Luke as my first choice for Luke, if you want to buy just one Luke commentary.

I'm also willing to recommend Robert Jewett's 2007 Romans commentary as the best one commentary to buy on Romans (although it will put you out a pretty penny).

See you in two years with more... :-)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Inerrancy 3 (Different Kinds of Speaking)

1. A Little History
2. The Authority of God

3. Different Kinds of Speaking
We mentioned in the introduction that God does different things in Scripture. Scripture tells stories about Israel, Christ, and the church.  It expresses feelings.  It gives laws to Israel.  It gives wisdom. It indicts Israel of faithlessness.  It predicts and promises.  It guides the church.

Many Christians do not take these genre differences into account when they are appropriating Scripture in their lives.  For example, many read the Bible as a set of lessons to learn.  I learn something from a story.  I learn something from a command.  I learn something from a letter.  No doubt it is completely true that we can learn something from every part of Scripture.

There are also some assumptions to this use of Scripture.  This way of using Scripture is very "head" oriented.  It views Scripture primarily as a tool to learn things with our heads.  It often uses Scripture to create a list of things to believe.  As one person has pointed out, this way of using Scripture does not actually guarantee that your life actually changes, which would be a most unwesleyan use of Scripture indeed. [1]

While we should be open to anything God wants to teach us through the Bible, we cannot fault those who listen more carefully to the genres or types of literature in the Bible.  For example, when Paul says, "I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!" (Gal. 5:12), he is not teaching something to learn.  He is expressing strong displeasure with his opponents in Galatia.

Can we learn something from his frustration?  Sure.  It's okay for Christians to get angry.  But that's not the point.  That's not what Paul was doing here.  The same applies to the psalmist's expression in Psalm 137: "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."  The point was not to teach something, to assert something.  That's just not the genre of this verse.  It is an expression of emotion.

So for those who read verses like these for what they actually were intended to mean, it is not a little strange to try to apply the word "inerrancy" to them.  To say something is inerrant would most naturally mean to say that an assertion is true.  But verses like these are not making assertions. They are expressing emotional frustration.  We can draw assertions from these expressions, but that was not the point.  Those are secondary reflections, not the primary meaning.

It is this sort of deeper reflection on the nature of varied biblical genres that led Kevin Vanhoozer to say that the fundamental category should be that of infallibility.  Scripture does not fail to accomplish the purposes that God sets out for it to do.  These purposes were originally varied, and it is the task of the biblical expert to identify what these original purposes were.

It is also important to point out that this use of the word "infallibility" is different from the way the word was used in earlier debates.  In the debates of the 70s, some groups used the word "infallible" to restrict the Bible's authority to matters of salvation, faith, and practice.  In other words, they used the word to say that the Bible may not be accurate in matters of science or history.  This is not how we--or Vanhoozer--is using the word.

We are rather using the word in the sense that something does not fail.  This moves us to the question of purpose.  What exactly was God trying to do through a particular passage?  It may very well be that God was not trying to assert historical detail or scientific precision in a passage.  And of course if it was not God's purpose to do so, then he certainly did not fail.

Inerrancy is thus seen to be a subcategory of infallibility.  When it is God's purpose to assert some truth, that truth will be without error.  God does other things through Scripture.  He makes promises, for example.  When God promises that Christ will return some day, that promise will not fail.  It will indeed take place.  But the purpose of a promise is not primarily to assert a truth.

God also makes commands through Scripture.  These commands are authoritative.  In this case, the word "authoritative" seems more helpful than either the words "infallible" or "inerrant."  God allows people to disobey his commands, so a command does not guarantee it will happen--at least not when we are talking about commands God allows us to disobey.  So here the word "authoritative" is the better fit.

The point is that it is perfectly acceptable for Wesleyans to be more sophisticated in the way they use words like "authoritative," "infallible," and "inerrant."  When God makes a command, it is authoritative.  When God does something else through Scripture, his purpose will not fail and it is "infallible."  When that purpose is to assert a truth, then the assertion is "inerrant."

Sometimes, God's purpose may be simply to allow a biblical author to express frustration, as in the verses above, to where he is neither commanding or asserting anything.  Sometimes God allowed the biblical authors to use acrostics or poetic artistry, whose point was not to teach or do anything but express beauty.  We can certainly learn something from these expressions, but that was not the point.

[1] Green.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Inerrancy 2 (Authority of God)

1 A Little History

The Authority of God
A good starting point is to recognize that the authority of Scripture comes from the authority of God.  For some Wesleyans, this statement is so obvious that it does not need mentioned.  In fact, for some it may be difficult even to know what a distinction between the two might look like.

For example, a person may read the Bible like you would watch a video recording of the people and events in the Bible.  When God speaks in the story, you hear the exact words that God said, and even when someone else is speaking in the Bible, you are still pretty much hearing God speak directly to you.  For this person, the Bible is hardly Paul's words to the Corinthians or Isaiah's words to Israel but it is overwhelmingly God's word to everyone in all times and places.

So if one word of the Bible had an error, then it would call into question every single word of the Bible. To this person, God has more or less dictated the words of the Bible, and it would make God a liar if even one word was not true.  It would call into question his entire character as truthful.

For other Wesleyans, it is crucial to emphasize the derivative nature of the authority of Scripture in relation to the authority of God.  All Wesleyans agree that the authority of Scripture comes from the authority of God.  But for some Wesleyans, this distinction is very important.  For example, someone might notice that there are lots of groups that believe the Bible is without error but whose interpretations of the Bible differ widely from Wesleyans.  For example, Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe that Jesus was only a god, not the God, believe the Bible is inerrant. [1]  David Koresh believed the Bible was inerrant, who led his cult followers to Waco, Texas only to die in a suicidal fire.

It is thus only the Bible, rightly interpreted, that has the authority of God.  We remember from Matthew 4 and Luke 4 that Satan can use the Bible for evil.  Indeed, those calling themselves Christians have repeatedly used the Bible to justify evil and sinful intentions--murder, oppression, hate.  Look under the masks of the KKK and you would have found many self-righteous pastors and church leaders.  Look into Hitler's Germany and you would have found many a pastor who will not likely be in the kingdom of God.

To modify Jesus' words slightly, "If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies in my favor" (John 5:31-32, NIV). Christians throughout the centuries have regularly believed that it is the Bible as illuminated by the Spirit that is the word of God, and Christians have often suggested that a person without faith may not be able to hear it.  You can read the Bible as a mere historical source and not hear or experience it as Christian Scripture.

The New Testament itself suggests that the word of God requires "ears to hear" (Mark 4:23).  1 Peter 1:10-12 pictures the prophets and angels incredibly curious of what their words might turn out to mean about the Christ, a reflection of the fact that the christological meaning of the Old Testament was not always obvious to the Old Testament prophets themselves.  It was more often a "spiritual" or fuller sense to the Old Testament words of the prophets than their literal or plain sense.  God's plan for the Gentiles was thus a mysterious development, one not anticipated (Eph. 3:5).  It is thus the Bible, rightly interpreted, that has the authority of God.

The more we are aware of the books of the Bible themselves as moments of revelation in history, the more important it is to recognize that it is not the books themselves but the God to which they give witness who is all in all.  The Bible is the word of God, but Christ is the Word of God.  Anything else approaches idolatry, to make an image of Christ into the object of worship, to worship the creation rather than the Creator, to put human words above the divine Word.

God leaves an element of mystery in the revelation of the Bible so that we do not think the book alone is sufficient but we are driven to Christ himself.  The Bible does not give us all the answers so we will trust in him.  Indeed, in the end it is essential that we not view the Bible as object, as an end-in-itself for us to master.  Rather, God seeks to master us through Scripture. [2] The authority of Scripture is not so much the voice of Scripture speaking to us, but the action of God on us through Scripture.

[1] Joel Green mentions this in Seized by Truth.

[2] A point that Green strongly tries to bring out in Seized.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


We read responsively through a psalm each week in the service I lead at College Wesleyan.  Every once and a while, we'll read something that triggers a memory from my revivalist/camp meeting past.  Today it was while reading Psalm 29:9:

"The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, 'Glory!'"

The literary context of this verse has the psalmist thinking of God as he hears the thunder.  E.g, "The God of glory thunders... The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars... The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire" (29:3, 5, 7).

The old timers sometimes would shout, "Glory!" in a worship service (i.e., in the "temple") when they got blessed.  I bet it came from this verse.

My thought process was thus like this as we read through the psalm together.  First, "I bet this is where that practice came from."  Then, "They must have really read the Bible back then" because, lastly, "I've never noticed that about this psalm before"--at least not with it sticking...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wesleyans and Inerrancy 1

A Little History
Most of us do not have the luxury (or the difficulties) of living in a place where there is only one church to join.  Even if we are raised up in a particular church, at some point we are the ones who decide to stay and make it our own.

No church or denomination is perfect.  Few of us these days would even think to suggest that our church is the one that has everything right.  As a teenager, I used to marvel at how amazing it was that I happened to be born into the small group that just happened to have precisely the right ideas and practices. But I've long since joined the majority who realize that any church is a work in progress. The true church of God cannot be directly equated with any one visible denomination.

People of course don't just choose a denomination for its ideas.  Some do, the minority who are thinking oriented, philosopher types.  But most people these days choose a church for the experience they have there.  They choose it for the fellowship. They choose it for the way it makes them feel once or twice a week.

And most people don't choose a denomination at all.  They choose a local church. In the current climate, many people don't even like the idea of a denomination. They don't want some "government" far away telling their local church what to do or think.

All of us are prone to miss a good deal of the historical influences on us.  After a few years of college and seminary, I started to talk in terms of the Wesleyan "tradition." I remember a conversation I had once with a family member about some things we believed in the "Wesleyan tradition." Eventually, the family member was frustrated enough to stop me--"Stop talking about the Wesleyan tradition. We just read the Bible and do what it says."

Indeed, I used to think that way.  Imagine my surprise one day to find out that the preaching I grew up with about entire sanctification had a lot to do with a woman who lived in the 1800s named Phoebe Palmer, someone I'd never even heard of.  Imagine my surprise to know that John Wesley himself didn't preach entire sanctification the way I heard it growing up.  That doesn't necessarily mean my grandfather was wrong to preach it the way he did.  It does probably mean he had no idea why he thought the Bible meant what he thought it meant.

The non-denominational church on the corner may think it is just following the Bible. But tell me its positions on doctrine and practice, and I will tell you the historical traditions from which it has drunk.

The Wesleyan affirmation of inerrancy, like its other doctrines, like the doctrines of all churches, has a history.  The word was added to the doctrine of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1955 after a push from Stephen Paine, then president of Houghton College. When the Wesleyan Church was created in 1968, the term was retained by the other groups joining with the Wesleyan Methodists. After all, who in their right mind would want to argue for biblical errancy?!

The term "inerrancy" largely arose in the 1880s in Presbyterian circles in reaction to developments both in science and biblical studies.  In the 1920s, a series of books called The Fundamentals attempted to respond to perceived challenges from the modern age.  It was the "fundamentalist-modernist" controversy.  It was the age of the Scope's Trial.

While it is pretty clear what position any Wesleyan of the time would have taken on such issues, these debates were not very significant for Wesleyans then.  It was not their battle. Wesleyans of the 1800s were actually on the opposite side of Presbyterians like B. B. Warfield and his ancestors on most issues. For example, he was deeply opposed to the revivalism of the Wesleyan movement and the way its preachers heard the Spirit in the Bible.

When Wesleyan scholars like Paine jumped on the evangelical bandwagon in the early 1950s, a stream of biblical scholarship developed in the church that was far less open to the Spirit speaking directly and out-of-context to you as an individual Christian. In that sense, the introduction of inerrancy to our core beliefs represented some new dynamics in our history. Even then, it would be hard to say that the Wesleyan Church has spent much time talking about the issue or even defining what inerrancy might mean to us.

Inerrancy was a very divisive issue in other circles in the 70s.  Some groups, like Fuller Theological Seminary, distanced themselves from the word, preferring to say that the Bible was "infallible" in matters of faith and doctrine. [1] You could argue that the reason the Wesleyans and the Free Methodists never merged was because some Wesleyan leaders thought they were more in the infallible camp, even though they changed the wording of their articles to "without error" for us at the time.

In retrospect, I am grateful that when I was at Asbury Theological Seminary in the 80s, then President David McKenna refused to let this issue divide its faculty and students. The wording of Asbury's statement is carefully worded: The Bible is "without error in all that it affirms."  This wording thus gives its Bible scholars the freedom to listen to the Bible to determine what it affirms.

At the turn of the millennium, the Wesleyan Church was probably somewhat ambivalent toward such issues.  Robert Webber's 2002 book, The Younger Evangelicals, described a younger generation of Christians who were largely disillusioned with such debates. [2] After all, you could argue that fighting over this issue never has brought anyone closer to God.  Nor has such fighting ever really helped the church accomplish the mission of God. It has more likely driven people away from a church they perceive to squabble over ideas rather than do any real good in the world.

As Wesleyan leaders and scholars of the late twentieth century wanted to distance the church from fundamentalism, many might privately have told you that they weren't entirely comfortable with the word. But it wasn't really an issue. Wesleyans certainly didn't go around saying the Bible had errors, and the church at large was far more interested in church growth than in rankling over doctrine.

However, the events of 9-11 had an immense impact on America.  If there was already resistance to "post-modernism," our sense of threat as a nation went into overdrive after the twin towers fell.  We became reactionary, and the church went into a militant mode.  "War makes for strange bedfellows," and the Wesleyan tradition--always heart focused when it is at its best--often finds its head easily manipulated by other traditions.

It is important when to pick an issue up.  The issue of inerrancy, for so long dormant in the Wesleyan Church, is one we haven't needed to address.  As I've already said repeatedly, it's not like we have any Wesleyans going around trying to push the idea that the Bible is errant.  But it is also possible, in a time when some of our bedfellows are beginning to talk about it again more (e.g., the Southern Baptists), that we could mindlessly absorb their categories.

There are important Wesleyan dimensions to any issue like this one.  For example, we are not a tradition that is primarily oriented around affirming things.  We are a revivalist, somewhat pietist tradition that is primarily interested in heart change.  We are not a tradition that thinks the important thing is being able to say the words on the card, and that it doesn't matter what you do after that.

We have also historically been a tradition that, like the Pentecostals, is open to hearing God speak to us directly through the words of the Bible whether we are reading it in context or not.  As I've already mentioned, the American theologians who started the inerrancy movement hated this way of using Scripture.  Factors like these suggest that, whatever Wesleyans mean by the term inerrancy, it may not be exactly the same as what those in our broader culture do.

What would be worse is if some element in our broader culture made inerrancy an issue for us and we did not benefit from the struggles they had in other circles over such things.  Some very sophisticated understandings of inerrancy came out of the previous fights, ones that I believe might suit the Wesleyan Church very well.  What a pity it would be if at some point in our future the Wesleyan Church would tear itself apart because it wasn't prepared!  And what an opportunity I sense now to present an understanding that could possibly keep us from ever having such fights.

In the following pages, I would like to suggest a framework for understanding inerrancy in the Wesleyan Church.  I want to suggest a framework that, like the statement Asbury has, is positive and leaves room for us to let the Bible say what it says. [3] Such a framework might prevent us from getting sidetracked from the mission of the church at some point in the future about an issue whose history we may not even know.

To define inerrancy, I want to begin where the debate of the 70s largely ended in evangelical circles.  In 1986, a young Kevin Vanhoozer put forward a brilliant framework within which to discuss the authority of Scripture. [4] Mind you, the participants in the book I am referencing were not Wesleyan.  I am not wanting in any way to suggest that we simply absorb their categories. I am simply wanting to use Vanhoozer's way of framing the issue as a starting point.

God's word does things.  And it never fails to accomplish what God sets it out to do (Isa. 55:11).  The Bible, as God's word, is thus infallible.  It unfailingly does whatever God wants it to do.  Sometimes, what God wants to do through Scripture is to affirm or assert certain truths.  When God affirms something in Scripture, his affirmation will certainly be without error.  The Bible is thus inerrant in all that it affirms, in all that God affirms through it... [5]

[1] Harold Lindsell's, The Battle for the Bible, was largely a response to the Fuller issue.

[2] The Younger Evangelicals

[3] Interestingly, since Asbury was the primary seminary the denomination approved for so many decades, Asbury's broad definition of inerrancy has, by default, been ours.

[4] In Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), 49-104.

[5] Vanhoozer especially sets out this framework on p. 95.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Nothing 1

I'm not quite sure how it happened.  One day I was pondering Aquinas' third argument for the existence of God.  You know, it's the argument that something must have a necessary existence or else everything could cease to exist.

I don't have to exist.  You don't have to exist.  The earth and solar system don't have to exist.  Just about everything comes in and out of existence because our existence is contingent, not necessary.

But if the existence of everything was contingent, then it is possible that everything would go out of existence at some point, and then nothing would exist.  And, of course, how then could anything ever come to exist again?

Anyway, I'm not quite sure how it happened.  I only doubted for a moment, and then everything stopped existing.  I know, I know, then how am I talking to you. And you probably think you still exist.  I'm working on it.  But don't you see, it isn't even dark.  It just isn't.  There's not even emptiness.

Even Aquinas couldn't have appreciated true nothingness.  We're talking the empty set here, the null set.  That's not even zero.  We're talking "no answer." We're talking asymptote, trying to divide by zero.  It's nothing between the two brackets. Ø

Nothingness is less than space.  We're not talking about a fixed vacuum into which God puts stuff.  Einstein tells us that space expands as speed slows down and mass decreases.  I'm not sure what it means to say that space or emptiness can expand or contract.  I'm not sure what it means to say that the universe is not infinite but that space itself comes to an end at some point. But that's what's going on.

I'm in that nothingness beyond the emptiness.  I always pictured creation as God standing somewhere in the middle of Ø and pushing some button with an Ω on it, an omega or something. I suppose an alpha button with an A on it would make more sense but omega looks cooler.

And then it all starts.  I used to think that the first button would take it from Ø to 0, and then he would go from there, but I suppose it all just kind of happened all at once, from Ø to everything from the start.  I don't mean everything the way it is now.  I just mean from nothingness to stuff, from nothingness to an expanding 0 and a bunch of stuff in it.

But what do I know.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Stand your ground laws...

Some interesting preliminary research on stand your ground laws, such as the one George Zimmerman's lawyers will probably try to use to defend his killing of Trevon Martin in Florida. Early research apparently suggests the following:

1. The number of gun deaths goes up greatly after states pass this sort of law...

2. But the increase is not among justifiable homicides (people "standing their ground") and is primarily among Caucasians.

3. The best hypothesis I heard was that, under this law, white folk felt more justified in shooting each other because they were "standing their ground," even though they weren't.  In other words, everyone thinks the other guy is in the wrong.

4. This relates to a skew propagated by the president of the NRA in response to the Sandy Hook shooting.  It is inaccurate simply to divide up people into "good people" and "bad people."  Most people are somewhere in the middle--good in some situations with the potential to do bad things in others.

There are situations where the average Joe just shouldn't have a gun in his hands.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Calvinism and Arminianism: What's the Difference?

1. Natural State of humanity
  • Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that humans are completely fallen (total depravity) and cannot do any good in their own power.
  • There are some pop-Arminians who believe in complete free will (and are thus Pelagian), but this is not the official Arminian position. 
2. Who is chosen?
  • Calvinists believe that God determines entirely who will be saved (unconditional election).  It's called "monergism," since God alone does all the work.
  • Arminians believe that God empowers us all to be able to sign up for more grace if we will and that God includes us in his kingdom on the basis of our response to his call (conditional election). It's called "synergism" because, by God's grace, our wills work together with his will.  
  • Wesleyan-Arminians call the grace that reaches out to us in our powerless state, "prevenient grace."
3. For whom did Christ die?
  • In the most stereotypical version of Calvinism, Christ only died for those God has predestined to be saved (limited atonement).  There are "four point Calvinists" who would say Christ died for everyone, although obviously only those whom God has chosen will receive the benefit.
  • Arminians believe that Christ died for everyone and that anyone can potentially be saved.
4. Can we reject God's grace?
  • Calvinists believe that, if humans could say no to God, it would undermine his sovereignty or authority over the creation.  Therefore, they do not believe a person could reject God's grace (irresistible grace).  And it is only natural that, if God chooses who will be saved, that such people will be saved and make it to the end (perseverance of the saints).
  • Baptist Arminians potentially fall into a gray area here.  Once a person is "in" the people of God, they do not believe a person can fail to be saved (eternal security).  Many Baptists would no doubt say that a person who went apostate after conversion was probably never truly saved in the first place (related to perseverance of the saints).  But you do sometimes hear the pop-Baptist position that, even if you tried to reject God's grace after salvation, you could not.
  • Wesleyan-Arminians believe that God, in his sovereign will, has made it possible for a person to be "in" and yet later reject God's grace (cf. Heb. 10:26-29) and thus not make it.

The Fiscal Cliff and Church Leadership

I thought there were a number of lessons for church leadership that can be drawn from the fiscal cliff crisis.

1. "Be wise as serpents..."
I thought there was some clever maneuvering through the crisis. Boehner had to keep House Republicans happy enough to re-elect him as Speaker (we'll find out today if it worked), while working toward the goal.  Even his Majority Leader (Cantor) and Majority Whip (McCarthy) were against him.

I thought it was clever for Obama to turn to the Senate when the House fell apart. Frankly, I never thought they'd pull it off after the House recessed New Year's Eve. But then again, I thought it was clever for the Senate to wait until after midnight on New Year's so that it was technically a tax cut rather than tax hike.

Being a church leader can call for some clever maneuvering, especially when people are being stubborn and the normal route is blocked... and sometimes you have to be clever or someone else with power will out-maneuver you.

2. Clever maneuvering usually ticks people off.
Obama and the Democrats felt this wrath when they used clever maneuvering to get the Affordable Care Act through.  Most people are relieved that Congress got this current deal done, but very few are sitting back admiring their savvy.  Most are pretty ticked at a "do nothing" Congress.

So a church leader spends chips of clout when he or she uses cleverness or politics to get things done.  There's definitely a time to do it, but you spend capital when you do.  Choose your battles, because political and power maneuvering can be an act of leadership martyrdom. It can be worth it, just as self-sacrifice can be worth it.  But choose when to use your stinger wisely (because it's the last thing you'll do as a bee).

3. Power always wins.
... even over the right, unless God intervenes.  Of course to a large extent I mean power wins over what you think is right, because all the different sides imagine themselves standing up for what is right. The Republicans think they are fighting for justice, maybe even God. The Democrats think they are fighting for justice, maybe even God.

But secondly, God rarely rides in on a horse to save your cause.  Most of the time, God lets power play itself out.  I had to laugh at Bobby Clinton's aha moment in The Making of Leader when, surprise, surprise, he had this incredible insight one day well into his leadership career: "In a power conflict the leader with higher power will usually win regardless of rightness of issue" (188).  Duh!

Yet, some church leaders don't get this.  They think everyone will eventually see that they're right if they just keep talking or stonewalling long enough. Some people don't know when they've lost or when to give up. There's a time when you just don't have the votes, and it's pointless to keep talking. In such instances it doesn't matter how hard you bang your head against the wall.  The wall doesn't care.

4. There are very few "victory or death" situations. 
I believe there are causes worth dying for... but there aren't a lot of them.  Not raising taxes at all?  Not cutting entitlements at all?  These are far from absolute moral principles.  I'm pretty sure most economic experts would say the choices we've faced this last Congress have been between significant economic crisis and giving in a little on your absolutism of choice.

Try this "win or die" approach in a church and you're toast.  You're fired.  You're out of the ministry.  You're out of leadership.  In fact, say good bye to your marriage and any friends other than your wolf pack if you're a "my way or the highway" type person.  Don't cry persecution when you are the one who ends up packing. In real life, you almost always have to meet people somewhere in the middle, even if they are stubborn donkeys.

5. Something is better than nothing.
The choice in this gridlock was not "taxes or no taxes." The choice was "some taxes or a massive amount of taxes."  Thankfully, a majority of Congress in the end realized time was up and most compromised.  No one on either side is happy, but progress was made.

As a church leader, as a spouse, as a parent, you often can't get everything you think you should.  It's the difference between a teenager who daydreams about dating someone and actually dating someone who has thoughts and desires of her own.  Sometimes they don't say back what you daydreamed.

But you can often get something.  You can move things in the right direction.  You can argue and argue over it all and end up with nothing.  Or you can get something. You may not get the church to move locations, but you might get a new venue offsite in the meantime.  You might not get the full membership rules of the denomination changed, but you might get a new category of community membership in the meantime.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Lincoln, Team of Rivals 1

One of my Christmas presents was Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals.  It's about his presidency, with the new angle of showing how he interacted with his team--Seward, Chase, Bates, and others.

The first chapter is about the day of the Republican nomination: May 18, 1860.  No one expected Lincoln to be the nomination.  His strategy was to be everyone's second favorite, and then to hope that all the leads would cancel each other out.  He also had the strategy of not being offensive to anyone.

It was a quite effective strategy and of course it worked.  He was not nearly as famous as the other candidates.  He had only one stint in the House of Representatives and had failed in the previous two elections for Senate.  Most people from outside Illinois would have had someone else as their favorite.

So if Seward didn't become the Republican nominee on the first ballot, Lincoln had a shot. Seward, and Chase for that matter, were the more hard core abolitionist candidates.  But Lincoln reflected the founding position of the Republican Party--that slavery should be confined to the south and not allowed going forward in the West. Lincoln, along with Bates, was thus the moderate in the Republican field.
I like Lincoln, from his messy office to the fact that he consistently made others laugh despite a melancholic personality.  I like his pragmatism. I imagine I would have taken the same position politically as a realist at the time.

A Good Start...

I personally think the compromise late last night was a good sign that maybe we aren't going to have quite as bad gridlock going forward as we have had... not that it isn't frustrating how long and backward the process was to get this deal. But at least they were able to make a deal.

Three cheers for all those who saw the need to cooperate with each other!  I won't mention the names of those who voted no, but I personally would like to see all the Republicans and Democrats who did voted out next election.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

It's New Year... again

We'll all be dead before you know it.  It was yesterday I posted last year's obligatory new year resolutions post.  So how have I done?
  • I didn't kill myself as seminary Dean as much this year.  Most of the thanks for that goes to the delegation of tasks to IWU's common infrastructure.  At the beginning of the seminary, I did a lot of micromanaging of the curriculum and other tasks because I felt like we were doing something innovative that "normal systems" wouldn't do. (In fact, I smile when I see some of our Blackboard innovations showing up in CAPS, like buttons that collect all weekly assignments together and dual due dates during the week--yeah, we came up with that first.)

    But now we're in phase two of the seminary.  We're working together with existing structures more and more, finding that happy balance between maximizing large scale efficiencies without losing our personal touch or innovative edge.  The seminary now has an empowered faculty, so like it or not, I have to keep my hands off more.

    Wayne Schmidt as seminary leader means that we are constantly working together with new denominations and churches.  That means there is a continued place for improvisation and innovation that keeps me interested.
  • I remain caught up with all my writing.  My next book deadline is not till March and I have some feelers out for other possibilities.  I continue to weigh whether blogging is distracting or helpful. 
  • I've been in a good rhythm of reading a chapter a week of something.
  • I got all the way through Psalm 11 doing a verse a day.  Not sure if I want to continue, although it was rewarding.
Blog resolutions for the new year?
  • I'd like to continue to post on a chapter of some book every Monday.
  • Maybe on Wednesdays I'd like to post something I'm reading that isn't religious, maybe something on history or science.
  • I'd like to continue working through Grudem on Saturdays.
  • I'd like to continue through my biblical theology on Sundays.
Then there's the normal:
  • Run more.
  • Write something scholarly.
  • You may not know it, but I often read a page a day in math or science.  My goal was to work through three textbooks I have by the time I'm 50.  I'm not going to make it.  They're each over 1000 pages.
Oh well... Happy New Year!!