Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Revelation--All Truth Is God's Truth

Did a quick video on the question of how we know things about God.  Is truth about God more revealed or discovered or both, which is where I land.

This might be part of a series of theology videos I'll do... we'll see.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Practical Theology 7: God as Spirit

More in the theology series...

1. Is Theology Practical?
2. Why Believe in God?

God as Creator
3. God as Other
4. God as All-Powerful
5. God as All-Knowing
6. God as Eternal

7. God as Spirit
John 4:24 proclaims that "God is spirit, and it is necessary for those who worship him to worship in spirit and truth." As is often the case, the first statement is often lifted out of its context and made to make an abstract theological claim. But as with all words, what were these words doing in context?

In John 4, Jesus is telling a Samaritan woman that neither the temple in Jerusalem or Samaria localize God.  God is present in spiritual form, not in physical form. The spirits of human beings are what worship God. To say God is a spirit in this sense is thus to say that he is not visible or tied down to a fixed location. It points us toward the Christian sense that God is everywhere present in the universe, though not often visible.

The New Testament tells us that the Spirit of God spoke through the prophets of the Old Testament (e.g., 2 Pet. 1:21). The Spirit of God reveals truth to his people (1 Cor. 7:40). The Spirit of God empowers his people (Acts 4:8). Most intriguing of all, a few places seem to speak of the Holy Spirit as a distinct person from God the Father (John 14:26; 2 Cor. 13:13).

Of course this is exactly what Christians would officially affirm in the earliest centuries of the church. God the Spirit is a distinct person of the Trinity, of one substance with the Father.  The practical implications are that God is with us, wherever we go. He is with us to empower us, as he did to the apostles in Acts.  He is with us to give us knowledge of the truth (John 16:13), knowledge of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11).

The Spirit is God's seal of ownership on us (Eph. 1:13-14), a deposit and guarantee of our future existence.  Spirit is the stuff of heaven--the biblical authors probably thought literally, although we are best to take it as a picture (spirit was understood in material terms at the time of Christ, just thin material). Romans 8:9 tells us that if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to him.  In the same way, the Holy Spirit is the definitive ingredient of eternal life in Acts (11:18).

The Spirit of God cleanses and purifies our hearts (Acts 15:9).  The Spirit sets us apart as God's people, both individually and corporately (2 Thess. 2:13).  He "sanctifies" us, cleansing us and setting us apart. He can sanctify God's people thoroughly, in every aspect of our lives (1 Thess. 5:23).

What does it look like to have the Holy Spirit today? Some Christians think you will speak in tongues if you have the Holy Spirit, but the New Testament hardly says anything of this sort and Paul clearly does not think all believers will speak in tongues (1 Cor. 12:30). American Christianity has tended to dramatize receiving the Holy Spirit to where everyone would have some emotional experience patterned off of Acts, but this is hardly our experience of your average person "getting saved." We would normally expect a peace to come but some individuals have blocks that keep them from feeling God's presence.

We must leave it to God rather than formulate some "one shoe fits all" approach. Most people experience peace and a confidence that they are right with God--if they are taught to expect it (remembering that assurance is a fairly recent notion). Some people get a significant feeling of God's presence. Some people get a sense of spiritual power. Some people speak in tongues.

Others must trust in the knowledge that they have put their trust in God, whether they feel anything special or not. At times other believers need to be faith for the troubled. God has given the body of Christ collectively the spiritual authority to forgive sins (e.g., John 20:23). Sometimes we have to exercise this authority on those who, for whatever reason, are troubled by doubt.

There are instances in Scripture where God's Spirit comes on individuals who are not serving him (e.g., Saul) or are even still in the womb (e.g., John the Baptist). So we should not assume that a person must be an adult or a believer to experience the power or presence of God's Spirit. The Spirit can also depart from God's people, as seems to have happened to Israel at one point (cf. Ezek. 10:18).

What does God's Spirit look like against the backdrop of a robust understanding of creation out of nothing? It is fascinating to think that the picture of God as spirit both served to indicate his invisible presence everywhere while also indicating that he transcended the embodied realm.  From the standpoint of creation ex nihilo, these are two quite different functions, although they connected well to each other in the worldview of New Testament times.

So in New Testament times, spirit is the stuff from the top of the creation. [1] If you go straight up, you proceed through layers of sky (=heavens. It's the same word. We only use two different words--sky and heaven--because our view of the world has changed from ancient times).  When you get to the highest sky, you get to the highest heaven where beings like angels, "ministering spirits" (Heb. 1:14), were located. From the standpoint of Bible times, this is all part of one uni-verse. [2]

But with a robust sense of creation out of nothing, we now see more clearly than ever that the essence of God is "outside" this universe. The picture of God as Spirit in Scripture thus comes to refer to two quite different claims, both of which are truth: 1) that the essence of God is "other" than this creation and 2) that God is still nonetheless present everywhere in this world.

The trinitarian formulation of Nicaea in 325, like all revelation, was made within the categories of those to whom God revealed it. There are possibilities in a robust understanding of creation out of nothing for understanding God the Spirit as God in this universe and God the Father primarily as a reference to the essence of God outside this universe, remembering that the biblical language was not trying to explain these sorts of things.  They were simply pointing to different things the one God did and they used different names to do so without defining them in anything like a philosophical sense. [3]

But these sorts of speculations should make us uncomfortable. They are, after all, the stuff of ecumenical councils and the whole of Christendom. It is also, however, a warning to the current trendiness of Trinity-talk right now among theologians.  Theology literature right now is rife with what must surely in the end be wild speculation about how the nature of the Trinity impacts us.  In the end, such theologians are probably embarrassing themselves beyond comprehension. Most of this speculation, I suspect, will turn out to be impractical, even if it comes in practical garb.

God the Spirit means that God is with us everywhere, even though we cannot see him.  God the Spirit means that we have purity and power at our disposal.  God the Spirit means that we have direction and knowledge at our disposal. God the Spirit means that we have God at our disposal.

[1] In Old Testament times, spirit is wind, breath (ruach). The Spirit of God is thus conceptualized as the wind or breath of God.

[2] The Bible does not seem to have any category for anything being outside the cosmos.  It seems to operate with the picture of a three-story universe, with heaven being up and Sheol, the realm of the dead, being down.

[3] What I am saying here is that "God the Father" and "God the Spirit" is phenomenological language that refers to God as he appeared to his people and was experienced by them in their thought categories, God in the way he functioned with them. Philosophically and theologically, we might at least in theory give a more precise delineation if we had a more precise understanding of their roles. For example, could some functions that were experienced as being functions of "God the Father" have more precisely been functions of God the Spirit?

8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just
11. God as Unchanging

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Grass of the Field

Part of the devotional on Matthew 6:28-32:
Some worry quite a bit about how their lawns and yards look. “The neighbors have mowed their yard, I had better do ours.” “It’s Saturday—time to dust the living room.” “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” It is fine to have a hobby, but some get obsessed with how their things look. To Jesus, such preoccupations were trivial at best, idolatrous at worst. God put flowers in the field just fine with no one worrying about them, and those were destined for burning. Similarly, any “adorning” of our houses, yards, or ourselves will quickly pass away. The best things to invest in are the things that will last forever. How silly to put the emphasis on something that will disappear in a couple of days.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Form Follows Function

The phrase was apparently inspired by Louis Sullivan:
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons IWU not only didn't die in the 80s but has thrived immensely ever since.  The decision was made to create the Adult and Professional Studies wing of the university as a separate entity with its own rules and faculty.  It probably would have been DOA if they had tried to incorporate it within the then existing structures and systems of the university.

The bottom line is you design things in order for them to do what they do, also following the principle of the famous paraphrase of Einstein, "Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler."  This is doing things the right way. Pretty only counts if it's effective.

Where is your heart?

I've been working on my devotional on the Sermon on the Mount, which will come out near the end of the year to go along with a couple books I've written on Jesus.  I wrote this paragraph this morning for the day on Matthew 6:19-21:
Where is your heart?  You can tell by what you focus your energies on.  Where do you spend most of your time?  What do you spend most of your money on?  What are most of the things lying around your home?  How do you evaluate others?  Do you evaluate them by what they wear?  By their shoes?  By the car they drive or the home they live in? By the church they go to?  By whether they wear a tie to church? These are all external things, not a matter of one’s heart, one’s true identity. They are all important in the world and in business. You have to pay some attention to them to survive in the world. They are completely unimportant to God.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


American Christianity right now seems a swirl of sometimes extreme Christian influences and ideas.  So you have those on the Canterbury Trail who become more and more liturgical. Then you have crazies like Doug Wilson of the Gospel Coalition arguing that it was unbiblical to abolish slavery. The charismatic wing of the church doesn't seem quite so strong right now, but the church has waves of spiritual gifts from time to time.

Six years ago I self-published my analysis of the situation in popular form. History has decisively demonstrated that the "Scripture alone" principle results in a proliferation of groups that cannot agree on what Scripture teaches, the so called "Protestant Principle."  Yet Cardinal Newman in the late 1800s embodied the ease with which one ends up Roman Catholic once you go down the "consensus faith" route, that looks for the commonly agreed tenets of Christianity as the binding point.  The drawback of a charismatic approach is that the revelations proliferate even more than denominations who are pursuing Scripture do.

I think it would help if we acknowledge all three components of the equation (Bible-church-Spirit) and tried to balance them more.

1. original meaning
Let the Bible mean what it most likely meant originally.  See each book as a moment in the flow of God's walk with humanity.  Don't cook the books in regard to scholarship.  Don't put artificial boundaries on the conclusions that you can reach.  Let it say what it most likely said, wherever the evidence seems to lead.  This is one leg of the stool.

2. consensus theology
Put a little faith in the common Christianity that developed in the first few centuries after Christ.  You need this leg of the stool even to have a New Testament canon, since the books of the NT came together in the church.  At least by the time of the Great Schism in 1054, we've lost the consensus in some areas. Constantine is probably too early. 451, when the dual natures of Christ were hammered out is a popular point to stop.  Five centuries, four councils, three creeds, two testaments, one canon.

3. Spirit interruptions
Leave room for the Holy Spirit.  Leave room for the Spirit to interrupt church trajectories, as in the Protestant Reformation.  Leave room for the Spirit to apply Scripture directly to individual lives.

I don't think many were ready to hear my "balanced approach" ten years ago.  In the current chaotic swirl, are there any takers?  Ready to dismiss the Gospel Coalition as a mess of neo-fundamentalists?  Are Protestants ready to give an alternative to your children becoming Anglican, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic?  Ready to tether that pneumatic free-for-all that is the charismatic movement?

The key is balance between all three important channels of authority...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Occam's Razor, Friend or Foe?

Although my reading of Unintended Revolution was selective... very selective... I wasn't impressed.  I'm going to try to read A Secular Age this summer so I can clean my palate.  I felt like Gregory had a whole lot of dots in his painting but that they all need reorganized.

I remain convinced that the Reformation was a by-product of the Renaissance, which itself was a working out of sociological forces in the late Middle Ages.  I do not see the Reformation itself as the epicenter of the earthquake that led to secularization.  I see it as part of the unfolding events, not the primary cause. The Reformation couldn't have happened if the church's power and grip wasn't already in the process of unraveling.

So the unraveling of the church's power surely facilitated secularization, but Protestantism is part of that phenomenon, not the primary cause.

There are lots of things that annoyed me about this book, but I want to focus on one theme that I think is very interesting.  Gregory repeatedly criticized the notion of Occam's Razor in contrast to what he considered a sacramental worldview.  Occam's Razor of course is the idea that the simplest explanation is the best explanation.

We use the notion all the time in normal thinking. If my son has crumbs on his face and the cookie jar is open with a trail of crumbs leading to him, I don't usually conclude that his older sister has framed him, let alone that the police are trying to get me upset and then take me to jail for some inappropriate act of violence.  Einstein is usually summarized as saying that a theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler.

An astute commentator once criticized a position I took in Hebrews as being reductionistic. What he was criticizing was my methodological sense that we should not see more meaning in a passage than is necessary to explain it.  Since the biblical texts were written in history for historical audiences, my assumption--following Occam's Razor--is that if the meaning of a passage can be more or less fully explained against its most natural historical context, that is the most probable original meaning.

But this approach sometimes runs into conflict with those who, because of theological motivations, want to see "extra" meaning in a text that fits either with the way the New Testament reads an Old Testament passage or how later Christians, including Christian orthodoxy, read a text.  I don't have a problem with theological interpretation of this sort if we don't pretend it is the same as the original meaning.  But those who are motivated to make the historical meaning coincide with the desired theological meaning are just bad interpreters.  This isn't reductionistic.  It's the very essence of reading a text in context.

Gregory criticizes the age of Newton to the Enlightenment to contemporary secular society basically for trying not to identify spiritual causes for things when something can more or less be explained on the basis of natural cause and effect. But does he really want to suggest that we should believe in God and the supernatural even if they are not really crucial to explain the way the world is?  Without falling into a "God of the gaps" perspective, I would also like to think that the existence of God makes sense of the world in a way that an absence of God would not.

Occam's Razor remains an extremely productive view of reality. I have other opinions. I don't see how we can go back before Kant without some sort of memory erasure. Alistair MacIntyre is a nice guy, but we can't go back to Aristotle. I think I can account for these phenomenologists in my system, but I don't think they can account for the details of reality in theirs.

Two cents...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rocks, Keys, and the Gates of Hades

Last week one of the leadership assignments touched on Matthew 16 where Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom.  This is of course the classic text where Roman Catholics trace the idea of Peter being the first pope.  God gives the keys to Peter, who gives them to Linus, who gives them to Clement... who gave them to Pope Francis I this year. Protestants have of course often responded by saying that the "rock" on which Jesus built his kingdom was not Peter but the confession that Jesus is the Christ.

Some historical notes.  First, Peter, which means rock, was not Peter's birth name.  In fact, since Peter is Greek, Jesus may never have made the sounds, petros, ever.  "Cephas" is the Aramaic name that Jesus gave Simon, son of Jonah.  Simon was his birth name.  Jesus gave him the name Cephas, "rock."

So that makes it pretty likely that Peter is a central part of the referent of "on this rock I will build."  This of course is light years from popes and apostolic succession, but it does seem to imply that Jesus is centrally talking about Peter.  Additionally, the "you" in "I will give you" is singular, so it is not even something Jesus is saying to all his disciples there.  He is speaking to Peter specifically.

The "gates of hell" here are not the gates of Gehenna, the place of punishment, but the gates of Hades, the realm of the dead in general.  In short, death will not win over the kingdom.  "Kingdom of heaven" does not likely mean anything different from "kingdom of God" in Mark.  Heaven is the place from which God rules, not the place where we will be in the kingdom (cf. Matt. 8:11).

Some thoughts on the Matthew 16 passage...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Grudem 12d: God's Moral Attributes (holiness)

... continued from last week.
9. Holiness
"God's holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor" (202). God's people are to imitate God's holiness in the Old Testament, which for Grudem means not least that they are to be separate from evil. Christians are also to stay away from sin and evil in their striving for holiness.

God's holiness comes to involve what we think of as moral elements, but that is not the primary dimension in the Old Testament.  After all, God's holiness leads him to kill Uzzah simply for touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:7).  We may want to rationalize this event--maybe he wasn't a Levite, for example. But the biblical text does not say anything of this sort.  He just touched something that was set apart, something he was not supposed to touch. It was not an immoral act, it was a shal, an inadvertent wrong or error.

A person in a given culture will tend to have very clear ideas about what is moral and immoral, but a good deal of what seems obvious to us at any time may have to do with our culture and be a social construct.  What feels immoral or outrageous today may or may not feel the same tomorrow. An older person may be deeply offended that his or her grandchild is texting at the dinner table, while the young teen cannot figure out what the problem is. Hair length, clothing, places to avoid, people to avoid--at any one time a particular Christian group may have strong feelings about what God requires, only to find that its grandchildren do not at all feel the same.

All that is to say that the holiness of God in the Old Testament does not so much have to with what the New Testament thinks of as immoral act. These are not matters we would associate with God's moral attributes. In Exodus 15:11, the holiness of God is associated not with his moral uprightness, but with his awesome power.  The Sabbath is set apart as holy not by ceasing from immorality on Saturday but by doing something different--not working (e.g., Exodus 12:16). Isaiah 52:1 talks about how, because Jerusalem will be holy, no uncircumcised or unclean person will be allowed in--both things the New Testament does not consider immoral or of continuing validity in the new covenant.

In short, holiness in the Old Testament overwhelmingly has to do with setting something apart because it is strongly associated with God. It strongly involves the category of clean and unclean, and it can be conveyed or defiled by touching (e.g., Exodus 29:37). In the Old Testament, God is holy because God is God, not because he is supremely moral. Holiness is godness. It is primarily a category of awe and glory. God is holy by definition, not by action, and other things become holy because they are set apart to him or touch something set apart to him.

Nevertheless, it is true that certain actions we associate with morality come to be part of what the New Testament understands by holiness. 1 Peter 1:15 especially makes this connection in a way that the verse it quotes, Leviticus 11:44, does not.  Leviticus 11 makes this statement about God in the context of the food laws, not eating things like snake in particular.

So Grudem, as a pre-modern interpreter of the Bible, simply mixes together the moral element of New Testament holiness with the clean/unclean orientation of Old Testament holiness and projects moral holiness as a part of God's nature. To be sure, God always acts morally in this universe and expects us to model our behavior on his "nature." But the first meaning of God's holiness relates to what we have mentioned earlier as his otherness, his awesome godness.

So insofar as the holiness of God is a moral attribute, it simply relates to God's goodness. It more accurately and profoundly relates to God's otherness, his very godness, his awesomeness. It is rarely if ever associated with what we think of as God's justice.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Practical Theology 6: God as Eternal

My series on theology that is practical continues...

1. Is Theology Practical?
2. Why Believe in God?

God as Creator
3. God as Other
4. God as All-Powerful
5. God as All-Knowing

6. God as Eternal
In regard to time, the Bible tells us that God existed before the foundation of the world (e.g., John 17:24) and that he will exist forever (e.g., Psalm 102:27). When we couple this truth with his power, knowledge, goodness, and unchangeability we know we have a God that we can depend on who will be with us forever. As Psalm 102:27 says, "You remain the same, and your years will never end."

God will always be around.  He will always be around knowing what to do (all knowing), able to do it (all powerful), and willing to do it (good and active).  God acts within time as we know it.  He did not create the world and then abandon it. Rather, he is an ever present help in time of trouble (Psalm 46:1). As Hebrews 7 says of Jesus Christ, "because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them" (7:24-25, NIV).

Christian thinkers of the ages have of course asked and attempted to answer many questions that the Bible does not address relating to God and time. For example, if God knows the future, then how can I do anything other than what God knows? Many have therefore wondered if God's "foreknowledge," his knowledge of the future, implies "determinism," that God determines the future.

One solution of the Middle Ages is to suggest that God is "timeless," that God's relation to time is not the same as our relationship to time.  Boethius (480-ca.524) famously suggested that God looks at all time at the same time, that God exists in some kind of eternal "now." Accordingly, he does not know the future ahead of time, as it were, but he knows it now. [1]

Let's say that you are present for a football game that is not shown on television until several hours after the game is over. You have a knowledge of what is about to happen in the game on television without determining it.  In the same way, God knows now what is going to happen in the future because he sees the future now even though we who exist in time have not yet got there.

Again, it is very important practically to recognize that the Bible simply does not ask nor answer these questions. As we will see later in this series, the Bible makes both statements that imply predeterminism and statements that imply free will.  It does not work out the details philosophically. The result is that we as Christians can legitimately disagree on the answers while also continuing to think through these issues in the light of apparent scientific discoveries. There is no one Christian answer.

It does seem to be the case that many Christians think of God as existing within time in the same way we do.  Many Christians seem to think that God moves moment by moment as we do, even though he lives so long that a "thousand years is like a day" (e.g., 2 Pet. 3:8). It is understandable that a person would get this impression from the way the Bible describes God, using anthropomorphic language.

However, God would not be God if we take this language too literally. The Bible, using ordinary language, often talks of God in terms that (if taken literally) make him sound like the supreme being within the universe but not the all-powerful, all-knowing Christian creator of the world out of nothing. The Bible points us in this direction, on this trajectory, but it was post-biblical Christian theology that unpacked the full significance of God in these areas.

When we take relativity into account, the picture becomes much more complicated.  If God created spacetime out of nothing, then the essence of God indeed does not exist within our spacetime plane.  Indeed, relativity tells us that what we call time itself moves differently depending on how fast something is moving. In the twin paradox, one twin ends up younger than the other after he returns from flying in a spaceship near the speed of light. So you could end up older than your grandfather if he took a little trip in a very fast rocket.

God as Spirit thus exists within every inertial frame of reference and experiences time at least in multiple sequences.  It is thus not unreasonable to think that God exists outside the sequence of events as we experience them, as Boethius suggested. This suggestion removes the conundrum of foreknowledge and predestination.

Ultimately, we have no point of reference to know whether there might actually be a multiverse with multiple futures based on a practically infinite number of turning points in history. In such a thought experiment, the particular timeline we think of as a singular history could be only one of a nearly infinite futures, all of which God knows and participates in. However, this is merely a thought experiment, meant to show how little we actually know about such things.

[1] I am not meaning to preclude the possibility that God somehow knows the eternal now even without observing it. I am only meaning to show that foreknowledge from our temporal perspective does not in any way require predeterminism from God's perspective.

7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just
11. God as Unchanging

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Self-Reliance versus Poor in Spirit

I was looking at Matthew 5:3 this morning: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  What does it mean to be poor in spirit but to have a sense of utter dependency on God?  The poor in spirit are those who do not think themselves sufficient but know they need God.

Then I was contrasting this principle with the American value of self-reliance.  "If you want it done, do it yourself."  Is it possible to be a "doer" who at the same time gives God credit for the increase?  It's so hard not to take the credit yourself when you have worked to bring about results and they have come!

But can we be authentically assertive for God's mission because we are dependent on him?  Can we be meek toward ourselves, yet pushy for the kingdom and its values?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ye Ole Anabaptists

The last few years I've become increasingly aware of the Anabaptist tradition and its impact on the American Christian landscape. It is a subtle influence, because we're not talking about a specific church group.  We're not exactly talking about Baptists, for example, although they are surely related.

The Anabaptists come from those groups of "re-baptizers" who were persecuted in the 1500s by the first Protestants. It starts with Zwingli, who certainly was not Anabaptist.  He followed Luther in protesting against the way things have developed in the Roman Catholic Church. But then, he kills some in Zurich who take it further.  They do not believe the Bible teaches infant baptism and they all start getting re-baptized. He responds by drowning them in the river.

So obviously Anabaptists do not accept infant baptism. But they also, understandably, have a strong anti-establishment Christianity, anti-power motif.  They tend to be pacifists. They tend a bit toward anti-denominationalism or at least they resist having much church structure. Thus it is no surprise that the Baptist tradition is "congregational" in terms of church structure.

I believe the last decade or so has seen significant impact from the Anabaptist tradition on American Christianity, not least in the house church movement. When you read people like Frank Viola or Alan Hirsch and hear themes like "Constantinian Christianity," I believe you're hearing some Anabaptist influence.  This is the narrative that says everything was peachy keen until Constantine made Christianity official and "institutional." Then it all went downhill from there.

Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder have been very trendy in post-liberal schools like Duke and Princeton. I've heard that Niebuhr's model of Christ and culture has been significantly updated. I'm sure he needed it, but then again, I suspect there is some Anabaptist hidden in there with which I disagree.  I like Niebuhr and suspect some of the critique is just traditional disagreement.

There is an affinity between the Wesleyan tradition and the Anabaptists. They tend to be pietist, as we do.  Wesley was influenced by Moravians early on, and they were Anabaptist. But here's why it is valuable to know some church history. The ideas swirling out there are not just "Scripture alone." They are traditional forces.

Knowing the forces at work gives us freedom to choose, rather than just being bandied about by the latest idea that seems new and trendy to us...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Practical Theology 5: God as All-Knowing

My series on theology that is practical continues...

1. Is Theology Practical?
2. Why Believe in God?

God as Creator
3. God as Other
4. God as All-Powerful

5. God as All-Knowing (omniscient)
The fact that God created the world out of nothing has massive implications in relation to God's knowledge. As human beings in the world, we can accidentally invent or discover things because we did not create the elements of the creation or the rules for how they interact with each other. As human beings, we can know about things in theory from a far but then gain experiential knowledge of them up close.

Suffice it to say, none of these scenarios apply to God, who created the elements and created the rules for how they interact.  He created feelings. He created the possibility of sin. He created these out of nothing, meaning that he could have created them completely differently. The law of gravity, the law of the conservation of matter and energy, God does not operate within these rules. He created them.

The implication is that God thoroughly knows everything about this universe, the way it works, and the way it feels. God knows what it feels like to sin because he created, out of nothing, the possibility of sinning. The fact that God created the universe out of nothing implies that he knows every possible eventuality in this universe and that there is no distinction for him between theoretical knowledge and experiential knowledge. God does not learn anything when he becomes human as Jesus nor when he dies on the cross.

Christians throughout the centuries have also believed that God not only knows every possible eventuality in the world but every actual event that will take place in history. Does God only know every possible universe or does he know the actual universe as it will unfold in history? Does this question even make sense or are there multiple universes playing themselves out right now with different eventualities?

A group of Christian thinkers called "open theists" have suggested that God has decided not to know the future so that he can experience it with us and so that we can have free will. They are following a line of thought we will discuss in the next section as well, a line of thought that believes that if God knows the actual future, then that future is determined for us, and we cannot have free will. Those who think this way thus fall into two camps--those who then conclude that God has already decided the future and knows it and those who believe God has not decided the future and thus doesn't know it.

We take the orthodox position of the centuries that God knows the actual future yet does not determine it.  It is probably important to point out, however, that the open theists have strong biblical evidence in their favor. That is to say, if you take the Old Testament literally, it often does not present God as knowing everything that is going to happen.

God does not seem to know where Adam is in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:9). God is sorry that he created humanity right before the Flood in Genesis 6:6--something that cannot be literally true if God knew ahead of time that humanity would do what it did. Indeed, emotions are responses to experiential moments, which God does not have if he knows the actual future from eternity past. In that sense, all the presentations of God's emotions in Scriptures, if taken literally, would preclude total omniscience.

While we thus are sympathetic to the desire of open theists to take this biblical imagery literally--after all, the biblical authors themselves probably understood it that way--it is probably better to take this biblical language as more figurative and anthropopathic. It is God speaking to us in terms we can understand. It reminds us of the fact that God is "other" and that even the Bible often does not give us a fully literal picture of him.

Indeed, this is probably another area where parts of the Old Testament do not have as full an understanding of God's knowledge as parts of the New Testament.  Psalm 139 only talks about how immense God's knowledge is. It does not say it extends to every single thing, including everything that will happen in the future.

Even further, it took later Christianity to fill out the picture of God's omniscience in philosophical terms. A comment like 1 John 3:20 that God knows all things was made in ordinary language, not the absolute language of philosophy.  When you consider the immensity of Scripture and then consider how few comments like 1 John 3:20 there are, you begin to realize how much we are reliant on the church of the centuries in addition to Scripture, even on as central a belief as God's omniscience.

There are serious practical implications to this realization. It gives us a more balanced understanding of Scripture, particularly of how figurative some of its statements are.  It gives us a sense of the flow of revelation and how the prophets of the Old Testament did not understand as much as the apostles of the New Testament. No verse of Scripture should be read and applied in isolation from consideration of all the others. It gives us a sense of how important the earliest centuries of Christianity were in refining what we believe as Christians. The failure to realize such things arguably is one of the most significant reasons for the immense disunity of Christian denominationalism today.

The practical implications of God's omniscience are immense.  God is not only powerful enough to help us in any situation, he knows exactly what to do.  Romans 8:26 tells us that when we pray, the Spirit intercedes for us because we do not have enough knowledge to be able to pray as we should. God's knowledge of all things actual is part of his sovereignty. God not only has the power to be in charge of the universe. He knows exactly what to do in the implementation of that power.  It implies that God's will will always be effective.

We are also reminded of how so many Christians--including Christian thinkers--do not realize the full implications of God creating the world out of nothing and God thus being "other."  We tend to assume without realizing it that God is part of the universe and that the way of this universe is a given. We ascribe aspects to God's "nature" that are really aspects of this universe.  In reality, we have no conception, no point of reference to realize how differently God could have created things in every way--and perhaps has in other universes.

6. God as Eternal
7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Headed home from Missio...

Very interesting conference.  I shouldn't be surprised that the binding principle of the conference was missional. :-)

Interesting sociology with so many different groups.  You wonder how it might all hold together.  The Wesleyan lunch group yesterday was interested but unsure how it might unfold. In many respects it felt "other."  That's good to some extent, keeps us from becoming incestuous, as long as there's enough in common to be worth participation.

Although a couple missional Anglicans were on the schedule, the Anabaptist tradition was clearly the dominant theology, so occasionally some anti-institutional Christianity ideology featured. I suspect that any theology that holds this group together will probably have to be selective.

Very well put together!  Kudos to JR Rozko and Chris Backert.

Grudem 12c God's Moral Attributes

I continue from several weeks ago Grudem's chapter on the "communicable" attributes of God, the ones that have to do with his relationship to the creation.
B. God's Moral Attributes
After treating attributes of God's "being" and of his "mind," Grudem proceeds to God's "moral" attributes as attributes that relate to the creation.

6. Goodness
"The goodness of God means that God is the final standard of good, and that all that God is and does is worthy of approval" (197). For Grudem, we are not free on our own to decide what is good.  God is the one whose actions provide the definition of good and what is worthy of approval. God is also the source of everything good in the world. God is the ultimate good and we should strive to imitate him by doing good in the world, that is, by doing the things that God approves.

Grudem's treatment of God's goodness, like his treatment of God's truthfulness, tries to deny that there is some independent standard of goodness such that we might measure God by it.  Rather, God and his actions provide us with the very definition of what is good and worthy of approval.

It may not seem immediately obvious what the point is here, but it is in part to close down discussion on issues like, for example, whether God was good to command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac or command Joshua to obliterate the innocent wives, children, and animals of Jericho. If God provides the definition, then these things become good by definition and the discussion is over before it begins.

Nevertheless, since we have biblical precedent to question God's actions in relation to his goodness (e.g., Hab. 1:2), it is clear that God's actions--or inaction--do not always immediately appear good to us.  That is to say, there is a valid operating definition of good in the Bible that is not circular like Grudem's definition.

The biblical sense of "good," like that of "love" below, is on the level of ordinary language, to act virtuously, to act for the benefit of others, to do what is right.  Grudem's definition is thus more theologically motivated than biblically driven. The Bible assumes a definition of goodness against which God, in theory, could be compared.

By faith, however, we believe that God does always act in ways that cohere with absolute goodness. God has created this universe with a certain sense of the good, and God always acts in this universe consistent with that standard. I prefer to say that he does so by choice rather than having to do so.

7. Love
"God's love means that God eternally gives of himself to others" (199). Grudem finds evidence of this eternal giving in John 17:24, where Jesus mentions God giving glory to him even before the foundation of the world. God is love (1 John 4:8) and shows this love in giving his Son Jesus to die for us.  We are to imitate this communicable attribute of God by loving God and loving others.

There is nothing objectionable to Grudem's discussion of God's love. He does not try to say that love is God's being, which would not make sense.  "God is love" is a metonymy, a poetic metaphor that equates God with something that so typifies him that we can say he "is" it.

He does not at this point pull any circular argument in relation to some doctrine like predestination. For example, you could see someone try to argue that it is loving by definition for God to predetermine that some individuals go to hell, to make them go to hell.  Such a person might argue that, since God's actions define what is good and loving, then to predestine individuals for hell is loving by definition, because love is whatever God does.

Grudem does not make such an argument here. As we said about goodness, the Bible operates with a normal sense of goodness or love, to act for the benefit of others, to do to others as you would have them do to you.  The Bible does not operate with a circular definition of love, such that it is simply whatever God actually does.

8. Mercy, Grace, Patience
"God's mercy means God's goodness toward those in misery and distress.  God's grace means God's goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God's patience means God's goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time" (200).

Grudem distinguishes these three and of course refers to that great, recurring Old Testament affirmation that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (e.g., Exod. 34:6). The bulk of this section is filled with examples from the Bible of these characteristics.

In his discussion of grace, Grudem emphasizes that God is never obligated to give grace, that he always does so freely. "There is only one attitude appropriate as an instrument of receiving such grace, namely, faith" (201). Our entire living of the Christian life results from God's continuous grace. Meanwhile, Grudem especially thinks of God's patience in terms of his slowness to punish sin.

Grudem's sense of God's mercy, grace, and patience is largely correct.  He does, predictably, filter God's grace and patience through the lens of God's justice. Cannot God be patient with us in our slowness to understand or to grow without the patience being resisting beating us with a stick?

Probably the main critique is one we have seen repeatedly. Grudem is to a large degree a pre-modern interpreter who brings his own definitions of words to the books of the Bible. It is thus no surprise that he finds pretty much a singular meaning for words throughout the whole book, one that coheres precisely with his theological understanding.

But in the New Testament world, "grace" is patron-client language. [1] Words take on meanings in socio-cultural frameworks, and in the New Testament world, grace reflects God's willingness to serve as a patron like the patrons of the first century Mediterranean world. Such grace comes close to the abstracted theological grace of Grudem, but it is not exactly the same.

So ancient grace could be solicited. It could be cut off if the client did not give appropriate honor to the patron. We find hints in this section of the Protestant doctrine of "by faith alone," reflecting the "faith versus works" interpretation of Paul from the Reformation.  It is, once again, an interpretation that comes close to Paul but which is a little skewed because it has been ripped from its first century moorings.  In its socio-cultural context, the works Paul especially had in view were works of the Jewish Law, especially those that separated Jew from Gentile. [2]

The words of the Bible had a richness that related directly to the world in which they were written. By contrast, Grudem pretends to read them as timeless words with a singular meaning. What he really does is read them flatly through the eyes of a particular stream of the Reformation, the Reformed one.

[1] See, for example, David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000). Also, Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

[2] The most significant person to argue for this understanding is James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

Friday, April 12, 2013

Theology at Missio Alliance

I think there may be a sense around here at the Missio Alliance that one of the reasons the Emergent Village didn't really go anywhere or do anything is that it wasn't theologically grounded well. The emergent movement knew what they didn't like about evangelicalism-as-usual, but they tried to ground the thought of the movement in postmodernism. Since postmodernism is an anti-theology, that left the movement without any real grounding that would stick.

The theological framework invoked at the conference so far is missional, with Scot McKnight, Cherith Fee-Nordling, and David Fitch so far as its theologians.

Scot McKnight
You won't be surprised to hear echoes of his King Jesus Gospel here.  The idea here is that the gospel is about Jesus as king.  It's focus is not about some narrow sense of getting people to pray for forgiveness and get baptized.  With the good news being about the kingship of Christ, then we have a robust sense of salvation that not only includes helping the poor and redeeming societal structures, but a sense of conversion that extends beyond a moment to a pilgrimage.

Nevertheless, I think I picked up a hint of a view of theology with which I disagree. If I heard him right, he invoked a distinction between an approach that aims at "the right way" and one that looks for relevance.  This reminds me of the Barth-Finney debate over whether God is responsible for the effect of the word or whether we can do things that bring about a better sermon effect.

It may, although I'm not sure if McKnight meant it, have a tinge of Platonism and presuppositionalism that creates a dichotomy between truth and effect.  Wesleyanism tends to be what I am now calling a "pragmatic theology."  What I mean by this notion is that truth should not be divorced from its effect but that, to a very large extent, truth is a function of effect.

Truth in this universe is, in general, what works in this universe.  God has built truth into this universe as what works in this universe.  In that sense, it is misguided to mistake ideas as the sources of truth that somehow play themselves out in this universe, as if the universe is some kind of Platonic copy of a divine ideal. Nor will we most accurately understand truth if we think of it in terms of revelations in God's mind that he has revealed to us in the Bible.

Rather, when God reveals truth, he is revealing the way he has made us and the world, how we and the world work. Therefore, theology when it is most true is also most useful. I may post on this later, but my point is that theologians should not think that revivalist traditions are unthinking because they do not always articulate a theology "behind" their practice. Rather theology is intrinsic to practice. It is most accurate when it is most closely tied to its effect. This is a superior form of theology to the abstracted version of it so loved by the stereotypical theologian.

David Fitch
I'll mention Fitch first.  It was interesting to have him next to Howard-John Wesley.  HJW's presentation might not contradict his as much if you take the pragmatic theological approach I just offered. The question becomes, "What do their theologies look like in practice?"  If their theologies result in a similar effect or look, then they are kindred even if the abstractions contradict each other.

And they did at least sound like they did. But I do not think HJW's disagreed with David's so much in practice.  

Fitch was trying to move beyond old fundamentalist categories like inerrancy to a storied approach to the Bible.  We live into the world of the Bible and experience its authority as the authority of God over us in his story of walking with the world. There's no question in my mind that this is a much more accurate theological abstraction than the one neo-evangelicalism came up with in the 50s.

Cherith Fee-Nordling
Her presentation by far has been the best of the conference. If I were to sum up her main point it would be a plea against Gnosticism. The world is not evil, only fallen.  God created a good world.  We are not spirits waiting to be released to our true heavenly home.  Rather, the earth is our eternal destination, a redeemed earth. Jesus might have become human just to be with us, even if Adam hadn't sinned and didn't need redeemed.  Jesus was truly and fully human... and he liked it.

I continue to think that the best theological descriptor of this group sociologically is post-conservative and that the best theological category to describe it is "missional."  Wesleyanism at its best fits well here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Missio Alliance Day 1

A good Day 1 of the first Missio Alliance meeting on "The Future of the Gospel."  I've been reflecting all day on what the cohesive principle is for this group of 700.  In some respects, it is a very diverse sociological group consisting of:
  • Arminian Baptists
  • Charismatics/Pentecostals
  • Anabaptists and free church
  • Wesleyan-Armininans
  • Evangelical Anglicans
What do Scot McKnight, Howard-John Wesley, Alan Hirsch, Cherith Fee-Nordling, David Fitch, Amos Young, and Dallas Willard have in common?  You could go negative.  They're not Calvinists, mainline Protestants or catholics.  But there are Anglicans here too.

To invoke Wittgenstein, it is not so much a common core as a common constellation of values.  Some share more than others.  The constellation includes things like multi-ethnicity, women in ministry, social justice, optimism of grace, openness to the Spirit, free church, non-fundamentalist valuing of Scripture.  Sociologically, it is a group that does not want to have the excluding tone of the Gospel Coalition without losing orthodoxy like the Emergent Village.  They are post-conservatives who can use the word "evangelical" but feel a little uneasy about it.

But if I had to describe it positively, I think the word that really best describes this group is missional.  And by missional I mean the real deal, not its knock offs.  Missional means getting on board with what God is doing, not trying to get people to come to my church or using gimmicks to try to attract people to my group.  Missional means a full sense of the gospel that is king Jesus focused and doesn't have some narrow focus on getting a person to say a sinner's prayer.

It has been somewhat theology heavy and I want to process some of that in a different post, maybe in the morning. For now, I'll leave it at that...

Off to Missio Alliance

I'm flying today to DC for the first Missio Alliance conference, The Future of the Gospel.  If you look at the sponsors, you'll see not only that The Wesleyan Church is a sponsor (with Wesley Seminary splitting the sponsorship), but that the sponsors are an Arminian-fest.

What excites me about this group is that there are a lot of Christians in America today who are fully orthodox, love the Bible, are fully devoted followers of Christ, but who do not really have a group to concentrate their voice.  We're talking about a group that has a robust sense of what it means to spread the gospel (it's way more than getting people "saved").  We're talking about a group that understands that social justice is part of the lordship of Christ.  We're talking about a group that fully affirms women in ministry as a sign of the age of the Spirit.  We're talking about a group that pursues a church that looks as diverse as the kingdom of God actually is.

It's no coincidence that a lot of Wesleyan-Arminians are behind this conference.  The description above is exactly what the Wesleyan tradition is all about...

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Word study reminders...

I was thinking yesterday about some basic insights into words.  It's all stuff I've said before, but they're worth repeating.

1. The same word will normally be translated by several different words into another language.
So you can do a "concept" study by looking at all the places an English word is used in a particular version of the Bible.  It is not a bad thing.

But you should keep in mind that you will not be studying the same underlying word.  You're trusting the English translators of whatever version to have used the right translation word.  Also see #3 below.

2. The same underlying Greek or Hebrew word will normally be translated in English by more than one  word. Words have a range of meanings. They do not always mean the same thing. They do not always play out some core meaning. They are not in any way limited by what they used to mean or what the different parts of the word break apart to seem to mean.

So ekklesia did not mean the "called out ones."  To sin is not about missing the mark as in missing an archery target.  Baptism isn't always about immersion.  That's just ghetto.

3. When I was in college, I was enamored of Kittle and theological dictionaries. And weren't these put together by giants of biblical interpretation?  So what is the theological significance of a Greek word?  Then what was the magic theology in the Hebrew word that corresponded to the Greek word?

But this is all premodern.  It unreflectively thinks that there is this singular meaning to which all the words point. Meaning doesn't work like that.  The contextual meaning of a word at any point of the Bible is in how it was used at the point when that word was used.  There is no common, timeless meaning to which all the words point. That's the task of theology and just isn't the way the biblical words were used.

So there's no point in looking up the Hebrew word for righteousness when you are studying Paul's use of the word righteousness--that is, unless you have reason to believe that he knew and was "using" that meaning.  The meaning of righteousness in Hebrew is only as relevant to the interpretation of Paul as he used that meaning.  In a case like the book of Hebrews, whose author does not seem to use the Hebrew OT, the Hebrew meaning of some original text he quotes is completely irrelevant to the meaning of Hebrews.

The original meaning of the Hebrew OT is only relevant to the interpretation of the NT to the extent that the NT authors knew and used it.

Can God have had other meanings to the OT in mind?  Sure, but don't confuse that with what the words meant in context, in what their first authors and audiences understood the words to mean.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Practical Theology 4: God as All-Powerful

My series on theology that is practical continues...

1. Is Theology Practical?
2. Why Believe in God?

God as Creator
3. God as Other

4. God as All-Powerful (omniscient)
If God created the world out of nothing, then there is no "power" in this world that he did not create.  This goes far beyond being able to lift the biggest possible rock there could be (so, no, it is not possible for God to create a rock so big that he does not have the power to lift it--if it were possible, he would not be all-powerful).  It extends to the power to direct the course of history, to perform miracles, to stop holocausts, etc.

It means that God is sovereign. He is ultimately in control.  Anything that happens in the world happens either by his "directive" or "permissive" will. He either directly intends for what happens to happen or he allows it to happen for some reason.

It means he is able to help, no matter what my problem or our problem might be. That is not to say that he will always intervene or always intervene in the way we want him to or think he should. But he remains able to help, able to intervene. And by faith we believe he regularly does.

The book of Hebrews says it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18). This comment leads to several important observations.  The first is that the Bible does not present a systematic theology of God's power. This is a practical observation because there is a tendency among some Christians not only to think that the Bible clearly answers every question but to think they have found them when they haven't!

Inevitably, we are the ones who have to work out what the varied statements in the Bible about subjects like God's power meant and how they fit together.  The more we try to fit such biblical teaching together on our own, in isolation from other Christians and the Christians of the centuries, the more likely we are to go start a cult or just be odd.

How do we fit together Gabriel's statement in Luke 1:37 that nothing is impossible for God with Hebrews 6:18? The Bible does not tell us--we have to fit them together. This is an incredibly practical insight.  We look to the Bible as the starting point for knowing truth about God and God's will, but the Bible does not exhaust God's truth or directly give us the answers to all our questions. We also need the body of Christ, the communion of saints to help us work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Part of the issue here is the fact that when the Bible makes statements like, "Is anything too hard for the LORD?" (Gen. 18:14), its authors and the speakers in its narratives were not writing theology textbooks.  Even when we say things like, "under no circumstances," an annoying philosophy student or fourteen year old could probably come up with an outrageous circumstance to which we would make an exception.  The Bible normally speaks in ordinary language, not in the language of tight philosophical propositions.

So what does it mean to say that something is impossible for God?  What does it mean to say that it is impossible for God to lie?  Doesn't it mean that he just doesn't do it, doesn't choose to do it?  I prefer to say that God chooses not to do the things we say are impossible for him to do, like sinning.

Can God make 2 plus 2 equal 5?  Many theologians say it is not possible.  But here we have switched from the question of power to the question of possibility.  Having all power, as with the large rock conundrum, implies that certain negatives are not possible.

But with math and logic, many theologians are comfortable saying that God cannot do what is logically or mathematically impossible.  But if he really created the world out of nothing and is truly other, perhaps he could in ways we could not possibly imagine.

5. God as All-Knowing
6. God as Eternal
7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just

Friday, April 05, 2013

Top Ten Theological Mistakes...

Like my, "Ten Common Mistakes about the NT," some of these are slam dunks and a few more debatable, but here are 10 common theological mistakes you hear all the time that I think are pretty easily dismissed:

1. God made the world because he was lonely and needed us.
Nope, a core Christian doctrine is the self-sufficiency of God, his "aseity."

2. God learned what it was like to be human and to suffer when he became Jesus.
Nope, God created the world out of nothing and thus created the possibility of suffering, what it would feel like, etc. There is no distinction in God between his theoretical and his experiential knowledge. He created experiential knowledge.

3. When God forgives us, he forgets our sins and can't re-remember them.
God is omniscient and doesn't literally forget anything. This is a poetic statement. In fact, read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

4. All sin is sin.
Not according to the New Testament.  There is a "sin unto death" and a "sin not to death" in 1 John 5, for example.  There are sins Paul scolds and sins that get you kicked out of the church and delivered over to Satan (1 Cor. 5).

5. Everything happens for a reason.
Only in the sense that God has a reason for allowing the laws of nature and free will to play themselves out without always intervening. Wesleyans don't believe God micromanages the creation this narcissistically.

6. God turned away from Christ on the cross when Jesus took on our sins.
Nice story, just not in the Bible. Jesus suffered for our benefit.  Jesus "became sin" (a poetic statement). But God is not a legalist. Jesus may not have felt God's presence at the end, but I believe God was there.

7. The Bible has all the answers.
The Bible has all the principles, but we as the church have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  All we need for salvation is there, but there is no passage on abortion or when to disconnect the feeding tube, if we listen to what the biblical texts were actually about (rather than making them say what we want them to say).  Theology is where the church prays through the content of the Bible's books, written for specific ancient audiences, and tries to discern how to apply those principles to new issues and situations.

8. If God knows what's going to happen, then he must determine what's going to happen.
I continue to marvel either at my own stupidity or the stupidity of the people that think this.  It seems to me that people who think this do not fully appreciate what it means to say that God is outside time and created the universe out of nothing.  If God is looking on the future right now as well as the present, then for him to know the future is, at the minimum, him simply knowing what he is seeing in the future right now and has seen at least since the creation of the world.

9. God wouldn't be sovereign if he gave us free will.
Why, because that would make him weak?  What an immature sense of being in control.  Having the power to do anything and choosing not to use it is not only just as powerful as using it, it shows he isn't intimidated by us or our defiance. After all, doesn't our defiance just reflect how pathetic we are?

10. What we believe is all important.
God more looks on the heart.  If the history of Protestantism is any illustration, God must smile/shake his head at all the little denominational conclaves that finally give the "right answer" on what to believe and put it on their websites. Of course he probably wasn't smiling when all the Christians were burning each other at the stake in the 1500s and drowning people in the river to mock their re-baptism.

It seems to me these are all, to greater and lesser degrees, fairly obvious theological mistakes.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Green Exhibit

Thanks to the generosity of the Green family of Hobby Lobby, IWU and Wesley Seminary at IWU have been privileged to host some of their manuscript collection this week.  Not everyone will be interested in the history of the Bible's transmission, but of course I very much enjoy it.  Here are some of the pieces they brought:

1. Some Dead Sea Scrolls that they own, dating from the century before Jesus.

2. The papyrus fragment known as p39, fragment of John 8 dating to the 200s.

3. Some of Codex Climaci Rescriptus, which in its discovered form was a Greek manuscript from the 600s or 700s, but using technology has been able to reveal an original Aramaic translation of the gospels that had been what was written on the vellum originally.  It dates to the 500s.

4. Letter of Luther soon before he was condemned.

5. The Complutensian Polyglot, which was very well done but Erasmus got the Greek Bible onto the printing press first.

6. The Geneva Bible, which was the favorite English Puritan Bible of the 1500s, with its Calvinist notes.

7. Original 1611 King James.

8. Elzevir's Greek New Testament, which was the first to refer to the Erasmian Greek text as the "received text" or the textus receptus.

9. Letters of John and Charles Wesley.

10. King James first printed in the US after the Revolutionary War, only Bible printing ever sanctioned by Congress in the 1780s.

Fun stuff.  Of course there are still, surprisingly, American Christians who insist on only using the KJV. When you tell them that they're using a version from the 1780s that had already been updated about 5 times, some retrench by saying, "Then we're going to use the 1611 KJV."

Then when you tell them it was an Anglican, compromise translation, that it originally had the Apocrypha, that King James may have been gay, they retrench and say, the Geneva Bible then.  I've seen a version of the Geneva Bible that is called "The Patriot's Bible."  Really?

The Geneva Bible was never printed in America. It was brought over on the Mayflower... along with the KJV.  The Geneva Bible wasn't printed any more after the 1640's, so what patriot are they thinking about in this title?

Great Bibles, yes!  Great history, yes!  A lot of silly people out there, yes!

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

My Explanatory Notes on Galatians Published...

If you do a search on this blog for explanatory notes on Galatians, a mess of posts from 2008 will come up, back when I was regularly teaching a course in Romans and Galatians.  I translated and blogged through all of Galatians verse by verse and provided what I called "explanatory notes." The name is of course an allusion to John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, which we are privileged to have not least because of an extensive sickness that pinned him down a bit in 1755.

My notes were like his in that they are brief interactions with small bits of text without footnotes.  I do indicate where I am interacting with the thoughts of others with words like "Some think...."  I think that's a little better than Wesley did, who only mentions his sources in the preface (like Bengel's Gnomon). But the main goal is to read the text inductively.

Another feature of my notes was that they were meant to explain rather than apply the biblical text. They are thus about explaining what Paul probably meant rather than going through the admittedly more pressing hermeneutical task of knowing how to apply his meaning to today.

I may go on to publish the similar notes I made on 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Hebrews back in those days.  I also started James and Romans once upon a time.  Perhaps I'll finish those if these notes seem interesting to people.

Here's the 143 page paperback, with original translation and notes ($6.49):

And here's the Kindle edition ($3.99):

What makes a church?

It was my task yesterday to initiate a theology assignment for the Congregational Leadership course called, "The Third Mark of the Church: a Community Rightly Ordered."  I'm not sure how I missed hearing about the marks of the church in both college and seminary.  It might have been my own attention deficit problem.

1. So today we walked first through the four marks of the church established in the Nicene Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  The Reformation posed some serious issues with several of these.  The first reformers, like Luther, didn't think they were starting new churches.  Up until the Colloquy of Regensburg in 1541, there was still hope of some reconciliation and reformation of the church (I think I read this in McGrath).

So there wasn't the push to work out what would soon become crucial need to come up with a new definition of what it meant to be a church.

2. John Calvin came up with two marks of a church. The church is a place where 1) the word is rightly preached and 2) the sacraments are rightly administered.  And since Calvin believed the Bible (the word) had something to say about church order, a third is often considered implicit: 3) a community rightly ordered.

Calvin of course had to work out the distinction between the invisible and the visible church. The true, invisible church could be one even though visibly it was not.  Some reformers--especially in England--might use the word catholic in reference to an earlier common Christianity, one that predated the non-biblical diversions of medieval catholicism.

3. What if we didn't know any of this history?  What would I say the marks of a church were?
  • A local church is a visible gathering of believers with the Spirit (holy), with some weeds mixed in.  The catholic church is the (invisible) collection of all believers with the Spirit, both past, present, and future (the communion of saints).  
  • They gather to worship God and to encounter him in word and sacrament.
  • They gather to fellowship and build each other up.
  • They gather to carry out the apostolic mission of evangelism and service.
So what are the marks of a healthy church?
  • An assembly that worships God in unity.
  • An assembly that is transformed by God in word, sacrament, and fellowship.
  • An assembly that loves and edifies one another.
  • An assembly that loves the world around it, near and far, in mission to save and serve.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Vision for the Small Church

I posted this on the seminary blog today: Vision for the Small Church

Jesus' Mission Accomplished 1

The Story in Progress...
Acts is the second volume of Luke.  The Gospel of Luke was about the things Jesus began to do and teach while he was on earth (Acts 1:1).  The book of Acts picks up where Luke left off.

That is not to say that the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts are exactly the same--more on that later.  However, it is to say that Acts presumes the story of Jesus as it is told in Luke. The special emphases and themes of Luke are more or less the same emphases in Acts.  At the same time, Acts does not necessarily assume the special features of Jesus' story in Matthew, Mark, or John.

What was Luke's presentation of Jesus like? [1] Luke of course shares the basic content of Mark in common with Matthew.  Jesus preaches the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).  He heals people and casts out demons.  He calls twelve disciples and trains them to fish for people. He gets into conflict with religious leaders and eventually is crucified before rising from the dead.

Luke also shares a significant amount of Jesus' teaching that it shares with Matthew alone. Luke's Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) has a lot of the same material that is in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), including some Beatitudes, teaching on loving one's enemies, not judging, and building wising on rock. Luke has a lot of the teaching unique to Matthew's other sermons too.

But Luke has its own unique material as well.  Luke alone tells us about the parents of John the Baptist and about Gabriel's appearance to Mary before Jesus was born. Indeed, one of the special features of Luke and Acts is the greater attention paid to the role women played in the Jesus story. In Luke we see it in stories about Mary and Martha and the Parable of the Persistent Widow.  In Acts we will see it in Lydia and Priscilla, not to mention the way Peter's Pentecost sermon highlights how women as well as men will prophesy in the age of the Spirit (e.g., Acts 2:17).

Luke chose to begin the story of Jesus' ministry with Jesus reading Isaiah 61 in his home synagogue. This is the passage where Jesus connects his earthly mission to his message of good news for the poor. Luke more than any other gospel highlights Jesus ministry to the poor and gives his harshest words to the wealthy. Acts will continue this special emphasis with its picture of the early church sharing its possessions in common.

Some of the themes that we only catch a glimpse of in Luke become full blown in Acts. So Luke gives us clear hints that the gospel is for the whole world (e.g., Luke 2:32), but Acts will show this them in full bloom. In Luke we get a hint that Christians are not truly troublemakers, even if trouble follows them (Luke 23:14). Acts will make this point over and over again in its presentation of the early church.

Both Luke and Acts feature the centrality of prayer both to Jesus and his followers.  Finally, while Luke predicts that the Spirit will come in force after the resurrection, Acts shows the fulfillment of the promise.  If Luke gives us all the things Jesus began to do on earth, Acts gives us the things he continues to do through the Holy Spirit...

[1] For more details, see my book, Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing, 2013) **.