Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bible Gateway -- Tweet through the Bible 2014

Beginning tomorrow, Bible Gateway will tweet chapter-by-chapter Bible summaries written by Chris Juby.  Beginning with Genesis 1, tweets with summaries will come at midnight, 6am, noon, and 6pm ET. These are succinct chapter summaries that cover each chapter’s main message.

Festschrift for Keith Drury

We are pleased to announce the publication of a Festschrift in honor of Keith Drury (the first is paperback, the second Kindle):

"Scholars have a long-standing tradition of honoring one of their own with a Festschrift, a collection of essays, to mark a significant moment life of the honoree. In this volume, Bud Bence, Bob Black, Chris Bounds, Amanda Drury, Sharon Drury, Stephen Lennox, Dan Reiland, Ken Schenck, Wayne Schmidt, Wallace Thornton Jr., and Burton Webb honor Keith Drury with scholarship related to his contributions to the church, in honor of his retirement from full-time ministry."

Steve Lennox did the lion's share of the editing, but in setting it up for print I was REALLY impressed with these essays. There is some really good stuff in here. All the proceeds will go, as I understand it, toward scholarships at IWU.  The Table of Contents is below.

I know some of you are wondering whether Wesleyans have a contribution to make to broader Christianity today. Keith Drury is the most innovative thinker, I suspect, in our entire church's history, and these essays represent scholarly engagement with his most distinctive thoughts. So if you are looking for how Wesleyans might play a role on a larger scale, there's probably something in here. See also Wayne Schmidt's essay, "The Making of a Movement," based on KD's article of the same name.

Stephen J. Lennox

Chapter 1
Re-Viewing History: Keith Drury, Pilgrim Bible Colleges, and the Power of a Single Word
Bob Black

Chapter 2
Scripture as a Sacrament of Transformation
Ken Schenck

Chapter 3
Toward a “Neo-Holiness Theology” of Entire Sanctification
Chris Bounds

Chapter 4
It’s Not Just Wrapping—It’s Skin: A Reflection on the Work of Keith Drury and the Relevance of Faith to Lifestyle
Wallace Thornton, Jr.

Chapter 5
Habituated Spontaneous Judgment: A Conversation with John Dewey’s How We Think
Amanda Drury

Chapter 6
Keith Drury’s Leader Development Legacy
Sharon Drury

Chapter 7
Mentoring Moments
Dan Reiland

Chapter 8
The Making of a Movement
Wayne Schmidt

Chapter 9
God’s Call and Divine Guidance: Revisiting the Concept of Life Calling
Clarence (Bud) Bence

Chapter 10
The Providence of God
Burton Webb

The Works of Keith W. Drury

Top Ten Posts of 2013

It's become traditional for me to give the top ten posts of the year (well, actually, I only started last year ;-).  As of last night, I had 76,281 pageviews and 28,395 unique visitors. I'm up about 2,500 page views from last year and up about 3000 unique visitors.

I'm not a guru like Larry Wilson or James McGrath at knowing how to get the numbers. I resonate with Larry's conclusion that the number of visitors is proportional to the number of posts. I seem to remember James saying sometime that the number of links in a post improves your Google ranking.

I've also found that some of my most visited pages have been up for several years. For example,
So you can see that 5 of the top ten posts this year weren't even from this year. But now for the top ten posts actually from 2013. Drum roll please, as we count down to number 1...
  • 10. Driscoll Shark-Jumping - A lot of visits this year had to do with my posts on Mark Driscoll's arguments for the ESV. #4 below was the first one and the most visited. This was a series where I think I might have been too sarcastic. When push comes to shove, my critique of Driscoll probably hit too close to home with some of my friends.
  • 9. Are you chosen to understand? - Slightly more visited of the Driscoll series was the one treating his apparent sense that understanding the biblical text has something to do with whether God has chosen you and thus translators don't need to make intelligibility a major goal.
  • 8. Why I Am an Egalitarian - This follow-up to the Driscoll posts had over 300 page views.
  • 7. Five Views of Inerrancy (Book Review) - I tread into rough waters by reviewing this Zondervan book right before it came out. This was the first post. It was helpful to see that there is a much wider spectrum on this issue than the most vocal one.
  • 6. Ten Common Mistakes about the NT - No, the book I was working on isn't finished yet (Argh)
  • 5. Top Ten Theological Mistakes - Obviously not everyone agreed on these! 
  • 4. Driscoll Jumps the Shark on ESV - The first post on Driscoll predictably got the most page views of the series, over 450.
  • 3. Sad Developments at Wesley Biblical Seminary - I removed this post by request, but it had 477 visits before I did. WBS had a really rough patch last year but now actually now looks to make a come back. The new president seems to be just what they needed, and it seems to have no lack of loyal fans willing to sacrifice to see it through.
  • 2. Straight Talk Among Christians - I don't know if this was a good post or not, but over 500 visits came to this post sparked by an alarming segment on The Daily Show.
  • 1. Tribute to Ross Hoffman - It is an immense tribute to Ross that there were some 1600 visits to his tribute, over 1100 the very day it posted. He is still missed immensely by all.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Quick Thought on MOOC Completion Rates

I don't think I've said this before here, but if so I'll say it again. I hear traditional academics continue to say things like, "Aha, the MOOC is a failure because of their completion rates." I've heard similar remarks in relation to WGU and its completion rates.

Yes, yes, the MOOC is not ready to replace the traditional academy yet in its current form.  But to judge the MOOC by completion rates is to judge it by traditional standards. The more important number is how many people have started a MOOC and who are delighted that MOOCs exist. It speaks of a longing for something the traditional academy is not giving, something that fits more with an internet age where information is free.

Whoever cracks the nut of certifying competencies in an environment of free information will undo the traditional academy, if industry goes along with it. The universities that are willing to convert portfolios and artifacts into credit will prevail. The purists will only survive if they have a dedicated clientele who have a lot of extra cash.

Do you know how easy it would be to develop a properly artifacted MOOC, suitable to be converted to college credit at a university on the basis of credit by assessment?

Said the Ptolemaic scientist to Copernicus, "Aha, my very complicated math explains the movements of the heavenly bodies around the earth more precisely than your simple circular orbits around the sun."

Said Copernicus to the Ptolemaics, "I'm just waiting for Kepler, and then you'll be done."

Wright - Exegesis is historical in nature 3

More on chapter 1 of N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God in bits. Thus far,


Chapter 1
The Basics of Philemon
Philemon and Christian Worldview

iv. History, Exegesis, "Application"
Thus far in this section, Wright has been trying to create a framework within which to approach Paul's worldview. He has also tried to create a framework for connecting worldview with theology and culture. He continues his prolegomena in the next section by clarifying the nature of history, exegesis, and application of a text, three other tasks normally undertaken when Paul is studied.

His historical method is sound and he is quite insistent that the historical task cannot be ignored. "The normal charitable assumption is that the words were written by writers who were doing their best to say, more or less, what they meant" (53). "The historical task remains central and non-negotiable" (55).

Exegesis is the second task and "is a branch of history" (52). Wright wants to avoid reductionism, which in his view would isolate the task of interpretation from history, theology, or application. Application is the third task and has to do with connecting the meaning of the text with our context.

Wright reiterates his critical realist perspective. We avoid on the one side the naive realism that imagines we can see the text with a God's eye view and, on the other side, the narcissistic reductionism that thinks all perception is projection. "History is possible" (50), even though what we have is "a seemingly random selection of Paul's writings, in which each letter contains some striking material not found in any of the others." "Real advance in historical knowledge is possible" (53).

The proper method of historical investigation is to 1) account for the data, 2) do so with appropriate simplicity, and 3) shed light on areas outside the subject-matter of the inquiry (54).

Some of the final sentences of this section are worth quoting at length. Although the study of Paul must begin with the interpretation of his actual letters, "Only when we have understood Paul's worldview do we understand why his theology is what it is, and the role it plays precisely within that worldview. Only when we understand Paul's theology do we understand why he believed himself called to do what he did... Only then, in fact, do we really stand a chance of approaching the tasks of exegesis itself... with any deep overall understanding" (55).

It seems to me that Wright's general sense of things in this section is helpful. It is helpful more as individual insights than as a systematic scaffolding. Wright is, as it were, creating a grand recit next to any text--and that structure is vulnerable precisely because it is a systematic metanarrative. His individual claims are helpful and ring true, but he cannot resist creating an overarching system, quite possibly reflecting his early engagement with structuralism. At some points he seems vulnerable to the very characteristics he critiques in others.

A far more helpful (and simple) model for approaching texts is that of Paul Ricoeur, the "three worlds" of the text. The 1) world within the text is the text itself. It never exists as a text-in-itself, to be sure, because anyone who reads it already informs the words with meanings from another world.

The 2) world behind the text is all the things Wright is concerned with--history, culture, "worldview," "mindset," theology. These are the elements that informed the intended and assumed meanings of the text originally. Meanwhile, the 3) world in front of the text is my world as a reader, all the elements of "worldview," "mindset," theology, and so forth that I see in the text by drawing on my world, usually without realizing it.

Ricoeur's model is a heuristic model at best, because in reality it is all mixed together in ways we can never parse out entirely. Wright has no penchant to separate the meaning of a text from that which was originally intended. Certainly he recognizes the reality of polyvalence, but I strongly suspect he has no desire to treat non-original meanings to the text as true meanings.

Yet he is surely spot-on when it comes to critical realism over naive realism and "narcissistic projection." Exegesis is a worthy goal and historical investigation is to some extent possible. Whether it is non-negotiable we can debate, but it seems a quite worthy task. All truth is God's truth, and so all truth is inherently valuable and a blessing, whether we see the immediate benefit or not.

It is in the nature of Protestant and evangelical identity to be interested in the historical meaning of the text, even if this quest tends to deconstruct somewhat in its own pursuit. For mainline Protestants, it deconstructed into liberalism. For evangelicalism, it logically leads to polyvalence. Everything else is transitional, a hermeneutic not taken to its logical end.

Wright's historical method could perhaps be expressed better. Good historical investigation does indeed 1) draw on as much data as possible, 2) formulate hypotheses that account for as much of the data as possible with appropriate simplicity and elegance, and 3) continues to test such hypotheses against new data and over and against competing hypotheses. For a theist, possible explanations include not only the normal cause and effect hypotheses (cf. Troeltsch) but also the possibility of divine intervention.

In general, the role of the divine should be left in the category of the mysterious, unless there is good reason to suspect supernatural interruption. It is not reductionistic to suppose the normal workings of cause and effect when they seem to explain the data appropriately. At the same time, room must always be left for a divine element in the equation.

I find the final sentences from this section of Wright a bit troubling. I am consoled by his caveats that the texts themselves must be the ground for all discussion of Paul's meaning.  I would translate his statements into the need to know the deep assumptions behind Paul's words before we can fully understand them. I completely agree.

However, Wright still seems to have a hangover from his pre-chastened modernist days in his penchant to see worldviews and theologies as coherent systems. His early engagement with structuralism is probably revealing here. A worldview is more a collection or family of related perspectives and impulses than a grand recit or system. By building such a magnificent meta-scaffolding alongside Paul, Wright is setting himself up for skew at some point, in my opinion.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pride goeth before a fall...

A lot of people today are surprised when I tell them that, in the preaching I grew up with, the worst sin of all was pride. "Pride goeth before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction" (Prov. 16:18ish). Pride was thought to be the sin of Satan (cf. Isaiah 14, which was actually about the King of Babylon originally).

This is genuinely surprising to many Christians today, who were raised to think of "taking pride in your work" and having good self-esteem.

There is culture at work here on all sides (as there always is). In ancient culture especially, boasting was just begging the gods to put you in your place. The story of Herod Antipas in Acts 12 is a case in point.

The old Japanese proverb captures the dynamic well--"The nail that sticks out gets hammered first." This is why we knock on wood and don't test fate.

At the same time (as usual), there is a twin problem. "God don't make trash." If we are created in the image of God, then we shouldn't treat ourselves, let alone others, as dirt.

So here are my thoughts:
  • If we weren't created in the image of God, we would pretty much just be dirt. If God and others love me, my death is significant. If there is no God, I'm road kill. Thankfully, God does exist and loves even the most despicable, let alone those the world considers insignificant. That makes all of us priceless.
  • None of us are as smart or as capable as we think. If androids take over the world, "human spirit" won't count for squat. The movies are wrong. We lose, big time. Again, if we didn't believe in God, we should be afraid of the next step in the evolutionary chain (namely, the X-Men).
  • The old proverbs still ring true. "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched." "Call no one happy until they're dead." "Don't say, 'I'm going to do this or that.' Say, 'If the Lord wills...'"
  • So be "proud" of the paltry talents you have and your feeble accomplishments. Be proud in perspective, knowing that in yourself you're dirt. Your value is derivative. 
  • But remember, if you're good, others will tell you. You won't need to tell them. Most of those who brag are wannabies. And if you're really all that great, you won't have to tell others to convince yourself.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Grudem 15c: Scripture and Science

It's been almost two months since I've blogged any Grudem. Wright came out. Other books of more pressing relevance came out. But I do eventually want to make it all the way through Grudem. I am thankful that Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology is a potential replacement for Grudem in the circles that use him. Bird of course is still Calvinist, and he is a NT scholar rather than a professional theologian. We await a Wesleyan volume of Wiley's girth.
E. Relationship between Scripture and Modern Science
Grudem begins this section by suggesting that faith in the Bible has led to the discovery of new facts about the universe. He mentions Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, and others. He also notes places where individuals have thought the Bible conflicted with science, such as in conflict over whether the earth was the center of the universe. Grudem counters that the Bible did not teach an earth-centered universe at all. He does not believe Scripture even addresses this question.

Science has helped us in some cases to get a clearer sense of what the Bible actually teaches. So "the Bible does not tell us the precise date of the creation of the earth or of the human race" (274). The actual creation of the universe, Grudem argues, is not a matter for science at all because it is not a repeatable experiment.

1. No Final Conflict
The first claim Grudem makes is that "when all the facts are rightly understood, there will be 'no final conflict' between Scripture and natural science" (274). The phrase, "no final conflict," alludes to a book by Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer suggested 7 different strategies for reconciling science and the Bible on the matter of evolution. Grudem will address many of these in the rest of the chapter.

The bottom line for Grudem is that when the Bible is properly understood and when science functions properly no conflict will remain between the two.

2. Ruled out
a. Grudem obviously rules out the "secular" theory, the idea that God was not involved in the creation of the world at all. He also rules out "theistic evolution." Theistic evolution argues that God directed the process of creation in some way. Grudem mentions three points of the process that are often mentioned: 1) creation of matter itself, 2) creation of the simplest life form, and 3) the creation of humanity. A theistic evolutionist might argue that "the Bible does not specify how it happened" (276).

b. Grudem rules it out biblically on the basis of six reasons. First, Grudem believes it is incompatible with the purposefulness of God in creation. Scripture teaches "intelligent design," evolution is about randomness. Once a Christian accepts some intelligent design, he argues, you may as well see intentionality in the whole thing.

Second, Grudem argues that God's creative word in Scripture brings immediate response. So for Grudem it doesn't fit that it would take millions of years for his command to play out. Third, God makes things in Genesis 1 that God created things "according to their kinds," which seems to indicate "some narrow limits to the kind of change that could come about through genetic mutations" (277).

Fourth, Grudem mentions instances where the language of Scripture speaks of very direct intentionality in God's engagement with people and living things (Ps. 139:13; Exod. 4:11; Matt. 6:30). We might also mention his sixth reason, "the increasing number of questions about the validity of the theory of evolution" (279).

The fifth reason Grudem mentions is the special creation of Adam and Eve. This is a point where theistic evolutionists usually see divine involvement. "Scripture pictures the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, as possessing highly developed linguistic, moral, and spiritual abilities from the moment they are created" (278). Grudem mentions that Paul seems to treat Adam as literal.

As he presents it, Grudem's argument is very weak. For example, nothing he says about Adam and Eve would eliminate a claim that God intervened in the special creation of Adam and Eve in the midst of an otherwise evolutionary process. Ironically, he seems to miss the most significant complication with evolution from a theological perspective--Paul speaks of death entering the world through Adam's sin, and evolution requires lots of death prior to Adam. You could counter that Paul refers to human death, because Adam and Eve were prohibited from eating from the tree of life.

None of the other arguments he makes against theistic evolution have any substance at all. Grudem is a Calvinist determinist of the highest order, so of course the idea of randomness or "free will" in the creation does not fit with his theological sensibilities. For an Arminian or a Wesleyan, this is no argument at all.

The idea that God's commands demand an immediate response is embarrassing. I guess the coming of Christ was a failure then, because it took so long to happen? Rather, this is simply a silly argument.

There is no question, from a normal Christian perspective, that God does engage the creation with high intentionality on some things, but this does not mean he does so on the type of jello you have for lunch. I can have a strong opinion on one thing but not on another. The one does not imply the other. We also have to reckon with the fact that 1) some biblical language is more precise than others and 2) there is a developing understanding of God in relationship to evil and suffering in the pages of Scripture (e.g., Exod. 4:11 requires the rest of Scripture to appropriate).

In the end, Genesis 1 was originally in dialog with the other creation stories of its day, not with the theory of evolution. It is incarnated revelation, as all revelation is--meant to communicate first with its original audiences and thus speaking first in the categories of its day.  Genesis 1 does embody an orderliness to the creation, not unlike the underlying dynamics of which foods are clean and unclean (the best explanation of the food laws is not hygienic but in relation to the "kinds" of animals in Levitical worldview).

And there is an orderliness to the creation. The divisions of Genesis 1 are not unlike many divisions of modern science: astronomy, geology, botany, biology, anthropology. We can debate, however, whether the poetic presentation of Genesis 1 demands that we eliminate theistic evolution as an option. This approach makes Genesis 1 serve a function it was never meant to serve.

A final note on Newton and other famous scientists who believed in God. It is true that these scientists had a sense of order in the creation.  Their sense of creation as God-designed probably did give them a goal to pursue, to discover the way God had designed the universe.

At the same time, there was a new worldview at work here as well. It was in the 1500s and 1600s that a sense of the universe as a machine developed, the creation as "natural" with God as "super-natural." This approach led them to see God as more distant from the day to day operations of the world rather than more directly involved, as Grudem would have him. God largely lets the world operate on its own, with miracles being special moments of divine interruption.

Newton was thus quite different in his view of God than even Luther was, who still saw thunderstorms as a kind of spiritual warfare of sorts. Modern science arguably would never have developed if a sense of the universe operating on its own, under laws God had implanted in it, had not come into play.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christianity Today and Social Complexity 4

I've been reviewing Molly Worthen's, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Chapter 1 (Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism)
Chapter 2 (Evangelicals on the Edges)

1. I gave my own title to the chapter above, but Worthen's title is "Fundamentalist Demons." For her, this chapter seems to be about the struggle for individuals like C. F. H. Henry to distinguish the new evangelicalism from its fundamentalist roots, while also courting financial sources. Ground zero for this chapter seems to be the new evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, started in 1955.

A lot of thoughts ran through my head reading this chapter, including parallels with today. First, meaning no disrespect to these individuals, I'm glad most of them are gone. When an important figure from the past dies, a lot of wisdom dies with them to be sure. But a lot of baggage dies with them too.

It is both a blessing and a curse that young people have fresh eyes to look at the issues of the day. It is a curse because sometimes they go on to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is a blessing because a lot of people get stuck in their ways and can't see things objectively. They are always seeing the shadows of the past.

So if this chapter is even half right, it is clear that the Cold War, coming out WW2 and the struggle against Hitler, played a significant role in forming the psyche of the neo-evangelicals of the 50s. Indeed, the primary funder of Christianity Today (it ran at a huge loss for its first years because it distributed so many copies to pastors for free to get them hooked), Howard Pew, was apparently more interested in CT fighting communism than in Henry's desire for promoting good theology.

Apparently, Henry was forced to resign as Editor-in-Chief in the late 60s after tensions between him and Pew reached its peak. By that point, Pew was calling him a socialist because he believed social justice was part of the gospel, which of course it is. Henry was conservative by any normal standard, but that's where America was in the 1950s and 60s.

I'm glad most Americans my age and younger didn't grow up with the fear of communism that so dominated the previous generation. We should at least have the potential to be more objective about such things. But beware, 9-11 has revived some of those dynamics. As far as I can tell, America is in no danger of becoming socialist by any knowledgeable standard of history or political philosophy, but a similar fear rhetoric is back.  

2. It is interesting that Pew and others saw themselves in a battle for civilization. Communism was the enemy then, just as Islam was in the last decade. Now the same rhetoric has shifted to Obama and his "socialism." It is worth noting that the constant here is not the object of fear, but the drive to fear itself.

Henry and CT carefully tried to negotiate this complex social situation. On the one side was Pew's money, the hand that fed CT. He had his own interests--capitalism and anti-communism. He would rather side with economic conservatives than with those of his own theological stripe.  Like today, there was the usual blurring of conservative Christianity with conservative politics and economics.

On the other side was the desire not to be divisive and separatist like fundamentalists. They wanted to engage Catholics, Methodists, and Lutherans while staying firmly Calvinist and Reformed in their base. They even invited neo-orthodox theologians in Germany to submit articles, people like Brunner and Barth. Soon enough, they had more readers than the old mainline Christian Century.

As someone who is part of a Christian university, I feel these tensions deeply. How do you make students of all theological stripes feel welcome while retaining a core Wesleyan identity? How can you be faithful to critique the dark side of capitalism if wealthy donors are courting you?  If you can become more "respectable" by downplaying your differences with mainstream evangelicalism, should you do it to play ball with the big boys?

3. So if CT was balancing political conservatism with a desire to reach out to non-Calvinist Christian conservatives, it was also trying to distinguish itself from fundamentalist forces that were more separatist in nature. Here Worthen especially has Bob Jones and Bob Jones University in mind. She depicts Bob Jones as an authoritarian who strongly disagreed with how Billy Graham cooperated with non-evangelicals like Roman Catholics.

Billy Graham and his father-in-law, Nelson Bell, were the founders of CT. Bell was a Presbyterian medical missionary and a pragmatist. He would go on behind the scenes advocating for the magazine and his son-in-law. Bell promoted it in part as having the same theology as the fundamentalists "in the old sense of the word" but having a different method, one that sought common ground rather than emphasizing points of disagreement.

What I am seeing here continues to support what I have been intuiting for some time now. It was not until the 50s and 60s that the sense of fundamentalist shifted from those who wrote The Fundamentals to refer to conservative separatists like Bob Jones. Time magazine would describe CT as a kind of "high-brow fundamentalism." Today, I think of a fundamentalist as a militant, religious idealist. Words change meanings over time.

4. I didn't realize that Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and others had tried to start an evangelical research university, "Crusade University." It never happened and I am not surprised. There is an inherent contradiction between a movement whose core principles are anti-evidentiary and the aspiration to be a top-flight evidentiary institution.

The quest has continued. Baylor probably comes closest. But to the extent that an institution bases its identity on presuppositions that limit how you can interpret evidence, it will have difficulty becoming a great research institution, IMO.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Greatest Common Denominator: The Fallen World

Previous posts were:

Now, the fallen world.

1. I have never really thought this question through in its potential complexity. I know the Augustine/Wesley schtick, of course, the one we read in all the theology textbooks and Wesleyans used to preach. God created the world perfect. Adam sinned. Sin came on all the world, both the creation and humans. We now have a sin nature that makes us sin. Christ's death atones for the sin acts we do, the Spirit removes our sin nature so that we do not have to sin any more.

This is a mixture of Paul, Augustine, and Wesleyans. What Paul taught, I believe, is that the creation has been under the power of Sin since Adam. With regard to the world, it became subject to corruption and decay. With regard to humanity, the weakness of our flesh makes us susceptible to the power of Sin. The Spirit empowers us to live righteously and fulfill the law of love.

But is this the greatest common denominator of Scripture? It is the model that won out in the Western church, the Catholic side. It is the model that has dominated Protestantism because Luther's base camp was in Paul. But Paul is only one voice in Scripture and the West is not the whole church.

2. Adam plays no significant role in the theology of the OT itself. That is to say, Genesis 4 through Malachi do not use Adam to make any argument at all. He is generally absent from those pages. Here you have to remember that most of us do not read the Bible for what it actually says. The question of Adam's significance for the OT is not debatable--he simply is not given a thought from Genesis 4 on. But we might read him into the pages because of the glasses we wear when we read the OT.

Similarly, Adam plays no clear role in the NT outside of Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and possibly Hebrews 2. Again, most people--including pastors--don't read the Bible. They read into the Bible. We have no evidence that Adam featured at all in the theology of Matthew or Mark or John or James. Our default reading of the Bible is through theological glasses, and we see things that weren't originally there.

Did Jude believe in Adam's Fall? We don't know. He quotes 1 Enoch, and the Fall in 1 Enoch came not with Adam but when angels sleep with human women in Genesis 6, had giant offspring, from whose dead bodies the spirits of demons originated.

I'm digressing simply to point out the extent to which our organization of Scripture is dependent, not on Scripture itself, but on the traditions of organization we have inherited growing up in the church.

3. What most Scripture does assume is that we are separated from God and in need of atonement and redemption. Even here, however, the assumptions of Leviticus are one strand within the OT and one that stands in some tension with the prophetic strand. Jeremiah 7, Micah 6, Isaiah 1 all deny the importance of sacrifice over and against a more fundamental obedience to God in relation to how you treat other people. In the NT, Hebrews makes explicit the end of the sacrificial system.

The proximity to God in Scripture still varies. In the OT, Israel stands closer to a right standing with God than the pagans do. The NT sets us on a trajectory in which all people stand equally close to such a right standing. It is not that humanity has come closer to God but God has come closer to humanity in Christ.

So we can at least say that the common denominator of Scripture is that the default state of humanity is one of separation from God. It is a state of sinfulness in need of reconciliation and redemption.

4. But what is this sinfulness? In the OT Law, the need for sacrifice primarily has to do with "ceremonial impurity." Theoretically, "high handed" sins resulted in death, and since most of the OT does not have a conception of an afterlife, death was the ultimate purging.

I don't think there is any evidence that the standard of sin was absolute perfection. This perspective comes from a couple obscure verses in Paul, lifted to inappropriate centrality. The standard of sin, in the NT, becomes motive in relation to love. Jesus points in this direction in the Sermon on the Mount. John's writings support this perspective. Paul's writings support this perspective.

The Greatest Common Denominator of Scripture might thus view the understanding of the Law so prevalent in Christianity today as an immature one that has not fully grown into the NT. Sin has always been, for God, any act of will that wrongs another, including God. One can wrong another person both intentionally and unintentionally, but it is the intentional ones that most concern God.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Have a Blessed Christ-day!

There is something staggering about how this day of immense significance passed by so insignificantly. I don't mean December 25 in the year 1, of course. We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. And it is usually dated to more like 4-6BC. I mean rather whatever day it was when Jesus was born.

The wise men of Matthew are perhaps a couple years after Jesus' birth. The day itself Luke celebrates with insignificant shepherds in a trough in a village. It did not make the headlines.

The headlines would have been filled with the Emperor Augustus or King Herod the Great. Was the average Jew looking for a Messiah? Not at all sure. A couple years later there would be a revolutionary named Judas who would try to overthrow the Roman government in Galilee. He would fail miserably.

But he did not claim to be God come to earth. That's not the kind of "anointed one" they were expecting.

More than a century earlier, an anonymous individual we only know as the "Teacher of Righteousness" had protested the installation of Maccabean high priests and the way they ran the temple. He had gone to the desert to form a pure Jewish community that did things the right way. But he had died, and he had never claimed to be God or king in the first place.

The real God came to earth with private fanfare, unnoticed by all but the "unimportant." And it is exactly those, Luke indicates, that Jesus worked to save while he was on earth. With his death, he would make salvation available to all--even the "great," rich, and powerful of the earth, if they will humble themselves.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Greatest Common Denominator: Creation

I'm putting down some notes in case I ever want to write a book something like, "The Common Denominators of Scripture."  A few days ago I sketched out what a chapter on God might look like. Here are some thoughts on what a chapter on Creation might look like.

1. First, if we take creation out of nothing by faith, certain things follow. I will assume that it is appropriate for a Christian to read Scripture with the assumption of ex nihilo creation, even though Scripture does not seem to teach it explicitly, as far as I can tell. We might argue that it is the trajectory of Scripture (e.g., Heb. 11:3).

If God created the world out of nothing, then he presumably has all power in relation to it. He will also know every truth about it and its working. Simply as creator he will know every possible eventuality about it and, as we said in the previous chapter, we believe he knows every actuality about it as well.

2. Sovereignty and providence
The Bible teaches that God has ultimate authority over the creation. Nothing happens without his permission, good or evil. There is a strand of biblical language that sounds like God not only has authority over the creation but that he also determines everything that will happen. This is not, however, the only strand, and it fits better with the common denominator of Scripture to consider this language the unclear rather than the language of God's love and the freedom he gives the creation.

Nevertheless, God does work for good in the creation and he works good for us before we even know it. Indeed, he works good for us even while we are his enemies and even on those who are evil. He has been at work to reclaim us long before we existed.

3. Freedom of the creation
The greatest common denominator of Scripture will privilege those Scriptures in which God wants everyone to be saved and in which he gives substantial freedom to humans and the creation. This is more in keeping with his nature as love than to privilege the opposite. We can extend this basic principle to the way God has made the creation to follow the laws that he has planted within it. Some of the suffering and pain in the world could be simply the playing out of natural laws.

Christians disagree on whether this freedom might include the power to generate new life and indeed, a creative indeterminism on the quantum level, a kind of creational free will.

Monday, December 23, 2013

John Carnell - What really was fundamentalism?

Carnell was the second president of Fuller Seminary, forced out after he wrote The Case for Orthodoxy. The following quote from that book gives a fair sense of how the word fundamentalism was being used in 1959. You can see why he seems to have been forced out of the presidency of Fuller by some of its key funding streams, not to mention some of the Machen fans on the faculty at that time. In some cases, I have had to guess at what was said, since this version of the text is corrupted at some points in its scanning.
Chapter 8: Perils
ORTHODOXY is plagued by perils as well as difficulties, and the perils are even more disturbing than the difficulties. When orthodoxy hits difficulties, it elicits criticism; but when it slights its perils, it elicits scorn. The perils arc of two sorts: general and specific. The general perils include ideological thinking, a highly censorious spirit, a curious tendency to separate from the life of the church. The specific peril is that with which orthodoxy converts to fundamentalism. It is orthodoxy gone cultic.

1. Fundamentalism
When we speak of fundamentalism, however, we must distinguish between the movement and the mentality. The fundamentalist movement was organized shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. When the tidal wave of German higher criticism engulfed the church, a large company of orthodox scholars rose to the occasion. They sought to prove that modernism and Biblical Christianity were incompatible. In this way the fundamentalist movement preserved the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Its "rugged bursts of individualism" were among the finest fruits of the Reformation.

But the fundamentalist movement made at least one capital mistake, and this is why it converted from a movement to a mentality. Unlike the Continental Reformers and the English Dissenters, the fundamentalists failed to connect their convictions with the classical creeds of the church. Therefore, when modernism collapsed, the fundamentalist movement became an army without a cause. Nothing was left but the mentality of fundamentalism, and this mentality is orthodoxy's gravest peril.

The mentality of fundamentalism is dominated by ideological thinking. Ideological thinking is rigid, intolerant and doctrinaire; it principles everywhere, and all principles come in clear tones of black and white; it exempts itself from the limits that originally sat in history; it wages holy wars without acknowledging the elements of pride and personal interest that prompt the call to battle; it creates new evils while trying to correct old one.

The fundamentalists' crusade against the Revised Standard Version illustrates the point. The fury did not stem from a scholarly conviction that the version offends Hebrew and Greek idioms, for ideological thinking operates on far simpler criteria. First, there were modernists on the translation committee, and modernists corrupt whatever they touch. It does not occur to fundamentalism that translation requires only personal honesty and competent scholarship.

Secondly, the Revised Standard Version's copyright is held by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ. If a fundamentalist used the new version, he might give aid and comfort to the National Council; and that, on his principles, would be sin. By the same token, of course, a fundamentalist could not even buy groceries from a modernist. But ideological thinking is never celebrated for its consistency.

2. Gresham Machen
The mentality of fundamentalism sometimes crops up where one would least expect it; and there is no better illustration of this than the inimitable New Testament scholar, J. Gresham Machen. Machen was an outspoken critic of the fundamentalist movement. He argued with great force that Christianity is a system, not a list of fundamentals. The fundamentals include the virgin birth, Christ's deity and miracles, the atonement, the resurrection, and the inspiration of the Bible. But this list does not even take in the specific issues of the Protestant Reformation. Roman Catholicism easily falls within the limits of fundamentalism.

While he was a foe of the movement, he was a friend of the mentality, for he ran on a related path and a wrong one at that, his prominence with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. If the church has modernists in it and its official missionaries, a Christian has no other choice than to withdraw support. So Machen promptly set up "The Presbyterian Foreign Missions," and with equal promptness the General Assembly ordered the Board dissolved. Machen made the order on the conviction that he could from the General Assembly bring amendments to the Constitution of the church.

But this conviction traced to ideological thinking, for if a federal system is to succeed, supreme judicial power most be vested in one court. This is federalism's answer to the threat of anarchy. Wrong by a court are not irremediable; but until due process of law effects a reversal, a citizen must obey or be prosecuted. Machen became so fixed on the evil of modernism that he did not see the evil of anarchy.

This prompted him to follow a course that eventually offended the older and wiser Presbyterians. These men knew that nothing constructive would be gained by defying the courts of the church. Perhaps the General Assembly had made a mistake; but until the action was reversed by due process of law, obedience was required. No individual Presbyterian can appeal from the General Assembly to the Constitution, and to think that he can is cultic.

Ideological thinking prevented Machen from seeing that the issue under trial was the nature of the church, not the doctrinal incompatibility of orthodoxy and modernism. Does the church become apostate when it has modernists in Its agencies and among its officially supported missionaries? The older Presbyterians knew enough about Reformed ecclesiology to answer this in the negative. Unfaithful ministers do not render the church apostate.

Dreadful are those descriptions in which Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habakkuk, and others, deplore the disorders of the church of Jerusalem. There was such general and extreme corruption in the people. In the magistrates and the priests that Isaiah does not hesitate to compare Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah. Religion was partly despised, partly corrupted. Their manners were generally disgraced by thefts, robberies, treacheries, murders, and similar crimes. Nevertheless, the prophets on this account neither raised themselves new churches, nor built new altars for the oblation of separate sacrifices; but whatever were the characters of the people, yet because they considered that God had deposited his word among that nation, and instituted the ceremonies in which he was there worshiped, they lifted up pure hands to him even in the congregation of the impious.

If they had thought that they contracted any contagion from these services, surely they would have suffered a hundred deaths rather than have permitted themselves to be dragged to them. There was nothing therefore to prevent their departure from them, but the desire of preserving the unity of the church. But if the holy prophets were restrained by a sense of duty from forsaking the church on account of the numerous and enormous crimes which were practiced, not by a few individuals, but almost by the whole nation it is extreme arrogance in us, if we presume immediately to withdraw from the communion of a church where the conduct of all members is not compatible either with our judgment, or even with the Christian profession.

Machen thought it would be easy to purify the church. All one had to do was to withdraw from modernists; the expedient was as simple as that. "On Thursday, June 11, 1936," said Machen to his loyal remnant, "the hopes of many long years were realized. We became members, at last, of a true Presbyterian church." It was not long, however, before Machen's true church was locked in the convulsions of internal strife. The prophecy of the older Presbyterians was fulfilled.

Since Machen had shaken off the sins of modernists, but not the sins of those who were proud they were not modernists, the separatists fondly imagined themselves more perfectly delivered from heresy than the facts justified. This illusion spawned fresh resources of pride and pretense. The criteria of Christian fellowship gradually became more exacting than Scripture, and before long Machen himself was placed under suspicion. He had not taken his reformation far, the church not yet free. This was not Christian liberty. And quarrel boded, no true church founded.

Still, no classical effort to the continuity of the church. This is how the mentality of fundamentalism operates. Status by negation, not precise inquiry, is the order of business. When there are no bodies from which to withdraw, fundamentalists continue by withdrawing from one another. Machen tried to bleed the classical view of the covenant with a separatist view of the covenant people. He affirmed Reformed doctrine, but not the Reformed doctrine of the church.

This inconsistency had at least two effects: first, it encouraged Machen's disciples to think the conditions of Christian fellowship could be decided by subjective criteria; secondly, it planted the seeds of anarchy. If Reformed doctrine could not define the nature of the church, how could it define the nature of anything else? The result was a subtle reversion to the age of the Judges: each man did what was right in his own eyes. Rebellion the courts of the church converted to rebellion against the wisdom of the and the counsel of the brethren...
I might post more later...

Evangelical Authority on the Edges 3

I've been reviewing Molly Worthen's, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Chapter 1 (Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism)

Now on to Chapter 2: "The Authority Problem"...

Once again, I found it a little hard to process this chapter in my current categories. I've tried to capture what this chapter is about by thinking of neo-evangelicalism "at its edges." My working narrative goes something like the following.

The 1920s saw a fairly strong reaction to several challenges of the day (e.g., evolution, German higher criticism) among a group of mostly mainline scholars. They wrote The Fundamentals. Many of them felt pushed out of their churches and ended up leaving to form new churches and institutions. Most were Presbyterian/Reformed. The most famous incident is when J. Gresham Machen and others left Princeton Seminary to form Westminster Theological Seminary.

By the 1940s, some of these "fundamentalists" were ready to strike back and try to reclaim "the faith" in the public sphere. Harold Ockenga facilitated the start of the NAE, the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942. The goal was to bring together and unite America's conservative Protestants, to form an ecumenical evangelicalism. In the post-war era, when individuals like C. F. H. Henry and Harold Lindsell got involved, it would become "zealous" as befit the Cold War era of McCarthyism.

1. Chapter 2 begins by noting that Pentecostals were invited to the formational meeting of the NAE and that, immediately, a Presbyterian minister questioned whether they belonged there. Some things never change. Again, I found Worthen confused (maybe I am) because she glides back and forth between using the the word "fundamentalist" in the way I do above and "fundamentalist" in reference to groups like the Nazarenes who had been around before The Fundamentals and were not formed as a reaction to modernism.

So the Mennonites refused Ockenga's invitation and the Nazarenes did not join the NAE until the 80s. Southern Baptists considered words like "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" to be Yankee words. Worthen spends much of this chapter talking about the "other evangelicals" who were more or less on the periphery of the movement.

So she talks a bit about H. Orton Wiley and the Nazarenes. Again, I found this section pushing me toward Nazarene sources because the word fundamentalism seemed to refer to two different things--inerrancy on the one hand and cultural separatism on the other. Did Wiley resist both? Apparently so, but they are two quite different things. To hear Nazarenes talk about Wiley, he was wary of Calvinist inerrancy, wanting instead to focus on the centrality of Christ.

Worthen also talks about the Mennonites in this chapter and Harold Bender. His struggle, however, was to help Mennonites maintain their pacifist beliefs at a time when WW2 pushed strongly against them. Again, throughout this section I found the blurred confusion of what a fundamentalist was. Is a fundamentalist a holiness, Pentecostal, dispensational type who isolates him/herself from the world for purity reasons? Or is a fundamentalist someone who separated from a mainline denomination over issues like German higher criticism.

Thus the Marsden/Noll hangover continues...

2. The next section comes to the founding of Fuller Seminary. Fuller was apparently to be the golden child of the new evangelicalism. It was founded by evangelist Charles Fuller but staffed by the founders of the new evangelicalism--Henry, Lindsell, Wilbur Smith of Moody.  "Almost to a man, the founders of Fuller Theological Seminary were J. Gresham Machen's students or admirers" (47).

The story of Fuller is fascinating. John Carnell, second president of Fuller, got into big trouble for writing a book called The Case for Orthodoxy. I hit pay dirt here that I hope to revisit on how a key player in the 1950s saw these religio-social struggles of the day. I will probably post an excerpt on fundamentalism from that book later today.

Carnell was forced out as president for pushing orthodoxy over what he called a fundamentalist mindset. Carnell's book decries the idealism of fundamentalism that "would not even buy groceries from a modernist" (Orthodoxy, 114).

Ultimately, Henry, Lindsell, and friends would lose at Fuller. Fuller would favor a big tent evangelicalism over the separatism that would become the standard fair of the Evangelical Theological Society, founded in 1949. "Some members, like Harold Lindsell, made it their business to smoke out anyone who blinked at the mention of inerrancy" (52). What exactly did the word even mean? Fuller in the end would choose not to use it in its faith statement.

3. Although I am finding Worthen's book a bit muddled, it is serving as an excellent jumping off point into the primary sources, many of which are available online. Carnell's book looks to be a treasure trove and I have ordered it off of Amazon. Right now it seems to me that American Christianity in the 1950s was a mixture of:
  • mainliners, "liberals" 
  • traditional sects like Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Mennonites
  • new evangelicals on the rise
But these new evangelicals were of two sorts.  Some were the inclusionists. These were people like Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Charles Fuller. They wanted a big tent of conservative Protestants and were charitable toward other groups.

But there was also the Henry, Lindsell faction who were more ideological purists. They would push inerrancy as the binding principle and would be oriented more toward exclusion of those who didn't agree. They would prevail in the Evangelical Theological Society.

That's how it's looking to me at the end of chapter 2.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Greatest Common Denominator: God

I already have some writing plans for next year, but I thought I might outline from time to time what a book following my "Greatest Common Denominator" theme might look like. The idea here is to to get back before Charles Hodge's atomistic approach of the early 1800s to a more big picture approach to Scripture similar to how Christians of the centuries read the Bible. The idea here is:
  • Identify the center of biblical thought on a topic and
  • Recognize that there may be "unclear" passages we need to let lie.
This is different from the current culture, which seems to accentuate difficult verses in the drive to take every verse into account. So what might a chapter on the GCD of God in Scripture look like?

God is God
The biblical authors did not need someone to tell them what a god was. A god was a being of fearsome power who never died. For Christians, God is more than any god of Greek mythology. For us, God is all-powerful. For us, God was never born and is truly eternal. The eternity of God is a unanimous report from Scripture, and while there may be verses that sound as if God does not have all power, the GCD of Scripture for a Christian is that God is omnipotent.

Again, there are verses that sound like God does not have all knowledge, but the GCD takes these as exceptional verses. Explain them how you will--progressive revelation or simply misinterpreted. But most Christians believe that God has all knowledge of both the past, present, and future.

There are a few other GCD attributes of God. God's Spirit is everywhere present in the world. God is self-sufficient--he does not need the world.

Ultimately, to say God is God is to say that God is holy. Holiness is, at its very root, God-ness. Yes, God is pure, without sin, and so forth. But these are simply other ways of saying God is love. At its root, to say God is holy is simply to say that God is God.

God is Love
The central events of Scripture are God sending Jesus to earth, Jesus dying to reconcile the world to God, and Jesus rising to be enthroned as cosmic king. John 3:16 indicates that love was God's motivation. God's primary attitude toward the world is love. He did not create the world just to give him glory, although that is its primary obligation. He also created it to be an embodiment of his glory in itself. The creation is also glorious because God created it.

God's primary desire for the creation is its redemption, reconciliation, and benefit. In the light of the NT, approaches that focus on God's justice as the ultimate value are out of focus at best. At worst, they use a desiccated version of God's love and make it a cold, perfectionistic standard.  God's love provides the ultimate definition of justice--actions and attitudes that are harmful to others constitute wrongdoing that must be curbed.

God's discipline is 1) redemptive, 2) protective, and 3) abandonment, in ultimate cases. What we call justice is simply God's standard of love for the universe written large. Again, minority reports in Scripture must either be considered misinterpretations or instances of progressive revelation. Christ is the final answer as to God's ultimate nature, the ultimate embodiment of who God is.

Some thoughts on what might go into a GCD book on God in Scripture...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wright: Philemon and Worldview

The journey through N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God continues. Thus far,

The Basics of Philemon

2. Philemon and the Study of Paul
Wright believes that there is a worldview coming to expression in Philemon (23). Here he draws on his earlier work especially in The New Testament and the People of God. "One of the extraordinary achievements of Paul was to turn 'theology' into a different kind of thing from what it had been before in the world either of the Jews or of the pagans. One of the central arguments of the present book is that this was the direct result and corollary of what had happened to Paul's worldview. Paul effectively invented 'Christian theology' to meet a previously unknown need, to do a job which had not, until then, been necessary" (26).

Wright's understanding of worldview involves four core components: 1) an underlying narrative or story, 2) habitual actions or praxis, 3) symbols, a symbolic universe, and 4) common answers to certain worldview questions like "Who are we?" "Where are we?" "What's wrong?" "What's the solution?" "What time is it?" He seems to add "Why?" with this book, and indicate that the why questions point to theology. As he has already set, he considers a mindset to be an individual or sub-cultural perspective within a broader worldview.

Wright is aiming at a "thick description" of Paul. This is a term from anthropologist Clifford Geertz that aims at understanding actions in their deepest, culturally embedded sense, "to attempt to discern those things which people knew easily and without effort even if such 'knowledge' is remote for us and hard to reconstruct" (29). Cultural assumptions are often those of which we are least aware and yet are generally held in common by a whole culture. These assumptions are most key to understanding someone from another culture and yet they are least likely to be stated explicitly because they are so deeply assumed.

The core elements of worldview are "not likely to be topics of regular conversation, whether in a family or in a culture; they are the presuppositions which enable people to make sense of everything else" (33). "Story, praxis, and symbol generate and sustain a set of implicit answers to the five questions. People normally do not talk about these four elements of their worldview... [except] when something has gone wrong [or] when an outsider issues a challenge or a new question..." (33-34).

"The study of Paul's worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particular 'theology' to sustain it, but also requires that 'theology' itself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself" (30). The why question, when addressed to the components of worldview (story, praxis, symbol, basic answers) leads to an underlying theology. "This theology cannot be reduced to a system of ideas" (31).

Two other dimensions quickly come into play. First, culture draws together narrative, praxis, and symbol into particular patterns. Culture brings to expression beliefs and perceptions that either reinforce the prevailing worldview or stand in tension with it.

Second, Wright uses the word "worship" instead of religion so as not to assume the division of religious and secular created in the period of the Enlightenment. "'Worship' is a specific activity in which the other elements of the worldview are caught up, colouring praxis, shaping and influencing narrative, generating symbols, and frequently offering answers to the key questions" (36).

The next part of the chapter discusses how Paul's worldview could only be sustained by constantly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully addressing the question of who the one true God is, what he has done and is doing, and what his doings mean for the community of faith in the Messiah. At the center of this theology, for Wright, is a "Jewish-style (but christologically redefined) monotheism" (37). "I shall propose... that monotheism is indeed at the heart of Paul's theology... as the integrating theme which explains and gives depth to all the others."

The rest of this section goes through some of the "centers" of Paul's thought that have been proposed over the years. "Salvation" was implicitly the center for most of the time since the Reformation (justification by faith). Albert Schweitzer (and now Douglas Campbell) have emphasized participation in Christ as the center. Other "organizing" elements have also entered the scene, vying for attention (Wright has another entire volume coming out on the interpretation of Paul).

First there is the idea of salvation history, the idea that history is the outworking of God's plan of salvaiton. Second, there is the category of apocalyptic, the breaking in of the heavenly realm into the events of the earth. Third is the notion of covenant, that the events concerning Jesus are the fulfillment of ancient promises.

Then there are questions of how history impinges on Paul. Is Paul more a Hellenistic or Jewish thinker? Unfortunately, "he is so many-sided that he can be appealed to this way or that on all kinds of issues, not only in theology and ethics but in culture and philosophy..." (42).

Is Paul more doctrinal or ethical? Wright thinks this false distinction owes much to Kant. Wright himself thinks there was also a politically subversive dimension to Paul. All these aspects of Paul have to be brought into dialog with each other. Wright aims to jumble them all together, "like pieces of the same jigsaw puzle that had somehow found their way onto quite separate tables" (43).

We also need to distinguish between the derivation of Paul's ideas (where they came from) and how he used them in the confrontation of his world (where they were going to). How did Paul use elements of his "history-of-religions" world in the engagement of his world?

We can't choose between sharp antitheses any more. "There is indeed a way of analyzing and understanding Paul in which these several multi-layered dichotomies can be resolved..." (45).  "We are looking, not so much for a 'centre' to Paul's thought-world (and his worldview in the sense explained), as a vantage point, a summit from which we can survey, and see the way to explore, the landscape of the letters and their implicit worlds" (46).

What is this vantage point? First, "Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans" (46). Jews do not have a theology in the way Paul and subsequent Christian theology has. But derived from Paul's Jewishness, he confronts and engages his new context in a way that draws on three key elements of his native Jewish  world.

"The three categories are monotheism, election, and eschatology: one God, one people of God, one future for God's world" (46). Paul approaches his world from these three theological peaks, with creational monotheism at the center of his thinking. The either-or distinctions of the past focus on the valleys between rather than the key vantage points.

You can easily see that Wright's desire to be all-encompassing has resulted in significant complexity. He is doing his best to take into account all the pitfalls of past discussion, and the result is indeed like a collection of puzzle pieces he has mixed together on a table--maybe even a mixture of several related puzzles. One of the most instructive aspects of the chapter, if you can see it, is the way he has tried to avoid every extreme.

So he does not want to treat Paul as just a thinker or a practitioner. He wants to take into account "thick descriptions" and "social imaginaries" of worldview and distinguish them from culture and individual mindsets. He does not want to limit Paul to his Jewishness or to Hellenism. He wants to avoid the old, "Is it justification by faith or participation in Christ" dichotomy. He wants to avoid the mistakes of so much "center of Paul" debates, choosing instead the more complicated model of peaks, ridges, and valleys.

All of this prolegomena is to get us ready, and we will see how it plays out. You wonder how this chapter would have been written if he wasn't, to some extent, bound by frameworks he set up twenty years ago. For example, he is too far along to shift comfortably from his earlier language of worldview to Charles Taylor's more sophisticated "social imaginary" (cf. 28, n.80).

It is ironic to me that while he recognizes and criticizes the pitfalls of idealism (27), of reducing reality to a set of ideas or privileging ideas over "real life," he still has a strong tendency to treat ideas in abstraction from the real world in which they are meant to help us operate. He does well to speak of thick descriptions and such, but in my opinion he still ultimately treats the structures of his method as more than heuristic tools. He tends to treat them as realities-in-themselves.

Nevertheless, Wright arguably has all the pieces here, in all their complexity. His categories are far superior to a lot of worldview talk that must surely be considered incredibly superficial and two-dimensional.  A lot of talk of ideas is really about social groups and traditional practices. As Wright implies, ideologies often emerge only when those traditional boundaries and practices are attacked or called into question.

Symbols, practices, stories that provide the significance of those symbols and practices, or the answers to the questions our group asks--these are all part of our "worldviews" and "mindsets." But the ideas are not primary. They are abstractions from our lived-lives in the world. They are the way we anticipate what is to come and how we process change. Ideas are the scaffolding some of us build from which to engage our world. Others simply climb the walls of the world without much scaffolding.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Process of Direct Assessment

This is a little unusual post, a reference post for academics.

What is it?
If you are in the education business these days, you have to do assessment or you're going to run into accreditation problems. Of course the reason to do assessment is so that you know whether you are actually teaching what you say you are teaching. A good teacher does assessment continuously. You read the papers or grade the tests or read the discussions and say to yourself, "Yeah, they're getting it" or "Wow, they completely missed it" or "Hmmm, some of them got it but some of them didn't."

We might call this sort of assessment "informal assessment." Like I said, good teachers and good departments do this sort of self-assessment continuously. In a perfect world, you wouldn't need anything else. Professors would make adjustments--both individually and corporately--without anyone having to tell them. However, not all do, and as a matter of public accountability, institutions are increasingly required to have data to back up their claims to be accomplishing their missions.

So we develop means of formal, direct assessment of student learning. By the way, student surveys are not direct assessment. They are indirect because they are the students telling you whether they liked the course or it met their expectations. This is valuable information, but it has dangers too. For example, students can grade a professor with problems better than they should because they liked her or he gave them easy grades. Meanwhile, a professor in a hard course or who is strict can receive worse evaluations than she or he deserves.

The first step toward formal, direct assessment is for each course to have clear "outcomes." What is a student supposed to gain from this class? These can be divided into three basic categories--outcomes in knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Of course an entire degree should have outcomes too. What is a student supposed to gain from this degree as a whole?

Goals tend to be vaguer and may or may not be "assessible." Language of outcomes implies that there is some way to measure whether a student has actually achieved the goal. Language of objectives can refer to more or less the same thing, but it sounds more like it's worded in terms of the intentions of the professor or institution rather than the student, whose learning after all is the target.

The key connection in assessment is to tie the outcomes of a course or a degree to specific, assessible artifacts in the course(s). So if you say you want students with a Master of Divinity degree to be able to interpret the Bible, you need to have some specific assignment or assignments in some required course that you can look at in order to see if it is happening.

So the process of assessing a course or degree requires you to map the intended outcomes of that course or degree to specific assignments in that course or degree that you can use to determine whether or not students in that course or degree are in fact achieving that outcome.

These artifacts will need to be collected in some sort of a cycle. You don't have to assess every outcome every year. You would ideally have a random sample--so you really don't want to pick just the artifacts from the best students. Ideally the professor of the course would not evaluate papers from his or her own students. You also want some sense that those evaluating the artifacts are approaching them with more or less the same ratings.

The world of online education will move eventually toward real time assessment. In this process, professors will both grade key papers and assess them at the same time. This will create a quite accurate database for overall assessment. Every student in every version of a particular course will be evaluated every time, and it will become quite clear whether students are achieving intended outcomes.

Artifacts are evaluated according to a rather simple rubric. For example, it might be a four option scale: 1) artifact does not demonstrate the outcome, 2) it shows a little evidence of the outcome, 3) it basically achieves the outcome, and 4) it knocks the outcome out of the park. So you would hope that the averaged total of all artifacts will come somewhere in the 3-4 range.

The process of setting up such a system may lead to all sorts of adjustments. For example, if you can't find any artifacts relating to outcomes you have stated are part of your degree, you will need to redesign some assignments. Maybe there are some that come close but aren't quite on target. Redesign them. Certainly if students are completely failing to achieve some outcome, the pedagogy needs examined.

In a perfect world, this sort of assessment is redundant. If professors have been intentional all along, if they have been informally adjusting all along, this process will simply show that an institution is doing what it says it is. Students and the public, however, have a right to see the evidence. After all, they're paying good money to get an education.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism 2

This is my second post reviewing Molly Worthen's new, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Today I want to review chapter 1: "Errand from the Wilderness."

I wasn't as enthusiastic about this chapter for a couple reasons. For one, its point didn't seem quite as clear to me. I suppose the "wilderness" in the title is the situation from which neo-evangelicals like C. F. H. Henry and Harold Ockenga wanted to emerge. By the way, I want to emphasize how irrelevant these figures were to my life as a holiness child. Even to this day I know precious little about them. Their story has intruded on my story from the outside.

My bias alerts went off a little in this chapter. For example, as someone who is not a student of this segment of history, I found myself wondering how accurate her semi-psychoanalysis of Henry's feelings were. I consider my reaction below somewhat provisional until I read more.

1. She begins the first chapter with the scene where Carl F. H. Henry and Karl Barth come face to face. It is the famous story of how Henry tried to pin Barth down on the historicity of the resurrection and Barth, in almost Jesus style fashion, completely side stepped his question.

So Henry asks whether the resurrection was the kind of event that a reporter would have written up in the news. Barth asked back if he was from Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday. Now, mind you, I am quite confident that the answer was yes for Barth. It was the question that Barth rejected, the values embodied in the question, the standard of what was important to Henry.

I have always enjoyed this story about Barth. I'm not sure, however, that Henry would enjoy Worthen's depiction of him. She seems to portray him almost as someone with an inferiority complex, a wannabee. Could be. I found myself wishing I had read some Henry so I could verify the tone, but I have no desire to do so. To me he is "other" and tangential to my tradition.

That these neo-evangelicals hated Barth I think is overwhelmingly substantiated. I seem to remember someone once accusing me of being Barthian and neo-orthodox, and they were not complimenting me. (By the way, I think my Barth-loving friends would have a good chuckle to hear this. The whole semester our reading group read through Barth, I repeatedly said, "What does that mean?" For all their hatred of each other, Barth was also a presuppositionalist of his own kind.)

2. To my mind, Worthen's understanding of who fundamentalists were is still muddled with the Marsden/Noll confusion of them with holiness, Pentecostal, and dispensationalists. I continue to wait for someone to show me the error of my way, but every author I read simply strengthens my sense that the guild of historians of American Christianity are confused here.

The individuals who wrote The Fundamentals were scholars. They were not holiness, Pentecostals, or dispensational types as far as I can tell. The founders of Westminster Seminary, like J. Gresham Machen, did not withdraw from Princeton to start a Bible college in the wilderness. They started a seminary and they were the forebears of the neo-evangelicals.

In response to my previous post, Keith Drury pointed out to me that the people who started Bible colleges were not people withdrawing from broader education. They were people who did not go to college at all. The founding of Bible colleges was a movement toward education, not a withdrawal from the world. The fundamentalists were educated folk, not my generally uneducated holiness forebears.

These fundamentalists were losing status in the public sphere (as opposed to my forebears who never had it). Worthen writes, "In the years between the world wars, conservatives found themselves expelled from or silenced in denominational leadership, church seminaries, colleges, and periodicals" (19). OK, so what you're telling me is that the original fundamentalist separatists were formerly mainliners, not holiness-Pentecostal-dispensational types. Hmmm.

Would someone please fix this history for us please so major historians will stop perpetuating this skew???

3. The idea of inerrancy would play a central role in the rise of neo-evangelicalism because it was the central presuppositional tool the neo-evangelicals used to combat everything to which they were opposed in the currents of their day. Again, I think Worthen lacks some historical sophistication in her parsing of this history.  In particular, I think she misses the role that slavery played in crystalizing Charles Hodge's version of inerrancy, which shifted the focus of the Bible's truthfulness from the greatest common denominator to the details.

4. In 1942, the National Association of Evangelicals was born. This was a group of disaffected fundamentalists (not holiness types) who were tired of being cast out of mainline churches and were regrouping to fight back to reclaim America for their kind of Christianity. They were not content simply to separate like Machen and friends. They wanted the center stage back. They wanted to reclaim America, their kind of America.

[Again, it is fascinating how, it seems to me, evangelicals have rewritten history to make themselves look better. Machen and Westminster were no dispensationalists. In fact, it is my understanding that WTS has always looked down the nose at those "unsophisticated" dispensationalists at Dallas Theological Seminary. How have they pulled off this switch-a-roo of who the true fundamentalists were? ... namely, themselves!]

Worthen tosses out some things I would like to hear more about. So she mentions the Reformed and Presbyterian background of many of these individuals. She mentions the importance of Calvinist presuppositionalism at Wheaton where Henry studied under Gordon Clark. She mentions how important "worldview" was considered at this time, how it was a word that Hitler himself had used and that was invoked in relation to communism.

Henry wanted to formulate the right Christian worldview: "The modern ideology needs to be remade" (35). Again, I found her presentation less than clear. That Henry was interested in presuppositions I don't doubt. But his exchange with Barth shows that he also accepted the standards of modernism to a large degree. No Cornelius van Til was he. I think we'll get more as we proceed.

5. One thing that this chapter did impress on me was the coinciding of neo-evangelicalism's birth with the post-WW2 era. I was trying to think of what that must have been like. A time of clashing ideologies. The terror of Hitler had almost won. The fear of Soviet communism was on the rise. Traditional Christianity had been displaced from power in the public sphere (or so they thought--I'm not sure it was ever really there in America's history).

You could see where a Henry would be driven to identify the right Christian ideology. You could see where the trajectory of fight against evil ideology could push in this direction. After all, the NAE was founded a year after Pearl Harbor when the US was in the thick of things, two years before D-Day. I'm also wondering what role anti-German sentiment might have played in the mix...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why Argue?

Some people like to argue. You can almost count on them taking the other side of anything you say. Of course, it can be easy to manipulate those who are predictable in this way, like you might use reverse psychology on a stubborn child.

One of the more frustrating things of my life, since I love ideas, is that it often isn't possible to win a debate. I wish God would swoop in sometimes and pronounce a winner. You know, the end of Job type thing where God comes in and says, "Where were you when I plucked Leviathan out with a fishhook?"

You can be completely convinced of something and the majority think you're crazy or evil... and of course you may be. Those who are wrongly convinced or paranoid or schizophrenic may be completely convinced that they are seeing the rest of the world as it is. At the same time, the average intelligence of the world is, well, average. So it is likely in many circumstances that as far as the truth is concerned, "narrow is the way and few there be who find it."

It is immensely frustrating that God doesn't show up to say, "And the winner is..." We are left to how convinced we remain after an argument and, perhaps more importantly, when you count up all the people standing by, who do they think is right. We've all voted for the person who lost the election. So we all probably agree that the majority isn't always right.

Even at the Society of Biblical Literature, where people of the highest biblical knowledge are debating, I often hear papers that I think are complete and utter nonsense. What world are they from? Having a large church means nothing as far as the truth is concerned. Crowds flock to rock concerts and all sorts of things, including Hitler rallies.

So why argue? There's no point in arguing unless it leads to some positive consequence. "You can't win an argument," so if the person you are arguing with is the only person involved and you're not going to have any effect on him or her, then just walk away.

Sometimes you can have a good effect on the people listening to the debate. That's a reason to push back. Rarely does putting people in their place work and, perhaps more often, it backfires.

Basically, don't argue because you think you're right. As logical as you might think you are, that's illogical. Argue if you think you might actually change something for the better. If not, just walk away.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Crisis of Evangelicalism (Intro)

I did a quick read of the introduction to the new buzz book in the evangelical blogosphere: Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. This book promises to be both delightful and challenging, whether we end up agreeing with everything in it or not.

1. She begins with something I hope is fairly obvious. The word "evangelical" is ambiguous. It can refer to everything from "churchly Virginia Baptists" to "nondenominational charismatics" in LA. It seems to be a "nebulous community that shares something, even if it is not always clear what that something is" (4).  Despite the power-brokers most associated with the name, she insists that individuals like my own tradition must be included in the discussion, people like "Wesleyans, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals," "communities on the fringes of evangelicalism's 'mainstream' that might contest the term altogether" (5).

What I like about the way she sets up the discussion (I put YES!!! in my margin with two additional underlines). She realizes that the definition of evangelicalism is NOT a question of core ideas or a core truth. "American evangelicals have a strong primitivist bent. They often prefer to think their faith indistinguishable from the faith of Christ's apostles, and scoff at history's claims on them. But they are creatures of history like everyone else, whether they like it or not" (4).

That is to say, she does not define evangelicalism in terms of some dreamy, abstract core like Bebbington (biblicism, cruciformism, conversionism, activism). Bebbington may use history as the foil for these principles, but many evangelicals use these four as if they dropped out of heaven like the image of Artemis that fell from heaven to Ephesus. Ironically, they make it the true catholic faith--one Lord, one faith, one evangelicalism. Pishah.

She hits the bull's eye smack center: "History--rather than theology or politics--is the most useful tool for pinning down today's evangelicals" (4). For background on why I respond enthusiastically to this comment, see here.

I might add that, true to history, she does not discuss African-American Protestants, Latinos, Asian evangelicals, and other immigrants. "Many, especially in the African-American community, view evangelicalism as a white word and claim the label rarely, and always cautiously" (5). She is not saying that these other groups would not have ideally been included, but that evangelicalism is such a white phenomenon in the US that, in the need to provide limits to her study, the lack of detailed focus on these groups actually contributes to her point.

2. She identifies three elemental concerns that drive evangelicalism historically: 1) How do you reconcile faith with reason, 2) how can you be saved and have a true relationship with God, and 3) how do you resolve the tension between personal belief and a secular age?

"The preoccupations that define evangelicalism emerged here, at the intersection of premodern dogma, personal religious experience, and modern anxieties" (6). She is speaking of the age in which Pietism emerged. Pietism was emphasizing the need for "heart religion" at the same time that the Enlightenment was on the rise as well. Herein arose the tension we have been playing out ever since.

"I believe" changed from a statement meaning something like "I love," "I will be faithful to" to the Enlightenment period's, "I assent to the following doctrinal proposition." This relates to what I have said over and over and over and over. The meaning of words is not in the words, nor is it self-evident in all contexts. There is a socio-cultural background that informs what words mean.

"Since that time a broad swath of Protestant believers have found themselves united, not by specific doctrines... but by questions borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era" (7).  Here is a key point: "While many ancient Christians assented to the basic doctrines that scholars mark as 'evangelical,' that assent took on a different character after the seventeenth-century rebirth of reason and the invention of our present-day notions of 'religious' and 'secular.'"

Again, the same words can have drastically different connotations in different contexts. This is why the "self-evident" meaning of the Bible to people today is often an invention of their own making (and their tradition's) rather than what the original authors understood. This is also the mechanism by which the Spirit gave new meanings to the OT words in the NT (and why Walter Kaiser is a hermeneutical imbecile who should generally be ignored). The Spirit continues to speak to us in this way today.

Another nugget: "The sundry believers who share the evangelical label have all lacked an extrabiblical authority powerful enough to guide them through these crises." Thus, I might add, Tillich's Protestant Principle--in the absence of a standard to determine what the Bible means, Protestantism will continue to multiply into tens of thousands of little groups, all of which are absolutely convinced that they are following the inerrant Bible alone. When you look at 20,000 Protestant denominations, sola scriptura is, from a practical standpoint, completely ineffective as an operating principle.

Evangelicals "are children of estranged parents--Pietism and the Enlightentment--but behave like orphans." That is to say, we pretend like we are following the Bible alone when in fact our beliefs and practices are historically located. She has a great way of saying what so MANY of us have been saying now FOREVER!

3. She ends with something so many of us wrestle with--the movements associated with the evangelical stream have tended toward the anti-intellectual. We might tout our educational institutions as islands of protection from the world and then wanted to be accredited so we could be respectable. These twin drives conflict with each other.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a long time ago, "Extreme orthodoxy betrays by its very frenzy that the poison of skepticism has entered the soul... Men insist most vehemently upon their certainties when their hold on them has been shaken" (8).  WOW!  Pictures of several individuals came immediately to mind.  "Frantic orthodoxy is a method for obscuring doubt" (also Niebuhr). I like how Worthen notes that so called "anti-intellectuals" are themselves "staunchly committed to ideas" (8).

The book is about the last 70 years of intellectual life (i.e., from the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the 1940s to today).  The introduction ends with this: "If American evangelicals do not share a single mind, they do share an imagination: one grounded in a substrate of basic questions about the relationship of faith and experience to human reason, and the direction of the modern world" (11).

The game is afoot!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wright: Starting with Philemon

Looked about a week ago at the Preface to N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Now the book begins.

Chapter 1: Return of the Runaway?
1. A World of Difference
Wright begins our journey with the small letter to Philemon. To begin, he gives the classic background text, a letter from Pliny the Younger in which Pliny advocates for a slave who had come to him because his master was angry with him. Wright's goal is to show that, while there are some superficial similarities between the two letters, the worldview and way of life that informs Philemon is quite different from that which informs Pliny's letter.

A brief look at Pliny's letter gives way to a brief analysis of Philemon and its issues. Was Onesimus a runaway slave or just a slave with which Philemon was angry?  Wright favors a runaway slave.

Did Onesimus run into Paul by chance or did he seek him out? Wright thinks it more likely that he had sought him out, trying to be reconciled to his master. Wright also considers it now the majority opinion that Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus when he wrote Philemon and dates the letter to not long before Paul leaves and writes 2 Corinthians.

For what is Paul asking? Mere forgiveness for Onesimus? For Philemon to send him back to help Paul? For Philemon to set Onesimus free? Forgiveness, yes. To send him back, probably? Freedom? Wright does indeed think so. He brilliantly sees an ironic allusion to Exodus 21:2-6 where a slave could decide to be a slave forever. Philemon can receive Onesimus back forever in a quite different sense.

But Wright is Wright. He will not be satisfied with less than abstracting some exquisite and eternal truths from this interaction. Indeed, that is why he has started here. If only he could distinguish between his theological ponderings and exegesis of the text. Philemon and Onesimus are now members of the messianic family, and the central symbol of the Christian worldview for Paul is unity (11).

Philemon is about attempting a new way of life (6). The order things come in the letter (poetic sequence) is not as important as the implicit narrative (the referential sequence) (7). Faith generates and defines fellowship (17). Fellowship is an "energizing principle" that produces the reality of which it speaks.

And here it comes--Wright's signature--"Two thousand years of history, from the call of Abraham to the time of Jesus, are collected up like light in a prism and focused onto the royal representative in whom their meaning and purpose is fulfilled" (17). "Messiah" is something like a collective noun--"Messiah-and-his-people." This is what is in the bubble above the word Messiah, and when Paul prays that the fellowship of Philemon's faith might be active in the knowledge of every good among them "into Christ" (1:6).

Insert the usual comments on Wright's pensive style and cute chapter titles. I deeply appreciate Wright's sense that "Sometimes it is better to get your hands dirty at once rather than approach a topic with lofty generalizations" (6). Of course we get to the lofty generalizations quickly enough.

I'm sympathetic to Ephesus as point of origin, but if it's late in Paul's stay, he doesn't do what he said and come visit. After Ephesus, Paul heads north toward Macedonia. I do wonder if Paul's quick departure from Ephesus in Acts 18:19 hides a quick, initial imprisonment after he first arrived there. He would then have gone on to visit Colossae. Obviously this is complete speculation.

It seems like there is often a point in Wright where the historical grasp on the balloon is let go and it floats away into dreamy abstraction. One wonders, in the end, whether Wright will ever be able to really get Paul because Paul was far too grounded in the end, and Wright can't help being contemplative. The referential world behind Paul, the one Wright seeks, was not an ideological system.

Was unity the center of Paul's worldview? If you mean the inclusion of the Gentiles, then the answer is probably yes. But notice the difference between "unity," which tends toward the abstract, and "the inclusion of the Gentiles," which is a concrete missiological problem. Did faith generate and define fellowship? Shared faith did provide common ground.

Did fellowship relate to a world in which both Philemon, Paul, and Onesimus were all "in Messiah"? I suppose so, theologically, but I suspect we would need to explain what we are saying to Paul. Wright is the king of theological overload. Paul is merely saying that Christian family fellowship entails some things, including the fact that Philemon needs to forgive Onesimus. These dynamics take place in the light of Christ. There are concrete truths here on how we should relate to one another, yes.

As for Christ incorporating Israel, I have yet to see any exegetical evidence that Paul thought in those terms. This is the spark of Wright's early brilliance and the pariah he has never been able to shake. It is brilliant theology, but most scholars remain unconvinced that any of the New Testament authors thought of Christ in this way.