Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Introduction to Christian Theology (the series so far)

I have now completed the introductory posts to my series on Christian theology from one Wesleyan-Arminian perspective. This series is fleshing out a post I did back in March called, "My Theology in Bullet Points." All the posts I've done so far are below.

I've decided to edit and self-publish all the posts below as a book called God and Creation: Wesleyan-Arminian Reflections. In this plan, I will go on to self-publish two other small volumes, Christ and Salvation and The Spirit and the Church. Then when all is finished, I will publish the whole series.

Since it's taken six months to do the shortest of the three volumes, this will take some time to finish...
Introduction to Christian Theology
1. What is Christian theology?
2. Start with the faith you have.
3. All truth is God's truth.
4. God has revealed himself in nature.
5. God reveals himself in events apart from nature.
6. There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on many issues.

The Doctrine of God (theology proper)
1. God didn't need to create. (God's self-sufficiency)
2. God isn't literally a guy.
3. God has the power to do anything. (God's omnipotence)
4. God is present in all places and all times. (God's omnipresence)
5. God knows every possible thing to know.
6. God knows every actual thing to know. (God's omniscience)
7. God can do whatever he wants. (God's sovereignty)
8. God loves everything he has created. (God is love)
9. God's justice fits within the context of his love. (God is just)
10. To say God is holy is to say God is God. (God is holy)
11. There is only one God, but God is three persons. (God is a Trinity)

The Doctrine of Creation (cosmology)
1. God created everything that exists out of nothing.
2. Everything God created was good.
3. God is in control of everything that happens.
4. There are good and evil spiritual beings at work in the world.
5. Human beings were created in the image of God.
6. God intended us to live forever.
7. All humanity is of equal value to God.

The Doctrine of Sin (hamartiology)
1. Evil is a matter of choice, intention, and desire.
2. God created the possibility of evil choices.
3. Suffering in itself is not evil.
4. The current bent of humanity is toward evil.
5. All have sinned.
6. There is such a thing as corporate and structural sin.

Monday, September 29, 2014

F0. What is Christian theology?

Theology is the "study of God," and Christian theology is the study of God from a Christian perspective.

1. There are, perhaps surprisingly, many different ways to approach the study of God. Perhaps the most common is called systematic theology. Systematic theology is when you study God in an orderly, logical way that covers the key dimensions of Christian belief and practice.

For example, the articles that follow in this series engage topics like:
  • Theology proper--topics (or "doctrines") that relate to God the Father in particular
  • Christology--topics that relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ
  • Pneumatology--topics that relate to the person and work of the Holy Spirit
  • Anthropology--topics that have to do with humanity in relation to God
  • Cosmology--topics that have to do with the creation in relation to God
  • Hamartiology--topics that relate to the subject of evil and sin
  • Soteriology--topics that have to do with atonement and salvation
  • Ecclesiology--topics that have to do with the Church
  • Eschatology--topics that have to do with the direction in which God is moving history
  • Revelation--the means by which God makes himself known
  • Ethics and Practical Theology--the study of God as it relates to how we live in this world
Different "systematic theologies" may engage these topics in a different order, but you will no doubt find most if not all of them covered before each treatment is done. The key to a systematic theology is simply that topics relating to Christian faith are covered in some orderly, systematic way.

2. There are other ways to organize theology. Perhaps the most important is what is called biblical theology. In recent times, biblical theologies tend to organize the various theologies of the individual biblical authors. So there might be a section on Pauline theology, another on Matthean or Johannine theology.

These biblical theologies recognize that the Bible is not systematically organized. For example, God did not inspire the authors of Scripture to write theological or philosophical treatises. He inspired them to write stories, poetry, letters, and in other genres. Those who see the Bible as an answer book or book of ideas are not reading it the way it was written.

Similarly, God did not inspire them to write in generic truths but mostly in concrete language that applied directly to those to whom these books actually say they were written. In that sense. to convert the contextual words of the Bible into a universal form requires some system of organization that comes to the biblical texts from the outside.

I believe it is legitimate to re-present the biblical material in a systematic form. In many respects, the series of articles that I am introducing now draws as much on the biblical material for its content as it does the great Christian thinkers of the centuries. So this "systematic theology" is not far from being a "biblical theology."

3. There are other approaches to theology that I might briefly mention in case you encounter them somewhere:
  • Narrative theology looks at theology from the standpoint of the story of God, creation, and redemption.
  • Historical theology looks at how Christian theology has developed over the centuries.
  • Dogmatic theology is a form of systematic theology that looks especially at the core, essential beliefs of the faith.
  • Philosophical theology looks at Christian theology especially from the standpoint of philosophical categories like epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
  • Constructive theology especially engages those aspects of our current world that call into question the historical beliefs and categories of past Christian faith.
All of these approaches more or less engage the same basic theological topics but from slightly different perspectives.
The series of articles that follow engage the key topics of Christian thought and practice from a systematic perspective. They especially engage the content of the Bible as the primary source of the content of Christian thinking and practice. But they also recognize that the Holy Spirit of God has unfolded the primary organizing principles of this content over the centuries in the Church. [1]

[1] Those who know a little about the history of philosophy might see a glimpse of Immanuel Kant here (1724-1804). Some of the thinking of his time shook him into realizing that the content of our experiences does not just come into our heads in some straightforward way, but our minds "interpret" everything we experience. We process the world with our "mind software," so to speak.

So we do not straightforwardly just experience the content of the Bible as it is. Our minds interpret and organize the material of the Bible. This is why there are tens of thousands of different interpretations of the Bible, even though we are all looking at the same texts. Ideally, we all have a kind of "spiritual common sense" as we read that is actually a product of historic Christianity.

F5. There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on many issues.

This is the final post in the first section in my series, a theology in bullet points. (Here are three of the later sections that I've already done).
There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on many issues.

1. In Romans 14, Paul tackles the never-ending situation when two groups of Christians do not agree on how a Christian should live. The issue there was meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god. Paul adopts a "don't ask" perspective. Since everything belongs to God anyway, eat meat set before you with thanksgiving and don't ask where it came from (1 Cor. 10:25-27).

He alludes to other issues in Romans too. So what about observing the Jewish Sabbath, do Gentiles need to do that? "One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind" (Rom. 14:5). A Gentile whose conscience is clear should not let someone judge them if he or she does not observe the Jewish Sabbath (cf. Col. 2:16).

These are examples of the apostle Paul writing at the very beginning of Christianity. Since then we have had two thousand years for Christians to disagree and split time and time again. Paul did not feel so flexible on other issues. When it came to sleeping with your father's wife, there was no debate for him (cf. 1 Cor. 5).

So apparently there are essentials and there are non-essentials. In the essentials, there is no room for variation. In the non-essentials, we need to allow for freedom of conscience. There is a well known quote that sums it up nicely: "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things, charity." [1]

The same goes for Christian beliefs as well as practices. There are essential Christian practices, namely, those that come from a love of God and others (cf. Matt. 22:34-40). So there are essential Christian beliefs. Paul mentions one in 1 Corinthians 8:6, our belief in one God and one Lord.

For Jesus and the early Christians, beliefs were not the primary focus. How we behaved toward one another was more important, as you would expect for a movement that flowed from Judaism. The focus on belief would rise in the centuries after Jesus when Christians began to debate the details of who Jesus was and how he and the Spirit fit together with God the Father as one God.

Yet even for Jesus, the heart that led to action was more important than the action itself. We see this dynamic in his argument with the Pharisees over his disciples washing their hands. It's not the things that go in a person that make them unclean, he says. Rather, clean or unclean comes from the inside out (e.g., Mark 7:20-23). Paul implies as much in Romans 14 when he says that it is whatever we do that we do not do from a heart of faith that is truly sin (14:23).

So the Christian priorities are: heart first, then action, then belief. Our attitudes and character are of the most importance, our intentions. Then how we play those out in our actions toward God and others is of secondary importance. Finally, the beliefs we have are the third order of business (cf. Jas. 2:19).

In this series, we will discuss the centrality of intention in our section on sin. We will discuss the question of action and living in our section on Christian ethics. The rest of this series focuses on Christian beliefs. As we embark on this journey, it is important to keep in perspective that these beliefs are the least important of the three: heart, hands, head. Yet what we believe can be important, especially as it leads to action or reflects our heart.

2. The two words, dogma and doctrine, are usually used to distinguish two levels of importance in belief, where dogma refers to the absolutely essential Christian beliefs and doctrines to areas of belief where there is more disagreement among Christians.

Dogma relates more directly to the creeds of Christianity. The earliest centuries involved debates over questions like whether Jesus was as God as God the Father or whether he was fully human. These debates ended with various creeds and confessions. One of the earliest was a form of the Apostle's Creed.

"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

"And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again from the dead and is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

"I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

Given how ancient these affirmations are and how commonly held they are, they would seem good candidates for Christian dogma--absolutely essential Christian beliefs. For example, we have the fact that God created everything. We have the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. He is in heaven now and will come again. There is a Holy Spirit that works in the world and in the Church. We have the possibility that our sins can be forgiven and that we might participate in the resurrection of the dead.

The earliest form of the "Apostle's Creed" dates from as early as AD200. But Christians continued to work on the details of basic Christian belief in the centuries that followed. Was Jesus completely human? Is he still? The Council of Chalcedon in AD451 finally concluded that Jesus was and is both fully human and fully divine.

A little more than a hundred years earlier, Christians had come to a conclusion on the question of whether Jesus was the most important of God's creations or whether he was God himself. The Council of Nicaea in AD325 famously decided that there was only one God with one substance, but that the one God also had existed from eternity past as three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed captured these conclusions about sixty years later. It spelled out what Christians have generally believed about the "Trinity" ever since.

Creeds like the Apostle's and Nicene Creed give us the basic dogmas of Christianity. For example, the Nicene Creed records the dogma that God is the Creator both of everything that is seen and unseen. Beliefs like Jesus' birth from Mary before she had sex and that he rose physically from the dead have been essential beliefs of historic Christianity since its earliest centuries. Some call these essential beliefs, "Christian dogmas."

3. There are obviously many, many other issues that Christians have discussed throughout the centuries. And as you might expect, there are different answers they have given in relation to these questions. When we move beyond dogma to these individual "doctrines"--or beliefs about key areas of Christian faith--we often find more variety in what different groups of Christians think. Doctrines are important areas of belief where we find a lot of common ground among Christians, but we also find a little more variety of belief than we find with what we have called dogmas.

For example, take the "doctrine of God." Some Christians believe that God's authority does not allow for any creature to truly disagree with him. These Christians would suggest that God decides every single thing that happens. Indeed, they would argue that God is the one that even causes individual believers and unbelievers to disobey him. In other words, some would say that God in his authority even decides who will disobey him.

By contrast, there are other groups of Christians, such as mine, who believe that God, in his authority, has allowed individuals to disagree with him. What we see is that there is not just one position on this particular doctrine.

The articles that follow address the central doctrines of Christianity. They include topics like the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of salvation, and more. In all of these areas, there are both some commonly held Christian positions and have been some variations among Christians throughout history. Sometimes Christian thinking has even developed over time. Ideas that at first were debated eventually became firm and solidified.

We call those ideas that are commonly held by Christians since the earliest centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy or "right belief." When someone has ideas that disagree with the core dogmas of Christianity, we call that, heresy. Another word sometimes used is "heterodoxy," which also refers to thinking stands outside of the usual norms of Christian thinking.

Some Christian groups draw the lines between acceptable and unacceptable belief very narrowly. In many respects, this seems unwise. On the one hand, it is perfectly acceptable for smaller communities of faith to have specific understandings of things. However, it is a different thing entirely to say that those who disagree with these specific "takes" on things are not truly Christian--especially when we are talking about ideas where there is no commonly held position among the vast majority of Christians.

It is also significant to realize that in many cases the lines that are now drawn clearly were not always so firm at one time. Take an issue as basic as the Trinity. There was a time when belief in the Trinity was not firmly established and there were faithful Christians who believed Jesus was the first and most important of God's creations (e.g., a man named Arius). Since the issue was not fully decided and commonly agreed on within the Church until the 400s, we cannot really consider anyone a heretic on this subject until after that time. Now 1600 years later, it is a matter of common agreement that has stood the test of time, including the test of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s when many issues were revisited.

Some Christians take as their motto, "No creed but the Bible." This sentiment builds upon the kinds of dynamics in the Protestant Reformation, when many Christians went back to basics and went to the Bible to find them. As noble as these intentions are, the interpretation of the Bible simply does not work this way. The Bible was not written in the form of a systematic theology. It was written as dozens of different books in several different forms to address the specific issues of many different audiences at different times in their own categories. Those who think of the Bible in creedal terms inevitably impose some system onto the Bible from the outside. And what is dangerous is that they may not know they are doing it, which means they are inevitably confusing their mind with God's.

It seems best for individual Christian groups to show what John Wesley called a "catholic spirit" toward other groups that agree on the basics but have different understandings of specific Christian doctrines. That does not mean that any group has to give up on their particular understanding. It's just that we do not have to de-Christianize other groups because they see things differently.

4. So we might see concentric circles of Christian belief. In the center circle are the absolutely essential dogmas. Then in the circle outside of it are the basic doctrines with a good deal of agreement but also some variations among Christians. Finally on the outside are the areas where there is now official answer. These are issues where we are welcome to have our own individual opinions on those questions.

This last category is sometimes called adiaphora. These are areas where Christianity does not have a final answer or a commonly accepted one on a particular question.

There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on various issues, and we should not de-Christianize each other over them. God is primarily interested in our heart and our actions. There is room for much disagreement with our heads. Indeed, we may find many people in the kingdom of God whose ideas were quite mistaken on many things.

Next week: C1. The earthly Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

[1] The saying comes from a Lutheran named Rupertus Meldenius in the 1600s.

Friday, September 26, 2014

WSPK 8: Summary of Hermeneutics

For what it's worth, here are the points I've tried to make these past days, with a couple added on.

In Ken's perfect world:
  • The pastor is the local expert on the original meaning of the Bible.
  • But the pastor realizes that God uses the Bible far more to transform than to inform.
  • The pastor is humble in relation to what the text meant originally, confident in preaching the love of God and neighbor, open to the Spirit's speaking through the word, and a facilitator of the congregation's transformation as it listens for the Spirit through the word.
Original Meaning
1. In terms of the original meaning of the Bible, I would like a pastor to consider,

First, some basic hermeneutics:
  • The words of the Bible in themselves, like all words, are susceptible to multiple interpretations.
  • Meaning is always understood locally (i.e., in the mind of the interpreter).
  • We are always unaware to some extent of how much of "us" is in our reading of the Bible. 
  • My default interpretations of the words are not timeless, universal meanings. Rather, my default interpretations of their words are a function of the way words are used in my time and place, and the meanings I see are largely if not entirely a function of my modern worldview.
  • There is usually some degree of difference between the default way the words of the Bible strike us and the way they would have struck the original audiences.
  • There are meanings the words of the Bible had that do not correspond to any words in English or concepts in our world.
Next, some basic features of context:
  • The first meanings of the books of the Bible was a function of the way words were used at the times and places when those books were written, and those meanings were largely if not entirely a function of their ancient worldviews.
  • Every single word of the Bible was cultural. That is to say, it took on meaning within the historical-cultural matrix in which it was written, just as every word we say has meaning in our own historical-cultural framework.
  • The books of the Bible say they were written to ancient Israelites, Thessalonians, Corinthians, etc. That means their first meanings were meanings that made sense to these ancient people in the way they used words at their times and their places.
  • In that sense, to read the Bible literally is pretty much to read it as someone else's mail.
  • The Bible was not one book originally. It was dozens of books written over many centuries in at least three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek).
  • They were originally written to audiences at different times and places. That is to say, the "yous" in the Bible were, in the first place, no one alive today. "YOU shall have no other gods before me" was first spoken to ancient Israelites (Exod. 20:3) who lived over 3000 years ago. 
  • For the most part, therefore, each book of the Bible was originally a stand-alone book. For the most part, they were first written to be read separately, not as a collection.
Some conclusions that apply to the "literal" meaning of the biblical texts:
  • We should not simply apply biblical instruction in its specifics blindly to today. It is essential that we know why that instruction was given in the first place, which had everything to do with the context in which that instruction was given.
  • Doing the specifics of what the biblical authors instructed may not have the same meaning that they had. "Doing what they did isn't always doing what they did," especially if doing it in our context doesn't have the same significance today that it had in their context.
  • Since the ideas of the Bible were "incarnated" in the worldview categories of their ancient contexts, they have to be organized from the standpoint of a Christian metanarrative. The Bible provides the content of that metanarrative, the Spirit speaking through the Christians of the centuries have bequeathed us with the organizing principles.
  • We need to be somewhat tentative when it comes to the details of the original meaning and focus mostly on the broader themes and trajectories of Scripture.
Extending the Meaning
2. Here are some techniques that the Christians of the centuries have legitimately and illegitimately used over the centuries to extend the literal meaning of the biblical texts:
  • Biblical scholarship is essential to an informational approach to the minutia of the original meaning of the Bible, but it is neither essential nor intrinsically capable of reading the Bible as Scripture.
  • When we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, we often "extend" the literal meaning so that it speaks to us today.
  • We often put individual stories that were self-contained into an overarching metanarrative starting with the pre-existent Trinity and extending beyond the eschaton.
  • We often generalize or even univeralize words that originally had a limited scope.
  • We often substitute our context for their context. We become the y-o-u. This process sometimes works when it is guided by spiritual common sense but at other times it can result in the idiosyncratic and anachronistic.
  • Sometimes we redefine the words in ways that fit with our spiritual common sense.
  • Sometimes we knowingly or unknowingly deselect passages that do not fit with our spiritual common sense.
In terms of the sacramental function of the Bible:
  • There is an existential difference when we read the Bible as Scripture. I do not read these books as mere artifacts of history. These are my books. These books tell the story of my family. These are not curious stories of other peoples from other places. These are the stories of my people. They are stories that provide a framework for identifying who I am.
  • I read these books from a perspective of faith. If I am reading these books as Christian Scripture, then I read them from a Christian faith perspective. In philosophical terms, I place the content of these texts into a Christian "metanarrative." 
  • This perspective provides the rules by which the original meaning of these texts can be expanded.
  • When I read them as Scripture, I see them as mediating God's authority over me in some way.
  • We are open to the Spirit speaking to individuals and communities through the words, but recognize that the community and the Church must test the spirits.
  • We are always secure to preach the rule of faith and the law of love. The rule of faith is the consensus of common Christianity. The law of love is submission to God and the love of all.
  • We let God change us through the text.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

WSPK 7: How shall we then read?

Some of you may feel like I pulled a switch-a-roo on you. Didn't my lead off post in this series start with this:
  • The Bible as Scripture is as much transformational as informational.
So why have I spent the last five posts more or less talking about the informational? Two reasons.

1. To prepare the way for a clearer sense of the transformational by deconstructing our confidence in the informational.

Everyone thinks they know what the Bible means. This is a by-product of American democracy. Everyone thinks they're an expert at everything. And with the Bible, everyone thinks they know exactly what God thinks about everything.

And of course you might easily respond, "Scholars don't agree on a whole lot of things," and you'd be right. Those who are supposed to know the most about the original meaning disagree all the time. So even the best scholars should be a whole lot more tentative about what they think Bible originally meant than they usually are. [1]

But here's an important point on this topic:
  • Biblical scholarship is essential to an informational approach to the minutia of the original meaning of the Bible, but it is neither essential nor intrinsically capable of reading the Bible as Scripture.
Once we have at least distanced the original meaning of the Bible from the meaning and significance of Scripture for us today, a whole different discussion ensues. Obviously there must be other guiding factors at work (other than the historical meaning) behind not only the transformational experience of Scripture but even its "informational" aspects as it relates to us today.

What are these factors? All the legitimate factors ultimately relate in some way to the Holy Spirit.

a. First, there are "words from the Lord" to individuals and smaller communities of faith. It is understandable that many Christians and Christian traditions have shied away from spiritual interpretations, "pneumatic" words from the Lord. No doubt if we were to examine all the "revelations" people have claimed to receive over time, most of them are probably nothing but hokum, individuals both good and bad, self-deceived, playing a subconscious game to make themselves feel more important than they are.

Yet the original meaning of the New Testament includes indications that there are prophets among us who hear words from the Lord, including words that are mediated through a prophet's reading of Scripture. We must "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). Those who say the Spirit does not inspire new or extended meanings on the basis of the words of the Bible have their head in the sand when it comes to the way the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament.

Communities of faith can also, apparently, have "localized" convictions about how to live out the Bible. The Brethren foot wash. The Wesleyans don't drink. Neither are required positions on the basis of the original meaning of the Bible, but they are the convictions of these groups. They don't mean that these groups are more spiritual than the others. They just have community convictions that they believe are from the Lord.

b. Much more importantly, a preacher can also be confident in the commonly agreed truths of Christianity--the rule of faith and the law of love. These are the truths and ethics that the Church of the centuries has taken from Scripture. Here is actually the most important place for a preacher of the word to camp. We know the biggest ethical principles of all--love God and love neighbor. We can preach any text of Scripture through the eyes of the love of neighbor and we will be able to preach with authority! We can speak with the authority of God to any situation today that clearly plays out our submission to God and our love of others!

c. Beyond this, let me suggest that we are most in danger of going bizarre when we are looking at the details of the biblical texts. It is in the big principles, the trajectory of Scripture, the common sense that the Spirit has built up in the Church over centuries, that we are most certain. It is in the details that we are most likely to make ourselves look stupid informationally--whether we are a scholar, preacher, or lay person--with regard both to what the text meant originally and in how to apply it.

We are safe to apply any passage of Scripture through the lens of God's love for humanity and our obligation to love each other. We are safe to apply any passage with the theme of complete submission to God and the submission of our will to him in a way that does not harm others and correctly recognizes his character as love. We are not safe to apply every passage directly to today without considering the whole counsel of God in Scripture.

The bottom line is that everyone--scholar, preacher, lay person--needs to be a lot more humble when it comes to our handling of the Bible and our confidence that we are speaking for God when it comes to interpretation. "I wonder if the Lord is telling us today..." should be our mode of operation when it comes to the Bible.

Now if you are confident that you are hearing the Holy Spirit, go for it. "The Spirit is telling me today that we need to enter a building program like Nehemiah undertook so long ago." That's fine. Just don't use the Bible as an excuse. "The Bible says..." is often you say--that is the conclusion of these last five posts. You may be right because of the Spirit, even if you're wrong about what the text actually meant.

Just don't play the game so many preachers don't even know they're playing, giving their ideas and trying to give them the authority of Scripture.

2. So one purpose of the last five posts was to move us away from the informational use of Scripture toward a transformational one. What is a transformational use of Scripture?

It is one that listens. It is one that waits. It reads the text and meditates on its words. Bathed in the light of God's love and our total submission to him, we wait for the Holy Spirit to speak to us, to change us. We hide the key passages of Scripture in our hearts (the ones that relate to the spiritual common sense the Spirit has developed in the Church) and we read the others in their light. This will make us bristle at some stories. It will help us rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

But God sets the agenda for the transformational experience of Scripture. We ponder. Preaching for transformation is reflective. What is God saying to us, to you this morning? Where does God want to take us today as we read these words? Who is you in this story? Who should you be?

The informational approach to Scripture has as its intrinsic goal the mastery of its content. The transformational approach has as its goal the Spirit's mastery of us.

[1] It might be helpful to clarify what an original meaning Bible scholar is. An original meaning Bible scholar of a particular part of the Bible 1) knows the appropriate original languages, 2) knows the historical and cultural context of that part, 3) knows the key history of discussion about the interpretation of that part, and 4) can competently practice contextual interpretation.

Having a PhD does not in itself say how far along one is in the journey toward this vast array of knowledge. Many individuals with PhD in hand are still a little shaky on the languages, have a hit and miss knowledge of the historical background information and may only know the history of the discussion for a small part of the text. Still more significant, the current climate has moved away from contextual interpretation to where many of those with PhDs in the last fifteen years may simply be, more or less, very sophisticated pre-modern interpreters.

Despite the fact that both subjectivity and the limitations of our evidence make positive interpretations eternally tentative even for original meaning experts, such scholars should, however, be able to eliminate rather quickly anachronistic interpretations, interpretations that would not have made any sense in the ancient world. Since the essence of premodern interpretation is anachronism, this negative function remains a key area of insight for the biblical scholar today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

WSPK 6: "I know the thoughts I have toward you" (Jer. 29:11)

I have been talking some basic hermeneutics that I hope would be at least a little familiar to a pastor. They have to do with realizing the nature of the real meaning the biblical texts had as well as some sense of how that meaning legitimately is expanded when we read it as Christian Scripture.

Today I want to do a case study on Jeremiah 29:11: "For I indeed know the thoughts that I myself am thinking about you, says YHWH, thoughts of peace and not for evil, to give to you an afterwards and a hope."

1. This is a memory verse of promise for many Christians. I'm sure different Christians take it differently. Some probably take it as a promise that God will get them out of some specific problem situation they are in. Of course God emphatically does not promise to get us out of every thorny situation. Sometimes God lets us suffer, even die. But it is certainly possible that the Spirit would make this verse come alive to a specific individual as a special word to them in a specific situation.

Probably most of us take it as a general statement of God's love and positive attitude toward us. God is not out to catch us out. He's not out to try to make us mess up (Jas. 1:13). He's not some trigger happy sadist hoping to have an excuse to shoot us. His thoughts toward us are one to help us and bring us through.

We also might read this verse within the framework of the Christian metanarrative I mentioned yesterday. As such we might read this verse not as a promise to us as individuals but as an expression of the fact that, at the end of history, God will set the world right and his people will be vindicated.

In my opinion, all these interpretations are legitimate extensions of the text of Jeremiah.

2. So what did this text mean originally?

First, let's go for the obvious. The Y-O-U of this text was obviously those Israelites exiled in Babylon around 590BC. See Jeremiah 29:4: "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon." These words were not originally addressed to anyone alive today but to people who lived 2400 years ago.

The kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem had been sieged by the Babylonians and many of its people had been taken back to Babylon as slaves. In less than ten years, Babylon would completely destroy Jerusalem and its temple, but it had not quite happened yet.

Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles. "Build houses and settle down," he tells them (Jer. 29:5). God's will is to submit to Babylon, not to listen to those prophets saying to resist it. Then, in seventy years, God will allow his people to return (29:10).

So in context, here is what the verse was originally saying: "You exiles in Babylon, do not think that I have forgotten you. You are not going to be stuck in Babylon for ever. I have plans for the future restoration of Israel. I have thoughts of peace for your future, a hope. You will come back in seventy years."

3. Now you can see the questions we could ask about the conventional interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11. What makes any of us think that we can apply it to ourselves? It wasn't written to me or about me. God doesn't say anything about anyone but the exiles in Babylon. It didn't apply to Hitler when he invaded Poland. It didn't apply to "Christian" empires that eventually fell in the past. It is not a promise to the United States that it will never be destroyed permanently by its enemies.

There is nothing in the text of Jeremiah that suggests it applies to any other time or place, and the NT never quotes it. It is rather a Christian tradition to apply this verse to today and a function of reading the Bible in an extended sense. That doesn't make the application illegitimate. It simply is another indication that we are programmed to read the Bible out of context when we read it as Scripture.

As an aside, the historical context of this letter was prior to the form of Jeremiah we now read. The book of Jeremiah is an edited collection of the individual prophecies and stories about Jeremiah almost certainly compiled by someone else (perhaps Baruch, cf. Jer. 36:4, although note that since the current form of Jeremiah talks about Baruch writing down one prophecy, in context this verse is not talking about all of the current book of Jeremiah). Jeremiah did not sit down one day and write the whole book of Jeremiah and there are actually different versions of Jeremiah among the manuscripts in which the chapters are in significantly different order.

4. You can see what we are doing subconsciously, unthinkingly, but legitimately, when we read Jeremiah 29:11 the way we normally do, in keeping with yesterday's post:
  • We re-specifize it. We understand ourselves to be the "you" that that verse addresses. I may reapply it to me as an individual. To do this, most rip the verse from its obvious literary context. (We deselect the obvious context)
  • We generalize it. We make it into a general truth of God's attitude toward his people rather than a specific promise at a specific time and place. However, we do not universalize it because we only apply it to God's people, not to the wicked.
  • We may meta-narrativize. We may make it into an eschatological promise for the people of God at the end of the story.
When we extend the meaning in ways that fit with right Christian thinking and right Christian action, this out-of-context process is perfectly legitimate, in my opinion. I personally believe that the Spirit regularly speaks to people in this way. The problem is when Christians disagree over their "spiritual" readings. In that case it can be useful to know something about what the real meaning actually was.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

WSPK 5: The Bible as "Scripture" extends the literal meaning.

If you've read the four previous posts, you might feel like I was trying to take away your candy. Today I want to start to give some back.
  • When we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, we often "extend" the literal meaning so that it speaks to us today.
Most of the time, we do this without even realizing it. It's part of a certain spiritual common sense we've developed in our communities of faith.

But when we get into disagreements, it is helpful to open up the hermeneutical hood of the car to see how the meaning actually breaks down. And surely a pastor should at least have some sense of what is under the hood, even if most of the time he or she just drives the car.

1. Here is an important hermeneutical point:
  • There is a difference between reading the books of the Bible as historical documents and reading them as Christian Scripture.
What are the differences?
  • Perhaps most importantly, there is an existential difference. I do not read these books as mere artifacts of history. These are my books. These books tell the story of my family. These are not curious stories of other peoples from other places. These are the stories of my people. They are stories that provide a framework for identifying who I am.
  • I read these books from a perspective of faith. If I am reading these books as Christian Scripture, then I read them from a Christian faith perspective. In philosophical terms, I place the content of these texts into a Christian "metanarrative." 
  • This perspective provides the rules by which the original meaning of these texts can be expanded.
  • When I read them as Scripture, I see them as mediating God's authority over me in some way.
A metanarrative is an overarching framework, like a map, that we use to interpret something. For example, who told us that Hebrews gives us the final answer about animal sacrifices? Would it not be possible, say if we were a non-Christian Jew, to read these texts with the author of Hebrews as a deviant and Leviticus as the right answer for all time as to animal sacrifices? How do we know that Hebrews gives a more complete answer on the topic than Leviticus?

Our Christian point of view does. As Christians, our "metanarrative" sees Christ as the "goal of the law" (Rom. 10:4). We know, not because of the texts themselves, which could be integrated in more than one way. We believe, because of the Christian glasses we wear, that Hebrews gives a more complete answer than Leviticus.

From a historical perspective, Leviticus did not give any hint that the animal sacrifices would ever end. The text of Leviticus itself knows nothing of the sort. It is when we read Leviticus from a Christian perspective that we see the Levitical system as temporary, a foreshadowing of the death of Christ.

There is a theorem in mathematics called Gödel's incompleteness theorem. To put it in layman's terms, the theorem basically says that a closed system of ideas cannot show itself to be entirely coherent without the introduction of some framework from outside the closed system. To apply this to the biblical situation, the books of the Bible themselves cannot establish their own coherency without the use of a metanarrative that comes alongside them and organizes their content from the outside.

The difference between the historical meaning of the biblical texts and reading the Bible as Christian Scripture is the introduction of the Christian metanarrative. Without this metanarrative, the coherency of the Bible falls apart. Without it, the result is predictable--the atomization of the texts. This is what happened in Protestant Liberalism. This was the death of biblical theology. Theological interpretation has tried to recover it, but to the extent that it pretends to be based on the text alone, it is simply an exercise in self-deception.

The metanarrative is supplied by Christian tradition, and the most important metanarrative is that which derives from common Christianity, that is, Christian orthodoxy.

2. So what are the concrete mechanisms by which the biblical meaning is expanded? Here are some examples:

a. Meta-narrativizing
In its literary context, the story of Adam and Eve explains why men have to work hard on the land, why women have painful childbirth and are subject to their husbands, and why humans and snakes do not get along. The rest of the OT knows nothing of this story. We have no evidence to say whether David or Isaiah or Samuel even knew it. It plays no obvious role at all in the thinking of the rest of the OT, which never mentions it again.

Yet when we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, the Adam/Eve story provides the problem for which Christ is the solution. This is the "metanarrativizing" of this short story. It extends the scope and significance of the story from two local chapters to make them one of the key texts in all of Scripture. This is an extension of this passage's original meaning that happens when we read it as Christian Scripture.

b. Generalizing/Universalizing
Read on its own terms, the Sabbath command is about not working on Saturday (It can also refer to other rest days on Israel's calendar). It is a day of rest but also a day that signifies Israel's association with Yahweh, for there are capital consequences for those who work on this day. There is little association in the OT between the Sabbath and worship, although Ezekiel 46:3-4 is a very rare exception. It refers, however, to the obligation to make a Sabbath sacrifice in the sanctuary on Saturdays.

In the NT, Paul's writings explicitly tell Gentile believers that they are not obligated to keep the Jewish Sabbath (Col. 2:16; Rom. 14:5). When Christians today interpret the Sabbath law as taking any day for rest or when they transfer the idea to worshiping God on Sunday, they are changing the connotations of the original command by generalizing it. A specific command about a specific day becomes a general principle of rest and worship. This is not what the command originally said but is a generalized version of it.

c. Re-specification
Sometimes, the specifics of the original context are subtly replaced with our own. So whenever the Bible says "you" and it was referring to an ancient audience and we take ourselves as the "you," we have subtly replaced our specifics for the original ones. We make sense of the words of the Bible against our context instead of the original one.

So when we use the Bible to come up with "biblical principles" on how to manage your money or how to relate as husbands and wives, we are usually projecting the dynamics of a modern economy or a modern family onto the text. Originally, of course, any instruction on money in the Bible came from an agricultural world and a highly patriarchal system.

d. Archaization
A subset of the respecification above is when we end up introducing ancient elements as normative for our contemporary behavior. The result is usually bizarre or even oppressive. So we start to treat women according to ancient norms or we start to dress with some veil substitute. Perhaps we try to make an ancient picture of the world fit with modern science or psychology.

e. Redefinition
Sometimes we make sense of a biblical passage by redefining the words. There is the old sermon from the King James of Isaiah 35:8 about how you can be stupid and still live a godly life--even fools will not err therein. Where "fools" were originally the ungodly, they are redefined as the stupid. Where "err" in this context meant to wander onto a path accidentally, it is redefined to mean "go astray" or "go wrong."

Individuals regularly find meanings that make sense within their overarching Christian theological and ethical framework by finding a potential meaning in the words that fits. This eliminates any distance between the text and the themselves, often by redefining the meaning of the words. So the food laws may have had everything to do with an ancient priestly way of understanding the world, but we make sense of them by making it have to do with dietary hygiene.

f. Metaphor
We can extend the original meaning of the text by applying it somewhat metaphorically. Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 when he takes instruction about not muzzling an ox when it is treading grain and applies it to ministers of the gospel--they should be supported materially for the work they do.

We sometimes reinterpret elements of ancient worldview metaphorically. Whereas Paul may have literally believed in three layers of sky (2 Cor. 12:1), we take it figuratively. When I read imprecatory psalms as a young person, I took my enemies in terms of my temptations and my challenges, the things that would lead me to sin. Of course originally they were quite tangible people.

g. Deselection
There are any number of OT texts that we, without thinking about it, ignore. These are the texts that just don't fit our metanarrative. Who spends much time lingering over Psalm 137:9 or Nahum? They are "naughty verses" that don't fit our Christian metanarrative as easily. Specific Christian traditions also tend to have some passages they pay a lot of attention to and others that they may not even notice are there.

3. These are all strategies to extend the literal and original meanings of the Bible to make them speak directly to us today. We are often not even aware that we are extending the meanings, these dynamics are so much a part of our inherited way of reading biblical texts. They are subconscious. We do not even know we are doing it.

The result is that we read Scripture unlike we would read any other book. We would never pull a single sentence out of a letter we found on the street and apply it to ourselves, substituting ourselves for the "you." The default way of reading Scripture is an out of context one, one that is programmed to bracket context and apply the words directly to ourselves.

This is not bad, except when it becomes harmful or oppressive or hinders the gospel because it gets plain weird. We also get into situations where, because neither of us is reading the words for what they really meant, we have no basis to arbitrate between competing interpretations.

4. Finally, modernist evangelical hermeneutics derived a more scientific method of fusing the horizons between "that time" and "our time." You identify the "why" behind the original instruction or the "principle" inherent in the original meaning of the text. Then you reapply that principle to our contemporary context.

This is a valid method but it is one that the average person is not trained to do. You might also argue that the method is often practiced with some elements of a premodern perspective retained in the sense that original meaning interpretations sometimes stop short of a penetrating cultural analysis and there are sometimes artificial boundaries both to the limits of what the original meaning can be and the way in which it must be applied.

Monday, September 22, 2014

WSPK 4: Biblical commands were contextual too.

I decided there were at least two more posts I want to do on hermeneutics in this series on "What a pastor should know about the Bible."

The last post talked about how "all meaning is local." The key points from that post were:
  • There are meanings the words of the Bible had that do not correspond to any words in English or concepts in our world.
  • The first meanings of the books of the Bible was a function of the way words were used at the times and places when those books were written, and those meanings were largely if not entirely a function of their ancient worldviews.
  • My default interpretations of their words are not some timeless, universal meaning. Rather, my default interpretations of their words are also a function of the way words are used in my time and place, and the meanings I see are largely if not entirely a function of my modern worldview.
  • Meaning is always understood locally.
1. This dynamic also applies to actions.
  • The meaning of actions is also understood locally. 
There are actions that have a very similar meaning regardless of time and place. This is because all those local contexts share features in common. For example, the murder of an innocent person no doubt involves very similar dynamics around the world. (although we might be surprised to find differences even on this score).

However, there are many instances where the meaning of an action has everything to do with a cultural context. This is one benefit of spending some time immersed in a foreign culture--so you can see aspects of your own culture that do not apply in other places.

Rude gestures are a great example of how actions and events find their meaning in a particular context. When my son was very young, someone in an elementary school class told him that he couldn't lift his middle finger up. Proudly, my son showed him that he could, leading to uproarious laughter by several students.

The meaning of that action is not inherent in the universe. We learn it as we live in this culture. I could give the equivalent English gesture, and most Americans would think I was giving a peace sign. The meanings of those actions are not universal. They are culturally-defined.

2. So it is that the Bible was not written so blandly and generally that all its instruction is as broad as "Love your neighbor." (Again, even what it means concretely to love someone else can vary widely from culture to culture) When God spoke to the audiences of the Bible through human writers, he spoke in a way that was timely and relevant to them.

The implication of this fact, however, is that some of the biblical instruction is not as directly relevant to every time and place and some of the specific instruction does not apply directly at all. In many cases, our traditions of interpretation have reinterpreted the sense of the biblical words to make them continue to be relevant, even though their original meaning is not.

A good example of this dynamic is the instruction in Deuteronomy 14:21: "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk." We do not know enough of the historical context to know for sure what the reasoning behind this instruction is. Probably the best guess is that it has something to do with Canaanite religion.

What is certain is that it had nothing to do with the way this verse is applied in orthodox Judaism today...

[By the way, being Jewish does not intrinsically give a person any greater insight into the historical context of the Old Testament. At most, one may be more aware of literature and traditions than the average person. But the same historical data that are available to Jews today are available to anyone else. In some cases, acquaintance with the Mishnah and Talmud can actually hinder an open-minded listening to the biblical texts, which predate these rabbinic sources by hundreds of years. Judaism before AD70 was much more diverse than later rabbinic Judaism.

[The bottom line is that while we celebrate the Old Testament people of God today and especially Messianic Jews, their Jewishness does not make them any greater experts on the meaning of the Bible--or give them any greater knowledge of the historical context of the Ancient Near East--than any other scholar. Such an interpreter especially needs to guard against anachronism--reading rabbinic and modern practices anachronistically into the Second Temple Period.]

... In Judaism today, you do not eat meat and milk in the same meal. The meat represents the young goat and the milk obviously relates to the mother's milk. But this tradition has nothing to do with the original meaning of this verse. There was a reason for the verse, one that had everything to do with the context in which the instruction arose.

In the same way, we naturally do our best to make sense of these words within our view of the world. So, metaphorically, is it not cruel to cook a child in the milk of its mother? Does this not point to a gross violation of the nurturing of motherhood? Is this not a horrendous evil?

Those are all truths we can take from the instruction. The point is that it is not at all clear that those were the original truths. They are rather truths that we see in the text as we read it with Christian values.

3  There is a bottom line here:
  • Doing the specifics of what the biblical authors instructed may not have the same meaning that they had. "Doing what they did isn't always doing what they did," especially if doing it in our context doesn't have the same significance today that it had in their context.
Indeed, it could be that "doing what they did" actually has the opposite meaning for us that it had for them. Instruction that actually freed women up for them may have the effect of constricting them today.

Take the question of drinking. None of the biblical texts completely prohibit drinking. They urge moderation, but only Nazirites did not drink at all. Jesus almost certainly drank fermented wine.

But, and here is the crucial point--this fact does not end discussion on whether Christians should drink today in every context. Doing what they did--drinking moderately--may not mean the same thing in every context today. Drinking at all in my own religious context had such a seriously bad significance at one point that I can't imagine that any loving person would have done it, even if it did not bother their own conscience.

Once again the fundamental truth comes home. The words of the Bible were not written originally to us today. No mature reading of Scripture will be unaware of this fact.
  • We should not simply apply biblical instruction in its specifics blindly to today. It is essential that we know why that instruction was given in the first place, which had everything to do with the context in which that instruction was given.
Since the pre-modern interpreter assumes that all the instruction of the Bible was written to them, this crucial dynamic is missed. We might end up dressing like we think biblical people dressed. We might end up doing things that are actually contrary to the point of the original instruction. The result is a kind of hermeneutical Amishness.

This is not, strictly, a matter of determining what in the Bible is cultural and what isn't.
  • Every single word of the Bible was cultural. That is to say, it took on meaning within the historical-cultural matrix in which it was written, just as every word we say has meaning in our own historical-cultural framework.
The question is what also applies directly to our culture, what indirectly can apply to our culture, what needs to be applied differently to our culture, and what should not be applied at all to our culture.

This is not relativism. This is finding the real points of continuity rather than blindly misapplying many things in ignorance. I can show the same spirit as Paul had when he greeted other men with a kiss (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:26)... without kissing them today. A holy handshake will do.

Much of the time, we process these issues subconsciously, using spiritual common sense. Often the Christian traditions we are in have processed them for us, drawing on the God-given wisdom of our communities of faith. Most of the time, we don't even realize this processing is happening.

But when we hit the borderline issues, when we can't agree on the common sense, the principle that the words and instructions of Scripture took their first sense from the contexts in which they were written gives us a fixed point (I would argue that the other important fixed point is the consensus of orthodoxy). It allows us to strip the layers of paint on paint that have accrued over the years, to see our own subjectivity more clearly, so that we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling from a standpoint of better contextual understanding.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

F4. God reveals himself in events apart from nature.

This is the fourth post in the first section in my series, a theology in bullet points. (Here are three of the later sections that I've already done).
God has revealed himself in events apart from nature.

1. Different Christian thinkers define a miracle in different ways. For many, a typical miracle situation is when someone looks like they are going to die but they spectacularly and unexpectedly pull through. Some would be fine with such a miracle taking place through the hands of a doctor. Or let's say that some people are trapped in a mine and it looks like they are going to die, but they "miraculously" pull through.

But I am defining a miracle in a very specific way. If the "natural" is when events follow the normal cause-effect operations of the universe, then a "miracle" is when God interrupts the normal cause-effect operations of the universe to do something. If you could track down and account for all the causes behind an event, you would not define it as a miracle by this definition. [1]

So perhaps the individual's recovery from sickness was unexpected and spectacular. But if you could account for the recovery scientifically, it would not be a miracle by this definition. By this definition, a miracle is when God interrupts and steps into the normal cause-effect chain of events and changes the outcome.

2. Special revelation is, by this definition, miraculous. We tend to think of revelation as informational--God sharing truth or giving a command. But revelation is much bigger than that. In Scripture, revelation is transformational. It is about more than head knowledge. It is even deeper when it involves person knowledge. We catch a picture of this "knowledge" when we realize that the clause, "Adam knew Eve" in Genesis 4:1 is about intimate relations.

So the deepest revelations are about encounter and experience of God. They are about "being known by God" (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9). [2] That sort of revelation changes our existence and is thus, "existential." It goes far beyond mere knowledge of information.

It should be clear by this definition that special revelation includes a vast amount more than the Bible. Indeed, the greatest revelation of all history took place when God stepped onto the human stage as Jesus, the Christ. In Christian belief, Jesus was not just some man that God chose and anointed. Jesus was God himself, interrupting the normal flow of human events, to become a human being.

While on earth, Jesus revealed God through his miracles, events that could not be accounted for under the normal operations of the universe. They were instances of the Spirit interrupting the normal flow of cause and effect through Jesus. Then of course the resurrection was not just a chance event. It was not a mostly dead individual who fooled some Roman soldiers and escaped the tomb a couple days later. No, it was a miracle. It was God changing the course of normal history.

3. Every instance of God speaking or revealing himself to a human being is thus miraculous by definition. Every instance is an instance of special revelation, revelation that involves God's direct intervention and insertion of himself into the world. God was involved in special revelation long before a single word of the Bible was written, and God continues to speak to people today, thousands of years after the Bible was written.

There is a group of Christians known as cessationists, who believe that gifts of prophesy and miracles were confined to the biblical period. But the Bible itself knows no such thing. Never in the New Testament are we given any indication that the gifts of the Spirit have a "sell by" date. When Paul says that, "where there are prophecies, they will cease" (1 Cor. 13:8), the context is not talking about prophecy in general, but about any one specific prophecy.

No, this line of thinking was invented by individuals who wanted to contain God within the words of the Bible. God cannot be so contained and to do so makes God smaller than he is. He is not a genie in a bottle. The whole world cannot contain him! He is a God who spoke and continues to speak.

Here it is worth noting that the "word of God" in Scripture is not in any way limited to Scripture. In John 1:14, the word of God made flesh is obviously not the Bible but Jesus Christ himself. Indeed, it is almost blasphemous to confuse the two, as if written words come anywhere close to the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God. It is almost to make the Bible into an idol.

Hebrews 4:12 is talking about something bigger than the Bible. Following Jewish tradition (e.g., see Wisdom 9:118:15, it is referring to God's spoken word of command, by which he accomplishes his will in the world (see Isaiah 55:11). [3] Similarly, James 1:18 is probably talking about something deeper than even just the preached word (let alone the written word), and the same goes for 1 Peter 1:23.

4. The revelation of God is much, much bigger than the written word, as crucial as it is. [4] God speaks to people in prayer every day. God speaks to us in worship. God speaks to us when we are baptized and as we take communion. To limit God's self-revelation to the Bible is to diminish him greatly, like those who in effect limited God's location to the temple.

But Stephen responds with the words of Isaiah: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?" (Acts 7:49-50). In the same way, the special revelations of God cannot be contained by human words.

God reveals himself in events apart from nature. The greatest such revelation was when God became human, worked among us through the Spirit, then rose again from the dead. [5] The second greatest revelation was in the series of books that we now know as the Scriptures. Beyond that point, God has revealed himself in the Church. But God continues to reveal himself to someone somewhere every day, and thus the "words" of God in history continue.

Next week: F5. There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on many issues.

[1] Some do not like this approach to miracles because they do not like to think of God allowing the universe to operate "on its own" in some way. They would like to see God as intimately determining every event. I do not take that approach. However, if you take my language in terms of how things appear (i.e., phenomenologically), then you can merely reinterpret my language in terms of what appears to be the normal cause and effect operation of the universe.

[2] Think, for example, of the revelation Paul experiences when he experiences the third heaven in 2 Cor. 12:1-7.

[3] This is an excellent example of how we unthinkingly can assume that the phrases we use in English in our traditions (e.g., "word of God") had the same meanings when the words of the Bible were written. But this just isn't the way it works. The meaning of these phrases then was a function of the way they used phrases then, not of how we use them today.

[4] In this series, we will develop a theology of Scripture in our section on sacraments. There we will think of Scripture as a "sacrament of revelation," a divinely appointed means of grace by way of revelation.

[5] You will also notice that, by this reckoning, Jesus himself does not exhaust the revelation of God in the world, at least not in terms of content and certainly not in terms of event.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Family History 17: Notes for My Children

So we come to the end of my family history posts. I'll end with a few notes on my own life.

I was born in Indianapolis in the mid-60s, but my Dad's job took him to Florida in 1970. So I am a Hoosier by birth but a Floridian by childhood. I've never really felt like a Hoosier, although the family history I have been telling is a story that nearly goes back to the birth of the State of Indiana in 1816.

I have always been grateful for the high school education I received in Florida in the 70s. Integration was never a question. My teachers taught critical thinking and the evaluation of ideas on the basis of evidence, not sentiment or tradition. I know several of them were devout believers, but I am grateful that class was a neutral ground, a place where all ideas could be considered and evaluated by the canons of evidence and logic.

I felt like my teachers in high school could have been college teachers. I can't even express what a phenomenal math teacher Mr. Pickett was. He was a devout Christian too. Mr. Atkinson taught chemistry to bring everyone along, so I'm sure we didn't get as far along as we could have. But those were two tremendous years. I still remember some of the experiments we did. Mr. Stock made me a citizen of the world with a run through world culture that included everything from philosophy to art history to architecture. What great literature we read with Mrs. Gauss, Mr. Hadley, and Mrs. Van Roo.

These teachers began to open up my mind to a world of understanding beyond my wildest imagination. They gave me my first glimpse of what it meant to touch the universe with your mind. Those moments of enlightenment can come hard and fast when you're in your teens and twenties (not as frequent in your forties, I'm afraid). My passion has always been to share that world with others, which is why my all time favorite class to teach has to be introductory philosophy.

Central Wesleyan College
After high school, I felt like God wanted me to go to our area church school, much to Mr. Atkinson's puzzlement. I don't know if I'd have been mature enough at that point not to crash during a first year at the University of Miami or Florida State. CWC, now SWU, was a very personal place, where you knew your professors and they were truly in loco parentis. I probably needed that care my first year of college, sad to say. I probably needed to mature more as a person than I needed to learn chemistry.

SWU is in a beautiful location, with beautiful mountains and lakes nearby. The flowers at Clemson are astonishingly beautiful at the beginning of the Spring. I took a physics class there and got a taste of what a big university is like.

I started as a chemistry major. A warning to all high school AP students--whether you get AP credit or not, you should retake courses that are fundamental to your major in college. Two years of high school chemistry just isn't the same as a year of college chemistry, no matter how good your teacher is.

I hate to confess that I was pretty lost in the advanced experimental chemistry classes I found myself in my first year at Central. But there were also advantages to such a small school, with only three chemistry majors at the time. We all had keys to the lab and could spend an all nighter catching up on experiments if we needed to... making instant tea with magnetic stirrers and serving mac-n-cheese in Petri dishes, after boiling the noodles in a beaker on a Bunsen Burner.

I had enough AP credit to graduate in three years. I really didn't want to, but my scholarship only covered enough hours to graduate, not to go four years. My Dad, by the way, was on the Board of Trustees of CWC at that time, which is how I really got acquainted with CWC in the first place.

I finished the first year in chemistry, but felt called to ministry at the end of the first semester. I wanted to finish the degree in chemistry too but, alas, it was not to be. At the same time, I had the hardest time focusing in college. I wanted to read, read, read with all my heart. But I would read the same sentences over and over and over and over. I had the hardest time focusing.

Sometimes you wish you could go back and help yourself out, give the techniques you eventually learned to cope with those sorts of problems.

Asbury Seminary
Asbury was to deepen a new direction and trajectory for me as a Christian. My family was obviously very conservative Wesleyan holiness. I've written a little of my hermeneutical autobiography elsewhere. I don't want to take up much space here to write of my struggles of conscience as a young person.

Let's just say that I spent years tortured over the question of whether I was truly saved or not. The preaching of my childhood clustered around a couple of key themes. One was the need to have certain landmark spiritual experiences, namely, salvation and sanctification. The other main one was the need to live without sinning, including all the external things you shouldn't do.

Given that preaching, I pretty much felt like I was the only Christian at my high school (which was completely false)... except that I constantly questioned whether I had experienced a definitive enough experience to count for any of the landmarks. In college I tortured one girl as much with my self-doubt about whether I was truly saved as I did over whether I was truly in love. I'm sure I was a little reminiscent of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.

College raised questions, brought up "naughty data" about the way I had grown up looking at the world. I had grown up thinking that a spiritual girl, for example, would ideally look a certain way. But some of the most spiritual female students I knew at college didn't look that way at all. I read through Galatians on Easter Sunday, 1987, and had a cathartic moment of realization: my approach to Christianity aligned with Paul's opponents, not with Paul.

It was a major turning point in my Christian pilgrimage, perhaps the most significant one of all. It was the beginning of a path toward peace. Up till then, I spent my days hyper-reflective, filled with introspective naval gazing, a regular cycle of self-doubt and psychological torture. "Lord, please forgive me if I've sinned. Lord, please forgive me if I've sinned."

There was a kind of peace that Easter morning. It wasn't salvation. It wasn't sanctification. I had experiences of peace I counted for those, despite recurring doubts. This was a trajectory of peace. It was a peace about the fact that God was a God of love rather than wrath. It was a peace that God was a God of principle, not of precept.

In retrospect, I would say that I started to emerge from a pre-modern religious worldview at Asbury. Asbury taught me well how to read the Bible in context. Indeed, I consider my grounding in IBS with professors like David Bauer and David Thompson to have given me an advantage over many a PhD in Bible who are not rigorous in the discipline of listening to the text.

Bauer and Thompson are both men of faith, but I never felt like they were cooking the books. I had other professors at Asbury who, even though I agreed with them, seemed to me to be skewing the evidence to fit their version of faith. Ironically, they actually tended to de-convince me of their positions in the process of trying to convince me of their positions.

The IBS I learned at Asbury left me with a strong commitment to letting the inductive evidence go wherever it seemed to lead. Interestingly, I did not consider either Asbury or the Wesleyan Church at that time to be evangelical (a title that apparently only 2% of outsiders 16-29 have a good impression of). Indeed, IBS at Asbury increasingly led me to look with suspicion on the biblical scholarship of the "mainline evangelical" institutions because it seemed like they often were places of deductive Bible study, where they told the text more or less what it could mean.

University of Kentucky
When I switched to become a Religion major at CWC, I imagined that I would be a preacher. I enjoyed preaching because I liked thinking. There is a certain kind of preacher, like Steve Deneff, who are idea preachers. I found that very attractive and did some preaching in college with a traveling team of close friends. I supply pastored a couple summers, mostly preaching and doing visitation.

When I finished college, I didn't feel anywhere near mature enough to pastor a church full turkey, so I did what you did in my shoes. I went to seminary. As my time at Asbury continued, I began to realize that there was also a type of minister who taught in addition to preaching. I began to feel drawn to teaching.

In my final year at Asbury, I put out a fleece. If I became a Teaching Fellow at Asbury, teaching Greek and Hebrew, then I would continue on a trajectory to get a doctorate in New Testament. I had been interested in theology at first in college, because it initially seemed to me like there was more to work out at the intersection of philosophy and God. I figured I pretty much knew what the Bible already said.

But as the pre-modern blinders were more and more taken off, I realized more and more what an undiscovered country the Bible was for me. I also sensed subconsciously, I think, that I would always be a slave to someone else's interpretations if I did not know the Bible. I wanted to know what God thought for myself. I didn't want to be caught off guard.

In a way, the same reason I longed to know physics fueled my desire to study theology and the Bible. I wanted to know the ultimate basis for everything. Physics and philosophy could only take you so far. The Bible and theology could take me to the very thoughts of God.

Between the OT and the NT, it seemed clear to me that the complete mind of God was more to be found in the NT. Also, it seemed like the scholarly study of the OT had more landmines. No one seemed to care about Matthew starting from Mark. But to suggest that Genesis had sources would bring down the wrath of Josh McDowell on you.

If I hadn't been appointed Teaching Fellow, I would have taken a church in Florida and pastored. Who knows where that trajectory would have headed. I was not equipped to be anything but a small church pastor. I imagine I would have thirsted to study more at some point. I might have remained single a long time. The Wesleyan churches in Florida felt like islands far removed from each other.

But I became a Teaching Fellow. There are great moments in your life. 1985 was a spectacular year for me at CWC. 1990-93 were also some of the best. Great friends, a little money. I was largely free of my "Am I going to hell" fears. The future seemed endlessly bright.

I followed in the footsteps of Joe Dongell those years and did an MA in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Kentucky. I always felt like, at the end of a degree, I was where I wish I had been when I started. For example, although I knew Koine Greek, my first foray into classical Greek was Greek Drama--not a good place to start. And I had only had a little Latin in high school. Now I was taking masters classes in Virgil and Cicero. It was tough, to say the least.

I also taught a little at Asbury College while Dr. Harstad was on sabbatical for a year. I also taught some nurses at Midway College. Good experiences. A real privilege.

University of Durham
My three years in England, with a two month time in Tübingen in 1995, were incredibly rich for me. Immersed in a different culture for that long a time changes the way you understand your own culture. You don't get that on a short missions trip. You don't even get that living on a military base in another country.

In those pre-9-11 days, we were those funny, loud, stupid Americans (we became those dangerous, stupid Americans when we invaded Iraq). I think the St. John's College students must have cast me in Romeo and Much Ado just to hear my accent. Durham didn't require nearly the thick skin that Oxford would have required but it did require a little toughening.

It is a tremendous luxury to be able to think freely. Durham was mostly that for me. At the Graduate Seminar, the only rule was that you be able to think well and make a good argument based on the evidence. I was able to teach Greek at the university, which gave me a stipend.

St. John's College graciously hired me as a "Residential Tutor," which provided for my room and board. I taught Hebrew and a little Christology for Cranmer Hall, a theological school within John's. At that time, it trained both Anglican and Methodist vicars. The Methodist church of England has since pulled all its training to a single location, to the great dismay of many.

My time in Tübingen was also spectacular. I lived in the Kellar of Frau Michel, wife of the late Otto Michel, and met regularly with Professor Hermann Lichtenberger. I had good friends there, one of whom had come to Durham for a year. We had been on a rowing team for Johns together, a team of international misfits to be sure, with the other two from Spain and England. Our cox was a quirky aristocrat who could have been straight out of Four Weddings and a Funeral (Sorry, Helen ;-).

The Real World
I guess I'm thankful that I was so naive all those years about how easy it would be to get a teaching job with a doctorate in New Testament. Everyone is plenty willing to take your money for the education, but it's a quite different thing to get a faculty position. The current situation is notoriously difficult, with lots of unemployed, top flight, PhDs out there. I am thankful every day to have a job.

I spent a year substitute teaching in Florida to make end's meet, living at home. In the Spring of 1997, Kerry Kind also asked if I would be willing to spend a few months in Sierra Leone teaching at the Bible College just outside of Freetown. The country was in a lull in its civil war, and he wanted the Wesleyans there to know that they were not forgotten. I was single and expendable. :-) It was a great experience that I treasure, although for me it was not without its fears.

Freetown was overtaken less than two months after I left.

On the way back, Bud Bence arranged to have me come through Indiana to have a preliminary meeting about a possible teaching position at IWU. Very ironic, the thought of returning to the state of my birth. We met at a Steak n Shake in Elwood, now gone.

I think he saw it as taking a chance, to consider me. He felt like he had been burned with a Dunn graduate at Houghton who was at the center of a controversy on a particular issue. Bence was also looking for "thoroughbreds," people who could teach a wide range of courses. He had me pegged as a stereotypical academic who goes deep but not wide.

Ironically, I wasn't hired for that NT position. But they needed someone to teach philosophy for a year because Duane Thompson was retiring. There was no promise of a second. But one led to two, then the person they hired in NT left and I slid into her role. I'm now in my 18th year.

Indiana Wesleyan University
I have been at IWU since the Fall of 1997. I met my wife my first year there. I've raised my children here. I am, as I said, immensely thankful to have a job. IWU has truly been a family. I have felt valued. I have been able to teach subjects and write things I probably wouldn't have been able to teach or write elsewhere. IWU and Fulbright afforded me two more trips to Germany (2004, 2011), the first back to Tübingen and the second to Munich.

I've had a lot of good experiences while at IWU too. I adjuncted several years for Notre Dame, which was a great change of pace. My first few years at IWU, my family was able to go back to Europe for various conferences. At one in St. Andrews, Carey Newman took a chance on me and got Westminster John Knox to publish my first book, Understanding the Book of Hebrews. That was the break I needed to start writing.

In 2009, I felt called to be part of the seminary cadre to form the first ever seminary belonging to the Wesleyan Church. I have learned more about leadership, management, and organization in these last five years than all the rest of my life. In August we had a snapshot with 470 students, making us probably the fastest growing seminary in the world, under the leadership of Wayne Schmidt.

Who knows what comes next... For now, here endeth my family story.

Earlier posts:

1. The Revivalin' Twenties
In the Year 1920 (Dorsey Schenck, also see here)
From Quaker to Pilgrim (Harry Shepherd in 20s)
The Great Generation (my parents)

2. The Depression Thirties
Dutch Reformed Past (Samuel Schenck)
North Carolina Flashback (Eli Shepherd, also supplement)
Wanting to be Rich (Oscar Rich)

3. Passing Generations
Old German Baptist Heritage 1 (Amsy Miller, with clarifications here)
Old German Baptist Heritage 2 (Salome Wise)
The Dorsey Stream (Pearl Dorsey)

4. A New Family
Joining Two Streams (my parents)
A Young Family

5. The Closing Sixties
Prophet, Pastor, and Professor (Harry Shepherd)
The Wright Stuff (Seba Wright)
Flashback to Jamestown (Champion Shelburn)

6. Tales of My Life
Memories of Childhood
Notes for my Children