Friday, October 31, 2014

Quick Thoughts on Reformation

Happy Reformation Day!  On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed 95 debate points on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, and the rest is history.

Wittenberg Door, October 2011
However, it would not befit the spirit of the Reformation if we took the developments of Luther and Calvin as some new kind of magisterium. As I am a Protestant, I believe that God used Luther and the Reformation to redirect Christian history in a more healthy direction.

But one of the reasons I value coming from the Wesleyan tradition is because I believe we are more of a "via media" between the Roman Catholic tradition and these "high reformers."

Sola fide, sola gratia
"By faith alone," "by grace alone." The Roman Catholic Church has now more or less conceded that Luther was more correct on these issues than they were.

At the same time, I would argue that the Wesleyan tradition is more biblical than the Lutheran or Calvinist traditions in the way they take these slogans. For example, a Calvinist might criticize the Arminian tradition as teaching that works are a part of justification. The reason is that Wesleyan-Arminians rightly interpret the New Testament to teach that a justified person can end up not being saved because of faithlessness.

But I am not a Lutheran or a Calvinist and, in the spirit of the Reformation, I am free to point out that Paul really doesn't care what Luther or Calvin thought on this one. "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).

In its Greco-Roman context of patronage, grace usually came with certain informal expectations. A person couldn't spit in the patron's face and expect to continue to receive grace.

Solus Christus
"By Christ alone." No criticism here of the Reformation. We come to God only by means of Christ. There are of course debates and nuances. I would argue that this is a matter of God's free choice rather than him being forced in some way to reconcile the world through Christ, even if it makes sense. Similarly, we can debate how much we need to know about Christ in order to be justified through him.

Soli Deo Gloria
This was a later add on. I agree that all glory ultimately goes to God for everything, and the glory of everything else is in some way derivative. However, if this slogan is used to say that God has not given glory to his creation as well, I turn to Psalm 8. In the end, I am a Wesleyan, I am not bound by the slogans of Calvinists.

Sola scriptura
This was a premodern slogan, meaning that it comes from a time when the meaning the Bible was thought to have was in large part a projection of the person reading it. So this slogan, functionally, meant that we will only rely on the Bible for what we believe and do, with the understanding that I am smuggling in a boat load of what I think the Bible means from my own Christian tradition.

Those who were more consistent became heretics. So the Socinians of the 1500s, recognizing that the Trinity was not explicitly spelled out, did away with it in the name of the Reformation getting back to the Bible alone. Protestant Liberals followed this principle until the distinctness of each biblical text caused the Bible to fall apart as dozens of unrelated books.

Rather, because the books of the Bible were not originally one text, we must have (as we see in math with Godel's incompleteness theorem) an outside scaffolding or metanarrative to come alongside the books of the Bible so that we can have a coherent "biblical worldview." Our theology provides this scaffolding, whether we realize it or not.

In short, history has proved Erasmus to be the winner on this one. "Prima scriptura," "Scripture first," is not only a more Wesleyan perspective, but an actually coherent one.

So there you have it, some Wesleyan push-back on Luther for Reformation Day.

Novel Excerpt 3: Superheroes

I'm making myself finish a novel on Fridays.

Excerpt from chapter 1
Excerpt from chapter 2
Like I said, I grew up dreaming about superheroes. Several novels fell into that category. "The Year of Jubilee" was about two kids that became superheroes.

I used to tell my younger cousins stories at our family reunions that seemed to keep them riveted. One that went on and one was "The Vigilante." It was basically Batman meets Star Wars. The older I got, the stupider the story got to me, but it seemed to hit the spot with six and seven year olds. If I had only written down each episode before even my delayed adulthood began to arrive. It doesn't matter if a story is good if there's someone who likes it.

Probably the funniest--unintentionally--was one I called, "The Birth of a God." A guy wakes up naked in a field in England with superpowers. He can't remember how he got there or who he is. So he wanders to a nearby village and starts knocking on doors, naked and all.

I shared that one with a pretty girl on a first date and never got to a second.

Speaking of dates, I spent about an hour making cappuccinos before the manager finally asked if I had texted April yet. Mrs. Thomas was a hoot to work for, an African-American woman in her forties, I would guess. She had a snappy, almost sarcastic way about her, but it didn't mean anything. It was a way of keeping everyone on task, but you couldn't take it personally.

Why hadn't I texted April yet? I'd said I would.

"What time do you think I could leave," I asked Mrs. Thomas.

"You can leave now for all I care," she quickly replied with a typical look. "I don't know what I'm paying you for because you sure don't do anything around here."

I smiled. If a typical boss said something like that to me, I'd be worried. But it was just a game with her. In a lull, I looked up movies and times and finally hit on one that seemed acceptable. I obviously didn't want some soppy love story. You wouldn't want too much gore. Really a comedy would be ideal, but it would have to be something she found funny, not me.

Now what was her sense of humor? I don't actually remember her having much of a sense of humor. What would a sarcastic nurse find funny? ...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Wesley's "Means of Grace" 3

Paraphrasing Wesley's sermon, "Means of Grace" in contemporary English.

Part 1
Part 2
6. Experience shows how easily this idea spreads and insinuates itself into the minds of people. And it happens especially to those who have been awakened from the sleep of death, those who begin to feel the weight of their sins a burden too heavy to bear. Such individuals are usually impatient about their current state and are trying to find a way to escape it. They are eager to catch any new idea, any new proposal for ease or happiness. They probably have already tried these sorts of outward means and found no relief in them. Indeed, they may have experienced as a result more and more remorse, fear, sorrow, and condemnation.

Therefore, it is easy to persuade them that it is better to abstain from all these means. They are already tired of working hard, seemingly in vain. They are tired of working in the fire. They are therefore eager for any excuse to through them aside, actions in which they are finding no pleasure. They want to get up their painful striving and to sink down into lazy inactivity.

II1. In the following discussion, I want to examine in general whether there actually are any "means of grace."

By "means of grace," I mean outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this purpose, to be the normal ways that God uses to convey grace to us--grace that leads us to him (prevenient grace), grace that makes us right with him (justifying grace), and grace that actually makes us righteous (sanctifying grace)...

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wesley: "Means of Grace" 2

Paraphrasing Wesley's sermon, "Means of Grace" in contemporary English.

Part 1

Now Part 2

5. At the same time, in their zeal for the glory of God, in their attempt to recover souls from the fatal delusion that ritual acts are effective in themselves, isn't it strange that some of these individuals would speak as if "outward religion"--things like prayers, reading Scriptures, and communion--is completely meaningless and has no place in following Christ? Certainly it was because they were strongly convinced that the abuse of these "ordinances," these God-ordained activities, had spread across the whole church and almost driven true religion out of the world. It isn't surprising at all that they have not always been careful enough as they have expressed themselves. If you weren't careful, someone listening might think they were saying that all outward actions were completely useless and not actually designed by God to be the normal way God conveys his grace to our souls.

Indeed, it is possible that some of these holy voices did themselves fall extensively into this position. I'm thinking especially here of those who were cut off from these ordinances, not by choice, but in God's providence. Some  were forced to wander the earth with no place to live, even living in the caves and crannies of the earth. Since they were able to experience the grace of God directly, because they were deprived of these outward means in the Church, some might easily have jumped to the conclusion that grace would still be given to those who intentionally stay away from them...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wesley - "The Means of Grace" 1

Yesterday I started paraphrasing one of John Wesley's sermons, "On a Catholic Spirit." However, I found that someone else has already done a fine job of that here. There are a few other Wesley resources there in modern English.

A man named Teddy Ray has also done three of Wesley's sermons in contemporary English ("Salvation by Faith," "The Almost Christian," and "Awake, Thou That Sleepest"). Ken Kinghorn has published all of them in modern English in three volumes.

Rather unmotivating, but I'm willing to give a new sermon a try, one that isn't represented above on the web (Kinghorn's is only in book form). I thought I'd start over with one that Wesley Seminary MDIV students read in their first semester spiritual formation course, "The Means of Grace."
Scripture: Malachi 3:7
"You have gone away from my decrees and have not kept them."

I. 1. Are any decrees from God now, since the gospel brought life and immortality to light? Under the Christian dispensation, are there any usual channels, any means of grace that are ordained by God now?

This question would never have been asked in the early church by the apostles, except by some pagan who came to Christ out of the blue with no knowledge. On the contrary, the whole body of Christians were agreed that God had instituted certain outward means, certain paths by which he conveyed his grace into the souls of humanity. [1] The early church's constant practice of these sorts of actions makes this claim beyond dispute for as long as "all believed and had all things in common" (Acts 2:44). And, "They continued firmly in the teaching of the apostles, in breaking bread together, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42).

2. But in time, when "the love of many waxed cold" (Matt. 24:12), some began to mistake the means of grace for an end in itself. [2] They began to think that faith and religion [3] was about those outward actions themselves rather than having a heart that is renewed to be like God, for the image of God in us to be renewed. [4] They forgot that the goal of every commandment of God is "love, from a pure heart" with a "faith that isn't faked" (1 Tim. 1:5). The goal is for us to love God with all our heart and our neighbor like ourselves. It is to be purified from pride, anger, and evil desire by "faith in the working of God" (Col. 2:12).

Nevertheless, some seemed to think that there was something about these outward actions in themselves that would make them pleasing and acceptable to God, even though the heart of faith does not lie in these outward means, even though they did not show the same concern for the more important commands of God--justice, mercy, and the love of God.

3. In this case, it is clear that individuals who abused these means of God's grace were not using them in the way that God intended them to be used, for the reasons God instituted them. Rather, that which was meant to make them whole actually became a cause of failure. They were so far from receiving any blessing from them. Rather, they were bringing down a curse on their heads. So far from growing "more heavenly," more like God in their hearts and the way they lived--the purpose of these outward actions--they became "twice as much a child of hell" as before (Matt. 23:15).

Then as an over-reaction, when others saw that these actions did not change these children of the Devil, they began to say that these actions were not tools for facilitating God's work in us at all, that they were not means of grace at all.

4. In most of Christian history, the number of those who abused these channels of God's transforming power was far greater than those who ended up despising them. Yet in recent history, certain individuals have arisen who would also throw them away who have made this way of thinking into a more significant movement. [5] Here I have in mind individuals of great understanding, sometimes with considerable learning, people who seem to be people of love. These are people who in practice are well acquainted with true, inward religion. Some of them have been shining lights, people who were famous in their time, people who have stood in the gap against the tide of ungodliness, the kind of people that the church of Christ needs.

At first, these holy and noble individuals did not intend to do anything more than to show that outward religion is worthless unless it also involves a religion of the heart, because "God is a Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). Therefore, external worship is worthless unless it is accompanied by a heart devoted to God. But if it is accompanied by this heart, then these outward actions God has put in place bring a great benefit. Then they advance us in holiness (being pure in our hearts).

But when these actions do not advance inward holiness, they are useless and pointless. They are less than pointless. Indeed, when they have nothing to do with our hearts, they are a complete abomination to the Lord....

[1] It might be helpful to get on the table right off the bat what Wesley is talking about here. He is talking about actions like prayer, searching the Scriptures, communion. As "means of grace," Wesley believed that God especially transformed people as they prayed, read the Bible, and partook of the Lord's Supper. As will be clear, he did not think this happened automatically, but he would have said people were transformed more often when doing these things than when doing other things.

[2] Here Wesley might have had in mind both the Roman Catholic Church of his day as well as, no doubt, many in his own church, the Church of England or Anglican Church. Wesley of course lived in the 1700s.

[3] The word religion has taken on a negative connotation today, so I have added the word faith here. It is important to realize that this condemnation of the word "religion" is just a recent fad of language in certain Christian circles. To critique Wesley for using the word religion is only to be ignorant of how the connotations and meanings of words change over time.

[4] The image of God in us for Wesley especially refers to the part of us that, when God restores us, is like God, especially when it comes to goodness (the moral image of God in us).

[5] I have considerably expanded this sentence to give context. Wesley is thinking here of the Anabaptist movement of the 1500s, 1600s, which continued in his day and has persisted to the present. They would reject "means of grace" altogether as a concept.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Wesley's Sermons: "On a Catholic Spirit"

In the Spring, many at IWU are going to be reading some of Ken Collins and Jason Vickers' mammoth new Wesley collection, Wesley's sermons arranged systematically. Since I'll be reading through the sermons anyway (right now we're reading Steve Harper's The Way to Heaven in preparation), I thought I might poke a little at a project I've suggested someone do--paraphrasing key sermons of Wesley in contemporary English.

So why not? I thought I'd start today with sermon #34 (in the collection of 44 sermons) or #39 (in the collection of 53): "On a Catholic Spirit."
On a Catholic Spirit [1]

Scripture: 2 Kings 10:15
"And when Jehu departed from there, he met up with Jehonadab, the son of Rechab, who was coming to meet him. 

"And Jehu greeted him and said, 'Is your heart with me, as my heart is with you?' 

"And Jehonadab answered, 'It is.' 

"'If it is,' Jehu answered, 'then give me your hand.'"

1. "You will love your neighbor as yourself." Even those who don't love as they should, agree that they owe love to all humanity. This is the royal law. When you hear the command, you know it's right.

The command does not mean what some of those in Jesus' day took it to mean--love your relative, your friend, your associate, "but hate your enemy." Not so, Jesus said. Rather, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you." Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who use you in spite, who persecute you. If you do these things, you will be children of your Father in heaven, who gives sun not only to the righteous but to the evil as well. He does the same with the rain. (Matt. 5:43-45). If you do these things, all humanity will see it.

2. To be sure, there is a special love we owe to those who love God. David wrote, "All my delight is on the saints who are on the earth on those who excel at virtue" (Ps. 16:3). [2] And of course Jesus is greater than David, and he says, "I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must love one another." (John 13:34-35).

The Apostle John frequently and strongly insists on this love.  He says, "This is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." (1 John 3:11) "By this we perceive the love of God: because he laid down his life for us." So we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters, if love should call us to do so. (3:16)

Again John says, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God." The one who doesn't love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8) "Not that we have loved God, but that God has loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (4:10-11)

3. Everyone agrees with these ideas. But does everyone practice it? Our daily experience shows the opposite. Where are there even Christians who love each other as he has given the commandment?

How many obstacles stand in the way? The two biggest hindrances are 1) Christians do not agree on everything and, consequently, 2) we do not have the same lifestyle. Indeed, their way of living in small matters differs in proportion to how different their beliefs are.

4. So Christians will differ in their opinions or in the way they worship. These may prevent us from uniting as organizations. But does it need to prevent us from loving each other? Although we do not think the same way, can we not love the same way? Isn't it possible for us to be of one heart, even though we aren't of one opinion?

Without a doubt, we can! In this way, all the children of God can unite, despite our smaller differences. Even though these other differences remain, we can advance each other forward in love and good works.

5. So we see in the example of Jehu in the Scripture, even though he was a mixed sort of character. His sentiment is worth the attention and imitation of every Christian. "And when Jehu departed from there, he met up with Jehonadab, the son of Rechab, who was coming to meet him. And Jehu greeted him and said, 'Is your heart with me, as my heart is with you?' And Jehonadab answered, 'It is.' 'If it is,' Jehu answered, 'then give me your hand.'"

This Scripture naturally divides into two parts. First there is a question from Jehu to Jehonadab. "Is your heart with me, as my heart is with you?" Then there is the offer, after Jehonadab responds, "It is." "If it is, then give me your hand."


[1] I have kept the word catholic in the title because it is a good word to learn in the sense that Wesley used it. Catholic here does not mean "Roman Catholic" because, of course, Wesley was not a Roman Catholic nor was he particularly friendly in some of his writings toward the Roman Catholic Church.

The word "catholic" here has its older sense of the church everywhere in all times and places. It is the universal Church. To have a "catholic" spirit in this sense is to sense your unity with Christians who belong to Christian groups other than your own. The sermon will make this sense clear.

[2] As we would expect of a man from the eighteenth century, Wesley was a pre-modern in his use of Scripture. He read its words in the light of the way words were read in his day and, of course, assuming traditional authorship. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

C4. In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and creation

This is now the fourth post in a series on Christology, in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation.
In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and creation.

1. So the first office of Christ that we considered was that of prophet. Now we consider his office as priest. [1]

We might argue that Jesus was priest before his death, but clearly the focal work of Jesus as priest took place on the day that he died on the cross. It was on this day that he accomplished atonement, which is to make up for some wrong done by way of an offering. Atonement has to do with making amends and thus with reconciliation between a human and God.

The means of atonement is some sort of offering or sacrifice to God. The background here are the countless animal sacrifices that were made in the ancient world to appease the gods, to make them happy and to diminish their anger. In the Old Testament, the book of Leviticus gives instructions to the priests of Israel on how to make sacrifices to God, some of which were done to give him thanks and praise rather than to appease his wrath.

2 The New Testament book of Hebrews suggests that these sacrifices were never intended to actually work (Heb. 10:1-4). Hebrews indicates that the sacrifices of Leviticus were foreshadowings of the one effectual sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

This is a significant point because there is a tendency to overplay Hebrews 9:22, which says that there can be no forgiveness for sins without blood. Yet Hebrews clearly indicates that none of the blood of the Old Testament Law actually did take away sin. And the one blood sacrifice that did take away sin--that of Jesus--ended the need for any further blood sacrifice: "By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy" (Heb. 10:14).

In other words, there has only been one effectual blood sacrifice in all of human history, and its consequence was to end the need for any blood sacrifice.

There are two basic ways to take this startling claim, that none of the Old Testament sacrifices actually did anything. The first is the traditional way, namely, that all those millions of animal sacrifices in the ancient world were elementary school lessons God instituted to get humanity ready to understand the death of Jesus. The problem here, of course, is that none of the people offering them actually got the point until the first century AD. In this case, the object lesson of a million sacrifices basically went to naught.

The other interpretation seems more likely. It might not deny that God fully allowed, perhaps even directed the origins of animal sacrifice. It is easy enough to argue that animal sacrifice corresponded to a deeply felt need on the part of humanity to be reconciled to God, not to mention some primal sense that such reconciliation merited sacrifices of immense proportions. Certainly God allowed the practice to arise, whether he planted the idea or not.

The question is how important this practice was to God. Was this practice essential for God or useful to God.

In the Old Testament, God used the prevalent practice of animal sacrifice to set Israel on a course toward Christ. But, of course, sacrifices had been around for thousands and thousands of years before Israel. The first approach places a strong emphasis on the need for sacrifice (even though they were completely ineffectual, according to Hebrews). The second suggests more that God used a practice that pointed toward certain truths rather than it being necessary or essential.

We may see this dynamic of "using" common religious practices in the sanctuaries of Israel. The sanctuary of Israel was not unlike the sanctuaries of other ancients. Again, it is easy enough to see how the notion of holiness would arise naturally as humanity contemplated proximity to God. It makes perfect sense that, as you came in closer and closer proximity to a god, the space would become more and more sanctified (made holy), to where only certain people would be allowed in closest proximity.

But in the second perspective, which I hold, God uses these notions in order to do away with them. "The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands" (Acts 7:48). God allows practices to arise that embody the fundamental human need for God. He uses them until Christ comes to provide true reconciliation. Then those practices of sacrifice in sanctuary by priest are no longer needed. The reality those practices embodied and foreshadowed is accomplished.

3. This is the argument of Hebrews. Christian tradition had considered Christ's death as a sacrifice from the very beginning. Indeed, it is quite possible that Jesus himself suggested this metaphor even before his death, at the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:19-20).

When Romans 8:34 says that Christ sits at God's right hand interceding for us, it likely refers to Jesus serving as a priest for us, although Paul does not use the word priest here. But some Christian has clearly extended Christ's role beyond that of being the sacrifice to being a priest as well.

This trajectory becomes full blown in the New Testament sermon we call Hebrews. Hebrews not only considers Jesus the sacrifice. It not only considers Jesus a priest. It considers Jesus the priest who offers himself as a sacrifice. Several images of sacrificial atonement from the Old Testament are brought together to see Christ as the priest to end all priests.

The most powerful of these images is Christ as the high priest, like the earthly high priests of Leviticus who went into the Most Holy Place in the earthly sanctuary one day a year on the Day of Atonement (cf. Lev. 16). Christ is now the true priest who is the reality to which all other human priests have ever pointed. He is a "priest after the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 7), an order of priests superior to the Levitical priests.

His death is the true, effective sacrifice, in contrast to all other sacrifices in history (cf. Heb. 10:1-4). He enters heaven itself (Heb. 9:24), the true sanctuary (Heb. 8:1-2), rather than some earthly shadow or sketch (cf. Heb. 8:5).

4. Therefore, when we say that Christ holds the office of priest, we are saying that he is the one mediator between God and humanity (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

We will discuss the atonement of Christ in more detail in a later article. For now we want to point out that Christ is the one who offered himself as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the definitive means of reconciliation between God and the creation. "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Again, we will explore the nature of salvation more extensively in later articles.

No human priest is therefore necessary, although God does have ministers of reconciliation such as Paul was (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18). No human priest or pastor is necessary, but they may very well be helpful and useful. Indeed, God has appointed his Church to be a "kingdom of priests" for the world (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Exod. 19:6).

Meanwhile, Christ sits at the right hand of God as intercessor for us (Rom. 8:34). We probably should understand the focus here to be intercession for our atonement rather than the more general intercession that the Holy Spirit does for us (cf. Rom. 8:26). Hebrews 4:14-16 captures this role of intercession for our forgiveness well:

"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and the creation, the only effective mediator between humanity and God.

Next week: C5. In his resurrection, Jesus became the king of all humanity and creation.

[1] These offices, in my opinion, all relate to things that Jesus did and events in Jesus' mission. We most literally understand these offices as metaphors for his work, rather than his work being a function of his offices. The offices are abstractions of the events in Christ's life and mission. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Couple Divergent Thoughts

1. Some of my family watched Divergent this afternoon again on DVD. It's an interesting concept, dividing society into factions like the brave, the smart, the selfless, and the candid. It's a little like the four cardinal virtues of the ancient Mediterranean--courage, wisdom, self-control, and justice, although candor seems the weakest of the choices.

In this post-apocalyptic Chicago, you cannot change factions once you have chosen in late adolescence. It's reminiscent of the caste system in India (priests, warriors, farmers, servants, and untouchables) although there you were stuck from birth. It also reminds of Plato's Republic, where there are the philosophers (the head), the warriors (the chest), and the workers (the abdomen).

Of course it's a ridiculous system, but we are but dust. Anyone who thinks the human race has outgrown the most ridiculous of worldviews or that the West is somehow above all that is horrendously self-deceived. The average human being here is just as unreflective and capable of atrocity as the average human being anywhere else.

But what I find particularly fascinating about the first Divergent movie is the tension between the faction called "Abnegation" and the one called "Erudite." (BTW, I can't stand the way they pronounce the word in the movie. I know it's one way to pronounce it but, please, just say "air-oo-dite"--THERE'S NO Y IN THE WORD!!! It's like it cancels out what the faction is supposed to be... SMART!)

2. After Chicago emerges from its apocalypse and the faction system is created, Abnegation (those who are selfless and put themselves above others) are put in control. Why? Because it is against their own principles to do things in their own self-interest over others. They are, as it were, the Christian or Buddhist faction.

This actually is a profound idea. It reminds me of one of my favorite stories from Roman history. Cincinnatus in the early Roman republic is a hero of mine and many. The Romans called on him from his small farm to lead an army as dictator twice. The first time he had subdued the enemy in two weeks and surrendered his power the day the conflict was over. The second time he was raised to quell a rebellion and, again, immediately surrendered his power when the rebellion was defeated.

So the idea that those who don't want control or power would be those who had to rule is an idea full of wisdom.

3. Enter Erudite, the bookish, smart ones. In the movie, they plot to take over the city and to put all of Abnegation to death. They especially want to destroy those who are "divergent," individuals who are gifted in multiple ways and don't fit neatly into any one faction.

Several things are fascinating about Erudite here. First, being smart doesn't mean a person is right. Get ten "smart" people in a room from different tribes and you will often find ten different ideas. No one is objective and perhaps Socrates is still right that the person who knows how much he or she doesn't know is the wisest person in the room. No one is completely objective.

But many smart people are convinced that they know the right way to go or the right thing to do. In this case, the erudite are utilitarian. They believe that killing the enemies of the system will save society long term. So kill a thousand to save ten thousand.

Of course they are wrong in this movie.

A good leader makes decisions but wants to hear multiple perspectives before making it. And a good leader will make that decision not for selfish benefit but for the benefit of the mission, with a view to the team.

Can we change the American mindset?

1. It occurs to me that there is something I despise as a Christian about "both sides" of the political scene in America. I questioned whether to put "despise" because should Christians despise things that are so closely associated with people that it is hard to disentangle the two? "Hate the sin, love the sinner"?

Perhaps if I were a more Christ-like person, I would be able not to despise the attitude I have in mind. I am committed not to act unlovingly toward anyone in the process.

The cardinal sin is not pride. It comes maybe third on the list. No, if love is the supreme command, the mother of all absolutes, then hatred is the cardinal sin. And coming in a close second, selfishness.

Selfishness is a cardinal sin because it stands directly opposed to the love of God and the love of neighbor. When I am selfish, I do not love others. When I am selfish, I do not give God his due.

2. America is grotesquely selfish. Our first preoccupation above all is selfish pleasure. This is understandable because we are, after all, animals.

In the political scene, "both sides" in their most public forms, it seems to me, are bent on pushing different forms of societal selfishness.

On the left, selfishness manifests itself in the form of "rights" language. I have a right to be provided this or that. On the right, it shows itself in language about "freedom." So the one side says, "I have a right for you to give me whatever I want you to give me." The other side says, "Forget you, I have a right to do whatever I want with my stuff."

Both sides are wrong insofar as they are selfish. Those who want to provide for others are of course the more Christ-like, but be aware that the "founding fathers" were simply children of the Enlightenment with their rights language. Philosophy has moved on. Forgive me for believing that half of the US has an entitlement mentality--as if any of us truly deserve anything.

We give to others not because anyone deserves it but because we need to give.

Meanwhile, many have have developed a "You made your own bed, now lie on it" mentality. This is my stuff. I can do whatever I want. From a Christian standpoint, that's hogwash too. Nothing belongs to us. Everything belongs to God.

Remember that a "law and order" mentality, one that is oriented around rules, is an inferior stage of moral development (one that half of "Christian" America is stuck in).
Taken from

3. Here's how societies really work. We live together on the basis of a contract. If we think we are just individual people living next to each other who have no obligations to each other, we are mistaken. That is the recipe for anarchy. Go live on an island somewhere.

We live here together with some ground rules we've agreed on. I won't kill you if you won't kill me. From a Christian standpoint, of course, I won't kill you out of my commitment to God. For the same reason, I must help you if I can when you are in need. Ideally, the fundamental value of love becomes a fundamental principle of living for us.

From an atheist standpoint, I can't kill you because it's in the social contract. I agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me, and the government is here to make sure we both play by the rules.

4. I abhor selfishness, the "live for me" attitude. Both political parties reek of it. I have a right to... (guns, a bathroom that fits my identity, not paying taxes, someone else to pay my bills).

If a shift really does come to where it is to a personal disadvantage to be a Christian, we will find that all the self-centered "Christians" will leave the faith. We'll find out that there really weren't as many true Christians in the US as we thought.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Privatized versus Government Run

I see that the city of Anderson is dropping the private company they hired to do their busing. I also remembered that the company Mitch Daniels contracted with to run the northern Indiana tolls is going bankrupt.

Here was my thought. There are certain things that are very suited to privatization. These are things that involve competition. To speak in terms of ethical theory, these are utilitarian areas where the needs of the many are the name of the game.

But of course, not everything is utilitarian. There are areas where, again, turning to ethical theory, matters are deontological or a matter of duty. These are areas where what we call basic human rights are involved or (as I would rather put it) basic elements of our common social contract are at stake. These are areas like education, police, and some would argue basic health services. These are areas where there are key standards that trump competition.

My thought was, upon reading of the Anderson fiasco, that only utilitarian matters are best suited for privatization. Areas of basic rights are more appropriately administrated by the government, with accountability and transparency, of course.

A thought for a Friday afternoon...

Friday Novel (excerpt, chap 2)

As a discipline, a novel exerpt from this past week (meaning, last night ;-)

Excerpt from chapter 1
"We've got to do something," John said to Brad. "He's headed straight for Sarah."

Sarah was right behind a corner pillar, where the fourth floor walkway turned to the right, around the large open space in the center of the library. The young man with the gun was headed toward her.

"Yeah but he's coming right toward us too," Brad said. "We've got to get out of here." And with that Brad took off down the hall the opposite direction.

But John stayed. He was only going to get one chance at the guy with the gun, who would pass him as he headed toward Sarah.
Just as the young man passed by, John launched himself straight toward the gunman. A little startled, the man turned as fast as he could toward John with his gun. But John was already on him. He rammed into the man and, together, they both tumbled over the walkway wall and down four floors to the bottom of the library.

Sarah rushed as quickly as she could down the stairs to the bottom floor, where both John and the gunman lay on the floor. John had apparently landed on the other guy, who seemed to be dead. John was also hurt very badly, and Sarah rushed over to him.

"Why in the world would you do that?" she asked him, completely puzzled.

"You didn't deserve," he managed to get out.

"Deserve what?"

"T' die," he finished.

"But neither did you," she exclaimed in desperation. But he was now unconscious, or worse. She vainly looked around for someone to help. People were slowly emerging from hiding, surveying those who had not been so lucky. Looking down over the second floor railing, she spied Brad.

Suddenly she felt really foolish. She had invested so much time in Brad. He had seemed so strong, so much the man. But where had Brad been when she was in trouble? It was John, the one she hardly noticed, hardly thought about, who had come to her rescue...
That was the first novel. Well, it was really a short story I wrote for a class in high school. It's also the only story I ever finished...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Secular Pre-Modernism

1. If you know how I think, I use the model of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern as a framework for how people process reality. Here's the decoder ring for the way I use these terms:
  • pre-modern - "first naivete"; this is when any of us--and let me stress that we all do this, no matter how educated or reflective a person becomes--when any of us project meaning onto the world or onto a text without knowing we are doing it. We are unreflective about our knowing of the world. We make assumptions of which we are not aware. We don't recognize the glasses we are wearing. We don't realize the element of subjectivity we are bringing. We see things that aren't there--they're in us.
  • modern - the modern turn is when we become reflective about the matter we were previously unreflective. So I used to read Matthew 5:45 to say that God allows bad things (rain) to happen to good people. Then suddenly (embarrassingly after I had a PhD in NT in hand) I realized that rain was overwhelmingly good in an agricultural world like Palestine that sometimes had drought! I became reflective ("modern") after not even knowing I had been unreflective ("pre-modern").
  • post-modern - "second naivete"; as I speak of postmodernism, it can involve a reflective return to some of the pre-modern interpretations I had before I was reflective on some issue. I recognize that I can still read Jeremiah 29:11 about me even though that's not what it meant originally. But now I do this knowingly rather than in ignorance.
That's all set up.

I'm sorry that I so often point out areas of unreflective thought among Christians. I just hate making God look stupid. And anyone who knows me knows that I hate this most about myself, when I make God look stupid.

2. But today I want to rag on the secular world, because being pre-modern is not a Christian thing. It's a people thing. We are all, by default, unreflective about the opinions we hold. Most of us do not, by nature, try to look at things from other points of view. We are a herd animal, whose nature is to exclude those who aren't in our group and assume the values and perspectives of our herd, whatever it may be.

For example, I know there are plenty of atheists with a strong sense of morality. Some of them are reflective about this--they might attribute it to evolution (it helps the species survive) or to a choice (an existentialist decision) or to sentiment (I can't tell you why but it feels good).

But even more non-theists are completely pre-modern about their morality. So what is the basis for an atheist to argue against genocide? I'm not sure there is any other than it violates our gut feeling as a post-Christian culture. As MacIntyre would say, we have the fragments of an earlier morality with no justification for them.

And what of rights? What is the basis for believing in human rights from a reflective standpoint? Why should we stand up for the weak or the excluded? Because they have rights? Who said? Where is this imaginary force field that keeps us from oppression? Evolutionary success? Sentiment? A social contract?

Again, there are vast aspects to secular society that have no real basis in the world itself. They are more the pre-modern fumes of a previously Judeo-Christian culture. As Nietzsche would say, as long as the supermen can continue to convince these pre-moderns that these things are real, we'll be okay. but the madman warns of holocaust.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sermon Starters: "True Significance"

I'm writing six sermon starters to make a sermon series based on the Sermon on the Mount. The first two are:

Week 1: "The Winner Isn't Who You Think" (Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12)
Week 2: "Love the Whole Way" (Matt. 5:43-48)
Week 3: "Who Is Your Audience" (Matt. 6:5-14)

And now a sermon for Week 4: "True Significance"

I would start with some story where something is taken to be significant that really isn't. For example, children might fight over something the parent knows is trivial. There's an old Looney Tunes cartoon where Sylvester the Cat is stuck in the house while the family goes on vacation. There are cans of food everywhere but the mouse of the house has the can opener, which becomes the one really significant thing in the house.

There's a scene in the movie Titanic where a wealthy man is trying to bribe one of the stewards with a wad of money, but the steward knows he is going to die. The money means absolutely nothing.

Matthew 6:19-34 is about what is truly significant. It is not what you see around you, the treasures of earth. And the things that should worry you are not matters of your body. The things of greatest significance are heavenly things.

For background, see the devotionals for Week 4 in The Wisdom of Jesus (pp. 60-76, "Trusting the Master") and the material in Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels (pp. 67-71).

1. Status Non-Symbols
If you read what Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-24, what is insignificant? Money and possessions. Like so much of Jesus' teaching, he turns our worldly common sense upside down. Our first instinct is to treat those with lots of wealth as special. We have a tendency to envy the person with the car, the nice house, the nice clothes, the nice shoes.

There are similar distractions we might mention like fame or status. We prize the football star, the movie star, the famous politician. In the church we might prize the large church pastor, the church leader, maybe even a college professor. But status means nothing in the kingdom of God. The least in this world is great in the kingdom of God.

What does your eye look for? What lights up your insides? Is it the new car? Is it the promotion? In the light of eternity, these are completely trivial things. Any number of stories and illustrations could be made, from high school status to the lives of the rich and famous in the media.

2. Passing Worries
Jesus moves in Matthew 6:25-34 hits closer to home. We all realize that money means nothing if there is no food to buy. We all realize that you would give anything for a coat if you are freezing to death. If you are in a life boat on the ocean without water, you would give a 100,000 dollar car for a drink of water.

In these verses, though, Jesus says that even needs like food, water, and clothing are things that we should not worry about. They too are passing things in the light of eternity. And, more importantly, they are things we can trust God for.

Christians worry. It is human nature, to be sure, But it is a point of inconsistency. If we really believed, if we really trusted God, we would not worry. We would trust that he is in control.

There's that great quote--"Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to tell the difference." It could be a sermon series in its own right.

I think about the joke about the man hanging from a branch on the side of a cliff. He yells up, "Is anyone up there?" God responds yes. What do you want me to do? "Let go," God says. The man pauses, then finally says, "Is there anyone else up there?"

Give examples of trusting in God for our basic needs.

3. True Significance
Jesus tells us that what is truly significant are the things that last, the eternal, and the things the last are the things associated with God and his kingdom.

It's not that we are not living now. It's not that we are just waiting to die or for Christ to return. There's an interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 3 that I like, even if it may not be correct. In this interpretation, people are not working because they are waiting on Christ's return. Jesus is not telling us to waste our lives while we wait.

We can live for what is eternal now, even while we wait for Christ. What is eternal and heavenly? God and Christ, for one. Being God's servant is more significant than being king of the world. Pick any king the congregation might know--Alexander, Caesar, Xerxes. The servant of God will live forever. They are nothing.

People are eternal. We all have an eternal destiny. An investment in a person can yield an eternal result. That's an infinite return on your investment. Better than any financial deal you might give as an example.

Truth is eternal. People forget knowledge, but that which is true is not passing. Jesus is the truth.

Are you living for what is truly significant? If you were to add up your values and the things you are living for, what is your net worth? It's not how many stocks you have or how much you have invested. How much do you have invested in God and Christ? How much do you have invested in your family and others? Are you laying up treasures in heaven or treasures on earth? Are you worrying about the kingdom or the earth?

You might close with either a positive or negative example of either investing in heavenly things or investing in passing things.      

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What is Wesleyan-Arminian theology?

I took another shot at this one today. Here's what I wrote? Any suggestions?
It is, first of all, a perspective with a history. John Wesley (1703-91) was an Anglican minister in England who started a revival that eventually lead to the Methodist churches of America. He had no intention of starting a new church, which is reflected in the fact that his thinking drew from the best of the Anglicans, the Calvinists, and the Lutherans of his day. He was thus eclectic in his thinking.

After the New Testament was written two thousand years ago, everyone was Catholic for the next 1400 hundred years until about the year 1500. Sure, there was a split between the Eastern part of Christianity (the Orthodox side) and the Western part (Roman Catholicism) in the year 1054. But both sides still considered themselves Catholic or part of the “universal” Church until the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s.

In the 1500s, a man named Martin Luther set in motion a protest that would fragment Christianity. The Lutheran Church came from his protests. The Church of England or Anglican Church would also withdraw from the Catholic Church in the early 1500s. John Calvin led the Reformed movement in Switzerland in the same period, which would spread especially to Holland and England.

The Arminian part of the term comes from the fact that some of the Calvinist influence on Wesley came through a Dutch man named Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). We probably should not take much time delving into the history of these people, but we can use history to give somewhat of an “archaeology” of Wesleyan-Arminian thinking and where it came from.

First, as an Anglican, Wesley was not Roman Catholic, but he was also not quite as “Protestant” as the Lutherans and Reformed. The Anglican tradition tried to steer a middle way between the previous excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and those of other Protestants. For Wesley it was important to have a “catholic spirit,” which meant that you did not exclude people from other groups if they shared the same heart with you.

This idea of a catholic spirit reveals the influence of a group called the Pietists on Wesley. The Pietists taught that you could know in your heart for sure that God had forgiven your sins and accepted you. They believed in having personal experiences of God. They believed that your attitude toward God in your heart was far more important than what you believed about him with your head.

But Wesley was also influenced by Luther. In fact, it was just after coming from a Bible study in which they had read some of Luther’s thoughts on Romans that Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed. Wesley drew his ideas on how we get right with God mostly from Luther.

Wesley would describe himself as being a “hair’s breadth from Calvin.” But he filtered Calvin through Arminius. Whereas Calvin believed that God chose who would be in his kingdom, Arminius believed that God gave us the power to choose. Calvin believed that if we were chosen, we would certainly make it. But Wesley took seriously the strong statements in the Bible about the need for us to be faithful to the end if we expect to be in the kingdom of God, like Arminius had.

Wesley also was more optimistic than Calvin about God’s desire to empower us to live righteous lives in this world. This was one area where Calvin was more optimistic than Luther, but Wesley believed God wanted to make us complete in love toward one another. He was thus even more optimistic than Calvin about how righteous God truly wanted to make us in this life.

A final feature of Wesley’s thought that is especially appropriate today is the fact that he did not see salvation as a purely individual matter. He was also concerned for the oppressed life of the coal miner, the child worker, and the slave. He applied the principle of loving one’s neighbor to the very structures of society. It is no surprise that some of his heirs in America would join those in the 1800s who opposed slavery and advocated the value of women in society. Some of them were the first to play out the principle of Acts 2:17 that God calls women to prophesy as well as men.

The Wesleyan movement has continued since Wesley’s day. In America, it especially went through the revivals of the 1800s. The groups that descend from Wesley today are not slaves to his thinking, as if he were somehow inerrant. In general, when we think of the distinctives of Wesleyan-Arminian theology, we should think of items like the following:
  • God’s primary disposition in relation to the world is love, his primary desire for the creation its redemption and thriving.
  • God created the world to have a will of its own, desiring it to choose him rather than be his slave.
  • The standard of good is thus a standard of intention and choice far more than one of specific action or professed belief.
  • God wants to redeem the creation to the fullest, to empower humanity to do good, to empower us to love one another to the fullest, even to change the structures of the world toward justice. He has made this possible through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The eclectic nature of Wesley’s thinking suggests that a person can be Wesleyan in spirit while belonging to other Christian traditions. Wesley himself modeled this fact, since he never stopped being an Anglican minister. The pages that follow give one Wesleyan-Arminian perspective on Christian theology. They do not give the only such perspective.

Nevertheless, they demonstrate the continuity of this tradition with other traditions, the key points where it might differ, as well as the room for variation within the Wesleyan tradition itself. In the end, as Wesley himself said, “If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mind.”

C3. Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

This is now the third post in a series on Christology, in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation.
Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

1. It is characteristic to speak of the person of Christ, and then also of the work of Christ. The previous two articles have presented the person of Christ, namely, the fact that he was fully God and fully human. No view of Christ that does injustice either to his humanity or his divinity is appropriate.

With this article we move toward considering the "work" of Christ as we consider three "offices" or roles that Christ played and plays in relation to the world. The three "offices" of Christ relate to three titles he has. Christ is prophet. He is priest. And he is king. [1] This article discusses Christ as prophet.

On earth, Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God. A prophet is a messenger from God who delivers God's word to his people. It seems likely that the two primary ways in which the people of Judah and Galilee understood Jesus while he was on earth was as a prophet and as the Christ. We will look at Jesus as Christ under the office of king. While some thought of him in this way while he was on earth, it was probably not the primary way.

The primary way in which Jesus was probably understood while he was on earth was as a prophet. So when Jesus raised a young man from the dead at Nain, the immediate reaction of the mother is to say that, "A great prophet has appeared among us," and, "God has come to help his people" (Luke 7:16).

And Jesus did proclaim the coming kingdom of God, a word from God to the people of God. "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'" (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus was a prophet to Israel of the coming kingdom of God.

Of course, a strand of the New Testament also connects Jesus to the "prophet like Moses" in Deuteronomy 18:14-16. In Acts 3, Peter indicates that Jesus was indeed the prophet like Moses to whom God's people should listen. Jesus is not just a prophet. He is the prophet, the one who brings the definitive message from God. As such, we see this role blur into the office of priest (for the definitive message involves final atonement) and the office of king (for Moses had royal overtones).

For the earliest Christians and the New Testament authors, Jesus also fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. One of the most frequently used Scripture in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1, "The LORD says to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" From passages like Acts 2:33-35, we see that the earliest Christians connected this verse to the resurrection, when Jesus is enthroned as king.

The earliest Christians saw in many other passages key truths and events in the life of Jesus. For example, Isaiah 53 gives us a classic text Christians read in relation to the meaning of Jesus' death (e.g., Acts 8:30-35). In our discussion of Jesus as priest, we will consider other ways in which Jesus may fulfill the Old Testament.

2. In the past, some have distinguished between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. The idea here is that the "historical Jesus," Jesus as we would have observed him if we were there on the hills of Galilee, and the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament and the Jesus in which the Church believes, may not have been exactly the same.

A comparison of the Gospels does show that there are questions to be raised about differences between the accounts, as well as the way in which the Gospel writers may have told the story in a way that brought out their special themes and emphases. In that sense, the so called "quest for the historical Jesus" is an understandable quest. Some will see the difference largely as one of perspective. Others will see the difference as much more significant.

3. In our discussion of the incarnation, we might have discussed the humanity of Jesus more extensively. We did discuss the sense that, while he was on earth, Jesus played it by the human rules. That is to say, he chose to do the miraculous and extraordinary things he did through the power of the Holy Spirit rather than by his power as the second person of the Trinity, in order to show what true humanity can do. He did not operate by his intrinsic omniscience or omnipotence while he was on earth, but lived under the power of the Holy Spirit, as we also can.

When we think of Jesus as a prophet, we are also thinking of him serving in a fully human role, a role that other humans have served in the past and that, arguably, in which humans continue to serve today. [2] In this article, we want to pursue just a little further the manner of Jesus' incarnation, the way in which he took on human flesh.

Here let us suggest that Jesus did not assume or take on "generic" humanity but he took on "particular" humanity. That is to say, Jesus did not come to earth as "everyman" but as a specific man. In a profound way, Jesus came to earth as an individual, not as a universal.

It will help to give some specific examples. Jesus did not come as a Roman or an Egyptian. He came as a Jew. Jesus did not come as a male and a female. He came as a male.

Could God have come to earth as a Chinese person? Certainly he could have. It is just that he did not prepare his coming with that culture as the background story. Israel deserves a certain honor as the people through whom he came to earth, but they are not better than any other people for this reason. In fact, you might argue that God chose a small, powerless people in order to show his own greatness (Deut. 7:7).

Similarly, Jesus did not come to earth as a man because men are better than woman. Indeed, I would argue theologically that Jesus could just as well have come to earth as a woman. But, at least from our normal understanding, he had to pick a gender in the incarnation, and given the patriarchal nature of the ancient world, it made most sense in terms of his mission for him to come as a man.

Jesus came as a Galilean, a seemingly odd choice. Galilee was not in any way central to Israel, let alone to the ancient world. Who in the world had even heard of it? In Jesus' coming to earth as a particular human, he identifies with the fact that every human being is a particular human being with unique specifics.

Jesus likely had a specific personality. His personality presumably was not right in the middle between introvert and extrovert, between the concrete and the imaginative, between the thinker and the feeler, between the open-ended personality and the one that wants closure. He did not come as the ideal personality. He came with a specific personality--probably an introvert, a concrete thinker who cared more about people than logic, and someone who in day to day life was probably more about the journey than the destination.

We can dispute one or all of these, but it nevertheless seems true that Jesus came as a specific person, not as every person. In his humanity, Jesus identified with our human particularity without endorsing Jew over Gentile, male over female, Galilean over Judean, introvert over extrovert, and so forth.

4. Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God. That is to say, in his earthly mission he preached that the rule of God was soon returning to the earth and that the people of God needed to prepare themselves. The rule of God would involve the restoration of God's people and the judgment of those who were unjust, oppressive, and resistant to his rule.

We see in Jesus' earthly ministry how these dynamics played out. In his healings and miracles, we see the restoration of God's people. In his exorcisms and conflicts with various leaders, we see him preparing the way for the coming judgment. In his teaching, we hear the ethics of the kingdom and how God's people are to relate to each other. In his recruiting of disciples, we see him preparing leadership and establishing citizens of the kingdom.

In his earthly life, he gave us the example to follow, the example of Christ. The slogan, "What would Jesus do?" is a model for us to live in the kingdom in so far as Jesus modeled the love of God and neighbor, the cornerstones of Christian ethics (cf. Matt. 22:34-40). We must of course be careful not to assume that Jesus, the particular man, and Jesus, the man living in a specific situation and culture, are everyman. But we can take the life of Jesus in general as an example of how to live in the time leading up to the kingdom and then in the kingdom itself.

In his death, Jesus makes the final coming of the kingdom possible, and in his resurrection, he is established as its appointed king.

Next week: In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and the creation.

[1] Although the idea of this three-fold office has been around since the early days of Christianity (e.g., Eusebius in the 300s), it was given new life by John Calvin in the Reformation.

[2] Certainly there will never be another prophet like Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe." However, the New Testament attests to the fact that there continue to be prophets in the New Testament age (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14).

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Your body is a temple...

1. I have never liked making a fool of myself, despite the fact that I do it so easily. So I am particularly keen to help others not make my mistakes, especially when it comes to the Bible or theology. There's a lot floating around out there that we say with confidence, even though it may be obviously wrong.

I did a post a little over a month ago on soul and spirit in the Bible and on biblical words for hell. These are just things a pastor should know. A pastor should know that Sheol isn't the fiery hell and that soul in the OT isn't the detachable escape pod.

Here's another one. When 1 Corinthians 3:16 says, "You are God's temple," the "you" is plural. Paul's emphasis is not on me as an individual, as we Western individualists so easily assume. His emphasis is not that I am God's temple. His emphasis is that y'all at Corinth, together, are God's temple.

This makes perfect sense, if you think about it. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says that the congregation at Corinth is the body of Christ. And here he says that God's Spirit dwells in you. So we have a Spirit in a body, the collective body of Christ at Corinth. We have a collective body that is a temple, taken together.

You, plural, are the temple of God.

2. 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 is why it is especially hard for us not to go individual with this image. "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" (6:19). The "your" and "you" are plural, but body is singular. I believe Paul is saying the same thing here. Your collective body [of Christ] is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

What makes it difficult for us Westerners is that Paul has been talking about those who take their individual, physical body to a prostitute. In 6:15, he talked about their plural "bodies." It's a play on words. When an individual takes his body to a prostitute, he is corrupting the collective body of Christ. The individual body is a "member" of the corporate body of Christ.

This is a hard train of thought for us. It's not the way our culture thinks. What I do with my individual body, I do with the collective body of Christ.

Bottom line, this verse really isn't about not smoking or respecting my physical body out of respect for my Creator. It really isn't the "don't smoke" verse. It's about not defiling the church by involving myself with uncleanness.

I've written a bit on Corinthians, if you're interested. See here and here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Two More Devotionals Published

I was happy to receive the two devotionals today (Wisdom and Witness of Jesus) that go along with my second book on Jesus (Portraits). The three make a set.

The Portraits of Jesus book focuses on special themes in the Gospels (as opposed to The Mission of Jesus, which focused on the basic mission of Jesus):

1. The Basic Story (Mark)
2. The Hidden Jesus (Mark)
3. The Virgin Birth (Matthew, Luke)
4. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew)
5. The New Moses (Matthew)
6. Good News for the Poor (Luke)
7. Good News for the World (Luke)
8. The Book of Signs (John)
9. The Book of Glory (John)
10. The Second Person of the Trinity

The two devotionals go along with this volume. The Wisdom of Jesus is a six week devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. The Witness of Jesus is a six week devotional on the "I am" sayings of John.

I have been working on sermon outlines that go along with these devotionals so that a church can be reading through the devotional for six weeks and then the pastor preach a sermon each Sunday that goes along with what the congregation has been reading each day devotionally.

Friday Novel

My daughter Sophie won't talk to me any more about novels. Even in her short lifetime, she has heard me say time and time again, "Oo, oo, I had a great idea for a novel today." She refuses to hear me talk about any more novel ideas (or listen to any first chapters) until I actually finish one.

So how's this? After I posted, "How to Write a Novel" last week, I picked up one of the fifty novels I've started these last 30 years and planned it out. I figure I have 50-100 pages of raw material already written, and my page goal is only 350. As an incentive, I'll post an excerpt from each week of minimal writing on Fridays until it's done.

So here's the first of, perhaps, 35 Friday posts?
... Perhaps not surprisingly, I picked the profession of champions for philosophy and English majors. I took a job at a local coffee shop. I would become a barista.

After the manager accepted that I would never show up consistently before 10am, it became the first real success story of my life. I had no problem with the ritual, mindless tasks of espresso creation. I actually liked it.

And I made a good coffee bartender. It was fine with me for the customer to do most of the talking, and I had a kind of whimsy that could lighten a tense moment. In a strange way, I think I was one of the few bright spots in the hum-drum, day-to-day life of these middle managers and university staff. It staggered my mind to think of how much some of them spent a year on lattes and Frappuccinos.

The café was always full of university students, at least during the school year. A coffee shop is like the church of the thinker and dreamer. Over time I came to classify them.

First there was the person looking for a relationship of a more Platonic variety. The vulgar classes had their Hooters, their sundry bars and dance clubs. But the thinkers came to Café d’Espoir to mate, where I was bartender.

Then there were the writers and readers. With the bookstore species on the endangered list, the readers brought their books with them, either in paper or electronic form. I could spot the budding novelist. I could see myself in the notepads and lap tops.

My preferred medium was the coffee napkin. I was always getting some idea for a novel in between espressos. It was my ticket to the imagined, dreamy life of a successful novelist.

I would have a log cabin where I could go and write on retreat. How about a castle? I would build a castle somewhere in the woods with a moat and everything. And I would need a yacht, along with a house on a lake somewhere.

I figure in the last ten years I’d written down ideas for at least fifty novels on those napkins. They were in a drawer in my apartment. A few had made it from napkin to the notepad. Less than ten had made it to my laptop...

... We had both grown up some by the time she walked into Cafe d'Espoir one day.

"No way, you have a job?"

"Very funny," I answered. "I actually own this store."

"Now that is funny," the Cafe manager said, not far away.

"Nice to see you too," I continued on, ignoring my manager. "May I offer you a latte, an espresso, maybe a little hemlock?"

"Socrates, right?" she fired back.

"Quite right. Don't get many orders for that one, surprisingly."

"A soy chi latte will do for today," she finally answered.
Next week, an excerpt from chapter 2.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Exegetical Process

How do you interpret a biblical text in context?

1. First, you come to it with an appropriate question.
  • That is, an inductive question, not a contemporary one.
  • Questions of sense - "What did this word or phrase mean?"
  • Questions of genre - "What were these words doing?" (assert, promise, command...), 
  • Questions of impact - "What impact were these words intended to have?" "Why were these words written?"
  • Questions of reference - "To what did this sentence refer in the world of author and audience?"
  • Questions of interrelationship - "How did the parts of the argument fit together?"
  • Questions of inner logic - "Were there things driving the train of thought?" (e.g., personality-wise, situation-wise, culturally, historically...)
  • Questions of authorial intention - "Why did the author say this?" 
  • A question of original implication - "What were the implications for them of what the text said?"
2. Next, you gather evidence to build a case toward the answer.
  • Evidence from the book in which the text is located (broader literary context)
  • Evidence from the immediate passage itself (immediate literary context)
  • Evidence from whatever historical or cultural background is known (historical-cultural context)
3. Finally, you create a hypothesis and test it.
  • Test it against the history of interpretation. Have others made this suggestion or countered this suggestion? You should be a little concerned if no one has ever suggested it, unless you are offering it in the light of new historical evidence. What do original meaning commentaries say?
  • Test it against your continued readings of the text over time, remembering that we can get more and more comfortable with iffy propositions over time even if they really haven't become any more likely.
  • Test it against your peers (especially scholarly peers). How do others who are competent biblical interpreters receive your hypothesis?
4. Appropriate the interpretation in your theology and ethics... but this is a different post.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Charles Taylor and the "Excluded" in a Democracy

Some of us are reading through the selections in Charles Taylor's Dilemmas and Connections this semester. The chapters are individual essays he has written in other contexts, so it is a veritable grab bag of joy. Every essay is his genius applied to some other subject.

I deeply resonate with most of what he says on most topics. He has a certain clarity befitting an analytically trained philosopher but he has the right sympathies for the more obtuse phenomenological thinkers. Most of the time, my reaction to him is, "Of course." He captures the general inklings of the best thinking in society and expresses them with a depth and clarity befitting a world class thinker. I find myself often with delight expressing to myself, "Yes!"

Yet there is not a finality to his explorations. Keith Drury compared his writing style to a cat that is playing with something. He moves a subject along without giving any impression that he has given anything like the last word on it. He is like a genius hitch hiker we pick up for a few miles, talk about something with and then leave at the next truck stop.

1. This chapter seemed particularly helpful in expressing what I think educated people think about democracy but that few of us could have expressed as clearly as he does. Here are some of its key thoughts:
  • "Democracy, particularly liberal democracy, is a great philosophy of inclusion" (124). By "liberal democracy," he means one that truly includes everyone, not the pretend democracy of America's origins, where women and slaves didn't count.
  • There is, however, a dangerous side effect of democracy--at various times, there will be "excluded groups." For example, if you are a Democrat in Indiana, your vote will almost never win. You get to vote, but your vote more or less doesn't count as far as its effect. 
  • Countries regularly have national minorities who are outvoted every time and, if the majority does not treat them with respect, will inevitably increasingly feel oppressed.
And let me just stop here and give what I take to be the bottom line of this essay. It is important for the majorities of a nation to treat national minorities with respect, to make sure that they feel included in the conversation even when the votes don't go their way. Similarly, the national majorities should give some lee way toward these groups even when it has the power not to.

So democracy, whose essence is about inclusion, will often regularly gravitate toward the exclusion of national minorities. This essay is inspired by Quebec in Canada, which could be outvoted by the English-speaking majority of Canada easily on every issue. But it is in Canada's long term best interest to respect, converse with, and court Quebec within reasonable limits.

The fact that this essay is about Canada is also a convenient aspect to it, for few people can be objective about their own country. Like Nathan with David, it is easier to see ourselves in someone else's story.

2. So he plays around with the idea that "nationalism," as it were, can be a by-product of democracy (127).
  • When minorities begin to flow into a country, there is a tendency to want to exclude them from the democratic process. We did this when the Irish came. We did it with blacks. We are doing this now with people from Latin America. We say, they aren't true Americans. They shouldn't get a say in the destiny of America. 
  • The attempt to pass voter ID laws in the US right now is transparently an example of this--an attempt on the part of the majority to exclude the unwanted minority from the democratic process.
  • In its worst form, "nationalists" might try to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing so that only the true "whatever" is left. (cf. the congresswoman wanting to ferret out those from Congress who aren't "true Americans"--textbook reaction to a perceived majority sensing a loss of control)
  • By the same token, the majority can never be allowed to vote democracy itself out. This is why we have a Bill of Rights. This is why we have the judicial system, to keep the majority from oppressing the minority. 
  • I believe there are Americans who don't get this. American democracy does not mean that the majority wins no matter what. The majority can't vote to kill the minority. There are boundaries to what the majority can decide or else the democracy itself will self-destruct.
Much of what I have just said doesn't actually come from Taylor's essay, but I have applied it to America. I know it will be controversial and that saddens me, because I can't imagine how anyone could argue against it (or why a Christian would want to). I am really dumbfounded that anyone could disagree with anything I just said.
3. Back to Taylor:
  • "The condition of a viable political identity is that people must actually be able to relate to it, to find themselves reflected in it" (143). In other words, the minority must feel like it belongs even though it is consistently outvoted.
  • Minorities and majorities must share an "identity space." "There are no exclusive claims to a given territory by historic right" (144). 
  • And those of us in the majority had better be nice to those in the minority, or they won't be nice to us when they become the majority. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Schrodinger's Doctrine

At the Theological Research Seminar at IWU yesterday, I was presenting a historical and theological response to Richard Bauckham called, "Jesus and the Identity of God." My basic conclusion was that Bauckham's theology is spot on and his readings of NT texts are appropriate Christian readings but that they seem a little too complex and convenient from a historical perspective.

But what really seemed to resonate was more a model of looking at Christian doctrine and orthodox readings of biblical texts I called "Schrodinger's Doctrine."

You may have heard of Schrodinger's cat. It is an illustration from quantum physics where we don't know if a cat in a box is alive or dead until we open the box. More profoundly, the cat in a sense is both alive and dead until it is observed. Quantum physicists call this "superposition." A particle can, for all intents and purposes, be in two different places at once until it is observed. It's position is undetermined up to that point.

So, I suggested, until the Church "opened the box" on key issues, the position of Christianity on that issue was not yet determined. In AD324, both Arius and Athanasius are in the box. In AD325, the Church opens the box and finds Athanasius.

I don't wish to suggest that Philippians 2:6-11 or 1 Corinthians 8:6 did not have an original, historical meaning prior to what would become the Christian reading of them. We can debate it if you wish. But I am suggesting that, for Christians, these texts did not have a determined meaning of sorts until they did, until the Church opened the box.

As my friend and colleague John Drury likes to say, quoting Hegel, "History is lived forward but understood backward."

One problem I see with our inquiries is that we almost seem to assume that ideology was the first order of business for the earliest believers. Rather, as Larry Hurtado has argued, practices wagged the dog.

The earliest Christians didn't stop to work out the fine nuances of monotheism or dig up some copy of Ezekiel the Tragedian. They sang. They praised. Theology came later, and what theology came later was as much rhetorical as ideological.

So did Christianity include Jesus within the identity of the one God? Yes! Did Christianity include Jesus within the eschatological monotheism of the one God? Yes! Did Christianity include Jesus within the worship of the one God? Yes! Did Christianity include Jesus within the creational monotheism of the one God? Yes!

When the box was opened, yes!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

C2. Jesus is "God with us," God's Word become flesh.

This is now the second post in a series on Christology, in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation.
God became a man in the person of Jesus, the Christ.

1. As we saw in the previous article, Christians believe that Jesus has existed from eternity past. He is the "eternally begotten" Son of God. He is a distinct person within the Trinity--he is not God the Father and he is not God the Holy Spirit. But there is only one God and he has the "same substance" (homoousios) as the Father and the Spirit.

So Christians believe that Jesus is fully God, 100% God.

Christians also believe that Jesus became fully human, 100% human. At Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), Christians had wrestled with the Trinity. Is Jesus fully God? Once that issue came to rest, Christians turned to the person of Jesus. How could he be human and God at the same time?

There were a number of suggestions made in the years between the "Council of Nicaea" in 325 and the "Council of Chalcedon" in 451. It was at the latter council that the understanding we now have was finalized. So was Jesus one person, both human and divine (the right answer) or was he almost two different people (Nestorianism). Did Jesus have two natures--one human and one divine (the right answer)--or did he pretty much just have a divine nature (Monophysitism).

One man, Apollinaris, suggested that Jesus had a human body but that his soul was divine, made up of the Logos or Word of God. Another, Eutyches, suggested that Jesus' divinity was so vast that his human nature was like a drop in the ocean. So while you might technically say he had two natures, when they got mixed together, his human nature could hardly be found. The Church ultimately rejected both of these suggestions.

2. The official position of Christianity, the position that Christians have more or less held in common since the mid-400s is found in the description of Christ that became official at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Here is somewhat of a paraphrase of the definition they set down there:

"He is complete in his God-ness and complete in his humanity, truly God and truly man. He has a rational soul and a body. He is of one substance with the Father in relation to his God-ness and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his humanity. He is like us in every respect, except for sin... He is recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The distinction of his two natures are not in any way nullified by the union. Rather, the characteristics of each nature are preserved and come together to form one person and subsistence. They are not parted or separated into two persons, but they constitute one and the same Son..."

Again, the other suggestions were not heresies until the Church had come to this common agreement. Before then, we simply had well-meaning Christian leaders trying to make sense of a mysterious idea, namely, that Jesus was somehow both fully human and fully divine. The consensus that emerged was that Jesus was both. He was only one person, but he had a fully human nature and a fully divine nature. Any option that minimizes either his humanity or his divinity is off course.

3. In eternity past, God the Son was entirely divine. John 1:14 speaks of Christ taking on human flesh: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." [1] We call this moment of God assuming human flesh the incarnation. The Nicene Creed of 381 puts it this way: "For us humans, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made human." Now, for eternity future, Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.

The word for "made his dwelling" is related to the wilderness tabernacle of the Old Testament (skenoo). It gives us the picture of God's presence wandering through the wilderness with Israel. In the same way, Jesus is "God with us," Immanuel (cf. Matt. 1:23; 28:20).

4. In the New Testament, we occasionally find imagery of Jesus as the Word of God. This language of Jesus as the Logos found its background in Jewish thinking about God's Word, the instrument by which God enacts his will in the world. So God spoke, and the worlds were created.

So it is no surprise that we usually find language of Christ as the agent of creation in New Testament passages that have overtones of the Jewish Logos. Thus John 1:1, 3 say, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made..." Similarly, the "Colossian hymn" of 1:15-16 says, "The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him." [2]

Christians thus frequently speak of Christ as the agent of creation, although some do take this language more to speak of Christ as the ultimate meaning or significance of the creation.

5. The Apostles Creed says that Jesus was "born of the Virgin Mary." The Council of Chalcedon also clarified that Jesus was divine even when he was in the womb. Mary was the "Theotokos" or "God-bearer." The primary purpose of this language was not to exalt Mary but to make clear that Jesus was God even when he was in her womb.

The conception of Jesus by Mary when she was still a virgin has been a key belief of Christianity since before the great "Christological" controversies of the 300s and 400s that we mentioned above. There is technically a difference between the virginal conception and a virgin birth. Roman Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin anatomically even during childbirth and that she remained a "perpetual virgin" for the rest of her life, never having sexual relations.

However, common Christianity only affirms that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. When we commonly refer to the virgin birth and confess it in the creeds, we are confessing our faith in the virginal conception of Jesus.

Although the Virgin Birth is a core Christian dogma, it is significant to note what it is not. Jesus was not half man and half God. Therefore, there is no obvious reason why Jesus could not have had a human father and a human mother too and still be fully God. His genes had both an X chromosome (from Mary) and a Y chromosome--which was a human chromosome the Holy Spirit must have created out of nothing. The Spirit did not have sex with Mary and contribute a divine Y chromosome!

This a significant point. The Y chromosome does not contain our sin nature, as if women with their XX genes have no sin nature. The male gene does not contain the sin gene. Therefore, there is no obvious reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin either to be without sin or to be fully divine. All the same genetics necessary for him to be fully human had to be fully human anyway. Whether the Holy Spirit contributes the adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine--or if Joseph had--these are still fully human molecules.

Our faith in the virgin birth is thus a reflection of our faith in the common Christianity of the centuries and the historicity of this biblical story. Other than giving a sense of Jesus' greatness and the miracle of his entrance, there is no obvious truth about Jesus' nature that the virgin birth makes possible, at least from our current understanding of genetics.

4. If anything, Christians today probably minimize Jesus' humanity and overemphasize his divinity. Like Eutyches, it is common for Christians to have such a high view of Jesus' divinity that he is hardly like us at all. Yet, if diapers had existed in the first century, Jesus would have dirtied them. He had sexual urges, like the rest of us. If he had married, it would not have made him less holy.

Here is an important point and one that fits well within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. Is it not likely that Jesus "played by the rules of humanity" while he was on earth? That is to say, it is not likely that Jesus chose to do what he did as a human through the power of the Holy Spirit--the same Spirit who lives in believers today--rather than through his power as the second person of the Trinity?

It is a core Christian belief that Jesus never ceased to be God. We must believe that Jesus, as the divine Son of God, retained all his attributes as God. To that extent, any kenotic theory (from the Greek word for "emptying") that sees Jesus as losing his divinity when he came to earth is unorthodox.

However, it would fully fit with the biblical texts to believe that Jesus set aside in some mysterious way access to his divine powers while he was on earth. So Mark 13:32 indicates that Jesus did not know all things when he was on earth. In some mysterious way, the second person of the Trinity seems to have bracketed many of his divine powers and prerogatives when he came to earth.

So Jesus did not come out of the womb speaking Aramaic, let alone English. He learned it like anyone else. Jesus did not hover through Nazareth but learned to crawl and walk. He was probably not fully aware of his full divinity when he was a child, let alone aware of what would be declared at the Council of Chalcedon.

This is also a mystery but it is the only way to be true both to Scripture and the consensus of Christianity. The Bible does not waver on the full participation of Jesus in humanity. We can plausibly suggest that when the earthly Jesus knew more than other humans, he was relying on the Holy Spirit. When Jesus performed miracles, he was relying on the Holy Spirit.

The special case of Jesus not sinning is perhaps more complicated. Presumably, his divine nature would not have let his human nature fall prey to sin. Yet we can plausibly suggest that he was relying on the Holy Spirit to have the power not to sin, just as we can rely on the Holy Spirit not to sin. Jesus indicates that it is not part of the essence of humanity to have to sin. [3]

So Christians believe that Jesus was fully God and that he came to earth and fully assumed humanity. He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made human. He is God's word made flesh. He is Immanuel, God with us.

Next week: Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

[1] You can see where there was plenty of room within what the biblical texts say for someone like Apollinaris to argue for his position. Indeed, Christians probably stopped using language of Jesus as the Word in the late 300s because it was susceptible to interpretations that did not fit with what the Church would finally conclude.

[2] From the perspective of the original meaning, it is difficult to know the extent to which the New Testament authors were being poetic with this language. Nevertheless, we as Christians generally take this language literally today.

[3] And here we are talking about intentional sin. We are not considering mistakes to be sin. It is possible that Jesus made mistakes while he was on earth (e.g., forgetting where he left the donkey), but this is not sin.