Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Church Growth and the Spirit

My brother-in-law, Dwayne Winterberg, repeated an interesting thought by A. W. Tozer today. I'll just quote the first half for reflection: "If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference."

What do you think? I do think that a church can grow very successfully with charismatic leadership and good organization, regardless of whether the Holy Spirit is present or not. At the same time, a church can have charismatic leadership, good organization, grow, and have the Holy Spirit moving as well. Surely that is what we all hope for!

Top Ten Posts of 2014

Here are my 2014 statistics, following the numbers in Google Analytics.  As of last night, I had over 80,500 pageviews and almost 30,000 unique visitors. I'm up over 4,000 page views from last year and up about 1500 unique visitors.

From Previous Years
As usual, some of my most visited pages were not even from 2014 but from earlier years. For example,
So only two of the top hits on my blog for this year were actually posted this year! :-)

Top Ten of 2014
Now for the top ten posts actually from 2014. Any numbers below are not really accurate because I assume many people do not actually click on the specific post but read it from the basic blog landing page.

And now, the top 10 posts from 2014:

10. I reviewed the "Noah Movie" in March (# 31 overall).

9. I tried to quell misinformation about IWU and abortion in "Making Money Off Christians." (#29).

8. I reviewed the movie, "God's Not Dead" in April (#24 overall).

7. I reviewed Bart Ehrman's book, and the chapter, "Did Jesus Think He Was God" was #21 overall.

6. "Immigration Reform" was #19 overall, from November.

5. "Trump Verse Hermeneutics" from February was #16 overall.

4. "Let the Wesleyan Movement Begin" from May was #15 overall.

3. Number 3 from this year (#12 overall) was my theology in bullet points post in March that launched the theology series I've been doing on Sundays this past year.

2. Number 2 (also #2 overall) was about the proposed closing of Nazarene Publishing House, which in the end didn't happen (as predicted). It was just reorganized. (1434 page specific views)

1. And my number 1 post for the year was my reporting on the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate in February. I tried to be somewhat middle of the road in my reaction. (1525 page specific views)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Gentile conversion to early Christianity

How did Gentiles conceptualize their conversion to earliest Christianity?

Yesterday I was contemplating the following break-down:

1. Some within the earliest church believed a Gentile needed to convert fully to Judaism. We call these the "Judaizers." We find hints of them in Acts 15:5 with Christian Pharisees, Pharisees who had believed in Jesus as Messiah without stopping to be Pharisees. Paul's opponents in Galatia similarly were Christians who believed Paul's Gentile converts needed to convert fully.

The tone of Galatians suggests that some did. So one group of Gentile converts to the Jesus sect became circumcised and fully converted to Judaism.

2. A second group--let's call it the James/Peter group--also saw full conversion as the optimal course for Gentiles. But they did not force Gentiles to convert fully (Gal. 2:3). Perhaps on the model of the stranger in the land, they believed that Gentiles could be saved from the coming wrath of God if they put their faith in God and his Christ. They expected them to follow some basic purity rules in order to have table fellowship.

3. A third group is the Pauline group. Paul fully included Gentiles within the "seed of Abraham" alongside Jews on the basis of faith. They were grafted into the tree. Did they see themselves as converting to a form of Christian Judaism? Perhaps it is misleading to put it that way in that "Judaism" was not a word that meant what we use the word to mean now.

Did they see themselves as converting to a Jewish sect? Obviously the word sect is a modern one, but I think they surely saw themselves becoming part of a Jewish group.

4. Finally there were probably Gentiles, especially as time went by, perhaps especially after the destruction of the temple, who saw themselves as outside Israel. The fiscus Judaicus, the tax on Jews first levied by Vespasian after the destruction of Jerusalem, was no doubt a driving force among Gentile believers to distinguish themselves from Judaism.

Unsurprisingly, the "parting of the ways" between Judaism and Christianity may have ultimately been driven at first by money.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Parable of the Book Arrangement

When I was a child, the default drive of my personality would arrange my books in a library like order (yes, believe it or not, I am a "J" by default). When I was 18, I would have arranged my books in order of OT to NT. I would have arranged from Matthew to Revelation.

Now that I am a man, my books are still arranged in blocks (so Hebrews goes together; Greek resources go together). But they are in a order of usefulness to me. Paul is closest at hand. Hebrews is not far. The farthest from me are the grammars, OT, and even the Gospels.

Herein is a parable. Pragmatism beats idealism in the real world.

S2. Saving us is part of God's plan.

This is the second post in a section on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished sections on Christology and Atonement.
Saving us is part of God's plan.

1. One area of great debate among Christians is the nature of God's predestination. Since the New Testament uses language of predestination and election, the question is not so much whether we believe in predestination at all as what we mean by it.

Take Romans 8:29-30: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified" (NRSV).

So in the Calvinist interpretation, God has predetermined by divine decree who is going to be saved. We have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Those who believe in "double predestination" would say that God has both predetermined who will be saved and who will be damned. Those who believe in "single predestination" would say that God has predetermined who will be saved but the damned were already damned as a consequence of Adam's sin. God simply does not save them.

A traditional Arminian interpretation is to focus on the word "foreknew." Knowing the choices that we would make, God prearranged our conformity to the image of God, that we would be transformed into his likeness. Knowing what we would choose, he prearranged our election, our justification, and our glorification.

Perhaps both of these approaches miss Paul's point to some degree, for Paul is not really talking about the question of who will be saved here. He is talking about what the end game actually is for believers. The Roman believers may be suffering now, but that is not the end game. His point is that everything will turn out wonderfully in the end.

The plan is salvation, resurrection, and glorification in the end. "All things work together for good for those who love God" (Rom. 8:28), that is his point. And he is not talking about what happened to me today. He was not saying that my car accident will somehow bring something good. He is saying that, despite the sufferings of the present, our bodies and the creation will be gloriously transformed when Christ returns. That is the good toward which all things work together.

The good toward which all things work is being "conformed to the image of his Son," which in Paul is not about becoming more and more Christ-like but being transformed in the resurrection. "Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven" (1 Cor. 15:49), Paul says in a chapter about resurrection. This is what glorification ultimately means, to have our bodies transformed at the resurrection and restoration of the cosmos.

So the focus of these verses, as all such verses, is not who is in and who is out. The focus in Romans 8 is on God's plan. Paul does not use this language to point out who is out. He uses it to give hope, purpose, and value to those who are already in. How do you know who is elect, who is predestined? It is by seeing who is here and who endures to the end. Otherwise how could 2 Peter 1:10 tell its audience to make its election sure and to make sure they do not stumble? Their election would seem in this case to be conditional depending on their endurance.

2. There are three important factors to keep in mind when we read language of predestination in the New Testament. The first is that such language is almost always collective language. Ephesians 1:5 tells its probably vast audience that God destined us for adoption (rather than me). [1] Notice again the focus on the plan--God chose us to be holy and blameless (1:4) and for adoption (1:5).

Even in Romans 9, Paul is not really talking about individuals being chosen, some for special use and some for destruction (9:21-22). This entire chapter is about the mystery of God showing mercy on the Gentiles while judging those in Israel who have not believed. The focus is on groups rather than individuals (Jews and Gentiles).

And even among these groups, Paul goes on in Romans 11 to suggest that those who do not currently believe in Israel can be grafted back in (11:23), while those Gentiles who are grafted in can be cut back out (11:21). This is nothing like the fixed plan of the Calvinist. This is language that suggests that our actions are key to whether we are in or out of the tree.

3. A second thing to keep in mind that this was the language of Paul's world. The ancient world was fatalistic in a way that gave great allowance for individual choice as well. Take the story of Oedipus, where it is exactly as each individual fights against his fate that his fate is ultimately accomplished.

True, Josephus does speak of different Jewish groups believing more or less in free will. But N. T. Wright has plausibly suggested that this language was more code for whether those groups believed the Jews should actively seek to bring about God's will or passively sit back and let God accomplish it on his own. [2] In other words, Josephus was talking less about philosophy and more about politics.

Paul and other New Testament authors therefore may use this language, but that does not mean that they have a philosophical investment in it. It was arguably Augustine in the late 300s and early 400s who began to interpret this language in philosophical categories that connected the dots, so to speak. The New Testament uses language of predestination and it uses language of human responsibility to choose. It does not work out this language philosophically, which requires us to reinterpret one set of imagery in deference to the other.

4. So we have to ask how predestination language functions, what it does, rather than what it might mean in a philosophy class. Such language functions to say that God is in control. Such language functions to give value to those who are here in the room, that God loves them and has a plan for their ultimate salvation. On the other hand, it does not function to "lock in" certain people and exclude others. It does not serve to predict who will be in or out.

It, thus, always functions "after the fact." Paul does not use it as a prediction of who will be in in the future but as a valuation of those who are already here. Who is predestined? Who is elect? The answer is those who have faith and are living in faithfulness.

Saving us is part of God's plan. He always planned to save us, before he created the world. He has predestined us to be saved. He has chosen us, elected us.

But he wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). He has not chosen some and not others. Anyone who calls on the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). His plan is salvation.

Next post: S3. God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

[1] The words, "at Ephesus," in Ephesians 1:1 were not present in the earliest manuscripts of this document. Similarly, the book has the least concrete feel of any of the letters in the Pauline collection. No specific details relating to a concrete audience are mentioned other than the mention of Tychicus at the end (6:21). It thus seems likely that Ephesians was intended for a very general audience indeed. Some even think it may have been a circular letter.

[2] The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), **.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why Study the Intertestamental Period?

I used to tell undergraduate students that I would not be surprised if they gained more understanding of the New Testament from taking Intertestamental Jewish Literature than they would from Old Testament Survey. I still remember one student who went on to Princeton telling me that this course better prepared her for seminary than any other course she had at IWU.

Why? Here are some reasons:
  • While the OT provides much of the content background for the NT (it provides the bullets), the Intertestamental Period provided the lens through which that content was filtered and read (it aimed the gun).
  • We tend to read the NT out of the blue, as a contextless text that dropped out of heaven (or rather, we are unaware of the way our modern church context informs our reading of the NT texts). Once we are aware of the historical and literary context of the first century, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to read the NT in a timeless bubble (aka, what our Sunday School teacher told us).
  • For those who have grown up with a certain kind of fundamentalism, there are strategies and techniques we are taught that probably don't make sense if we could step back and get some perspective. A reflective person begins to realize this when they read non-canonical writings and increasingly sense a contradiction in his or her method. The drive for consistency will gnaw at them.
  • In short, the writings of "early Judaism" inevitably increase the Bible reader's objectivity and sense of historical consciousness, whereas Bible courses can sometimes merely confirm a person's initial biases (or those of the teacher).
I remember one student who is now a New Testament scholar in her own right who was so resistant to the idea that Jesus in Matthew 11 might allude to the book of Sirach. I never push things like that. A teacher doesn't have to push something if the evidence speaks for itself. I'm sure she would just laugh if I reminded her of that today. She went on to Duke and then Baylor, and is now teaching at Campbell.
Fun memories!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Budgeting Like a Farmer (the Joseph Plan)

I don't know much about farming or how farmers budget, but I've often imagined that they have to be very disciplined. I've imagined that they get most of their money for the year during a somewhat narrow window of time. Then they have to be disciplined to spread that money out over the rest of the year.

I suspect most of us would find that a bit difficult. Most of us, I suspect, spend it if we have it. Few of us are disciplined like I remember a professor friend of mine several years ago. He budgets for the whole year and then spreads it out over the whole year. So if he plans on spending $600 on Christmas, he'll put aside $50 a month somewhere for the whole year.

I also imagine that Christmas is deeply stressful in many families for whoever keeps track of the money. I wonder how many of us actually track how much we spend. Even talking of $600 for Christmas seems wrong to me, a sign of a culture with its priorities out of whack. But I'm sure many of us spend over a thousand each year--and I'm not talking about people on six figure salaries. What's worse is that many of us probably haven't even added up how much we spend. We may have no idea that we have spent 2% of our yearly take-home pay or more on Christmas.

Anyway, I wish I could say I budgeted like a farmer or like my disciplined professor friend. It's the Joseph plan--put some away in the fat years in preparation for the lean. It might even be worth having a separate account that you kind of forget about until the winter of our discontent.

I'm going to try to do better this year. How about you?

I know, I know, you are already good at this. :-)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you all a joyful time of celebration with your families in faith. Celebrate the incarnation in anticipation of the life in anticipation of the death in anticipation of the resurrection in anticipation of the reign!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Homogeneous Principle

Here are some very interesting reflections on the church growth's homogeneous principle, the idea that people are most attracted to groups that are like them. The idea has been used in the past to justify mostly white, black, or Hispanic congregations that are not very diverse.

Bob Whitesel has cleverly suggested that there is even a sense in which multi-ethnic congregations can be homogeneous in the sense that they usually attract people who most enjoy a multi-ethnic setting. He also argues that the homogeneous principle was never meant to exclude and that it applies best to subgroups in a congregation rather than to an entire congregation.

I don't think there is a one size fits all answer. Any church that does not look like the community in which it is located should probably do some self-examination. Certainly no one should be unwelcome at a church and a church should do everything it can to be welcoming to everyone in its context.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Caution on Flipping Classrooms

The idea of a flipped classroom is great. Have students watch video lectures or something similar before class, then work on applying the theory in class.

It is a great idea, even if ironically similar to the innovative idea of textbooks some time ago... You know, have the students read material written by an expert before they come to class. Then you don't need to have brilliant professors to have a college. In class, a less brilliant facilitator can explain the material the students have read before class and help them apply it. :-)

I tried to flip a Latin class this Fall. I made video lectures over the content of the chapters with the idea that we would then spend our time in class doing translations to apply and solidify the learning. Now, mind you, the kind of student interested in Latin is generally at the upper end of the academic aptitude spectrum. In other words, you would expect a Latin class to be ideal for this sort of experiment.

I abandoned the approach about a month in. Why? Because the videos just weren't consistently being watched or maybe not watched well. I'm not faulting the students--I love them, top of the heap. I just don't think the current climate is wired for this to work well right now most of the time. Bottom line: The flipped classroom only works if the students do the prep work.

I heard of a professor who tried this in science, I think it was. It was a great idea in theory. He put a great deal of intentionality and preparation into the design. Pedagogically, it was a masterpiece. BUT, the students largely didn't do it, didn't like it, and the rumor has circulated that the teaching evaluations have suffered accordingly. Now a different kind of smarts comes into play--stubbornness versus common sense. It doesn't matter how good the theory is if it fails in practice.

The flipped classroom is a great idea. I hope it works for you. I would try it again. But have a back up plan!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Flexibility of the Wesleyan Tradition

I have an old friend who started his faith pilgrimage in the Wesleyan Church. Somewhat unusually, he has attended a Roman Catholic church for several years now, but is now contemplating returning to the Wesleyan Church.

it reminded me again that there is nothing in the Wesleyan rules that forbids you from believing in transubstantiation (the idea that the communion elements literally take on the substance of Jesus' body and blood). Indeed, there is nothing in the Wesleyan rules that forbids you from believing that Mary ascended to heaven. These would be very unusual beliefs for a Wesleyan, but what group doesn't have people with unusual beliefs?!

Basically, I love the flexibility of my tradition. To be sure, most Wesleyans more or less act like they're Baptists, but you can still infant baptize in our church if you wish. You can sprinkle, pour. You can even not baptize at all, given some of the Quaker elements in our past. Most immerse with believer's baptism, but because we don't believe that the baptism actually is what saves you, all the options are theoretically on the table.

We are, in short, a Pietist, revivalist tradition. What is most important is a changed heart, filled with the Holy Spirit, then a life that bears the fruit of righteousness. Your leanings on a specific theory of atonement--that's not dictated. We are still open to the Spirit speaking directly to you through Scripture in ways that are not limited by the original meaning, unlike mainstream evangelicalism. While we affirm the inerrancy of Scripture on principle, we've wisely never set specifics on what an error is, thus keeping us from the self-destructive witch hunts of other groups.

We are a "middle way" within Christendom. And the middle way usually captures the best of the other extremes without the edges. What a great place to be!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wesleyan-Arminian Reflections on Atonement

Here's now links to my reflections on atonement from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective. These are in my "theology in bullet points" series.

Part 1: God and Creation
God and Creation

Part 2: Christ and Salvation
The Doctrine of Christ (Christology)
1. Christ has been the Son of God from eternity past.
2. Jesus is "God with us," God's Word become flesh.
3. Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.
4. In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and creation.
5. In his resurrection, Jesus became the king of all humanity and creation.

The Doctrine of Atonement 
1. God chose Christ's death as the means to reconcile the world to himself.
2. In his death, Jesus showed us the love of God.
3. In his death, Jesus satisfied the order of things.
4. In his death, Jesus took humanity's place.
5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.

A5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.

This is the fifth post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished a section on Christology.
A5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.

One of the approaches to atonement is the idea that, in his death, Jesus defeated the powers of death and the Devil. It is sometimes called the "Christus Victor" approach, "Christ the victor." [1]

Probably the most explicit form of this idea is found in Hebrews: "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil" (2:14, NRSV). Similarly, 1 Corinthians 15:55: "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

According to Aulén, this was the oldest approach, the one that dominated until the time of Anselm, when the idea of Jesus satisfying God's wrath and justice became dominant. Prior to that point, he argued, the idea of Jesus paying a ransom through his death dominated.

We do find ransom language in the New Testament. Mark 10:45 says, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (NRSV). Of course this is a metaphor. Those church fathers who thought of Jesus "paying off" the Devil's ransom were taking the metaphor too far and going way beyond the biblical texts.

It is hard to know exactly what passages like Hebrews 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:55 might mean literally other than the fact that God in his authority chose to stop allowing Satan's power to exert itself rampantly through the world by virtue of Christ's death. By virtue of Christ's death, God has chosen to put to an end this situation where death is the final answer.

Of course this end has only begun. In God's will, death continues and Satan continues to wreak havoc on the earth. But his death was the turning point, the beginning of the end. His resurrection is the victory. His reign is now and not yet. It has commenced and will reach its full form upon his return to the earth from heaven. Then there will be no more death, and Satan will disappear forever.

In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death and inaugurated the beginning of the end for Satan's power on the earth. His defeat of death means the resurrection of all, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting contempt (Dan. 12:2).

Next week: S1. God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

[1] The expression, "Christus Victor" comes from Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. by A. G. Herber (London: SPCK, 1931.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Where UM pastors go to Seminary

Here's an interesting article on where UM pastors go to seminary (HT: John Kavanaugh). Interestingly, more than 1 in 7 new UM pastors go to Asbury--more than seven of the official UM seminaries combined (there are 13). One UM seminary had less than 1 in 100 newly ordained pastors go there. Another less than 3 in 100. Duke came in second to Asbury.

There are different ways to react to this sort of data. One impulse might be protectionist. Let's force UM candidates to go to some of the seminaries they obviously don't want to go to. That's the price fixing option that makes a lot of people resentful. It seems more appropriate to me not to fund institutions that obviously aren't serving the UM church very well. That's a waste of money.

I understand the impulse to try to prop up seminaries that are failing in the UM marketplace. Meanwhile, Asbury is looked down on by a lot of the UM church. I've heard that United isn't always given its due. Yet these are the two schools that have most entered into the distance education realm. How many UM students go to Asbury because they can do much of their MDIV without leaving their ministry? The resistance of the other seminaries to the online/distance world is hurting them, probably among other things.

In any case, Wesley where I'm at is now ATS accredited and we would be glad to serve. :-) I'm talking the possibility of dedicated UM cohorts that move through the MDIV program together. Our network includes 17 satellite locations around Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky if you want us to come to you onsite in this area. Just think, pastors in the Indiana conference could get their entire MDIV degree onsite and never have to leave their church. It would be an opportunity for the conference to have more direct influence on the training of their own pastors than any UM conference has over the training of its ordinands currently!

We're Wesleyan without an ideological edge. And wouldn't you rather have your pastors train with us than at an Anabaptist or Presbyterian seminary? We intentionally focus on the practice of ministry and are not an ideological seminary like many perceive Asbury to be. Sure, we're conservative in the vast scheme of American Christianity, but we take seriously Wesley's sermon On a Catholic Spirit.

Over 20 percent of our faculty are UM in the seminary, and 2 more teach in the undergraduate. We'll let you teach any UM specific courses you want to be part of your ordinands' program if you want to bring in your own people.

How about it, GBHEM?

N. T. Wright the Pattern See-er

I deeply appreciate N. T. Wright. He has left his mark all over NT studies with generative insights all over the place. He was very impactful on me in the mid-90s. It would be fun to list all the little nuggets I have taken from him--it would be a significant list.

But, man, his massive Paul to me is like all of the whacky ideas he had in grad school come home to roost. It's like a pre-modern pie cooked from a thousand modernist bits. It embodies exactly the kind of grand escrit that postmodernism was built to deconstruct.

He should have published it in the 90s. He's mulled this material over too long, IMO.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Faiths of Post-War Presidents

Received this book in the mail today from the author:

I'm grateful for the copy. I have the unpopular opinion that it can actually be detrimental for a President to let specific faith ideas determine his or her decisions too much as President. Let theologians hammer out Christian ideas. I prefer a President who is a good Pietist, not an armchair theologian.

So I would like a President to have Christian virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, self-control. But specific Christian ideologies can be dangerous in leaders, in the same way that a little knowledge can be dangerous. In general--even in many Christian institutions--I prefer leaders who have a Christ-like heart and are actually good leaders with good leadership sense.

Moss - Women led in the early centuries

Here is Candida Moss of Notre Dame's reminder that there was more female leadership in the early centuries of Christendom than we often assume. I do disagree a little with her reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, which I think was about the first century husband-wife relationship rather than female leadership in general. [1]

Also see this eye-opening book by our own Kristina LaCelle-Peterson of Houghton.

[1] My translation, which sounds so caustic that its cultural/contextual dynamic should be obvious: "I do not let a wife teach or dominate a husband but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived but the wife, having been deceived, has come to be in transgression. But she will be saved through childbearing, if they remain in faith and love and holiness and sobriety."

This verse is the only verse in Scripture with this thrust. 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is clearly about disruptive speech in the light of 1 Cor. 11. Women do lead and minister in Paul's ministry. You can't base a theology on one verse, especially one that goes against whole Scripture principles. This is one of the major hermeneutical problems in the current American fundamentalist and neo-evangelical landscape. They are oriented around individual trump verses rather than the "greatest common denominators" of Scripture. This is the Pharisaic hermeneutic Jesus condemns in Matthew 23.

The Gospel in Cuba

No doubt because it's something President Obama is doing, a good deal of the American church will mindlessly and predictably condemn the idea of opening up relationships with Cuba again. I don't know enough to have an opinion that matters, although it seems to me I'd rather Cuba be friends with us right now than Russia.

That's not the point of this post. The opening of relations will undoubtedly open up more opportunities for Christianity in Cuba. In fact, it already has. We've already seen in recent years increased opportunities for the church in Cuba.

I hope we'll be very careful about this re-entry. On the one hand, I suspect this one will work a lot better than our work in Russia, which has seemingly evaporated after over two decades of work with little to show for it. One of our difficulties in Russia, I believe, was the fact that the Baptistic form of Christianity we tried to plant in Russia had little traction with the culture of Russia. Why didn't we try a reform movement within the Orthodox Church, much as Wesley did within the Anglican church? My hunch is because we didn't have enough historical or theological depth to see what that would look like. My hunch is that we just assumed a Billy Graham church growth approach was the Christian approach. I could be wrong.

The situation is different in Cuba. There is already a virulent form of Protestant Christianity in Latin America, and it fits much better with the culture of the Wesleyan Church than Russia did. In other words, we might be historically and theologically unaware of ourselves and still be able to present a form of Christianity there that resonates with the culture.

What I do hope is that someone somewhere in our church will actually be thinking about these things. I would hate to see happen what seems to have happened in Russia--initial great openness to spirituality after the iron curtain came down, followed by somewhat of a rejection of the cultural form of Christianity that rushed in thereafter.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kruger on the Earliest Canon List

Larry Hurtado has a nice summary of an argument from Michael Kruger, arguing that Origen's list of books that belong in the NT canon is authentic. They also accept the Muratorian Canon as authentic from the 200s.

The case seems very well argued and suggests that Origen had three lists (like Eusebius): 1) NT books that are widely accepted , 2) books not widely accepted, and 3) books that seem to have mixed content.

Pulling The Interview

Hollywood got a dose of reality yesterday with the pulling of The Interview. Yes, we're all sorry that political and economic reality has trumped freedom of expression. But it is an important reminder that none of the freedoms of the Bill of Rights are guaranteed in all situations. Americans--especially young Americans--have come to view these freedoms as absolutes, when that has never been the case.

So there is the capitalist reality. Sony is owned by a parent company in Japan--a lot closer to North Korea than Indiana. Sony in the US has to do what its owners tell it to do. Power trumps even what some rich actors want.

Then there is the geopolitical reality. Freedom of speech doesn't trump avoiding war, including Cyber-World War I.

Of course this movie will find its way to the public somehow. And when it does, the demand to see it will be astounding.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Rumors of Degree Cancellations...

Jim Davila has sounded the warning that the University of Manchester is considering closing degree level studies in Persian, Turkish, and Modern Hebrew. These are part of the monumental shifts in education that we have already seen in seminary education.

I had an idea for an MTS once that functioned on a seminar and mentor model. Students would work with an advisor and regularly present individual research at a weekly seminar that included students working on a wide range of topics. It would be on an Ox-Bridge model where the students would pursue an individualized course of study and would largely be self-directed, reporting regularly to the advisor and presenting to the seminar regularly. The number and specificity of the seminars would depend on the number of students in each category, but it would be scaled so that it could work financially with just one student.

I wonder if universities could have something like a "College of Obscure Majors." Obviously I'm joking, but it could function on a model something like this. I do think that the day of the "I know everything there is to know about a subject about a millimeter wide" is mostly over.

Witherington on Employment in Biblical Studies

Some sobering but realistic advice from Ben Witherington. I especially resonated with his comment on the potential for teaching pastors. If I worked at an educational institution, I would suggest developing biblical studies programs that aim at equipping teaching pastors. :-)

Also, if you are going into biblical studies, be prepared to teach primarily online and in distance modes, as he also says.

Biblical Foundations for Ministry

I'm toying with the idea of writing notes here on Wednesdays presenting biblical foundations for ministry. Who knows, if someone is interested it could become a book.

Here's the outline I'm contemplating, even though I don't have time to start today:

1. The Bible and Ministry
  • some brief hermeneutics
2. The Bible and Worship
  • God as the ultimate concern in ministry
  • baptism, communion, and much more
3. The Bible and the Mission
  • the whole Gospel
4. The Bible and Congregational Formation
  • individual and corporate spiritual formation
5. The Bible and Proclamation
  • more hermeneutics
  • how it integrates theology and history too
6. The Bible and Congregational Relationships
  • Christian fellowship, individual human needs, unity
7. The Bible and Leadership
  • principles on how to lead and manage it all

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jonah Adventures in Pre-Modernism

The book of Jonah is a pretty good case study in biblical reading paradigms. I use the term "pre-modern" reading of the Bible in reference to an ahistorical reading of the Bible that doesn't know it's ahistorical (as opposed to an ahistorical reading that is intentional).

1. For example, Jonah is not at all written in a way that would suggest that Jonah himself wrote it. It is all in the third person (he did this, he did that). It is about Jonah but written in a way that doesn't sound like it is Jonah himself telling the story (I did this, I did that). It has a prayer from Jonah in it, but this is quoted not given as the words of the author. Default paradigms for reading Scripture often can't see this because the paradigm doesn't read the way you would normally read something.

2. In the Gospels, Jesus talks about the Jonah story, but he doesn't ever say, "Jonah said." So the NT doesn't even present us with the question the Bible expert asks: "Is this way of referencing the OT a matter of paradigm or a divine indication of authorship?" Since the NT authors spoke in the categories of their day, I personally as a Bible expert do not think that comments in relation to OT authorship were the point of NT statements by Gospel authors and Jesus but rather some of the cultural clothing in which those points came.

3. Another point of paradigm shifting is to point out that when Jonah the prophet lived and when the book of Jonah was written are two completely different questions. So Jonah may have lived in the 700s, before Assyria (the empire of which Nineveh was the capital) destroyed the northern kingdom. But there is a very real possibility that the story of Jonah was not written until much later.

After all, I could write about Jonah even though he lived 2750 or so years ago. When the book was written is a completely different question than when Jonah lived.

4. In fact, my hunch is that Jonah was written long after even Assyria was decimated by the Babylonians. This makes its message even more powerful because the readers of Jonah knew that Assyria was an arch-enemy of Israel. God was willing to have mercy even on Nineveh! I think there are lots of very powerful messages that come out of this thought but I'll leave it at that.

5. Finally, and this is more a point of method, I usually emphasize that the literary context of Jonah is just the book of Jonah. The books of the OT were not bound together originally. Literary context gets a little complex when you think of some of the parts of the OT belonging together as units. Then there is the hypothetical literary context of sources and then the literary context of edited compilations.

But, as far as I know, Jonah was originally written as Jonah, not as part of a collection. So only the four chapters of Jonah are the literary context of Jonah.

If Jonah presupposes any of the other material in the OT, whether as books or as oral traditions, that is part of the historical context of Jonah. We cannot assume off hand that the author of Jonah knew the Pentateuch (or that Jonah did) or any other part of the OT. There are connections between 4:2 and other parts of the OT that are at least suggestive of connections, however.

Finally, the NT is neither part of the literary or historical context of Jonah. Nothing written after Jonah is part of the context of Jonah, at least not from an original meaning perspective. That material didn't exist for the author of Jonah to draw on.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Truth and Justice are the American Way

I think that truth and justice fit with Christianity, so that makes it easy for me to be an American as a Christian. I believe it could also be the case for someone who is Muslim as well... or a Buddhist, or some other religion.

But I'm reading some of a high school world history textbook. Take this line: Islam's "fundamental teaching that all Muslims are equal within the community of believers made the acceptance of conquerors and new rulers easier" (176). It's talking about the military conversion of parts of Africa to Islam in the 1000s.

I almost laughed. Now think of ISIS. Imagine they come to town and say, "We're going to come in here and take over your cities. But if you will convert to Islam, we will consider you all equal and that will make it okay." Of course not if you're a Christian or Hindu. Of course not if you're a woman.

I am of course not wanting a textbook that is biased against Islam either. What I'm wanting is a real commitment on the part of objectivity and truth, thinking that ardently strives neither to be biased one way or another. I don't want to walk on eggshells around someone who holds to a Black Athena theory or around Ken Ham or around some person who skews the history of Islam. I want to be able to say, this is just a mess of special pleading.

The American way is truth based on evidence and logic, approached as objectively as possible. America was forged by Enlightenment thinkers. An objective approach can fit with all these religions, including my own Christianity. The goal is to find what God truly thinks, not what my tribe wants him to think.

Give me truth, not collectivist thinking!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why Liberal Institutions Don't Grow

A fascinating piece by Connor Wood (HT: Joel Watts), arguing that the reason why liberal churches don't grow is because they are not strict. The thesis is that groups with strict standards--whatever they are--attract followers with a greater commitment and ultimately last longer.

It actually doesn't even matter whether those standards make sense or not to outsiders. The standard could be, "We are the people who don't use telephones" (Amish). It could be, "We are the people who don't drink alcohol" or "Our women don't wear anything but dresses" or "We are the people who live on a compound and have multiple wives."

Wood's fascinating suggestion is that liberal churches need to be strict about their open-minded, tolerant theology. Then they would attract followers who were more committed and stayed around longer.

I've actually thought about something along these lines before. I don't think I would necessarily have called it "strictness." It's more fervor for a cause. I hate to say it, but it seems to me that most men thirst to be fighting something. It can be fighting for a cause or fighting against an enemy, but you're going to get more men involved if you're smacking something.

Liberal seminaries are dying in part for the same reason, I think. They don't smack anything. They're boring. See what I did there. I'm making Wesley Seminary attractive by smacking other seminaries. :-)

So I can see Wood's point. If there were a liberal church that could convince people that they are the church that smacks fundamentalists, it might grow...

... or not. :-)

Purple Fish 2

Surprisingly busy week! But I did manage to read the rest of Part 1 of Mark Wilson's new book, Purple Fish at my son's swim meet last night. My first post on it is here.

Here is a nugget from each chapter:

Chapter 5
"Jesus is our ultimate purple fish." "When you find purple-fish Jesus, you've found all you need."

Chapter 6
"You can't be full of Jesus when you're full of other things."

Chapter 7
I'll just tease you with this punchline: "'Yeah,' Luke replied before I could cover his mouth. 'Mom prayed... but Dad didn't believe it could happen.'" "The gospel is better than the best news you've ever received."

Chapter 8
"Don't hide your brokenness... Perhaps you will find a treasure there."

Chapter 9
Teaser: "My roots go back to hillbillies, rabble-rousers, and moonshiners." "When it's personal, it's interesting."

Chapter 10
"Distressed couples are marriage missionaries in the making..."

Chapter 11
Teaser response to evangelism done well: "One of the daughters ran down the hall after me... She fumbled in her purse, pulled out a five dollar bill, and said, 'Here, go have a beer on me.'"

Australia Debate over Funding Theological Colleges

Mike Bird weighs in on the question of funding theological colleges in Australia. It only interested me because of the strong connection IWU now has with Wesley Institute in Syndney.

Indiana AP World History

I'm now one semester into reading through the AP world history text for Indiana high schools with my son. Here are some thoughts to whoever controls this curriculum, especially about the textbook, World Civilizations: The Global Experience.

I'm not competent to know the bias of this book, and I don't want to be one of those ignorant parents that meddles with things they know not. It does feel like one goal of the book is to put "Western" civilization in its place a tad, which I find annoying, but that's not my reason to write.

Basically, this book is so boring to me that I want to jab out my eyes. This book tells me that history is so boring I'd almost rather jump off a cliff than pursue it as a long term subject of interest. Some of the sentences felt to me like they'd been translated from German into English.

Basically, I would hope we could do better. Some of the math textbooks I've seen have been exceptional. But this one almost has me hating history--not an easy feat. Unless the history teacher using this book is Robin Williams, I'd almost rather them have no textbook at all.

How 'bout it, Indiana?

P.S. The passing opinions of Ken Schenck are not those of anyone who matters.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Christians and Violence

1. Yesterday the report on the torturing the CIA did in the aftermath of 9-11 came out. Four questions seem to emerge: 1) Was it moral? 2) Was it legal? 3) Did it work? and 4) Should the report have come out?

I'm primarily interested in the first question today. You can either answer yes or no, or you can say that there was some point where it became immoral.

I am not a Christian pacifist, although I admire those who are. They feel more Christ-like than I do. Of course if I thought their position really was more Christ-like, I would adopt it.

But certainly the Bible accepts the necessity of war, both OT and NT (cf. Revelation). The New Testament implicitly accepts capital punishment (e.g., Rom. 13:4). To me that is not necessarily the end of the story, for we have to consider the trajectory of the kingdom, and it's pretty clear that the trajectory of the kingdom is toward peace. But the Bible assumes, doesn't even consider the possibility that there will not be war between now and the eschaton, IMO.

2. So I am a "just war" guy, and perhaps nowhere sets this position out better for me than the Catholic Catechism (see 2307-17). The danger needs to be severe. All other means need to have been tried. There should be good chance of success. Your action should not create more harm than good.

War requires killing people. It's usually hard to do that successfully without a whole lot of hate going on. Yet hatred of people is immoral for a Christian. There is the rub for the Christian when it comes to war. And how could you torture someone without a whole lot of hatred going on? I'm sure there has never been a war without torture on all sides. It's just impossible to keep it a secret now.

3. I write today with a heavy heart. For many Christians, the immorality of torture is obvious. Blessed are you. You have the spirit of the Beatitudes. You are the kind of person I want to see in the pulpits of our churches. You are the ministers of reconciliation. You are the peacemakers. You are the pure in heart.

The philosopher in me asks the question, "If you had a person who knew where a nuclear bomb was hidden in New York City, and torture would get that information from the person, wouldn't the end justify the means?" This question troubles me, and I won't give an answer. If I did, I would start with lots of qualifications and I'm not sure where it would end up.

What concerns me, and this is where I am going, is that I suspect there are a lot of pastors in America whose sense is, "Of course we should torture those evil people to death." This is what concerns me, that there are many "Christians" who not only would affirm torture, but might do so with no hesitation whatsoever.

We should find this dynamic troubling. There is a human dynamic. We saw it in Nazi Germany. It is the difficulty at some point to distinguish between our religion and our nationalism. It is a morally dark place where we make killing for country or religion a virtue. It is a place where the jihadist lives. It is a place where we enjoy violence and rationalize it.

If you are a Christian and especially if you are a pastor, and your bias is to defend this torture, I hope the Spirit will trouble your heart. I say that without taking a position on the philosophy question. I am taking a position on the attitude question.

Anyone with the heart of Christ should find this report troubling, whatever the answers to these other questions. If you don't, you have no business being in the pulpit.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Faith versus works in Paul

Continuing some of my writing from Sunday...
... If Dunn is correct that Paul primarily has works of the Jewish Law in view, particularly those actions that distinguished Jew from Gentile, then the issue is alleviated somewhat. Then Paul was never thinking about works of love or a life free of murder or sexual immorality when he declared that Jews and Gentiles are not justified by works of Law. Rather, he was primarily thinking about works like circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance, and so forth. [1] This ambiguity in Paul’s language of Law goes a long way toward explaining what might otherwise seem like inconsistencies. How could a Gentile possibly demonstrate the Law written on their hearts (Rom. 2:15) unless some of Paul's uses of the word law referred to a core of the Jewish Law that did not include those boundary markers than distinguished Jew from Gentile? Other instances then had these boundary markers as their primary referent.

A second ameliorating factor in explaining Paul's rhetoric of faith versus works against a revised sense of his Jewish background is the strong possibility that at least some of his references to the "faith of Jesus Christ" refer not to human faith directed toward Christ but to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ himself. The name of Richard Hays is not usually invoked when presenting the new perspective on Paul. He is rather associated most strongly with the resurgence of a particular interpretation of the phrase, pistis Iēsou Christou, in passages like Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16. [2] Reviving and re-presenting an older suggestion, Hays argued that this phrase should be understood as a reference to the "faith of Jesus Christ," his faithfulness to the point of death, rather than to faith in Jesus Christ, as the phrase had traditionally been understood. It is a question of whether Jesus in this phrase is an objective genitive—trust of Christ—or a subjective genitive—faith of Christ, understood as Christ's faith. Hays' revival of this interpretation was not a direct result of Sanders’ work on Judaism nor of Dunn and Wright’s versions, so it is understandable that it is often not included in discussions of the new perspective.

Another reason why the pistis Christou debate is often not connected to the new perspective is the fact that James Dunn, one of the key players in the new perspective, is Hays' most notorious sparring partner on the issue. Neither Sanders nor Dunn agree with Hays' reading of the key passages. On the one hand, Hays does not deny that faith in Jesus was part of Paul's theology. Indeed, part of his argument in relation to the interpretation of Galatians 2:16 is that Dunn’s interpretation implies an extensive redundancy in this verse. Paul's statement amounts to three consecutive mentions of faith in Christ: "knowing… through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have put faith in Christ Jesus in order to be justified through faith in Christ." By contrast, in Hays’ interpretation, only the second instance, the expression εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν (“on Christ Jesus we have believed”), refers to faith directed toward Christ Jesus.

If Hays' interpretation is at least in part correct, our picture of earliest Christianity does seem even more integrated with its Jewish precedents than even in Dunn's reconstruction. Paul’s theology, for example, turns out to be theocentric more than Christocentric. God rather than Christ becomes the primary object of faith (cf. 1 Thess. 1:8). I have argued elsewhere that Paul may, in effect, argue "from Hays to Dunn." In this reconstruction, the initial sense of διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ in both Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 would be "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ," perhaps a shorthand for a common Christian belief that the faithful death of Jesus was an atonement for the sins of Israel. Paul may then have used the ambiguity of the genitive phrase in order to suggest that the fundamental principle of justification was faith, now contrasted with works of Law in a more ethnocentric sense. [3] This reading combines the strengths of both Hays and Dunn's arguments.

In this revised perspective on Paul, Paul conflicts with other Jews primarily on the significance of what we might call the ethnic particulars of the Jewish Law, those boundary aspects of the Law that most differentiated Jew from Gentile. This is an argument generated from practice, namely, whether Gentiles must be circumcised and whether Jewish believers can have table fellowship with Gentile believers. These arguments are simply ideological proxies for real people that Paul believed must be fully included within the people of God.

Paul argues that faith is the more basic principle than these boundary practices. He uses the example of Abraham, who was justified before he engaged in the Jewish boundary marker of circumcision (e.g., Rom. 4:9-10). While Paul's Jerusalem brothers and sisters agree that the faithful death of Christ as essential to justification, in Paul's view they overrate the significance of Jewish particulars in the Law in the equation of righteousness. Paul radicalizes the principle--even Jews are not established as right before God by their keeping of boundary markers. The essence of rightness before God is faith, and there is a core to the Law that even Gentiles can keep, a circumcision of the heart...

[1] As Dunn and Wright have both demonstrated, 4QMMT among the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that the phrase "works of Law" especially referred to inter-Jewish debates over how to keep the Jewish Law. See Dunn, "4QMMT and Galatians" in New Perspective, 339-345 and Wright, "4QMMT and Paul: Justification, 'Works' and Eschatology," in Pauline Perspectives, 332-355.

[2] πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. His primary work in this regard is, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[3] "2 Corinthians 4:13 and the πίστις Χριστοῦ Debate," CBQ (2008): 524-37.

JROTC and Leadership Theory

It's quite ironic for me to be reviewing leadership theory with my son for a JROTC test, since I've mainly encountered this material as part of the Seminary Leadership course. He's learning things like:
  • Trait theory is about 100 years out of date--the idea that leaders are only born, not made.
  • The two key behaviors of a leader, at least in the behavior theories of the mid-twentieth century, are relationship and structure.
  • The prevailing theory of the last fifty years has been more contingency theory. Good leadership doesn't presume just one set of skills or approach but requires the ability to wed one's individual strengths to specific types of situations.
I found it hilarious that he's learning sentiments from Peter Drucker (e.g., you're not a leader if no one's following you). He's learning that direction, motivation, and purpose are the three domains of leadership.

Fun stuff!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Hays' Reading Backwards

1. If you were to ask me the top influences on me as a New Testament scholar, James Dunn probably comes first. For all my griping Tom Wright is probably second. Then I think the tie goes next to Richard Hays and Krister Stendahl.

[I am of course sui generis as a Hebrews person--the interpretation I preach came neither from a mortal nor through a mortal, but... just kidding]

I'm sure Hays doesn't know it but I actually co-dedicated one of my church-directed Paul books to him, N. T. Wright, and of course my Doctor father, Dunn. I'm rather bad about telling people that I have dedicated books to them. My old professor David Thompson just happened to wander through the Seminary building last month and, as he was leaving, it suddenly occurred to me that I had co-dedicated a book to him as well. ;-) Dr. Bauer, yours is signed and also sitting on my desk.

If by chance Richard Hays or Tom Wright stumble on this post, I'd be glad to send you a copy if you need something to balance out your bed. :-)

2. But I'm on a tangent again...

Hays' new book, Reading Backwards, promises to be very memorable indeed. His books are all quite significant. Practically every one is a benchmark of some sort: The Faith of Jesus Christ, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, The Moral Vision of the New Testament...

This is a book about the way in which the Gospel authors breathed the Old Testament as an intertext. Hays of course is known for leaning more toward the side that sees the NT authors as presupposing more rather than less of the literary contexts they quote and to which they allude. "Metalepsis" is his middle name, meaning that he thinks allusions pull in significant meaning from the texts with which they interact.

For today I just read his Preface. [I particularly resonated with the part about it being hard to get much scholarly writing done as an academic Dean] He puts some stakes down. He is including John. He will be looking at the Greek OT rather than the Hebrew, since the Gospel authors were drawing on the Greek, not the Hebrew. He is not particularly friendly to Q but is good friends with Mark Goodacre (just kidding). He is in the "Early High Christology Club" (as opposed to Dunn, who is in the High Christology club and the late Maurice Casey, who was in the Christology Club--in joke).

He mentions the scholars who have most influenced him in this area (not that he always has agreed with them): C. H. Dodd, Barnabas Lindars, Nils Dahl, Donald Juel (who is closer to my thinking), Hans Frei, Joel Marcus, N. T. Wright, Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Daniel Boyarin, and Kavin Rowe. David Moffitt gets the nod for being the real author of the book (again, just kidding).

Well, that's just the Preface. But it promises to be a most excellent read, first delivered as lectures at Cambridge and, eventually, to be a full scholarly treatment (probably after he steps down from being Dean ;-)

Looking at a Purple Fish...

This is the week I dive in to the waters of Purple Fish, a new book by Mark Wilson, whom I consider a good friend and a incredible pastor.

This morning I read the first four chapters and I can tell you this: Mark is a good writer. The style is incredibly easy to read, completely transparent, and it pulls you along. Those of us who grew up under the pressure to witness to anyone, anywhere, no matter what they were doing or how annoying we were to them... we will find ourselves laughing at Mark's own guilt stories. How many of us felt guilty not to stop--not to help but to inquire about the eternal destiny of someone having car trouble on the side of the road?

I'm just started, but Mark's honesty is refreshing as he shares his own pilgrimage with evangelism. At the end of the fourth chapter, he has a personal breakthrough.

More to come...

Sunday, December 07, 2014

New Perspective and Works

... One feature of Wright’s interpretation that seems particularly helpful is his recognition of the role that works play for Paul in the ongoing life of someone in Christ. Key texts in this regard are Romans 2:6-10, 12-16 and 2 Corinthians 5:9-10, both of which seem to indicate that God will take into account the deeds of a believer in the judgment. [1] If I read Wright correctly, he believes that those who are truly justified by faith in the present will live, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the sort of life that will result in justification by works in the future. That is to say, "the verdict already announced is indeed a true anticipation of the verdict yet to be announced." [2]

Of course, Paul is less than explicit about any certain connection of this sort between justification by faith in the present and a future justification that takes deeds into account. [3] The best we can do is suppose that Paul would generally, although not certainly, expect the two to correspond. Nevertheless, it is also difficult to deny Wright's conclusion about the role works play for Paul in the final judgment. Romans 2:6 indicates that God will repay each person, both Jew and Gentile, for what they have done. While interpreters have often considered these verses as a sort of hypothetical, 2 Corinthians 5:10 presents the same idea in a context that has no hint of the hypothetical. Paul tells believers in Christ that they will give an account for what they have done while in their bodies.

It is hard for Pauline scholarship to kick against these conditional pricks. Nevertheless, Paul considers even his own place in the resurrection to be contingent on his faithfulness (e.g., Phil. 3:10-11; cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27). We are not suggesting that Paul really felt insecure about his final salvation any more than most Jews felt insecure about their membership in the people of God. We are simply suggesting that Paul expected those in Christ to produce a life of righteousness, a life of striving for "glory, honor, and immortality" (Rom. 2:7). God would evaluate those in Christ in relation to their works. It would matter, just as it mattered in general to Jews that they act in faithful response to God's covenant with them.

Paul does not clarify the details of great interest from the perspective of later theology. At least on a surface level, his language speaks in synergistic terms. He did not know the future in order to guard himself against accusations of Pelagianism. He did not produce a passage where he explained how justification by faith and judgment that includes consideration of works might fit together. So the disciplined exegete will leave it at that and not try to fit his thought together more than his writings themselves seem to warrant...

[1] Key places where Wright discusses these passages include, “The Law in Romans 2” (1996), now in Pauline Perspectives, 134-51; Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 158-68; and Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1086-90.

[2] Justification, 198.

[3] I am assuming here that, at least at some points, Paul's justification language is forensic in the sense that word has normally had in Pauline scholarship, contra J. L. Martyn, Galatians (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2004) and D. A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God.

A4. In his death, Jesus took humanity's place.

This is the fourth post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished a section on Christology.
A4. In his death, Jesus took humanity's place.

1. While sacrifice primarily had to do with the satisfaction of a god, it could also have an element of substitution, where the sacrifice in some sense took the place of the worshiper. So the substitutionary theory of atonement holds that, while we deserved to die, Christ died in our place. Great care should be taken with this idea, for most of the verses used to support it probably did not exactly mean this idea.

For example, to say that Christ died "for us" is not the same thing as saying he died "in our place." I can do something for your advantage or in your favor that doesn't exactly have the sense of me taking your place. While we were still sinners, "Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). This verse is not saying that he took our place as sinners. The point is that it would have made sense for Christ to do something for a friend, but he died for us when we were his enemies.

"For us" in this context is certainly not some mathematical sense of penal substitution, where Christ takes our punishment in some criminal sense to some precise degree. In its most rigid form, this idea requires a substitute for sin to suffer the exact quantity of punishment that each individual sinner deserved. Some interpret the line in the Apostle's Creed, "he descended to hell" in reference to Christ experiencing the punishment for our sins there in between his death and resurrection.

But there is no biblical text that either says or means anything of this sort. It is a medieval idea that traces to Anselm and that became part of the Reformation through John Calvin. It is neither a biblical doctrine nor one that ultimately fits with the character of God.

2. The statement, "he descended to Hades," should be understood to say that "he descended to the dead." There is no verse in the Bible that indicates Jesus suffered in Gehenna, the hell of fire. Hades is the Greek word for the realm of the dead, not the place of punishment for the wicked dead. So Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27 cannot be used to support this position. Similarly, 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6, where Christ seems to visit the dead after his resurrection, say absolutely nothing about him suffering there.

We must therefore consider this notion of Christ suffering in hell to be one element of the medieval perspective that should also have been abandoned as unbiblical in the Reformation. We are a few centuries late, but the spirit of the Reformation is semper reformanda, "always needing to be reformed." Jesus did not suffer in hell to take our punishment. It is an unbiblical notion.

3. The New Testament at times approaches using transfer terminology in relation to Christ's death. For example, Paul says in Galatians 3:13 says that on the cross Christ became a curse "for us." Even here, Paul does not exactly say that our curse was transferred to him. He certainly does not say that our guilt or penalty was transferred. This is the language of defilement and abomination, language from a different worldview than our modern legal mentality. It is purity language.

Israel was cursed for not keeping its covenant with God (Gal. 3:10). But Christ redeemed Israel from the curse of failing to keep the covenant, and everyone else with them (3:13). His cursing on the cross in some way seems to transfer or absorb our curse. More precisely, it "redeems" or "pays the price" for our curse. Redemption in this sense is obviously a metaphor, and accordingly we must be careful not to over-read it.

The image of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement is relevant here (Lev. 16). Two goats were involved. One was sacrificed, the other set into the wilderness. The one that was sent out into the desert in a sense transferred Israel's impurity and uncleanness to it and carried it away from the camp, so that the camp could be clean (Lev. 16:10). Again, there is a transfer of impurity here, but not a substitution of guilt. The goat absorbs the defilement of Israel, perhaps similar to Christ taking on our curse.

Other verses in the New Testament that are often read to indicate some straightforward substitution also likely have the broader sense of Christ being a sacrifice for us rather than some precise replacement for us. 1 Peter 2:24 says, "'He himself bore our sins' in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness," and 3:18 says, "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."

In these verses, Christ clearly dies "for us," but no precise equation is given of some legal exchange. It is not said that Christ is some exact substitute. Indeed, it is a corporate atonement that Christ makes here, formulated in terms of humanity as a whole rather than, as we immediately think with our Western glasses, an individual substitution.

Christ tasted death for us (Heb. 2:9). There is an overtone of substitution here to be sure. He did it on our behalf, but he also did it so that we would not necessarily have to die. Most of us still do, of course. But the power of death has been defeated in the long term. There is a "taking our place" element here and in all passages like this one.

So there is certainly an element in the New Testament of Christ taking our place. We are just prone to over-read it. It is not formulated in legal terms--Christ taking our sentence and criminal punishment. It is formulated more in terms of defilement. It is not formulated in individual terms. It is our sins taken together corporately. And it is not mathematical, as if God must account for every last ounce of penalty. In short, the Bible does not teach penal substitution in the manner of Anselm or John Calvin.

4. Here we should say a note about 2 Corinthians 5:21. Wearing our modern glasses, it is very easy to think we see a transference of sin and righteousness in this verse: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." It is hard not to hear overtones of transference in this verse, for the verse is arranged as a kind of chiasm: 1) no sin 2) becomes sin so that 3) we with sin 4) become no sin.

However, if it had these sorts of overtones, they were likely a play on words whose more basic meaning would have been obvious in the context of the earliest church. So what does it mean for God to make Jesus "sin"? The most obvious meaning in a first century context would be for Jesus to be a sin offering "for us," as in Romans 8:3.

Similarly, the phrase, "the righteousness of God" had a history at the time as well, not least in Old Testament passages in Psalms and Isaiah where God's righteousness is parallel to his faithfulness and his salvation (e.g., Ps. 85:8-11; Isa. 46:13). [1] The righteousness of God is thus that faithful propensity of God to save and rescue his people. The context of 2 Corinthians 5 is full of such imagery, for Paul is talking about how God is reaching out to the world to reconcile it back to himself. [2]

The first meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:21 was thus likely, "God made him who did not have sin into a sin offering on our behalf, so that we might demonstrate the righteousness of God in Christ."

Still, it is difficult not to think that Paul has worded this verse in such a way as to evoke a kind of double entendre. "In Christ," we have gone from sin to righteousness. In some sense, Christ took on our sin as a sacrifice of atonement. This is nothing like a straightforward exchange or transfer. It is a poetic exchange.

5. The phrase "in Christ" brings us to a more fundamental category for Paul. Paul's writings have a strong element of our participation in the salvific (salvation related) actions of Christ. We are baptized "into Christ." We are baptized "into his death" (Rom. 6:3). When he died, we died. As he lives, so we are raised (Rom. 6:8).

The phrase "in Christ" leaps repeatedly from the letters of Paul. When we are baptized, we are somehow, mystically, incorporated into Christ's body. Christians constitute the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:13). We have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), which allows us to die to the Jewish Law and its condemnation. In Christ, we will all be made alive, just as in Adam we all died (1 Cor. 15:22).

This is something more profound here than a mere legal exchange. We actually die ourselves "in Christ." It is not just Christ dying in our place, it is us dying in Christ's body with him. We participate in his death. We participate in his life. This is not substitution. It is incorporation.

6. With this groundwork laid, we should dispense with all sorts of other foolish rumors about atonement. God the Son, Jesus, is the one who suffered on the cross, not God the Father. Jesus learned what it was to suffer death on the cross. God the Father, however, did not suffer on the cross. [3] God the Father did not learn something on the cross.

The view that God learned what it was like to suffer--indeed, the idea that, in Jesus, God learned what it was like to be human--assumes that God was not all-knowing beforehand. Rather, since God created the possibility of suffering out of nothing, God knew exactly what it was like to suffer from eternity past. He created suffering as a possibility. There is no distinction in God between experiential knowledge and head knowledge for God. This is a human distinction.

In the same way, the popular notion that "God turned his face away" when Jesus assumed our sins finds no clear basis in Scripture. It is rather a romantic notion built on a series of assumptions that go far beyond anything the Scripture says. It both involves a significant anthropomorphism (picturing God in human terms) and a legalistic sense of God's justice.

The Bible simply says nothing of the sort. Our sins cannot harm God. Our actions are just not that significant. God does not throw temper tantrums when people do not listen to him. This is the reaction of someone who is insecure, and Go is not insecure. When the Bible pictures God getting angry at sin, it is impressing the seriousness of sin for us, not for God. We diminish God if we think these images, drawn from humanity as pictures we can understand, literally picture God's mind. He is far greater than that.

In his death, Jesus took humanity's place. That is, he took away our stain and our shame, our curse. He became sin, a sin offering in fact, so that we might become truly righteous in him. And in him we are, if we have the Holy Spirit. We are in Christ, incorporated into his death and incorporated into his life. We have been crucified with Christ, and the life that we now live, we live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

Next week: A5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.

[1] The discussion of the phrase, "the righteousness of God" is extensive in biblical scholarship. As good places to start, see N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) and Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1993).

[2] N. T. Wright has effectively set out this interpretation in, "On Becoming the Righteousness of God," in Pauline Theology, D. M. Hay, ed., vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 200-8.

[3] A false idea known as "patripassianism."

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Conservative is relative...

I sat on a plane recently next to a Chinese student from Beijing who was attending college in the US. We were talking about newspapers and I suggested that The Wall Street Journal was a relatively conservative newspaper. He looked at me really funny.

It turns out that, since conservative means resistant to change or slow to change, in China the conservatives are those who do not want communism to change. To favor capitalistic reforms is progressive or "liberal" in China. Of course in America, capitalism is conservative and any movement toward Keynesian economics is considered liberal.

It shows that what is conservative depends on what tradition you are trying to preserve, that you do not want to change. For Wesleyans, the affirmation of women in ministry is conservative. For a Baptist, it's progressive.

"Conservative" and "progressive" are inevitably relative terms. So in China, Ted Cruz would be a flaming liberal on economics.

Clever post on Santa by Candida Moss

Well written in a playful style, How Santa Hurts Christmas.

Grafting Gentiles into the Tree

In the first chapter, we saw that one aspect of the recently revised perspectives on Paul and Judaism was a greater sense of the continuity between Israel and earliest Christianity. Indeed, throughout the book I have argued that it is much more accurate to speak of Christian Jews than it is to speak of Jewish Christians. Even Gentile believers in Christ were, at the beginning, something along the lines of Gentile converts to Israel. When I speak of "Gentile Christians," I am in a sense speaking of a certain species of "Gentile Israelite."

In this chapter, we now want to look at Hebrews in relation to the Jewish sense of election, covenant, and the Law in its environment. The previous chapter looked at the Christology of Hebrews in relation to Jewish "monotheism." Earlier chapters have looked at Hebrews in relation to the temple, which speaks to Jewish conceptions of land and redemption. [1] Now we want to ask to what extent Hebrews might reflect a partitioning or parting of the ways with Judaism in relation to election, covenant, and Torah. [2]

At this point it is perilous to enter into Pauline waters, even though we must. Much like the first chapter, we will simply have to take certain positions and more or less by-pass the significant amount of debate that surrounds an issue such as this one. The amount of literature on Paul and the Law is staggering to the mind. To some extent, we will simply have to comfort ourselves with the fact that the position we will take here in relation to Paul has already been defended elsewhere by others, even though we cannot hope to rehearse an exhaustive argument.

So we begin with Paul as potentially relevant background to Hebrews on the question of election, covenant, and the Jewish Law...

[1] In Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood  Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), Pamela Eisenbaum considers redemption one of three key components of Judaism at the time, along with worship and Torah (68). N. T. Wright considers her category of redemption to correspond loosely to his third element, "eschatology," alongside monotheism and election, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 612 **.

[2] See chapter 1. For language of "partitioning," see especially D. Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004).

Making money off Christians...

Skip to #4 below if you want to know that this post is about. Key sentence in this post: "I have a hunch that, in Christian circles, it is the most ideologically conservative professors who are most in attitude like the professor in God's Not Dead."

1. I work at a Christian university. It would be interesting to know what people think we do here. Probably what people most want us to do is train students with the skills to be able to find a good job. I think indeed that society has more or less dictated to us that "skills for work" are our number one task. Seems completely appropriate to me.

As a Wesleyan Christian university, many of us think a primary goal of an education is the spiritual formation of the students, to facilitate a deeper love for God and others and a deeper commitment to Christ. We have required chapels. There are small groups meeting on campus. Professors are expected to integrate their faith with their teaching and in general with how they interact with students. I'm in a reading group that this week spent an hour reflecting on IWU's goal of seeing our students become "sanctified" in the sense of growing toward spiritual maturity while they are at IWU.

There is another goal a good university will have and that has to do what are traditionally called the "liberal arts." No, that isn't "liberal" in the way we currently use the word. The phrase has been around for centuries, long before our contemporary sense of conservative and liberal existed. I almost feel we need to come up with a different phrase because of how stupid people are today.

The liberal arts are about making us reflective humans who aren't just slaves to whatever ideas and habits we happen to be born into. They are about learning how to think objectively. They are about being able to understand how people and groups different than we are think. We learn from the past to help us live for the future. They are about appreciating things that distinguish us as humans from other animals, things that enrich life like art and music.

At a Christian liberal arts college, part of this broader enrichment includes learning about the Bible and usually a Christian philosophy class, one that examines life from a faith standpoint. IWU just this year added a required theology class. They studied the OT and NT already, but now Christian beliefs will be taught in a course that organizes core beliefs into a systematic form.

 2. And now for the title to this post. First of all, the title is not about Christian colleges making money off people. I assure you that the pastor of a medium sized church earns more than the vast majority of Christian college professors. I know one Christian college where the most senior professors earn a little over $50,000 a year. If you think anyone at your neighborhood Christian college is getting rich, think again.

What inspired this post is a recent event at IWU that, as usual, was twisted in social media. Why anyone continues to think you are getting the straight scoop in social media is beyond me.

First of all, you're insane if you think IWU is liberal. I am a Republican and the fact that I feel the need to say so in itself indicates how stupid the situation is. I assure you that the very few people at IWU who are Democrats don't tell anyone about it. I'm not even sure who they are, if that is any indication.

IWU had Mike Pence, Republican governor, on campus recently. Susan Brooks has been on campus. I can't remember when any Democratic candidate on this level has ever been on campus. Once upon a time when someone wanted to start a student Democrat organization, it took a little time for everyone to process that and I'm not even sure if it still exists. A Republican professor had to serve as its faculty advisor because no one could find a professor who was a Democrat to do it. We're suing the government so that we do not have to provide abortion associated health care in our insurance.

It is a disgrace for our context to be such that I feel like I should say these things. College is about learning to think objectively, which means that you need to understand the positions of people who disagree with you. Those who are afraid to hear opposing points of view--and can't do so without exploding--probably aren't very confident in the views they claim to have. Critical thinking isn't necessarily about changing your position. It's about holding your positions with eyes wide open, not as a robot.

3. So there was a recent event. I think it was actually part of a series initiated by students. Once again, they searched high and low for someone who might try to present at least some contrast, even if the person had to play the Devil's advocate. If you know what I'm talking about, if you've seen the small snippet, you can see that the thrust of the panel was so overwhelmingly pro-life that it is absurd to the highest degree to think that IWU has any ambiguity at all in its position on abortion. It doesn't.

A warning here. A good thinker gets suspicious when the deck is stacked or when s/he thinks opposing views are being treated like straw men. Having a panel that is so overwhelmingly stacked in one way, where it even feels like the pro-life team is almost bullying the person drafted to create contrast, will actually have a tendency to push the smarter students in the room away from the dominant position.

I wish someone else had served in the "push back" role. I don't know if the guy knew he was destined to be a sheep to the slaughter. I know at least two people turned down the role knowing it would be a piranha fest. The professor basically said he was conflicted. He was pro-life but he recognized that there were difficult situations sometimes. As you would expect, he's been stoned in the social media since the event.

4. Now to the real point of this post. The organization that presented the pro-life position has seemed to have a hey-day with this thing. Here's my hunch. It sure seems like they are using this event to raise money for their organization. They've taken a snippet of the event and put it on their website and now seem to be raising money off it.

So here's a scenario that I wonder if we are prey to, now speaking in general. Do organizations that advocate for certain causes make money off public frenzies like this one? Take a situation. Blow it out of proportion. Play into the fears or anger of your constituency. Raise a bunch of money off the masses.

In this case, you already have this stereotype that universities are liberal. You all know the movie, God's Not Dead. Here's an ironic thought. Could it be that conservatives sometimes act like the atheist in this movie? There are no doubt liberals at secular colleges that badger those who disagree with them. But could it be that some Christians act this way toward those who disagree with them? If you watch the video of this event, who is most badgering the other side?

I have a hunch that, in Christian circles, it is the most ideologically conservative professors who are most in attitude like the professor in God's Not Dead. Both liberals and conservatives are surely guilty of bullying those who disagree with them, yes? Absolutely yes! But that's just not what college is supposed to be like.

I'm thinking of a Christian college I know. IMO, the president's recruitment strategy is to vilify other Christian colleges as liberal. He or she loves programs that skewer the liberal and the atheist. I have at least heard that any faculty or administration person who disagrees with him/her is quickly pushed out of the university. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if s/he tries to use this event against IWU if s/he hears about it, to try to recruit for his/her own college.

So what is the impression we get here? It is of a college where professors are encouraged to be militant for a particular conservative point of view and where anyone who disagrees or even asks questions is quickly silenced. In short, it looks like a college situation where the ideal is for the attitudes of professors to be just like the professor in the movie God's Not Dead, just on the opposite side of the issue. Now isn't that ironic?!

5. The bottom line is that I hope we as Christians will be better thinkers than this. Brain science tells us that we do not think as well when we are in an emotional frenzy. Could it be that there are groups out there that are preying on our irrationality? In this scenario, they would know, consciously or intuitively, that the more worked up we get, the more money they can raise. And we seem to mindlessly play right into their hands.

Truth is no respecter of person. A real commitment to truth requires us to be willing to change our positions on things given a sufficient reason. The other approach talks a lot about truth, but it's really about preserving its own traditions.

God's not afraid for us to question whether he exists, because he knows he does.