Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Cardboard Paul

There is a very simple and tidy version of Paul that is easy to understand and explain. What's nice about it is that it can be taught from children's church to the pulpit. You can't get to heaven by being good enough. No one can earn their way. All we need to do is believe in Jesus and we'll go to heaven.

It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with that theology. But there are a number of scholarly consensuses that may surprise even many pastors. These are places where most Pauline experts pretty much agree that Paul was saying something a little different from popular interpretations. Here are some examples:
  • "Paul" was not Paul's Christian name. Acts calls him "Saul" for about 10 years after he believed. He did not see his faith in Jesus as a changing of religions. He remained an Israelite to his death. The name "Paul" probably relates to his Roman identity.
  • Paul's opponents in Galatia were not non-believing Jews but other Christians.
  • The starting point for all Paul's language of law is the Jewish law. Paul never uses a phrase like "the moral law." Our starting point for all Paul's language of law should be the Jewish Law.
  • The phrase, "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17 is now generally taken in reference to God's righteousness, his faithfulness to save, not to a righteous standing from God (although that idea is also in Paul). The OT evidence for this reading is overwhelming.
  • When Paul says, "all have sinned," he was thinking in terms of Jews and Gentiles, both groups, even though he held this of all individuals too.
  • Romans 7 is not about the inability of a Christian or Paul himself to do good. In the overall context, Paul is vividly picturing the struggle of someone who wants to serve God, but is not yet in Christ.
  • Paul doesn't really talk about heaven as our eternal destiny but about a future resurrection to a restored and liberated earth.
  • Romans 9-11 are not primarily about individual predestination but about God's plan to bring the Gentiles into the people of God while most of Israel disbelieved.
  • Paul's ministry focused on non-Jews. He did not primarily minister to Jews nor did he see his mission as ministering in established churches. He started churches where there weren't any and he primarily focused on Gentiles. All his churches were primarily Gentile churches.
Here are some further shifts in thinking that are quite common, even if not unanimous interpretations by experts on Paul:
  • Paul did not see himself as a horrible, miserable failure at keeping the Law before he believed. Quite the contrary. He probably thought he was the best Pharisee since sliced bread (Phil. 3:6).
  • Gospel certainly means "good news," but the focus of the good news for Paul was not on salvation but on the inaugurated reign of Jesus. Salvation may be an implication of the good news, but it is not the center of the good news.
  • "Justification by faith" was not really the center of Paul's theology but a theme that emerged primarily when he was debating with his Christian opponents (e.g., in Galatians and Romans). 
  • The expression, the "faith of Jesus Christ" in Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 is probably a reference to the "faithfulness of Jesus Christ" to death, although I think most of Paul's references to faith have to do with human faith in God. Paul's theology was thus more theo-centric than Christo-centric.
  • The expression "works of Law" especially had in mind those parts of the Jewish Law that distinguished Jew from Gentile (e.g., circumcision). Paul was not talking so much about faith versus works in the abstract.
  • In Romans 2, Paul refers to Gentile Christians when he speaks of Gentiles who demonstrate the law written on their heart. This means they have transformed minds, walk in the Spirit, love their neighbor, etc.
  • Paul teaches a thorough depravity in Romans 3 rather than an absolute depravity.
Here are a few interpretations that I also believe are fairly obvious exegetically:
  • Paul overwhelmingly understands salvation in the future tense. We will be saved from wrath (Rom. 5:9). Any present tense language is proleptic, anticipatory.
  • Paul does not have a doctrine of inherited sin or a sin nature. This is a bad translation in the NIV1984. Paul speaks of "flesh," which is not inherently sinful but inherently weak. When Sin entered the world, the default human state became sinful, not because we have a sin nature but because our flesh exists in a world in which Sin reigns. We cannot help but sin without the power of the Spirit. But we did not sin "in" Adam (Augustine's misinterpretation of Rom. 5:12). We sin like Adam.
  • The transformed mind of Romans 12:2 is not about ideas but about our mindset toward how to live, especially to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Here are some other debate points about the real Paul:
  • Paul probably lost the debate at Antioch in Galatians 2 and spent most of his ministry in some tension with the Jerusalem church, including James and Peter.
  • I don't think Galatians was Paul's first letter, but a letter written closer to the time of Romans, perhaps while Paul was in Ephesus on his third missionary journey. Corinth has also been suggested on his second.
  • Both Philippians and Philemon may have been written during jail times at Ephesus. It seems quite possible that Paul was jailed for a time at Ephesus around the time of Acts 19 and that he may have been kicked out of the city and told not to return.
  • I'm sympathetic to the interpretation that sees the "worship of angels" in Colossians 2 as a reference to worship with angels rather than worshiping angels.
  • Many more...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Practical Theology of Baptism

Today my Romans class reached Romans 6:4 and we ended up spending most of the class discussing the practical theology of baptism. I consider myself very wesleyan when it comes to the topic (in contrast to Wesley-an). Of course I don't expect anyone to agree with me but here were my positions:
  • Baptism is normative (although not essential for salvation... Salvationists and Friends can still go to heaven). Baptism does not "save" you, nor does it cleanse "original sin."
  • Baptism is a means of grace, but the specifics of the grace dispensed varies somewhat depending on the point when a person is being baptized (e.g., infant versus child versus adult, etc).
  • The earliest church probably baptized primarily by immersion, but the word baptizo does not necessarily mean "to immerse." It's not a point to fight over, although immersion probably has the strongest symbolism of death to our former self.
  • There are advantages both to infant and believer's baptism. The advantage for infant baptism is the strong claim on the child for Christ by the community from the very beginning. It does not "save" the child, who will need to confess faith subsequently and receive the Holy Spirit. But it strongly affirms inclusion in the community of faith and makes faith the assumption of the future.
  • The advantage of believer's baptism is the power of conscious, individual choice. It strongly affirms the individual faith decision for Christ, although it suggests the person is in a kind of limbo up to that point (the child is a stranger in the church's midst).
  • Rebaptism is not ideal or necessary, but is a pastoral call--would rebaptism significantly invigorate the person spiritually.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Can we "lose" our salvation?

Whenever I go through Hebrews, both the question of eternal security and "second repentance" comes up. Eternal security is the idea that once you are saved, you will always be saved no matter what. "Second repentance" is the question of whether you can come back to salvation once you have lost it.

1. I usually try to find common ground when I am in a group that believes strongly about conflicting positions. So often a group of Wesleyans and Baptists can at least agree on the following ideas:
  • If a person becomes a serial killer after "professing faith," he or she probably wasn't really a Christian to begin with. That is to say, some individuals whose lives do not seem to match up with a Spirit-filled life may never have truly been "saved" in the first place.
  • God is not looking to kick people out of the kingdom. In the end it probably isn't very common for someone who is truly "saved," who has truly experienced the life changing power of the Holy Spirit, to "fall away," as Hebrews 6:6 mentions. 
  • It's not a "one sin you're out" type situation. Our life in Christ is a relationship, and few relationships end with a single wrong act.
2. I want to go to Scripture next. It puts the theological arguments into perspective. The reason why Wesleyans believe it is possible to lose your "salvation" is because that is what many New Testament texts seem to indicate. The other position has some biblical texts on its side as well.

Let me start by saying that some Johannine texts do give off a Calvinist vibe:
  • "They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us" (1 John 2:19).
  • "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand" (John 27-28).
  • "While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled" (John 17:12).
The second one is much more about God's protection of those in Christ from those outside than about whether they themselves might walk away. The last one might actually work against eternal security, since one was lost. The first one suggests that those who walked away in one instance were never really "in" to begin with.

However, none of these verses suggest that a person who does not continue to walk with God is guaranteed salvation. They can only be used to argue that a person who does not continue to walk with God was probably never truly "saved" to begin with.

3. I suspect that the question of those who walk away somewhat took the early church by surprise. When God has offered the immense gift of grace, how could anyone experience it and then reject it? When Christ has suffered so much on the cross, how could anyone insult him by receiving the benefit of his sacrifice and then flagrantly continuing to sin?

In the end, it is only cardboard versions of Paul and the rest of the NT that resist its clear sense that God's grace implies a certain response in gratitude. Faith is not mere belief but intrinsically implies faithfulness. There is no contradiction here, not if we understand grace and faith in their appropriate Jewish context.
  • "I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
  • "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11).
  • "Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?" (Heb. 3:16-17)
  • "It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened... and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt" (Heb. 6:4, 6).
  • "If we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries" (10:26-27).
  • "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God... that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears" (Heb. 12:15-17, NASB).
These verses from Hebrews are not saying that it is easy to fall away. The situation pondered there is one of quite significant apostasy after years of following Christ.

4. The reason people find this concept problematic is because they have learned cardboard versions of theology that have much more to do with the excesses of the Reformation than with the New Testament world. For example, grace is unmerited, but that would not have meant in the NT world that it was unsolicited or that gratitude was not expected. Grace simply wouldn't have continued in the patron-client world of the NT if the giver was treated contemptuously.

Similarly, the faith-works contrast has been abstracted far beyond its original contours. It had everything to do originally with Paul's debate on what works of the Jewish Law Gentiles needed to do, not only to be saved, but indeed in order to eat with Jewish believers (Gal. 2:11-14). "Faith" here may not even in the first place have been a reference to human faith but to the faithfulness of Jesus to death (cf. this translation of Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16).

In the end, Paul had clear ethical expectations of believers, such that individuals who habitually practiced certain sins simply would not be part of the kingdom of God (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10). True faith involved deeds and action for Paul and not only for James (2:14-26). When we start arguing over whether faith itself can become a work, we have left Paul's categories for some other planet.

Paul's language of election and predestination is always "after the fact" language. It is never used to predict, only to affirm those who are already here. Indeed, 2 Peter 1:10 suggests that one can stumble and that it requires diligence to make your election "sure."

5. The scarier question is not whether a person can leave God but whether such a person can ever come back. Perhaps it is safe to say that those who truly leave God won't want to come back. This person will quite likely have a hardened heart. In the end, since it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to repentance, who draws us and empowers us to repent, anyone who is able to repent is allowed to repent.

Theologically, we believe that we can only repent by the Spirit's power. We therefore should not assume that we will be able to come to Christ at a time of our own choosing. Like Esau in Hebrews 12, there could be a time when our head knows it's time to repent, but our heart lacks the power.

So our walk with God is empowered by the Spirit from first to last. We are empowered to be able to choose a relationship with him. If we neglect that power, that relationship, he will not force it on us. We will inevitably decline to our default state. Eventually, that power will no longer be available and the relationship will be dead.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Pastoral counseling a graduate biology student...

1. We are in Romans 5 in Romans and the question of evolution came into discussion. I have often said that Genesis 1 is not the biggest biblical problem for evolution, since it has a poetic character and should be read in dialog with other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories rather than modern scientific debates, IMO. No, the really big biblical problem for evolution is Romans 5.

Romans 5 indicates that death entered the world through Adam. Evolution requires lots of death before Adam. I've had some biology colleagues in the past who have wrestled with this. Was it spiritual death that entered through Adam? Was Adam the first hominid with a soul? Was the default in the Garden for Adam and Eve to die unless they could eat from the try of life?

2. For me the biggest theological conundrum here is the problem of evil. The so called Augustinian theodicy, Augustine's explanation for why there is evil in the world, is a "free will" explanation. God gave Adam free will. Adam made the wrong choice. Therefore death, suffering, and the power of Sin entered the world as a consequence. Christ will hit the reset button on the world when he returns.

So if the Adam story were merely an expression of the human situation, we would have to rethink some important theological concepts. God would have created at least animal death as the default. The conflictual nature of evolution, including the killing of one animal by another, would be built into the creation as part of God's intention. I'm not sure what to do with that.

3. So how do we counsel the Christian biology student, especially the grad student who knows everything above but is struggling with the evidence they are encountering in their classes somewhere? What do we do with the pesky kid in our youth group (there's always one) who wants to provoke on whatever topic he or she can use to get your goat, and this is their topic of choice? What do we do with the honest seeker for whom this is an obstacle to faith?

If everyone in your congregation agrees, there's not much to worry about. The problem in such cases is the odd person out, the one who struggles with ideas that no one else in the congregation does. There's the silent person in your church who wonders about whether aliens in Alpha Centauri were suddenly infected with Sin when Adam sinned on earth six thousand years ago. :-)

My suggestion this morning was that we focus on the struggling person's faith rather than their ideas. If they want to read some creationist literature and you think it will help, no problem. But in most cases, I suspect, giving this person anti-evolutionist literature won't help. In fact, it may push them further away if it strikes them as special pleading. That literature mainly helps the person who already disagrees with evolution.

We can of course present the biblical and theological problems above. Then I suggest we leave them with Romans 14:22--"Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God." They will stand as an individual before Christ, not before me or others in the congregation.

We all have quirky ideas. I certainly do, although I don't know which ones they are. :-) We must all work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Yes, we primarily do it together as a community of faith, but there is also a level on which we have to do it as individuals. There may be some ideas that we as individuals just don't have all worked out.

4. So I would encourage the MA Biology student not to let their faith in God waver one bit. It is after all our faith in him, "that God exists and rewards those who diligently seek him" (Heb. 1:6). Our faith that Jesus is Lord need not waver in the slightest, that Jesus is the king of all, whom God raised from the dead and enthroned over the cosmos.

Perhaps for the moment they don't know how to fit together the two sets of ideas in their head. God justifies them on the basis of their faith in him and the life of faith that issues from it, not on the specifics of what they believe on every issue.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

ET1. The Christian ethic is, at its base, a virtue ethic.

This is the first post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments.
Christian ethics is, at its base, a virtue-based ethic.

1. There are two broad approaches to ethics. The one focuses primarily on how we are to behave (act based ethics). The other focuses more on our motives and character (virtue based ethics). The most mature Christian ethic, at its root, takes a virtue based approach for its foundations.

It is not, of course, that actions are insignificant from a Christian point of view. It is only that Christianity is more interested in the motivations and character from which actions flow than with the actions themselves. The same act can be either wrongdoing or virtuous, depending on the motivation for doing it.

2. Approaches to ethics that focus on our actions tend to be of two sorts. One asks what our duty is in relation to each action we take. The other asks about the consequences of our acts when we are considering what to do. Both of course play a role in Christian ethics, even though these questions do not stand at the heart of the most mature Christian ethic.

The first approach is the duty-based approach, a "deontological" approach. What is the right or wrong thing to do? [1] This approach, in its simplest form, can think in black and white terms and sometimes speaks of moral "absolutes," which are considered to be acts that are always in every case right or wrong actions.

There are certainly some moral absolutes in Scripture. Jesus summarizes the entire Law in the twin commands to love God and love neighbor (e.g., Matt. 22:34-40). These are the most fundamental Christian moral absolutes.

However, even in this case, Jesus pushes the absolutes to the level of principle, not of individual acts. There are some individual acts that are always wrong. It is hard to imagine a situation where adultery or the murder of the innocent would be justifiable. Because these acts would be wrong in every context, we can consider them moral absolutes.

But even in these situations, the act of sex itself is not sinful, but the context in which one is having it. The sex act is good within marriage. Similarly, there are places where the Bible assumes that killing is not sinful, even if it is not ideal. The Bible assumes that death will occur in war and capital punishment. [2]

It is thus the context of an act, and especially the intention of the person doing the act in that context, that speaks most to the moral character of the act.

3. More often, the Bible assumes that there will be exceptional circumstances to Christian "duties." So we are generally to obey those in authority over us (e.g., 1 Pet. 2:13-17), but there will be exceptions (e.g., Act 4:19-20). We are to be people who tell the truth (Eph. 4:25; Matt. 5:33-37), but there may be exceptions (e.g., Josh. 2:2-6). One might construct, as it were, a hierarchy of values to decide when I higher value takes precedence over a lesser on.

However, a more mature approach to ethics does not take on this Pharisaic character. In the Bible, it was the Pharisees in the Gospels who had a legal approach to ethics, and it was the Judaizers with whom Paul sparred who viewed ethics as a matter of dos and don'ts. When Paul argued that believers are not under Law but under grace, he was in effect indicating that a Christian ethic is a virtue ethic, not an act based one.

A more mature Christian ethic asks what course of action fits best with the love of God and the love of neighbor. The more mature Christian ethic does not ask, "What is my duty?" or "What is right and wrong?" but "What would be most pleasing to God in this case?" and "How can I most show God that I love him in this instance?"

4. A second act based approach looks to the consequences of an act to determine what choice to make, a "consequentialist" or "teleological" approach to ethics. It is not that such questions are irrelevant. Indeed, if the love of our neighbor is our guiding principle, then we will strongly consider what the effect of our actions is on others.

As we saw in previous articles on sin, one can sin unintentionally by wronging another person without intending to do so. Christ died for these sins as well as for the much more important intentional ones. But it is the wrongdoing that is a matter of our conscious choice that is of most concern to God.

When it comes to structuring a society, the consequences of actions become a matter of great concern. What is the way of structuring a society that 1) brings about the greatest good to the greatest number of people 2) without harming or wronging individuals within that society? The notion that "the end justifies the means" is generally rejected by Christians, which suggests that any path to a goal is legitimate if the goal itself is good. There are good paths to good goals, and there are bad ones.

But the consequences of an action are not the starting point for a mature Christian ethic.

5. The starting point for a mature Christian ethic focuses on the fact that we are in Christ and that Christ lives within us. It focuses on who we are, which demonstrates itself in our motivations and intentions, which then demonstrates itself in our actions. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20, CEB).

The Holy Spirit within us leads to a certain fruit in our lives. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this" (Gal. 5:22-23). By contrast, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires" (5:24).

This is a virtue-based ethic. It is one that focuses on our relationship with Christ and on the kinds of motivations and intentions that naturally result, more than on the acts themselves.

6. These are the priorities of a mature Christian ethic. It begins and ends with God. It begins with God for we are not able to be or do good apart from the power of God. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to love God and our neighbor in the first place.

Empowered by the Spirit, it is a relational ethic. We love God, which informs our motivations and choices. God changes our hearts, which in turn changes our actions. When Paul speaks of the transformation of our minds in Romans 12:2, he did not mean our pure intellects or some purely cognitive dimension of our minds but our attitudinal dispositions as they lead to life. The rest of Romans 12-15 plays out this transformed mind, the key to which is love (Rom. 13:8-10).

In this Christian ethic, acts play a more central role in our past need for forgiveness, for all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). In Paul's system, acts are the focus of the old covenant, for "all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law'" (Gal. 3:10).

However, under the new covenant, under the power of the Holy Spirit, our virtues become the focus of living--faith, hope, and love. It is not that how we act is insignificant. It is just not the focal perspective through which ethics is viewed. Therefore, Christian ethics that focus on actions, on rights and wrongs, or on absolutes are less mature than those that focus on our relationship with Christ and Christian dispositions toward God and others.

The Christian ethic, at its base, is a virtue based ethic.

Next week:
ET2. The foundational value of a Christian ethic is love.

[1] In every version of the stages of moral development, the "law and order," rule-oriented approach to ethics is a lower pattern of moral thinking than those that focus more on moral principles or moral character.

[2] In a later article, we will consider under what circumstances killing might not be a sin. It is doubtful, however, that God ever considers the human killing of another as "good," even if in some circumstances it may not be sinful.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Classic Articles on Romans

Because some of my Romans students are taking the class as part of a new residential MA program, I've been feeding them some articles and sources. Here are a few:

The Context of Romans
Krister Stendahl, "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West"
Peter Lampe, "The Roman Christians of Romans 16," although I still find Kasemann very tempting.
I also sent them a copy of Dunn's, "The Incident at Antioch"

Righteousness of God
Chapter 6 of What Saint Paul Really Said
Ernst Kasemann's "The Righteousness of God in Paul"
Another important article is Wright's, "On Becoming the Righteousness of God"
Dunn's Romans 1-8 is helpful for 1:16-18 as well, I think

Homosexual Acts in Romans 1
I gave a couple books to a presenter, including Gagnon
Richard Hays has a chapter in Moral Vision

Justification by Works in Romans 2
Wright's out of print commentary is good here, I think.

Faith of/in Jesus
The famous sparring of James Dunn with Richard Hays

Works of Law
I didn't actually send but here are some excerpts I might have:
Dunn mentions both in his preface and in many articles in here
N. T. Wright has one on 4QMMT in here

Chapter 7 of What Saint Paul Really Said (although I think Wright over-does it)

"Lacking the glory"
I didn't but might have copied from Dunn's Romans 1-8 here.

Hilasterion in Romans 3:25
Here's one I could have given them, even if I'm not necessarily convinced

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What about Israel?

I see that two of my friends are currently in Israel. I had a student last week actually ask me what my thoughts on Israel were (Don't they know that I expend considerable energy trying to be ambiguous about my own thoughts so they can make up their own minds? ;-) So here is my three point outline:

1. Jewish individuals have a special place of honor.
Here are some verses from Paul:
  • "Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!" (Rom. 3:1-3, NRSV)
  • "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah." (Rom. 9:3-5)
2. Currently, "not all Israelites truly belong to Israel" (Rom. 9:6)
That is to say, while ethnic Jews deserve a certain honor, Paul did not consider them truly part of the people of God if they had not accepted Jesus as Messiah. "Not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants." (Rom. 9:7)

Those Jews who have not accepted Jesus as Messiah, Paul would say, are not currently part of Israel. God has not rejected his people (Rom. 11:1), but those Jews who do not believe are currently grafted out of the tree (11:17, 21). Meanwhile, Gentiles who believe in Jesus have been grafted into the tree, into the people of God. In short, Gentile Christians are true Israelites according to Paul, while unbelieving Jews are not truly Israel.

What that means is that a Palestinian Christian who believes (of which there are many) is a true Israelite, while an Israeli who does not believe is not a true Israelite at present, according to Paul. The true children of Abraham, according to Paul and John, are those who have faith that God raised Jesus from the dead (e.g., Rom. 4:11-12). "Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith." (Rom. 3:29-30)

I am quite willing to believe that God was behind the re-establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, but it is important to remember that Israel is not a Christian state. Jews deserve a certain honor from us as Christians, but the State of Israel is no more truly Israel from Paul's standpoint than the Sanhedrin was in his day.

3. "All Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26)
Paul suggests that around the time of Jesus' return, there will be a mass conversion of Jews to Christ. Although some have tried to dodge this interpretation, I consider it contextually obvious. The verse previous speaks of a "hardening" that has come upon "part" of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles come in. Then verse 26 speaks of "all" being saved. The contrast between part and all suggests naturally that there will be a transition from part being hardened to all being saved.

This is corroborated by the verses that follow. The calling of God on Israel is irrevocable, Paul says in 11:29. So the enemies at present are still beloved because of their ancestors (11:28). They are now disobedient, but they will receive mercy (11:31). I remain befuddled that any competent scholar could interpret this series of verses any other way.

But it hasn't happened yet. That means that, while we must deeply respect Jewish individuals, the State of Israel has no special right standing before God. Its actions must be evaluated against the same standard of righteousness as the Palestinians or anyone, for "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).

Indeed, Paul's very point in Romans 1-3 is not blandly that all individuals have sinned, but that, before the judgment seat of Christ, being a Jew does not give you a pass. "All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law" (Rom. 2:12) and finally, "all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

Christians thus should deeply respect Jewish individuals, but not confuse the current State of Israel with the Israel of promise. It is the Christians of the Middle East, of whatever ethnicity, who are our brothers and sisters, for in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek... or Palestinian (Gal. 3:28).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Righteousness of God in Romans 1:17

The MA students in my Romans class are keeping an "Issues Notebook" from Romans. I did a sample entry for them on the phrase, "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17. Thought I'd share.
The Righteousness of God (Romans 1:17)
The phrase, “the righteousness of God,” appears several times in Paul’s letters, not least in Romans (Rom. 1:17; 3:21; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). It is a key concept that has given rise to a good deal of debate among scholars and was a key factor in the beginning of the Reformation. The position I am taking is that it refers to God’s righteousness, especially his character as someone who longs to save his people and, indeed, the whole world. His righteousness also leads to justice in relation to ungodliness. N. T. Wright captures both dimensions well with the phrase, “covenant justice.”

In the Middle Ages, the expression was understood in reference to the “justice of God.” This interpretation followed easily from the Latin of the verse, which renders the phrase as the iustitia Dei. As Romans 1:18 indicates, this understanding is not entirely wrong. God’s righteousness does imply the visitation of justice on the ungodly. However, the Old Testament uses the phrase much more frequently in relation to God’s propensity to save, not his character in judgment.

Martin Luther noticed another grammatical possibility for the phrase, and in it found the seeds of the Reformation. Elsewhere in Romans, it is clear that justification involves God declaring us right with him on the basis of faith (e.g., Rom. 4:1-8). So Luther concluded that “the righteousness of God” in 1:17 referred to a “righteous status from God,” a declaration of our righteousness by God that does not conform to literal righteousness, but is an “imputed” righteousness. It is a legal fiction. In the eyes of God the judge, we are deemed righteous, even though in reality we are not. Herein we find the basis for Luther’s famous saying, simul iustus et peccator, semper repentans, “at the same time righteous and sinner, if we are always repenting.”

John Wesley of course considered Luther’s theology correct on justification but inadequate when it came to sanctification. God not only imputed righteousness to us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for Wesley. God actually imparted righteousness to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However, Wesley agreed with Luther on the interpretation of Romans 1:17, that it referred to a righteous status imputed to us from God at our conversion.

The “genitive of source” interpretation, which understood the phrase “of God” to mean “from God,” prevailed until the mid-twentieth century. Then a closer look at Old Testament precedents for the idea of God’s righteousness, as well as the use of the concept in the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, prompted a re-examination of the phrase. Ernst Käsemann, for example, suggested in a famous article that the “righteousness of God” was God’s power to create salvation. Here is was definitely on the right track, given the way the expression is used in Old Testament passages like Psalm 71:1-2; Isaiah 46:13; 51:6; 54:14; 56:1; 59:15-16; 62:1; 63:1, not to mention Dead Sea Scroll passages like 1QS 11.12 and 1QH 12.37.

What was missing from Käsemann’s approach is that he was still not sensitive to the privileged status of the Jews. N. T. Wright initially tried to capture this distinction with the phrase, “covenant faithfulness.” That is to say, the righteousness of God is his propensity to save, but it is especially directed at his people in faithfulness to his relationship with Israel. So the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 refers, in the first place, to God’s faithful character to reach out to his people with salvation and, indeed, both to the Jew and Gentile who has faith in him.

I am not as convinced as Wright that Paul never blurs into other possible meanings for the phrase "the righteousness of God." Indeed, I would love to write an article titled, "Double Entendres in Romans and Galatians." It is so tempting for me to say that in Romans 3:21, Paul is blurring from what would have been the standard reading of the phrase into what we would now call the Lutheran reading of the phrase.

Pragmatism and Faith-Filled Biblical Scholarship

The Seminary and School of Theology at IWU joint sponsor a Monday afternoon seminar where students and professors present research. I generally float something each semester, whether its something I'm working on or not. So I floated a topic this semester when I got the email this fall: a pragmatist's suggestion for how biblical scholarship and churchmanship might peacefully co-exist.

1. This is not something I'm working on, but I presented some armchair thoughts. Here is a paraphrase of my final slide, which suggested the following guidelines:
  • Faith-filled scholarship needs to be cautious about the effect of scholarship on the faith of others. The primary issue is not precision in relation to truth. Insofar as it is about truth, biblical engagement is primarily about truth as it leads to forming Christian dispositions and life in the world.
  • Thus, the primary "telos" of biblical engagement is not to arrive at a certain set of ideas. The function of the Bible as Scripture is not primarily about propositions but about God bringing a certain effect on God's people.
  • Faith-filled scholarship appropriates Scripture with the law of love and the rule of faith as guiding principles.
  • Pragmatism ultimately aims at "world adjusting success" rather than cultural success (Kitcher, 135). I would personally argue that this dynamic ultimately leads to a move away from fundamentalism as a biblical approach, even if many of its aims can coincide with what I consider a more "effective" understanding.  
2. Here is a brief sketch of a version of pragmatism as a philosophical approach. The Monday reading group is currently reading Philip Kitcher's, Preludes to Pragmatism.
  • Pragmatism privileges questions that matter to many people, rather than questions of individual interest, such as matters of interest to an individual scholar.
  • If there is a spectrum between knowledge of reality "as it is" and knowledge as it affects our dispositions and the way we live, pragmatism is primarily interested in the latter and considers many debates about the former as nonsensical.
  • I hear a lot of rhetoric about our actions flowing from our ideas. In practice, our ideas are often disconnected from our actions and, also quite often, we modify our ideas to fit with our fundamental dispositions or to fit with the groups to which we belong. Our fundamental dispositions and drives shape our ideas far more than our ideas shape our actions. See Jamie Smith.
  • Ideas are primarily our God-given way of processing the real world. Ideas are tools to process the world as well as expressions of our deep seated desires and dispositions. Idea systems become more and more irrelevant when they delve into the spaces in-between the ideas that actually do express realia. At this point, thinking has become unhinged from realia, and we begin to ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
  • This actually fits with an incarnational approach to revelation, IMO. The Bible is God meeting his people in their language games and forms of life. It is about God finding language that is effective to form their dispositions and ways of living at a particular time and place, not about presenting them with truths about underlying reality on its own terms. God is the ultimate pragmatist.
3. So how might this framework provide a way for there to be peace between biblical scholarship and what I would consider less reflective readings of the Bible?
  • First, my goal was not to endorse any particular scholarly hypothesis, but to show that even some eye-raising hypotheses could lead to the same telos as more traditional readings.
  • My point was that the precision of one's understanding of truth need not have an effect on the telos in life. For example, one can derive the same implications from a story whether that story is historical or not. There are literary approaches that result in the same implications as the assumption that a narrative had no underlying sources.
  • Here John Drury rightly noticed that I shifted into what he called "strategic pragmatism." Pastoral concerns might keep a pastor from ever mentioning certain ideas from the pulpit, even if they have some probability of being true. Abson Joseph mentioned that some classes might have no problem hearing about the Synoptic question, while the topic might best be passed over in the case of others. 
  • So perhaps my presentation was working in two distinct pragmatic directions: 1) Biblical scholarship can go a very long way outside the stereotypical parameters of fundamentalism and classic neo-evangelicalism and still lead to the same telos. In general, "truthfulness" is not bound to twentieth-century preoccupations with history and literality.
  • And 2) Since the telos ultimately is not a set of ideas, our presentation of ideas should not become an obstacle to reaching the telos. Something can be "true" to varying degrees of precision, and some degrees of precision will be more useful in some situations than others.
4. This is basically a very complicated way of saying that any interpretations that result in the same dispositions and manner of living, including the same relationship with God, are pragmatically equivalent. The ideological journey one takes to get there is relatively insignificant, although it is possible that some ideological constructs are more likely, over the long haul, to get you to the right outcome than others.

Are these useful thoughts? Probably not to the vast majority of Christians. But they might be very useful to someone doing graduate work in biblical studies or who is involved in teaching the Bible on a graduate level.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Wesleyan-Arminian Reflections on Sacraments

Earlier today I finished a series of posts on sacraments in my  "theology in bullet points" series. This coming Sunday I hope to start the final section of the whole enterprise, on Christian ethics.

So here are all the links in the series thus far:
Part 1: God and Creation
God and Creation (online)
God and Creation (book form)
God and Creation (Kindle book)

Part 2: Christ and Salvation
Christ and Salvation (online)

Part 3: The Holy Spirit and the Church
The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology)
1. The Holy Spirit is a distinct person, but one in substance with the Father and Son.
2. The Holy Spirit enacts the will of the Father and Son in the world.
3. The Spirit sanctifies the Church.
4. The Spirit sanctifies the believer.

The Doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology)
1. In Christ, the Spirit creates the Church.
2. The true Church is an "invisible" church.
3. The invisible Church meets in visible churches.
4. The Church is one body, although it has many members.
5. There is no one, correct form of church governance.
6. There are likely elements to church governance.
7. The Church is in the world, but not of the world.
8. The Church has worship as its central and most important task.
9. The Church participates in God's mission to the world.
10. The Church disciples and nurtures God's people.

Christian Sacraments
1. A sacrament is a divinely appointed means of grace.
2. Baptism is a sacrament of inclusion into the people of God.
3. Christians have varying perspectives on baptism.
4. Communion is a sacrament of re-empowerment.
5. Christians vary some in their perspectives on communion.
6. The Scriptures are a sacrament of God's transformation.
7. Christians vary somewhat in their conceptions of Scripture.
8. The Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant.
9. God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

SA9: God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

This is the ninth and final post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

1. In our first article on sacraments, we mentioned that there were both "ordinary" sacraments and what we called "momentary" sacraments. Protestants generally recognize baptism and communion as ordinary catalysts of God's grace to us. Roman Catholics would add marriage, confirmation, ordination, penance, and "last rites" before death. God can use any of these to dispense his grace at a moment of his choosing, usually on the condition of our faith.

Cannot marriage be a moment when God dispenses his grace? In a day when tensions exist among Christians over those whom the State might marry, would not this be an opportune time to distinguish between civil unions, as it were, by the State and marriage as a means of God's grace as administered through his Church?

For those baptized as a child, confirmation is an important moment of personal commitment that surely can be a means of grace. In "low churches" (churches that do not emphasize sacramental moments or longstanding Christian traditions) where baptism does not coincide with the moment of church membership, cannot the moment of confession in church membership be a sacramental moment?

The early church often laid hands on those it was commissioning for special service. The church at Antioch laid hands on Saul and Barnabas (Acts 13:3). Timothy was commissioned by the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14). Is not the ordination of ministers today a moment when God's grace is given in a special way at a special moment.

The process of dying is a central time in a person's life. Perhaps surprisingly, it is a time when some saints have moments of doubt. It is thus a time when God uses many ministers, family, and friends to serve as a means of grace. I have heard of the words, "Let me be faith for you," uttered over the dying, and of God giving the dying peace through the body of Christ as a means of grace.

Protestant churches have had means of grace in relation to penance in the past, recognizing that some physical action, some outward and visible sign, is helpful as a catalyst of the inward grace of forgiveness. In the Wesleyan holiness tradition, going to the altar was such a means of grace. It was a means of outwardly signifying repentance. Today, churches sometimes have people stand. These outward signs are versions of the Roman Catholic sense of penance.

2. John Wesley divided up God's means of grace into two types: works of piety and works of mercy. The first (acts of vital piety) had to with God meeting us as we did acts of individual and corporate devotion like prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting as individual acts. Corporately there was communion, baptism, and fellowship (which he called "Christian conference"). [1] He considered these means of grace that were "instituted" means of grace.

The second type, works of mercy, had to do with God meeting us as we did outward acts of service toward others. [2] So Jesus assumed that we would give to the poor ("almsgiving") as in Matthew 6. Almsgiving is "everything that we give, or speak, or do, whereby our neighbor may be profited." [3] Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, assisting the stranger, visiting the sick or those in prison, comforting the troubled, teaching those without knowledge, redirecting the wicked, praising the person who does good, these are all ways in which God not only dispenses his grace to others, but to us as well.

3. It is understandable that God would use different means of grace in different times and places to meet and transform his people. Cultures differ in the means they have available and in their understandings of the world. God does not expect all people to come up the mountain to his timeless temple in his timeless way. He is an incarnating God who became flesh in Christ Jesus. God meets his people in various times and places in the ways that best change them.

So it is no surprise that God began to use the Scriptures as one of the primary means of his grace once the printing press came into common use in the West. Not only did a culture develop where most people could read but by the 1900s most people in the West had easy access to a Bible. Prior to the 1500s, Christian worship and communion understandably played a greater role in dispensing God's grace to most Christians, since the vast majority were illiterate and the Bible did not play a large role in worship.

In the early church, the Scriptures, breaking bread, fellowship, and worship were weekly features of Christian life. God regularly uses these same means of grace today in the church. God meets us in various ways as individuals. He meets us in various ways as the corporate body of Christ. And he meets us as we serve others in mission. Devotions are a contemporary personal means of grace, usually involving prayer and searching the Scriptures. Worship, fellowship, and communion are frequent corporate means. And we serve as means of grace toward others in evangelism and service.

But God can use anything to transform us. It is even possible that God may have a special means of grace just for you as an individual believer. Perhaps there is some outward symbol connected to a special memory of your walk with God, perhaps some moment of special divine encounter. Perhaps God occasionally uses that symbol to trigger that memory and give you a sense of his presence. [4]

Some Christians journal, and their journal becomes a means of grace. If they would ever have a moment of doubt or a moment when God seems silent, their journal can remind them of special moments of divine encounter from the past.

There is no limit to how God can meet his people to transform them. He is, after all, all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present. We are embodied people. Physical actions and visible objects are usually more obvious to us than invisible things. God thus uses outward signs to administer inward graces. God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

Next Week: ET1: God's fundamental ethical expectation of us is love.

[1] Wesley mentions prayer and searching the Scriptures in his sermon, "The Means of Grace." Mention of baptism as a means of grace is in his sermon, "The New Birth" and Christian conference is found in his "Large Minutes."

[2] He called these "prudential" means of grace. He lists these works of mercy in his sixth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount.

[3] See n.2. I have lightly edited his language.

[4] It is of course essential that we not let any such symbol become an idol. No object is an idol if it merely triggers our thoughts of God. The object itself is not the point, including the Bible. The point is that it points us toward our relationship with God.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Why modern versions are different from the KJV

I was explaining to a class what the issue is with regard to verses that are in the KJV but not in other versions. I decided to explain in story form:
In my version of the story, in the first three centuries of Christianity, the books of the New Testament were copied everywhere. They were not all in one book but on separate scrolls (the precise contents of the NT were not fully agreed on yet). Churches copied these scrolls as they were able to get hold of them from other churches. Most people, of course, were illiterate and so only heard the text read or had passages memorized. The vast majority of Christians would not have had personal copies of these scrolls. Perhaps not even many house churches would have copies of them.

There were no doubt many minor variations between all these scrolls, although not nearly the free-for-all that some might make us fear. When Christianity became legal in AD313, the next century turned to the standardization of many things. It was in the 300s that the Trinity was settled. Near the end of the 300s Christians finally agreed on what books belonged in the New Testament. And, I would argue, there was increasing standardization of the wording of the New Testament text.

This standardized text focused on clarity, both in style and in meaning. The text that resulted was a magnificent text, more or less the Greek text behind the King James Version (KJV). It is the text used by Christians everywhere for the next 1500 years and is still used by those who read the King James Version or its offshoots. I want to make it clear that I think it is perfectly acceptable to read the Bible from this text. If God was okay with it for 1500 years, it must be okay!

It includes passages like Mark 16:9-20, which most think was added to fill out Mark's ending. It includes the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which many think may be a historical story even if it would prove not to have been in the original edition of John. It included a few other famous instances like Acts 8:37 and an extended 1 John 1:7.

It is no surprise that the majority of manuscripts read like this textual tradition. Most of the manuscripts we have date from the Middle Ages. We have only a handful of texts from the 300s and before. The discovery of much older copies of the NT than were available at the time of the KJV in the 1800s and 1900s prompted a re-examination of how the original texts might exactly have read.

So the earliest witnesses and internal evidence suggest that Mark 16:9-20 probably wasn't the original ending of Mark. But the verses mentioned above are the main differences. The overwhelming majority of the text is the same whether you use the KJV or a modern translation, almost all of which are based on the re-examination prompted in the 1700s and 1800s.
So that's my storied version of what I think happened and why the underlying Greek text is slightly different between the KJV and almost all the other versions.

Craig Keener's Acts volume 4

Excited to receive a copy of Craig Keener's fourth and final volume in his monumental Acts commentary series. I remain as ever dumbfounded at the magnitude of his genius, his knowledge, and of this work in particular. Asbury Seminary is incredibly blessed to have him as a professor!

This is clearly now the preferred Acts commentary for Wesleyans of an evangelical stripe. All evidence is processed judiciously. He hasn't convinced me yet to change some positions, but I will listen and re-examine at least one key position he takes in this volume whose opposite I have considered obvious for some time. :-)

Now all I need to do is buy the third volume and my set will be complete. Congratulations to Craig on this momentous achievement!

Friday, October 16, 2015

My Devotionals on James and Revelation... now out!

So we reach the end of my publications through the New Testament with Wesleyan Publishing House. Earlier in the year, my final books on Acts and Hebrews through Revelation came out. I personally think these are really useful for pastors (and I'm clearly unbiased ;-).

IMO, the gap between pulpit and expert is so large. I hear easy mistakes all the time from the pulpit. If I might borrow a page from my colleague Bob Whitesel, I sit there wondering why they haven't read my books. :-)

(They probably have and are wondering why any college would give me a teaching job ;-)

In any case, the two final devotionals in this series just arrived in the mail yesterday. These are six week Bible studies, five days a week. Our Future is a Bible study on Revelation! Our Walk is a Bible study on James. Both of them go with my book on Hebrews through Revelation mentioned above. So a pastor could preach through one of these books in a 6 week series while small groups were going through the devotional.

Here is the whole series with devotionals (these are also available in various bundles):

Jesus Books
Jesus: The Mission
Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels

Jesus Devotionals
The Parables of Jesus
The Passion of Jesus (Last Week of Jesus' earthly mission)
The Wisdom of Jesus (Sermon on Mount)
The Witness of Jesus (The Pictures of John)

Paul Books
Paul: Messenger of Grace (Corinthians and early letters)
Paul: Soldier of Peace (Romans)
Paul: Prisoner of Hope (Prison epistles and later letters)

Paul Devotionals
Our Hope (1 Thessalonians)
Our Joy (Philippians)
Our Righteousness (Romans 1-8)
Our Relationships (Romans 9-16)
Our Purpose (Ephesians and Colossians)
Our Faith (Pastoral Epistles)

Acts Book and Devotionals
The Early Church: Reaching the World (Acts)

Our Foundations (Acts 1-12)
Our Mission (Acts 13-28)

Hebrews through Revelation Book
The Early Church: Letters to the Body of Christ (Hebrews to Revelation)

Heb-Rev Devotionals
Our Walk (James)
Our Future (Revelation)

The Four Dimensions of Scripture

I was thinking yesterday that a robust sense of Scripture is something like a fourth dimensional view.

1. Most readings of the Bible, in my view, are two dimensional. Yesterday, my spiritual formation class was reading from a book by Samuel Rima called, Leading from the Inside Out. Lots of good tips in the book and its occasional look at biblical figures comes up with helpful insights for leaders. But the Biblehead in me always sighs with the two dimensional view books like these usually have of figures like Moses, Elijah, or Abraham.

I could say the same for other Christian books that use biblical figures to illustrate modern truths, as well as most preaching. The assumption is that these people thought like us and lived in cultures more or less like ours, not to mention that we are getting something like a videotape in the biblical narratives. They are flat, mostly literary readings of the Bible. They are mirror readings that God uses because we see ourselves in the stories.

Again, God uses this way of reading the Bible and you don't need to know hardly anything about the background of the Bible to read the Bible this way. You're only in the text, seeing yourself in it. It is the primary, pre-modern way that people have read the Bible throughout history.

2. What I'm calling a three dimensional reading of a biblical text is a historical reading of a particular text. You bring the "world behind the text" into play with the "world within the text." Now I realize how different a prophet like Elijah would have been from any preacher I know. I begin to understand the political dimensions of the northern and southern kingdom and the complexities of Yahwism in the northern kingdom.

One of the most crucial features in such historical-cultural readings is the socio-cultural background. I begin to see my own cultural assumptions, such as my individualism, my assumptions about family structure, my assumptions about modern nation-states. I begin to appreciate the distance between these texts and myself, that they were not written originally to me but to quite different people who lived a very long time ago.

3. The fourth dimension to which I refer is a sophisticated biblical theology, a theology that maps the individual, historically-interpreted texts in the Bible to each other from a coherent theological perspective. Time and the diversity of texts is taken into account, including the increasing theological precision we find when moving from the Old Testament to the New.

So we are reconciled to the texts after the distantiation experience of reading the individual texts in historical context. Now we see salvation history and a three-dimensional God moving through history (rather than the flat character of God in so many two-dimensional readings). Now we have a robust understanding of Scripture, one that is fully integrated with a mature Christian theology.

We have moved from a flat reading of one book with flat characters to real people walking with God in other cultures to a mature, theological understanding of God walking and saving his people over time, culminating in the incarnation and looking forward to the restoration of the cosmos.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Take Biblical Theology at IWU!

In the Spring I'll be teaching a master's class for the School of Theology and Ministry MA program. It's on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at 3:15 (till 4:40pm).

The course is Biblical Theology and we will be meandering through these two classic volumes for 15 weeks in the Spring. They will provide the book by book theology, while we will be composing a systematic descant together throughout as well. I suspect this could be a startlingly transformative course. Even in seminary and doctoral work I never imagined the "four dimensional" view I'm thinking we will unfold (a literary only view being two dimensional, a historical view three, and this theological/canonical view four).

If you have a bachelor's degree, live in the area, and can drive in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, this course will count toward an elective at any seminary (including Wesley Seminary). You would of course have to pay the School of Theology and Ministry tuition rate (I don't know what it is).

If you're interested, come join us this Spring!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Who Christian Colleges Hire...

If a college wants Christian faith to be a key aspect of its identity, then it seems that hiring Christian faculty would be a key strategy. But there are many different flavors when it comes to Christians. What flavor of Christian should a Christian college hire?

1. Christian faith can impact a professor in several different areas:
  • It can affect the piety of the professor. Are professors people who go to church and worship regularly? Do professors pray? Do they pray in class? How does the professor treat students? What formational values, if any, does a professor have?
  • It can affect the ethics of the professor. What guides the application of the subject matter a professor teaches?
  • It can affect the ideas of the professor. Does the professor accept the possibility that God interacts with the world? What role does the Bible play in a professor's teaching? Are there particular theological perspectives that shape the professor's approach to his or her topic?
2. I have a sense that there are some Christian universities where some naive assumptions about these sorts of things can create a climate where a college's identity "takes a walk." Here are some examples of unexamined assumptions you see here and there:
  • So some Christian institutions might assume that truth is truth wherever it's taught. So we just hire someone who self-identifies as a Christian and let them do their stuff without any further ado. Research excellence becomes the unifying factor.
  • There is the assumption that being a Christian college is primarily about having some set of beliefs. If a person signs off on a particular creed, they're good to go. Depending on how generic those beliefs are, there may be very little to form identity here.
  • There is the assumption that the Bible in some way is the basis of unity or identity. Clearly that approach has left us with 20,000 different churches. It's not going to provide a unified identity unless there are other hidden assumptions on what the Bible means.
  • One variation on the three above is the assumption that evangelical values be the basis of unity. Generic evangelical identity has solidified into a somewhat standard form of values that are assumed to be biblical.
3. I doubt that a generic evangelical identity is enough to attract a faithful clientele. We end up with a bunch of mini-Wheatons across the US or a bunch of mini-Liberties on the more fundamentalist side. The flavor here is vanilla.

Of course I think the Wesleyan Church has been growing to have a very attractive flavor these last years. I see it as a recipe for growth and success as a college too. These include:
  • A "good news" culture. The older twentieth-century "bad news" Wesleyanism didn't attract anyone. So the "anti" folk in our midst aren't going to grow anything long term. The reason the Wesleyan Church is growing is because we are welcoming and optimistic about changing the world for good. Joanne Lyon embodies this. Wayne Schmidt embodies this. Enthusiasm grows things.
  • A culture of hospitality. I blurred into this in the previous bullet. Someone who is hospitable knows who he or she is, and thus is not threatened by those who disagree. You have to have a core identity here, but can be hospitable to those in your midst who don't share it. Love is the heart of the Bible, and an identity of love grows things.
  • A "get it done" culture. Idealists eventually kill things, although they can have a good burn until they burn out or burn everything down. A culture that sees multiple paths to get more basic goals done, and that doesn't get stuck on process or ideological details, creates an excitement.
  • Pertinence. "Relevance" has become a bad word, so I'll use "pertinence" to mean relevance with substance. A growing ministry or service will interact with the most pressing matters of its context in ways that are perceived to bring wisdom and insight to the table. Usually, "going back to the way we used to do things" doesn't do it.
  • Self-awareness. There is a depth when you know where you've come from and how it affects who you are. Throwing away the past doesn't lead you anywhere, like someone dropped in the middle of a city without a map. If you're going somewhere, you have to start from where you are.
4. I've wandered a little. The bottom line is that you can't just hire "evangelicals who publish" and think you're going to end up with a growing college with an identity that prospective students are drawn to. And a college with a specific traditional past that looks at hiring this way will soon undergo an identity crisis.

For growth, hire faculty who:
  • are in continuity with the college's tradition but aren't robots to it
  • who have a "good news," "loving" attitude toward others and especially toward students
  • who aren't ideologues who clog up the works and don't play well with others
  • who can read the times and where things are headed, and are disposed to play a part in the future, not to burn everything down if we don't do it the way we used to
  • who are not only experts in their discipline and competent teachers, but who are aware of their own assumptions on a deep level
Some thoughts on who a Christian college should hire...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Trinity in John

Putting together a PowerPoint on the Trinity in John. Here's what I've come up with.

God the Father
1. John 3:16 seems like a good place to begin: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son." God's fundamental disposition toward the world is love.

2. "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth." (4:24) In other words, God is not limited by location, still less by a physical temple.

3. God the Father of Jesus and is one with Jesus (e.g., 1:14; 10:30).

Jesus the Word
4. One of the striking features of the Gospel of John is the way it points to the pre-existence of Jesus. The other Gospels do not explicitly mention Jesus' pre-existence. "Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed." (17:5)

Certainly John 1 says that the Word was there in the beginning, that the Word was God, that God created the world through the Word, that the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ.

John 8:28 seems to equate Jesus with God at the burning bush. This is perhaps the most startling statement in the entire New Testament: "Before Abraham was, I AM."

5. Jesus is certainly the Messiah and Son of God in John also, as in the other Gospels (1:34; 4:26). Jesus is the Son of Man in the strong sense in John (1:51).

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (1:29). John parallels signs Jesus does with various "I am" statements to make it clear who Jesus is. I am...
  • “the bread of life” (6:35) 
  • He gives living water (the Holy Spirit) (7:37-39) 
  • “the light of the world” (9:5) 
  • “the good shepherd” (10:11) 
  • “the resurrection and the life” (11:25) 
  • “the way, the truth, the life” (14:6)
Holy Spirit, the Paraclete
6. The personhood of the Holy Spirit is clearer in John than anywhere else in the NT. John clearly speaks of the Holy Spirit as a person (e.g., 16:7).

The Holy Spirit...
  • “will teach you everything” (14:26) 
  • “will guide you into all truth” (16:13) 
  • “will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment” (16:8)
What have I missed?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Your daughters will preach... (Acts 2:17)

It makes me sad to hear good, sincere Christians believe that it is not God's will for a woman to teach a man or to hear a picture of the home as a place where the wife is supposed to sit humbly at the feet of the wise husband as he shares his great insights. It's sad to me because:
  • I believe it is a distortion of the Bible to begin with.
  • I believe it both hurts the church within and hinders its witness without.
1. To start with Scripture, there is no Old Testament prohibition of women leading men. Genesis 3 speaks of wives submitting to husbands as a consequence of the Fall, but Christ undid the consequences of the Fall. Wouldn't a sign of redemption be the undoing of this consequence? That's certainly the way the founders of the holiness movement understood our situation.

But even this one OT verse was about the husband-wife relationship. It was not about female leadership in general, nor was it absolute. Deborah leads Israel into battle and is the supreme political leader of the day. Huldah is the supreme spiritual voice in the days of Josiah, and even the high priest goes to her for a final word from God.

So there is no absolute rule about female leadership in the OT. There is only the norm, which was the cultural norm for the whole world of that day.

2. In the New Testament, there is only one verse that, at first glance, might be thought to prohibit female leadership of men. More on it in a moment.

As in OT days, the cultural norm for the whole world at that time was male leadership. Aristotle wrote in his Politics that the wife should submit to her husband, unless there were some departure from nature. Similarly the slave should submit to the master and the child to the parent. There is nothing uniquely Christian in this aspect of the household codes of Colossians and elsewhere.

But there is something radical about the Day of Pentecost. Acts 2:17 predicts that both sons and daughters will prophesy in the age of the Holy Spirit. That's certainly how the founders of the holiness movement understood Acts.

We are not surprised to hear of women like Lydia and Priscilla as leaders in Acts. Nowhere are we told that they just led or taught other women. On the contrary, Priscilla is mentioned first when Acts tells us about the instruction of Apollos in the way of Christ (18:26). We are not surprised to hear of Phoebe as a deacon in Romans 16:1 and that Paul commends her for service. We are not surprised to hear of Euodia and Syntyche as workers in the church at Philippi, nor are we told that they just worked with women. Although the ESV has predictably obscured the translation, Romans 16:7 tells us of a husband and wife who were "well known among the apostles."

3. It makes great sense that the age of the Spirit would expand the role of women in the realm of wisdom and the prophetic. The Spirit comes equally on all, and if wisdom and insight comes from the Spirit, then we would expect women to prophesy as much as men.

It is at this point where the Pharisaic principle rears its ugly head. Forget the weightier message and outworking of the kingdom principle. Focus on the small detail of an individual verse. Forget justice and mercy in the name of sacrifice. Obscure the broad truth with the clobber verse.

What verses might we bring against the trajectory of the Spirit? You might bring up the household codes. But those are about husband-wife relationships, not about men and women in general. You'll have to do better than that. If a husband is submitted to the Lord and the Lord calls his wife to minister, then he had better submit to the Lord and yield to her ministry.

What of 1 Corinthians 14:34? Since women pray and prophesy in worship in 1 Corinthians 11 and since chapter 14 is about disruption of worship, surely we can only take that verse about silence in relation to disruptive speech, not spiritual speech. In fact, isn't 1 Corinthians 11 all about wives not dishonoring their husbands in public worship when they pray or prophesy publicly?

4. That leaves us with only one verse that might potentially prohibit women from teaching men, 1 Timothy 2:12. We should never base our theology on one verse, especially in a passage as obscure as this one. What does it mean to say that women have come to be in transgression because of the sin of Eve but will be saved through childbearing? I thought women were saved through the blood of Jesus Christ.

We often don't realize how our situations can get our perspective out of focus. Like a facial feature we can't stop staring at, an unusual verse captures our attention and our perspective gets out of whack. I got that way in college over an obscure verse in 1 Peter 3 about jewelry. Could a girl wear earrings and not be full of pride? It was an absurd notion but I couldn't see it, I was so focused on that verse.

In the same way, the 1 Timothy 2 passage is quite bizarre when you put it up against the way in which Acts and Paul's earlier writings open up the door for women to work for the gospel in ways astounding for the time. Yet for some reason, some elements in the church can't see those other passages, they are so focused on this one verse.

In the end, I'm convinced that this passage in 1 Timothy is also about wives and husbands, not about men and women in general. Even the illustration makes it clear--Adam and Eve, a husband wife pair. The words gyne and aner most naturally mean wife and husband when they are used in tandem.

Again, it is the Pharisaic principle to use an individual verse to trump a broad principle, and the broad principle is that the Spirit has leveled the playing field with regard to our access to God's wisdom. This is the problem with fundamentalism. It does not use the broad principles of Scripture to appropriate the obscure passage but uses the obscure passage to qualify the weightier principle. Certainly this is the way our abolitionist founders saw it.

But it is on the level of the individual verse and passage that the Bible is most likely to be contextual and situational. We must look at the whole counsel of God when applying any individual passage, not move directly from individual verses to today. This sort of fundamentalism was not part of our earliest roots. We were infected with it in the twentieth century, and it's about time that we expelled it from our midst again.

5. This position of course doesn't make sense from the standpoint of common sense either. It makes Christianity look stupid to those outside the church and makes the church itself a slave to the "weak and beggardly elements" of the world within. There are plenty of women who are wiser than plenty of men. All the stereotypical arguments don't make sense with even a little scrutiny.

I've often used the illustration of a plane in crisis, needing a pilot. You don't ask who has male genitals. You ask who best knows how to fly a plane.

"There has to be someone to make the final decision." If so, why would it always be the man? Because he has testicles? Now that makes sense, given how well known they are as a source of great wisdom and insight, spirituality and self-discipline.

"That's just the way God planned it. It's about creation." Actually, there are a lot of women who, according to nature, are more suited to lead than their husbands. If we're talking nature, let's see what nature did in each specific case. Nature simply hasn't always made the man the natural born leader.

6. It grieves my heart to hear well meaning Christians take this position. How many wives of preachers in the past would have made more gifted leaders than their husbands? Two women come to mind who could have been twice the pastors and leaders that their husbands were but somehow didn't feel good about taking the lead because of church culture. Others come to mind who didn't answer a call to ministry until later in life because they didn't get peace about it until late in the game.

That day is past. If you are a woman and God is calling you, step forward with courage to answer God's call. If you have doubts, keep them to yourself. lest you accidentally find yourself to be fighting God. Take this middle position for starters--perhaps there are some women that God calls to ministry and leadership in our day.

That way, we come to be talking about individual instances, not about exceptionless prohibitions, which would be hard to support biblically.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Temple Denial

I have grown up with conservative skew, where because of conservative tradition, the evidence is fiddled with, the books are cooked. But skew is an equal opportunity employer, practiced by those with liberal concerns as well.

I can see that the existence of the Jerusalem temple could be a politically sensitive topic. "Complex"? Yes, complex in terms of the political climate. In terms of truth, not complex in the slightest.

I wish there were a place where it was really all about seeking the truth, but alas. The NYT and Jewish-Temple denial: TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place (RICK GLADSTONE, New York Times ). I wrote a long post...

SA8. The Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant.

This is the eighth post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
The Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant.

1. In the previous article we discussed some of the variations among Christians with regard to their conceptions of the Bible and some of the terms currently used to describe the Bible. That article focused especially on some possible missteps and extremes in relation to those terms and conceptions. In this article, we want to lay out a more coherent way of thinking about those terms in relation to the Bible.

2. When a person thinks of meaning as static and as something that inheres "in" a text, it is natural to think it sufficent to say that, "the Bible is inspired" as a sufficient encapsulation of its origins in God. But since a text is subject to multiple interpretations, we must ask "which interpretation" of the Bible is the inspired one.

It had an original meaning, so we can say that the original meaning was inspired. We might go further to say that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire meanings in dialog with the text as individuals read with the eyes of the Spirit. The first centuries of Christendom also developed traditional readings of certain key texts, and certain Christian traditions also have traditional readings of certain key texts.

Not all of these readings are or were inspired, but perhaps many are. When we say that the original meanings were inspired, we must mean that they were inspired within their original contexts, because meaning is always contextual. These books were inspired to speak to a certain time and place within whatever their original parameters were. At times those meanings were situational or for a particular time. At other times something more universal was meant

What was God thinking as far as "all time"? Even more, what was God thinking for my time and context? This is where we must often work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). [1] Many want certainty and absolute clarity, but this is the road to making the Bible into an idol. Surely we might consider many of the common Christian understandings of key verses to be inspired understandings (creation out of nothing, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity).

Meanwhile, the interpretations of some traditions may be God speaking to those traditions, giving them an emphasis for a particular place and time. And some of the meanings I as an individual see could be God speaking to me. The problem of course is telling when God is speaking and when he is not. Any meaning we see that falls outside the law of love or rule of faith is immediately to be ruled out. And there is good reason for us to read the Bible in community so that the Spirit can correct us if we are on the wrong track. [2]

3. God's word never fails. It is infallible, unfailing. God's word does many different things. It commands. It promises. It informs. Sometimes it gives us an opportunity to express our anger, sadness, or thanksgiving.

God's word, as we have said, is bigger than written words. The words of the Bible give us the most important of God's words for his creation, the final Word of which is Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God's words are, in the first place, his will in action, his commands to the creation, the instruments through which he acts in the world. [3] They include words of hope and words of truth.

4. When God's word commands us to do something, that word is authoritative. When we speak of the authority of Scripture, we are most naturally referring to those words in Scripture through which God gives us his commands. It is not the purpose of every passage to give commands, and some of God's commands were for specific times and places. When God speaks a command to us, his command holds absolute authority over us. [4]

Much of Scripture is narrative. It describes things. Sometimes the narratives of Scripture do imply God's will. [5] In other cases they describe events that happened. Description is not prescription. Just because Gideon used a fleece to find God's will does not necessarily mean that we should.

The commands of God to Israel were commands of God to Israel. The New Testament tells us that Gentile believers are not bound by circumcision (Gal. 5:2-4), the food laws (Mark 7:19), or the Sabbath law of Israel (Col. 2:16). There is a drive among some to find some universal principle behind these commands to apply still to today and perhaps we can find some, but this drive is more our obsession than God's. Paul feels no need to find some universal principle behind the law regarding the Jewish Sabbath or Jesus behind the food laws.

Some commands in Scripture had to do with the context or situation in which it was commanded. Do women today need to have authority on their heads because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:10)? Do we need to be careful about wearing clothing of mixed thread (Lev. 19:19)? We have difficulty even understanding the original purpose of these instructions. To require them today would simply be to follow a rule for its own sake with little sense of purpose. Most likely, these commands had everything to do with their original cultural contexts.

So while God's commands hold absolute authority over us, the Church must work out salvation with fear and trembling. God said it to them and that settled it for them. But we need the Spirit and the Church to wrestle with how to apply some commands to today.

5. Some of God's purpose in Scripture is to give us hope. He has made promises to us, promises to come again. Promises to save us from judgment, from Satan, and from the world. He has promised us his love and his justice within the context of his love.

Some of his promises in Scripture were conditional. He sent Jonah to preach coming judgment on Nineveh, but that promise was not absolute. There was the possibility of forgiveness and repentance. In the same way he has promised the world judgment, but he has given us a way out.

In the same way, his promises to Israel at any one time were contingent on their obedience. His election of Israel is "without repentance" (Rom. 11:29), but it is contingent on their obedience. So God's promises are unfailing, infallible, but some of them are conditional.

6. When God's word tells us truths, those truths are inerrant. As we mentioned in the previous post, many American Christians in the twentieth century were preoccupied with the Bible as a source of propositional truths. There was not a little cultural blindness here, for the unexamined assumption here is that the Bible is mostly about ideas and beliefs.

When we read the narratives of the Bible in context, however, their purpose was not primarily to tell us places, dates, and people. Ancient histories and biographies were much more about good and bad examples of character, as well as identifying who God is and who we are, than about historical precision in the way we demand it today. The stories of the Bible give us good and bad examples of character. They tell us who God is and how we are to be as his people. These were the primary purposes of ancient stories.

God also revealed himself in the categories of the people to whom he was speaking. This is the principle of incarnation--God is a God who takes on our flesh (John 1:14). He is a God who meets us where we are. He does not make us come up to his level, which is impossible. He speaks our language. He uses anthropomorphisms. He met them in their categories.

So the picture of Genesis one has two layers of water with the sky in between them (Gen. 1:7-8), and the stars, sun, and moon placed in the sky (Gen. 1:14-17). Paul thinks of himself taken into the third sky (2 Cor. 12:2). Adam is a living soul made up of dust and breath (Gen. 2:7), and the Thessalonians are body, soul, and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23).

The pictures here were not the point of the revelation, they were the flesh in which the incarnated message was clothed. God created the world and has given us light to find our way during the day and the night. Paul was taken into the very presence of God. God has given us life and expects our whole person to be his.

God's word never fails. His words have different purposes. When his purpose in Scripture is to reveal a truth, then that truth will most certainly be without error. [6]

7. Some of God's words are meant to give us hope or to give us a mechanism by which we may express our thanks, joys, sadness, and even anger. God's word always accomplishes what it sets out to do (Isa. 55:11), so in these instances, as in all instances, his word is infallible, unfailing. We might certainly learn something from a psalm of thanksgiving, a psalm of lament, or an imprecatory psalm (one expressing anger toward enemies). But the primary purpose of these psalms was not to inform. The primary purpose of these psalms was to express something.

So we can rejoice and give thanks as we read thanksgiving psalms. We can identify with the sorrows of the psalmist as we read a psalm of lament. And we can vent our anger as we read an imprecatory psalm.

Even here we must be careful. The authority of Jesus demands that we love our enemies. So if we would dwell on an imprecatory psalm while thinking of our enemies, we would be using Scripture to sin. Similarly, God does not want us to lament forever. At some point we must move on, for there is work to do for the kingdom.

8. Inspiration thus speaks to the source of God's word in God. God has breathed words to his people in Scripture. Infallibility is the overarching category for the unfailing nature of those words. God's words never fail to accomplish what he set them out to do. They are authoritative when they command. They guarantee hope in promise. They are without error when they inform. They are a means of catharsis when we are joyful, sad, or angry.

Yet the most important way in which God uses Scripture is to change us. To make us, both individually and corporately, into a holy people. He makes us Christlike. He makes us like him. Ultimately, Scripture is God's word. He can do with it whatever he wants.

Next Sunday: SA9: God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

[1] The books of the Bible do not say, "And for those of you reading in a specific context in the twenty-first century, here's how these principles or these contextual instructions would play out."

[2] We might apply something like Wesley's quadrilateral to "impressions" we think we are receiving from the Holy Spirit. First, does my impression fit with the accepted principles of Scripture--the law of love and the rule of faith? Second, does it fit with what the Church in general has believed and taught, realizing that individual Christian traditions can get things wrong. Thirdly, what do other wise individuals have to say, given their experience--have I sought the counsel of others? Finally, what does common sense seem to say--is it reasonable?

God has sometimes done "unreasonable" things in the past, but most crazy impressions just that--crazy. The more "unreasonable" the impression, the greater the certainty you should expect to have. But if it is unloving and harmful, it is not God speaking.

[3] This is the Hellenistic Jewish background for the word logos as it is used in the Gospel of John and perhaps implicitly elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Colossians 1:15; Heb. 4:12-13).

[4] There is a sense in which the word infallible does not fit neatly with God's commands, because God often gives us the freedom to disobey. But God has not failed in any respect in this case, because God in his sovereignty gave us the choice. So Romans 3:3 denies that our faithlessness in any way nullifies the faithfulness of God.

[5] This is the so called "evaluative" point of view of a story, God's point of view.

[6] I have been influenced significantly by Kevin Vanhoozer in formulating the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture in this way. **