Tuesday, October 31, 2017

95 Theses for the Church Today

Today is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his famed 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, the spark of the Reformation. He had no thought of splitting the church, only of reforming it. He had no idea of the impact. Small events often have wildly disproportional consequences.

Here are 95 theses from me for the church today.
1. Rightly did the Old Testament teach Israel that there was only one God.

2. Rightly did the early church come to understand that the one God exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

3. Rightly did the early church discern two testaments to go along with two covenants, the old and the new.

4. Rightly did the early church come to affirm the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed.

5. Rightly did the early church come to discern the canon of the New Testament, consisting of 27 books.

6. Rightly did the church recognize with certainly the canonicity of 39 books of the Old Testament.

7. Seven more, along with additions to Daniel and Esther, are in a sort of middle status, a "deutero" canon.

8. Luther demoted them entirely out of the canon. In response, the Council of Trent (1545) promoted them to full status. Both moves changed their status.

9. The doctrine of purgatory, while logical, has no clear basis in Scripture, not even in 2 Maccabees.

10. The doctrine of hell is biblical, but Scripture uses figurative language to point to something we probably cannot understand.

11. The Old Testament does not engage the question of the afterlife much, chiefly in Daniel 12:2-3.

12. Paul never engages the question of hell, but clearly indicates a resurrected body on the Day of the Lord for those who are in Christ.

13. Revelation speaks of a lake of fire, originally prepared for the Devil and his angels.

14. Matthew speaks of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

15. Scripture does not teach that ministers must be celibate.

16. Nor does Scripture teach that ministers must be male.

17. In Christ there is not "male and female," therefore, there is no function in life or the church in which a qualified woman or man cannot serve.

18. The laying on of hands is attested in Scripture as a means of grace whereby individuals are sent with ministry purpose.

19. Scripture also attests to the importance of study for the minister.

20. Therefore, it is appropriate for groups of believers to provide means of education and commissioning for the work of the ministry, known as ordination.

21. The doctrine of justification by faith is well attested in Romans and Galatians, and indicates that, when we first enter the people of God, a right status with God is only attained by putting our trust in him and in his king Jesus.

22. We put our "faith" in Jesus by confessing allegiance to him as our Lord.

23. The writings of Paul in Romans 2, 2 Corinthians 5, and James 2 also indicate that our works as a believer will be recognized on the Day of the Lord.

24. Works follow naturally as a result of having the Holy Spirit.

25. The Holy Spirit inside us empowers the image of God within us to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

26. We can be in Christ, have received the Holy Spirit, have left Egypt, and still not make it to the Promised Land. We can be disqualified for the prize despite having once been justified by faith.

27. Depravity in Paul is a thorough depravity rather than an absolute depravity. Every aspect of our selves is marred by the power of Sin over this world.

28. But the image of God is not destroyed. Thus while we do not have the power to be righteous for justification on our own, the goodness of God is present in us because we remain in the image of God.

29. All the world is under the power of Sin. Augustine called this dynamic a "sin nature."

30. For Paul, human flesh is under the power of Sin in this world unless the power of the Spirit takes over. Paul does not speak of this dynamic as a nature.

31. Temptation is not sin. It is when temptation has conceived by intention that it is sin.

32. There is such a thing as unintentional sin. Christ has atoned for all the unintentional sin of the believer.

33. Paul never says that we sinned "in Adam," as Augustine indicated. Rather, because of the power of Sin we sin like Adam.

34. Therefore, no individual is condemned because of the sin of Adam.

35. Original sin only has validity as a reference to Adam's original sin. I have no guilt because of Adam's sin, only its consequences.

36. The power of the Spirit makes it possible to love God and neighbor and thus to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law.

37. Paul rejects any theology that considers sin the default life of the believer. We are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies.

38. The basis of justification is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

39. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ is his obedience unto death.

40. Paul likens Christ's death to an atoning sacrifice that God offered or displayed.

41. The doctrine of penal substitution goes beyond the scope of what is claimed in Scripture.

42. We find in Scripture the sense that Jesus satisfied God's justice and that Christ died "for us."

43. But Scripture does not develop a doctrine whereby Christ mathematically satisfied a quantitative justice that was the sum of all sins past, present, and future.

44. "Sola fide," faith alone, thus must take into account the full biblical picture. Our act of faith is the trigger of justification.

45. Our faith is more than an intellectual assent but an act of allegiance that involves a life of faithfulness.

46. If our faith allegiance departs from Christ, then those acts can disqualify our justification. Any version of sola fide that does not take these truths into account is not biblical.

47. Being in Christ is a relationship. Relationships are seldom broken by a single moment or act, but they can be broken.

48. In the working out of Christian theology, both Calvin and Wesley suggested that God's grace empowers us to make the choice of faith. These are logical extensions of broader theology.

49. Wesley believed that this "prevenient grace" was a grace that empowered a free choice. This "theology of the iceberg under the surface" fits best with the appearance of a free choice in Scripture.

50. "Sola gratia," grace alone, needs to recognize that grace in the biblical texts derives from the world of patron-client relationships. In this world, grace could be solicited and could come with informal expectations.

51. Biblical grace thus can be solicited by our prayer of repentance, and our faith in God and his Christ can solicit forgiveness and justification.

52. Grace thus also comes with the expectation of commitment to Jesus as Lord. Such grace can be trampled on and insulted. One should not think such grace would then continue.

53. "Sola Christi," Christ alone is the effective basis for justification. God has chosen of his own free will the offering of Christ as the sole basis of justification.

54. Abraham was justified by faith in God when he was still uncircumcised, that is, a Gentile. He is thus the model of those who are justified by faith in God who are not Jews, as well as the model of faith for those Jews who are justified by faith.

55. He is at least possibly a model of those who have faith in God even though they have not yet heard of Christ. Such individuals would still be justified by faith on the basis of the offering of Christ.

56. When Augustine, Wycliffe, and Calvin read the predestination language of the New Testament in absolute terms, they did injustice to half of the biblical language.

57. Predestination is primarily about the plan of salvation rather than the individuals who are saved, and God's plan involves the participation of human wills.

58. When the Reformers invoked "sola scriptura," they had a pre-modern hermeneutic that was unaware of the extent to which their reading of Scripture was still guided by the rule of faith God developed in the church.

59. The Reformers only eliminated extraneous aspects of catholic tradition that were obvious to them but retained many appropriate core features of tradition, like the Trinity.

60. Because individual interpretation of Scripture uses the individual to provide the "glue" that joins the different teachings of the Bible together and serves as the basis for determining the continuity and discontinuity between that time and our time, the Protestant principle arises. The Protestant principle, set forth by Paul Tillich, is that Protestant churches will continue to split and re-split, to multiply without end, because there is no common basis to join scriptures together or determine the connection between that time and today.

61. Today there are over 30,000 Protestant churches who think they are just following scripture alone. In short, history has shown Luther the loser of his debate with Erasmus.

62. Interpretation and exegesis only tell us what it meant. They do not tell us how God wants us to appropriate it.

63. The Bible should thus be appropriated in communities of faith.

64. The appropriation of Scripture not only requires contextualization by communities of faith.

65. The appropriation of Scripture to individual situations requires improvisation. There is no Pharisaic list of application that can account for every possible situation.

66. Communion was originally a meal that remembered the Last Supper of Christ and looked forward to another meal with him in the eschaton.

67. God has used communion throughout the centuries as a means of grace, whereby the partaker with faith is spiritually empowered to love of God and neighbor.

68. Baptism was a Jewish rite that the early Christians used to signify the washing of sins and incorporation into the people of God.

69. As children were born to these first believers, it is at least possible they were baptized as well. Certainly this became the tradition of the church.

70. Infant baptism indicates that the child is in the people of God, a partaker of its faith, until the child reaches a point when he or she could make that faith his or her own.

71. The child receives a grace mediated through the community in which he or she is baptized. It is a protecting grace.

72. The adult in baptism receives a means of grace as well through the community. It is an including grace. The adult is now reckoned fully in the people of God.

73. The legalization of Christianity was not evil.

74. The organization of Christianity is not intrinsically evil.

75. Nevertheless, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When the church and state coincide, oppression eventually happens.

76. Therefore, the church should be very cautious about its involvement with the state.

77. In keeping with the way God governs the world, the church should not try to force the world to believe as it believes.

78. The church should not try to force the world to pass laws that fit with its particular theological understanding--especially the understanding of one specific Christian group.

79. The church should focus its involvement with the state on supporting laws of general morality--those which prevent harm to others.

80. In keeping with the prophets, its activism should focus on protecting those who cannot protect themselves and empowering all the members of society.

81. The social gospel was not wrong because of its focus on helping the needy and marginalized--this is what Jesus did on earth.

82. The social gospel was wrong because it left out other essential parts of Christian faith--Jesus as Lord, not least.

83. Fundamentalism is a reduction of the Christian faith to a visceral reaction against changes in modern culture.

84. All truth is God's truth, no matter where he reveals it or we discover it by his grace.

85. The New Testament says "Love God and love neighbor" is the fulfillment of the whole law. There is no commandment of God for our lives that is left out (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8-10).

86. The love of neighbor includes the love of enemy. God himself loves Satan still and grieves at his perdition.

87. The love of neighbor and enemy never contradicts the love of God, for God never asks us to do or be anything for him that is unloving toward our neighbor.

88. God's justice fits within the context of his love. He is not a slave to justice.

89. God has the authority to forgive without payment. This would be no problem for him but less helpful for us.

90. Our love of God and Christ consists in our submission to his will as our Lord, and his will is that we love one another. God's will is that we love what he loves, and he loves not just the individual but the whole of humanity, groups within humanity, and indeed his creation.

91. There are many points on which Christians disagree. Paul gives guidelines for such situations.

92. On matters of personal conviction, each person should be fully convinced of what God expects of him or her.

93. Despite individual freedom, Christians should behave in a way that is loving toward others. Despite individual freedom, Christians should behave in a way that builds up the faith of others.

94. Paul affirms that no object is intrinsically unclean. It is a matter of personal understanding and conviction. Many actions are not intrinsically unclean. It is a matter of your intention as you act.

95. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Everything else is mostly ice cream on the cake.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Happy Birthday Dad!

Dad in middle, Eugene on left
(just passed), Maurice on right
My Dad would be 93 if he were still with us. I find myself quoting him often to my children. Here are some sayings and things that have come to mind this past year.

1. "Anything worth doing is worth doing right."

2. Also, "Good enough for who it's for" (I don't remember this one until after he retired).

3. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." I remember him saying that my uncle Paul Myers helped him see that if you don't speak up, you shouldn't expect anything to change and you certainly won't get what you really wanted at a restaurant.

4. "Anything but instant obedience is disobedience." :-)

5. "A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still." That one came from a Dale Carnegie course that he took.

6. "More accidents happen in parking lots than anywhere else." He was an insurance adjuster for years. :-)

7. "There's no time better than the present." "Why put off to tomorrow what you can do today?"

8. "I don't understand how a guy as educated as you are doesn't carry a pen around." I have now for about 10 years, along with a Moleskin. He always had a "pocket secretary," which was too bulky for me. A student laughed at me a couple weeks ago when I pulled the Moleskin out of my pocket (instead of taking notes on my phone). :-)

9. Dad used to add up the individual receipts at certain restaurants to see if he could predict the bill. When I was old enough I would do it too. Come to find out, Uncle Eugene who just passed did that too. Dad was really good at adding numbers. I was thinking it probably came from their Dad's store. He had a slide rule too, although I'm not sure he ever used it in my lifetime.

10. Dad liked liver. No one else did. I did like baloney and Braunschweiger, two meats he would eat. He used to deep fry tacos sometimes on Sunday nights when I was a boy.

11. I heard someone say Saturday that you have to drink coffee if you're in the army. Certainly my Dad did... very much. Uncle Eugene did too. My wife Angie says I slurp coffee like he did.

12. Dad would give off a little growl when he was frustrated. I do it too sometimes. "Shoot" was about as wordy he got.

13. I was also remembering recently an incident that happened when he was working out of an MIC office on US1 getting down toward the Ft. Lauderdale airport in the 70s, south of Sears. A drunk man came in and asked him for some money. His snap response was, "What you need is to sober up." The man responded haltingly, "Thank you for those kind words." Dad felt bad and bought him a meal.

There's a few memories. Happy Birthday, Dad!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Another seminary curriculum

I've been thinking off and on lately, what would have been the ideal seminary curriculum for me. It would probably look much like the traditional curriculum I had in seminary, except it might be more integrated within each course.

Almost impossible to do it. There's just too much. Here's a shot if we could still do 90 hour MDIV curricula (15 hours per semester). For maximum benefit and coverage, every course should have a view to 1) spiritual formation, 2) connecting to other disciplines and subject matter, 3) appropriation.

Year 1
  • The Life of a Minister (1 hour)
  • Greek for Ministry
  • IBS: The Gospel of Matthew
  • History: The First Christian Centuries (2 hours)
  • Christian Theology 1
  • The Mission of the Church
  • Intro to Spiritual Formation (1 hour)
  • Greek for Study
  • IBS: Romans
  • History: Catholics and Protestants (2 hours)
  • Christian Theology 2
  • The Pastor as Leader
Year 2
  • Supervised Ministry 1 (1 hour)
  • Greek Exegesis: Philippians
  • The Pentateuch 
  • History: American Christianity (2 hours)
  • Race, Class, and Gender
  • The Pastor and Congregational Care
  • Personal Spiritual Formation
  • Greek Exegesis: Gospel of John
  • Hebrew for Ministry
  • Historical and Poetic Books
  • The Pastor as Priest
Year 3
  • Supervised Ministry 2 (1 hour)
  • Hebrew for Study
  • Luke-Acts
  • Philosophy and Christian Faith (2 hours)
  • Great Theologians of the Centuries
  • The Pastor and Discipleship
  • The Integrated Pastor
  • Hebrew Exegesis: The Prophets
  • Contemporary Theologians
  • The Letters of the New Testament
  • The Pastor as Prophet

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Life Check-In

There was almost a month without a blog post, something unheard of. Somehow I feel I will be blogging less. I was on Facebook daily of course. Those posts no doubt reveal how troubled I am by the state of America right now and by the state of the church world of which I am a part. The past year has seriously undermined a kind of optimism I used to have about the arch of history.

I wanted to jot down some brief notes to catalog my own story these past three years. Otherwise perhaps I'll forget. I cataloged my time as Dean of Wesley Seminary.

So let me label my last two years and this one.

This was the year of return. This was the year that I returned to the undergraduate School of Theology and Ministry to teaching. The first semester was quite a shock. Students are different. I no longer had a fan base. I did way too much.

I taught two sections of Honor's College. I really enjoyed the students but the response to me was more mixed. Nevertheless, I think I have a good relationship with these students still today.

I taught a "First Year Experience" New Testament Survey. This program is really good. I think it went really well and, again, have a good relationship with these students even today.

I taught for the KERN masters' students in the first year of the graduate program. These were some really high powered students who are already showing signs of future leadership. Eddy Shigley, Dave Ward, and Brian Bernius did a great job of setting up this program, which gets a student from high school to MDIV equivalency in 5 years.

This was the year of sorting out. In the spring of my first year of return I was tapped to be interim Dean of the undergraduate School of Theology and Ministry. I remarked several times that Dave Ward had done such a good job of structuring the School that it was hard to go wrong. Brian Bernius handles curriculum. David Vardaman handles course assignments and student issues. The Dean goes to broader meetings and facilitates vision and strategy. Brilliant set up!

With Eddy Shigley pumping the KERN, Amanda Drury generating all sorts of innovation, and Charlie Alcock pulling together Youth Ministry Events, this is a powerful line up. Youth Ministry Events was pulled fully into STM during this year. Amanda's Examen is doing great things. And Eddy is a machine.

The most significant events of the year were the sorting out of who does what between the Seminary, adult programs, and STM. The results did redirect the planned trajectory of STM, and other plans faced resistance in various bodies. Some initiatives ended up relocated.

On the innovative side, however, Scott Burson did teach an online philosophy class in the spring for undergrad students. There are courses of this sort, especially in the summer, but this was a potential turning point for the undergraduate campus.

I commenced as full Dean July 1, 2017. We are only a couple months into this academic year. So far, it may prove to be the year of waking up. Issues of diversity have been at the forefront so far. This is a difficult and uncomfortable topic. It is however a strategic goal for STM. I convened an ad hoc group at the beginning of the year and momentum seems to be toward the hard process of becoming more like the kingdom of God as a campus. This is tough work with frequent set backs.

We've lost Abson Joseph to the Seminary. He will become Dean January 1. The Seminary has become a model of diversity, thanks in large part to the trajectory first set by Wayne Schmidt.

The most exciting innovation is the possibility that the undergraduate campus will launch into a major dual credit initiative with high school students, perhaps especially the home school domain. Mike Egenreider, the new VP for enrollment management on the residential campus, gets the credit for catalyzing this exciting new development. I of course have been talking about this sort of idea for a couple years, but he is the man to make it happen.

STM hopes to offer four online courses a semester to mostly high school students next fall. Scott Burson is piloting one such course this fall (see, I was already doing it), and I hope to offer NT Survey online in the spring.

It helps to write this out. I feel like the most important voice the church needs right now is to help it sort out where it should stand in relation to current events in nation, culture, and church. Yet what I really feel is lament.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hebrews and New Perspectives

Forty years ago now, New Testament studies reached a certain tipping point on the question of how the books of the New Testament might have related to the Judaism from which they emerged. Prior to this moment, numerous unexamined assumptions had prevailed about the earliest church in relation to Judaism. Suddenly, a paradigm shift took place. To those participating in this shift, this "new perspective on Paul" seemed obvious. Predictably, those invested in the traditional paradigm strongly resisted.

However, the blind spots of the traditional paradigm seemed obvious to many. The earliest Christians did not think they were part of a new religion. They saw their faith in Jesus as Messiah as nothing but the truest faith of Israel. They saw themselves participating in the fulfillment of Israel's story, not in the beginning of a new story or a new religion. The spread of the Jesus-movement to Gentiles was surely unanticipated by many of the earliest believers. The Christian story was a Jewish story in its very essence.

The bias against Judaism by many Christians was also laid bare. Judaism affirmed the grace of God. Jews by and large did not believe that they could merit God's favor apart from God's grace, of which the sacrificial system was a part. Protestants in particular were wont to read into the theology of the New Testament the theology of the Reformation, another anachronism exposed by the new perspective. The New Testament itself had far more room for works than would make Martin Luther comfortable.

The first chapter discusses these developments in greater detail. A significant amount of literature arose in the 1980s and 90s re-examining Paul's letters and Judaism from this new perspective, which claimed to be the original perspective itself, not truly a new perspective at all. Then it is no surprise that this re-examination of the relationship between Paul and Judaism soon led to another look at Jesus in relationship to Judaism, a movement sometimes called the "third quest for the historical Jesus."

Finally, again predictably, the question shifted to exactly when Christianity and Judaism actually parted ways. For years many had simply read back the situation today into the early church. Christianity and Judaism are different religions today. It was perhaps natural to assume that they had always been different religions. Now the question needed to be asked, "When did they actually become distinct religions?" When did they truly part ways? The question has proved far more complex and variegated than we might have imagined forty years ago.

Although the study of books like Hebrews has continued to swim in the altered waters of these debates, no one to date has actually done a holistic re-examination of Hebrews in the light of these revised perspectives. The interpretation of a verse might change here and there. Perhaps a scholar might soften his or her sense of the tone with which Hebrews viewed the Levitical system as no longer needed. However, it is my contention that the unexamined assumptions go much deeper.

Why is it that so much study of Hebrews thinks it obvious that the audience must have been Jewish? Could it be a serious underestimation of the degree to which Gentile converts saw themselves joining a Jewish movement and embracing the story, symbols, and institutions of Israel? Why does it seem obvious that an audience invested in the temple would have to be a Jewish group tempted to return to mainstream Judaism? Could it be still more unexamined assumptions? We know that the temple was destroyed and never returned. Today it is obvious to Christians that Christ made the temple obsolete. Why is this obvious to Christians today? It is obvious because of the book of Hebrews itself! Prior to the book of Hebrews, it is not at all clear that Christ's supercession of the temple would have been obvious to Jesus followers.

It seems far more likely that it took some time for the earliest Christians to reach this conclusion. I would argue that it did not likely become a prevailing understanding among Jesus-followers until after the temple was destroyed. The earliest Christians were not likely at all to conclude instantly that Christ's offering had replaced the temple. Over time it is likely that a spectrum of positions developed on this question within the movement, just as took place earlier on the question of the Jewish Law. Accordingly, the earliest Gentile converts to the Jesus movement would have owned the Jerusalem temple as part of their new faith just like other Christian Jews likely did.

Forty years after the tipping point, scholarship on the book of Hebrews is still largely operating within a pre-new perspective paradigm. The intuitions of American scholars in particular still find it difficult to move beyond the glasses of the Protestant Reformation and Nicaea to hear this sermon in its original Jewish and Gentile Christian context. We do not need to abandon our personal faith to read Hebrews in context. A mature hermeneutic will recognize the difference between fuller theological readings and appropriations of scriptural texts and historical-cultural interpretations which attempt to examine moments on the way to the later formulations. We can distinguish historical tasks from confessional ones without sacrificing either.

The pages that follow are one attempt to look at Hebrews in this light. As with any scholarly construct, it is a probing of the possibilities. It is an attempt to play out one possible scenario in the light of the evidence we have and the conversation of interpreters as it stands. Time will tell whether it manages to convince others or if it stands alone as just one possibility to check off the list. I offer it to the great, never-ending conversation that is biblical scholarship.