Sunday, March 29, 2020

Introduction to 1 Thessalonians

I did explanatory notes on 1 Thessalonians about 12 years ago, but I didn't do an introduction. Thought I would write the introduction.
1. First Thessalonians is one of those few books in the Bible whose historical origins are a matter of widespread agreement. The first few chapters of the letter give a clear sense of its origins in a way that fits fairly neatly into the story of Acts. They suggest that the apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians while he was at Corinth somewhere around AD50 or 51.

The author is Paul. Over the years, there has been no real doubt of this likelihood. The audience are the Thessalonians. Acts tells us that Paul founded this church on his second missionary journey. He was not able to stay there long, perhaps less than two months, before he was forced to leave the city. [1]

Thessalonica was a large ancient city, the Roman capital of the region of Macedon. It was located on the Egnatian Way, the primary Roman road that continued on west toward Rome itself. Paul's interest in the city reflects his general mission philosophy to target large urban centers.

From the letter we can infer that the church there was primarily Gentile, non-Jewish in composition. They had "turned from idols to serve the living God" (1 Thess. 1:9). The fact that Paul refers to the church in the singular suggests that it primarily consisted of one house church and that all the believers in the city could likely fit in one large house. The church thus was probably forty people or less in size.

2. Paul's time in Corinth is perhaps the most datable moment in his ministry. The book of Acts mentions an encounter he had there with the proconsul Gallio, and Gallio's time in Corinth can be dated with some accuracy to 51-52AD. Since Gallio may not have finished his full time as proconsul, and since he came near the end of Paul's time there, we can suggest that Paul may have written 1 Thessalonians around the year AD50.

Acts gives us a picture of Paul moving from Thessalonica to Berea to Athens to Corinth. 1 Thessalonians confirms that Paul went to Athens at some point after being in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 3:3). In 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul indicates that he, Silas, and Timothy had arrived at some point in Athens after they had left Thessalonica. Paul and Silas send Timothy back to the city to check on their progress in faith.

Then Timothy returns to them. Although it is possible Paul and Silas were still in Athens when Timothy returned, 3:3 sounds more like they had moved on. Acts 17 gives us the impression that Paul did not stay long there or at least did not have a substantial ministry in the city. [2] For this reason, it seems likely that Paul was in Corinth when Timothy returned and thus that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians from Corinth.

3. Paul writes 1 Thessalonians in response. Many, perhaps most scholars would consider 1 Thessalonians to be the first of Paul's writings. [3] In this letter we are thus perhaps seeing the beginning of Paul's letter writing as a ministry tool. Paul preferred to minister in person. His letters were a practical substitute for his presence.

There is thus a sense in which Paul's letters are filling in the gaps of the ministries he started when he was present. We are thus only indirectly getting the heart of his preaching. We are more getting the edges, the "clean up" of remaining issues. This is not entirely the case, but it is an important factor to keep in mind.

In the case of the Thessalonians, the primary issues that remained with the Thessalonian church had to do with eschatology--matters regarding the "end times," the "last days." Here we refer to the return of Christ from heaven to judge the world and set up the kingdom of God on earth. Paul's preaching on such things had presumably focused on the return of Christ to set up God's kingdom.

He does not seem to have spent as much time talking about the resurrection. Judging from 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, the once pagan congregation either had little sense of life after death. At the very least, they did not think those who died would be part of Jesus' coming kingdom on earth.

It is interesting that Paul only discusses the dead "in Christ." In other words, he is not obviously discussing the dead saints of the Old Testament. Indeed, in his writings Paul is almost entirely silent about the fate of any group of the dead except those who have died in Christ.

4. Timothy would seem to be the carrier of the letter. We can imagine that he took it back from Corinth to Thessalonica. We can imagine that he read the letter aloud to the assembly and fielded any questions they might have. We remember that most people in the ancient world were illiterate, so they would not have been able to take home a copy to read at home. They would have likely heard it read enough times in their house church until they had its content firmly in mind.

[1] Philippians 4:16 indicates that he was there long enough to receive support at least twice from the church at Philippi. We balance this comment with the three sabbaths that Acts 17:2 mentions and conclude that Paul was not in Thessalonica long but likely more than two weeks. Somewhere in between one and two months seems likely.

[2] 1 Thessalonians gives us a slightly different impression of events. In Acts, Paul leaves Silas and Timothy at Berea and does not see them again until Corinth (Acts 17:14; 18:5). However, 1 Thessalonians indicates that all three were in Athens, and that it was only Timothy who was separated from Paul. There may be some way to fit these accounts together, but such speculation probably is not helpful, especially since ancient history writing was more flexible than modern historiography. Clearly Paul's account, as the first-hand witness, should be given emphasis.

[3] Galatians is the principle alternative.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Is COVID-19 God's Judgment?

1. Whenever there is a disaster, it is natural for us to ask why, especially when we believe in a God whose has a defining characteristic of love. We find the same question in the Bible in more than one place. In Luke 13, Jesus addresses some Galileans that Pilate had killed and some people who had a tower fall on them in Siloam (Luke 13:1-5). Was it a punishment for their sin? What about the young man who had been born blind? Had his parents sinned or had he sinned to bring it on (John 9:2)?

The Bible does indicate that events can be a consequence of sin. Israel loses a battle with Ai because of Achan's sin (Joshua 7). The northern and southern kingdoms both meet their demise as a consequence of their sin (2 Kings 17, 24:3). And it is not just the Old Testament. Ananias and Sapphira die in Acts 5 as a result of their sin, and need we merely mention the book of Revelation.

2. It is important to have a "whole Bible" theology of such questions. Once we begin to read the Bible in context, we realize that we get different angles on these questions from different books. I have hypothesized often that there is a growing precision on some subjects in the course of the Bible. The afterlife seems to be an example of this dynamic.

Another example is what we might call Deuteronomistic theology. Deuteronomistic theology gives us a basic principle--obedience to God leads to blessing, disobedience leads to disaster. However, Deuteronomy and the historical books that follow it (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) only look at this question from the standpoint of this life. Those who teach a prosperity gospel tend to focus on these parts of the Bible while ignoring others.

However, it is clear that not all suffering is a consequence of sin and disobedience. Jesus denies it in John 9 mentioned above. Indeed, Isaiah 53 and Jesus himself illustrate that a righteous person can be persecuted unjustly. Ecclesiastes is rife with the sense that, from all appearances, it often looks like the wicked sometimes prosper and the "good die young."

Ironically, the most righteous king in 2 Kings, Josiah, dies prematurely in battle. The most evil king of Judah, Manasseh, has a long and prosperous reign and dies peacefully in bed. The situation deeply troubled many at the time. The generation that went into captivity felt like they were being punished for the sins of their parents' generation.

Psalm 44:17 captures this lament well: "All this came upon us although we had not forgotten you. We had not been false to your covenant." There was a saying that circulated around Israel: "Our fathers ate sour grapes, but it is our teeth that hurt" (Jer. 31:29; Ezek. 18:2). God says he is going to change the policy. From now on it will be the person who does the sin who will die, not their children or grandchildren (Ezek 18:4).

2. Here is a good illustration of growing precision within the pages of the Old Testament. "God has no grandchildren"--our eternal fate is a matter of our individual relationship to God, not that of our parents. It goes the other way as well--our eternal judgment is not a matter of our parents either.

There are still consequences to sin in this life, of course. If a mother takes drugs while pregnant, God may not intervene to protect the unborn child from the consequences. The child of an alcoholic parent may still have to deal with the psychological consequences of growing up in that environment.

The book of Job brings out the complexity of the situation. Job suffers even though he has not sinned. He never finds out why in the pages of the book. God comes to him at the end and basically tells him that understanding the situation is above his pay grade. Here is the final answer to the problem of suffering. God is in control. God is good and knows what is happening. We will never fully understand. We must simply have faith that "the judge of all the earth will do what is right" (Gen. 18:25).

Of course we know that Satan has made a wager with God from Job 1-2. Job never finds this out. In my Wesleyan theology, this is a good example of the fact that much of the suffering that happens in the world is a matter of God's permissive will rather than his directive will. That is to say, God does not directly order everything that happens.

God is sovereign. Nothing happens without God's permission. God is in control. God signs off on everything. But God gives some degree of freedom to the creation. God gives some degree of freedom to humanity and to the natural order. God knows what will happen, but he does not dictate everything that will happen.

There is of course a competing view, the idea that "everything happens for a reason." There is the Calvinist view that God specifically directs everything that happens. In my view, this makes God the author of evil. It makes the statement that God is love meaningless.

3. An important observation here is that the understanding of Satan is not present in the earliest parts of the Old Testament. Satan only appears in Job 1-2, 1 Chronicles 21, and Zechariah 3. It is common to think of Job as one of the earliest books of the Old Testament but in my view this is the common confusion of the subject matter of a book with the circumstances of its writing.

This is another example of growing precision in understanding as we move through the Bible. The earliest parts of the Bible simply ascribe all spiritual activity to God. This is not untrue, since God approves of everything that happens.

But it is not as precise as an awareness of Satan. Does God really directly send evil spirits on King Saul (1 Sam. 16:14)? Does God directly command that a person be born blind or deaf (Exod. 4:11)? These are true but imprecise statements. God signs off on everything that happens. But we now know that Satan is often the more direct instigator.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in comparing 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1 The first says that God tempted David to sin. The second says that Satan did it. If we have no sense of a developing precision in understanding, these two passages will certainly seem to contradict each other. In the end, James gives us the final word: "Let no one say when tempted that God is tempting me. For God is not tempted with evil nor does he tempt anyone" (Jas. 1:13).

4. All of that is background to the question at hand. Is COVID-19 God's judgment in some way?

We can say with certainty that God has allowed COVID-19 to happen. God is in control. But we cannot say with any certainty whether God is judging certain people. That is above our pay grade. We have an urge to speculate on such questions, but Job tells us we must trust that God is in control and resist matters that are beyond our understanding. We are not competent to fish for Leviathan with a fish hook (Job 41:1)!

We can say that Christians will die. Indeed, some American Christians have been very resistant to believe in the current crisis. What if they had died in higher numbers as a result? Even if that had happened, Job would implore us not to conclude that such an eventuality would have been God's judgment on us in some way.

We can conclude that God has and will likely allow people to experience the consequences of their choices. We do not know the intentions or detailed actions of the Chinese government. But God has allowed China and the world to experience the consequences. I do not know whether the United States has mishandled the lead up to the crisis here. But God may very well let the rest of us experience the consequences.

In all this I remember that death is not so powerful in the face of Christ. Death has no victory over us! In my own journey with the problem of evil and suffering, a key conclusion has been that I give too much credit to death and suffering, as if they are a big deal.

God is a big deal. I am only a big deal because God loves me. My death is only a big deal because I am one of the sparrows God watches over.

So I will take precautions. I will be vigilant. I will heed the advice of experts. I will pray for my leaders. I will pray for others.

But in the end, "The LORD is with me. I will not be afraid what a mortal [or a virus] might do to me."

Sunday, March 01, 2020

What's a heresy?

Someone recently asked what a heresy was. Here is my answer.
1. First, heresy has to do with the beliefs of our head. In that sense:
  • Heresy is not about ethics. The Church in its earliest centuries did not largely fight over ethics but over beliefs. In that sense, it can be wrong do do something but it is not heresy to do something.
  • Heresy is not about salvation. God judges us according to our "heart," that is, our faith in him. Our decisions and actions flow from our heart toward God. Out of the heart thus comes forth sin and death. God does not judge us according to our beliefs except insofar as our beliefs are an expression of our hearts. This is the direction with which God is ultimately concerned--heart to action, heart to belief (not belief to action, not action in itself).
2. Heresy, properly so called, has to do with deviance from the ecumenical creeds (and thus dogmas) of Christendom.
  • Deviation with regard to the Trinity.
  • Deviation with regard to the resurrection.
  • Note that such heresies only became heresies after the ecumenical councils that finally brought those debates to conclusion. The author of Ecclesiastes was not a heretic for not understanding the fullness of life after death. Arius was not a heretic until after 381, after his death, when the Nicene Creed was finalized.
3. There are informal heresies, which approach heresies because they relate to the general consensus of the church (and thus to doctrines) but which are not addressed in the creeds.
  •  Open theism denies the absolute foreknowledge of God. This a "heresy light" because Christians everywhere have long affirmed the full foreknowledge of God. But the issue is not addressed in the creeds.
  • The inspiration of Scripture is the common belief of Christendom, but it has never been affirmed in an ecumenical creed nor has its precise nature ever been spelled out by the Church at large.
  • The belief that homosexual practice is acceptable in a monogamous relationship falls outside the consensus of Christianity throughout the ages. While the practice is a question of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, the belief stands outside the consensus of the Church.
4. Deviation from the particular beliefs of one's church or one's tradition stands outside debates over heresy, although it does relate to one's participation in a particular Christian community.
  • One's position on the nature of predestination, individual will, or eternal security
  • One's position on particular atonement theories or a teaching like eternal security.
  • One's position on the inerrancy of Scripture
5. There is a host of issues where one may have Christian convictions on an issue. This is where you believe God has bound you to a particular perspective and practice, but you do not see them as binding on others.