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Monday, October 12, 2009

on challenges to creationism

Michael Spencer has travelled a road many of us have travelled. He grew up accepting young earth creationism and hearing horror stories about evolution. Then he went to college:

My views on the relationship of scripture and science were more affected by my college Bible classes than my science classes. I learned that scripture must be rightly interpreted. It must be understood within its world, and interpreted rightly in mine. If I came away with any suspicions that the young earth creationists might be wrong, it came from my developing an appreciation for Biblical interpretation, not from the Biology lab. Secular science didn’t turn my head. I learned that the people waving the Bible around weren’t necessarily treating it with the respect it deserved.

Seminary only increased the divide:

My Bible instructors taught me to respect the Biblical text by not imposing my interpretations and favorite hobby horses on the scriptures. What became clearer to me over my seminary career was that many of my evangelical and fundamentalist brethren were not willing to let the scriptures be what they were or to let them speak their own language.

And what is the language of Genesis? Not the language of scientific hypothesis:

Does it match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? Here I differ with Hugh Ross and the CRI writers. I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way.

In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless. Utterly and completely worthless and I will freely admit to being bored the more I hear about it.

Spencer asks:

Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself?

Part of the problem, I think, is that we live in a vastly different world from that of the Bible writers. Modern science has become such an integral part of our everyday lives that it is hard to imagine a culture that wasn't concerned about how well the biblical text fit with astronomical observations and fossil excavations. But if we are even going to attempt to understand what these stories meant to their first hearers, we need to separate ourselves from our own cultural prejudices. It won't be an easy task, but we'll never understand the Bible if we don't.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

reading genesis 3 literally

A website that calls itself "The Truth Problem" looks at what it would mean to take the Garden of Eden stories literally, and concludes that no Christian actually does.

Evidence tells us that in the early Christian Church, most theologians and leaders believed that the Creation account was at least partially, if not wholly symbolic. Many modern Christians, however, especially in America, say that this account must be read literally. They feel it is dangerous to treat portions of the Bible metaphorically when they are not explicitly stated to be metaphorical.

But here's the rub. Even those who say we should read these chapters literally do not, themselves, read them literally.

The Truth Problem demonstrates this by looking at Genesis 3, the story of the serpent and the tree. Under a strictly literal interpretation:

  1. The serpent is a talking animal

  2. The serpent deceived the humans

  3. The serpent was cursed above all other animals

  4. The serpent's punishment is to crawl on its belly

  5. The serpent will bite humans' heels

  6. The serpent will be crushed by humans

Under the traditional Christian interpretation of Genesis 3, these six statements are all understood metaphorically. They are understood to mean:

  1. The serpent represents Satan

  2. Satan is the deceiver of humanity

  3. Satan is cursed above all created things

  4. Satan's power is diminished

  5. Satan will attack the Messiah

  6. The Messiah will triumph

Why is it that so many Christians who have no problem reading Genesis 3 metaphorically, can't do the same with Genesis 1 and 2?

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Monday, September 28, 2009

should believers criticize biblical texts?

According to John Hobbins, we must:

It’s not just biblical texts that believers must complain about. It is God himself. Biblical literature is clear on this point: it is connatural to a believer to criticize God. That’s what Moses and the prophets do. That’s what David and his fellow psalmists do. That’s what Job does. That’s what Jesus does from the cross, in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It is right and good and a joyful thing to complain and criticize whenever there is a gap between the truth we associate with God and the facts on the ground.

The "facts on the ground" are just as much a part of our experience of God as the words we read in Scripture.

It is also possible for a believer to reject a part of scripture definitively, and still remain a believer. As I remember it – I heard it from Käsemann himself – the great NT exegete Ernst Käsemann once stood up in an official context of his church and argued with great passion on behalf of removing Romans 13 from Scripture. Of course Romans 13 remains a part of Scripture, but no one criticized Käsemann for his speech.

Who would? Everyone knew he had lost his beloved daughter in Argentina in the dark days in which a military junta tortured and “disappeared” their political opponents. Including Käsemann’s daughter.

Put yourself in the professor’s shoes. Walk in his boots. Now read Romans 13. Because he was a believer, I submit, he railed against that text.

(Read Romans 13: NRSV | NLT | ESV | NIV)

Käsemann is not the first Christian to reject a portion of the New Testament. Martin Luther argued vehemently that the entire book of James should be removed. And, as Hobbins points out, the Bible writers even railed against God. Why should we hold ourselves to a lower standard?

Hat tip: Henry Neufeld


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

n.t. wright on biblical authority

I like the way N.T. Wright answers the question, "How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?"

An excerpt:

If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture. And that is a complex claim. It is not straightforward. When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this. Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it. In other words, they think they know what authority is and then they say that scripture is that thing.

I want to suggest that we should try it the other way around. Supposing we said that we know what scripture is (we have it here, after all), and that we should try and discover what authority might be in the light of that. Granted that this is the book that we actually have, and that we want to find out what its ‘authority’ might mean, we need perhaps to forswear our too-ready ideas about ‘authority’ and let them be remolded in the light of scripture itself—not just in the light of the biblical statements about authority but in the light of the whole Bible, or the whole New Testament, itself. What are we saying about the concept of ‘authority’ itself if we assert that this book—not the book we are so good at turning this book into—is ‘authoritative’?

It's kind of long, but worth reading.


Monday, July 06, 2009

bible translations, english and otherwise

Bible translator Eddie Arthur has a bit of a rant on the disparity between the amount of attention given to English Bible translations and the amount of attention given to the more than 2000 languages that are still waiting for their first translation of the Bible.

…it frustrates me that people can’t see that while we argue about the finer points of the ESV and NLT, so many people don’t have any Scripture. We are like rich people arguing about the finer points of different caviars when there are people starving outside our houses.

Eddie works for Wycliffe UK, one of many fine organizations dedicated to giving people Scriptures in their native languages. Wycliffe offers many opportunities to get involved with translation, through prayers, gifts, or volunteer work. If you're an English speaking Christian who appreciates the freedom of having so many versions available, please take some time to consider what you might be able to do to help give others the opportunity to read even one translation in their own language.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

on bible inerrancy

Dr. Ken Schenck of Indiana Wesleyan University offers some of his thoughts, from a Wesleyan perspective, on the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.

The Chicago Statement is something I've seen before, and I recall being uneasy with many of its statements. There were some I disagreed with, but even those where the words did not seem objectionable, something did. Dr. Schenck gives voice to what I couldn't find the words for:

In a theme I will no doubt express throughout this series, the problem with the Chicago Statement is neither its spirit nor its basic affirmations. It is that it underestimates the profundity and complexity of God's Truth. God is smarter than it accounts for, in my opinion. It is a statement of arithmetic in a glorious God-created world of calculus.

For example, where the Chicago Statement says:

Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.

Dr. Schenck notes:

Absolutely! Indeed, this statement sounds characteristically Wesleyan in terms of our holiness tradition. The problem of course is that the Chicago statement does not understand this statement in a characteristically Wesleyan way. The nineteenth century holiness interpreters understood the Spirit's speaking potentially to be a "more than literal," spiritual meaning the text could take on. Similarly, Wesley understood the Spirit to inspire understandings of the text for us in a way similar to how He did the original inspiration.

The Chicago Statement means nothing of this sort. In fact, all the signatories would have soundly rejected this characteristically Wesleyan hermeneutic.

The Chicago Statement, on the other hand, continues thus:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.

The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

In other words, if I don't believe in a talking serpent, the sun standing still during a battle, or a giant fish that swallowed a man and spit him out on the beach, I've compromised my faith. The letter of the law is just as important as the spirit.

But isn't this the same Bible that explicitly denies that very doctrine? If I'm not mistaken, there's something in one of Paul's letters about how the letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. (Possibly somewhere around 2 Corinthians 3:6.)

The value of the Bible is found in the way it speaks to our lives today, not in its ability to infallibly transmit historical data about the past. To insist that we must accept both or neither is, as Schenck says, to underestimate God.

If you're at all interested in discussions of inerrancy, I recommend you read the whole series, linked above.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

more evangelical than i realized

In a recent post, John Meunier comments on Mark Noll's book The Rise of Evanglicalism, which discusses David Bebbington's four ingredients of evangelicalism. By this definition, John says he qualifies as an evangelical.

How do I rate?

  1. Conversion - the belief that lives need to be changed

    I certainly agree with this one.

  2. Biblical priority - the belief that the Bible contains all spiritual truth

    I'd have to hedge on this one. I think the Bible contains enough spiritual truth. If someone had nothing but the Bible as a guide, they could still learn everything they need about spiritual life and salvation. But I would have to say I see the Bible as the first word, not the last word, in spiritual matters. I may need to expand on this in a separate post.

  3. Activism - dedication of all believers to lives of service for God, especially the spreading of the good news and the carrying of the gospel to those who have not heard it

    I agree with this one to a point. I think all believers should be dedicated to lives of service for God. I also think sharing the gospel is important, but it is only part of the work of the Kingdom of God.

    Having been involved in several missions projects, both locally and globally, I have learned what my skills are, and evangelism is not one of them. I think the church of Acts 6 was wise to recognize that different people could serve in different capacities, and that some people "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" might indeed be better suited for waiting on tables than for preaching.

    Evanglicalism, it seems to me, has a tendency to belittle these other forms of ministry.

  4. Crucicentrism - Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin

    Here I agree fully, although the word "sin" probably has more definitions than there are Christian denominations. So here's my definition: Anything less than perfection is sin. Not a single person among us has the inherent power or ability to reach perfection on our own, so Christ's death is important to us all.

So by this standard I'm mostly evangelical. On two of the four points I agree, and on the other two I agree with reservations.

But the word evangelical still makes me queasy. In the United States, the word has taken on disturbing connotations: An evangelical is someone who attends a megachurch, suspects the end of the world may be near, hopes to Christianize the culture anyway, views the nuclear family as the essential building block of society, and votes Republican. I'm sure this does not reflect all evangelicals, but I've met a lot of people who fit this entire profile.

Personally, I like Bebbington's definition much better. I'd like to see American evangelicalism move back in that direction.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

dating the gospels: does it matter?

Weekend Fisher has begun a series of posts on dating the gospels at her blog Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength. Her first post looks at Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Temple, comparing and contrasting it with other prophecies of Jesus in the same gospel.

By looking at the differences in how Mark handles Jesus' predictions of his death and Jesus' predictions of the Temple's destruction, Weekend Fisher tries to make the case that this gospel was written before the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. I'm not fully convinced — though I'm not fully convinced it was written after 70 AD either.

I'm not going to address the pros and cons of the various dating hypotheses (not today, anyway). What I want to consider for the moment is whether we really gain anything from looking at the gospels this way.

I'll start by admitting that I'm fascinated by critical biblical scholarship. I find it very satisfying intellectually not just to read what a scholar has to say, but to evaluate his or her positions — examine the texts cited and decide: Do I agree with the conclusions, or is this scholar full of crap?

But whether or not it is intellectually stimulating, the question arises whether critical scholarship is edifying. Does it promote a healthier faith?

This is a more complicated question. It's certainly possible by looking at the Bible through the lens of scholarship, to gradually (or even suddenly) drift away from the faith. Bart Ehrman is the obvious example here. It's also possible to withdraw so completely in the ivory tower of academia as to lose touch with the practical application of the gospel message.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I find critical scholarship fascinating is because of the questions it raises, the evidence used to resolve these questions, and the further questions raised as a result. For example, we have four gospels. How long after Jesus' death were they written? Which gospel was written first? Were the gospels written independently of each other, or did the later writers know of, and have access to, the earlier gospels? And how could we tell?

One of the ways scholars try to answer these questions is by comparing how two gospels describe the same event. For example, this is how Matthew describes the baptism of Jesus:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17)

Here is Mark's account of the same event:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Mark 1:9-11)

Luke's account:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:21-22)

And John's:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." (John 1:29-34)

There is only one element (other than the presence of Jesus) common to all four accounts: The Spirit descending like a dove. Neither John the Baptist nor the baptism itself is mentioned explicitly in all four gospels. Why not? And what does it mean?

Mark's account is the simplest: Jesus goes to the Jordan River and gets baptized by John. Jesus receives a private revelation, he sees the Spirit descend like a dove, and he hears a voice say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." In this account, nobody else saw or heard the revelation.

Matthew's account differs in a few respects: In this account, John initially doesn't want to baptize Jesus, and Jesus has to talk him into it. Also, the voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." This seems to indicate that it was a public revelation rather than a private one. On the other hand, Matthew uses the phrase "the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending…". So in Matthew it's not entirely clear whether this is a public or a private revelation, or maybe a mixture.

Luke's account differs even more. First we are told just prior to this that Herod has had John the Baptist arrested (v. 20). Luke thus does not mention John's presence at Jesus' baptism. Like Matthew's account, the public or private nature of the revelation is ambiguous. On the one hand, "the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove," but on the other hand, the voice says, as in Mark, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

John's account is perhaps the most radical departure from the others: In this account, John the Baptist is the one who sees the Spirit descending like a dove. And did you notice? This gospel does not actually say that John baptized Jesus.

How does all this help us date the gospels? Let's assume for a minute that the simplest account was the first to be written. This is a reasonable assumption because it makes more sense for a later author to add explanatory material than to remove explanatory material.

So, on this assumption, the gospel of Mark was the first to be written. To put it another way, at one time this was the church's only written account of the baptism of Jesus. He went to to Jordan river and was baptized by John. But wait! Wasn't John "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," (Mark 1:4)? And wasn't Jesus sinless? So why would he have needed to be baptized at all?

The other three gospels all differ from Mark on precisely this point. Matthew says John wants Jesus to baptize him. Luke changes the order of events to separate John and Jesus. And the gospel of John has John the Baptist give testimony about Jesus in lieu of baptizing him.

We can see a clear development of the gospel message from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John. Mark comments on the historical event without explanation. Matthew gives a vague explanation about "fulfilling all righteousness." Luke downplays the baptism, recognizing that the Spirit's descent is the important element of the story. And John eliminates the baptism entirely. This trajectory can give us a good working hypothesis about the order in which the gospels were written. From here, we can examine other parallel passages to see if the same pattern holds.

But — to get back to the question I'm trying to explore in this post — can this type of study enrich our faith?

For myself, the answer is an unequivocal yes. For one thing, I see the same type of theological development in my own faith journey. When I first started taking my faith seriously at age 17, my beliefs were rather simple. Subsequently I've had lots of questions that have deepened my faith — even as I've sought better explanations to replace tentative answers that have not been ultimately satisfying.

Additionally, looking at the gospels in parallel has underlined the themes unique to each one that are not always obvious reading them separately. These themes raise further questions for study: Why is Mark so obsessed with secrecy about Jesus' identity? Why is Matthew so obsessed with fulfillment of prophecy? What message is Luke sending by so frequently pairing stories of Jesus' encounters with Jews and Gentiles, with men and women? What is the importance of the seven signs or the seven "I am" statements in John's gospel?

Finally, my faith has grown with each new unanswered question. That may sound counter-intuitive, but the reality for me is that in a universe which could be easily understood, I would have a hard time believing in a God who transcends our knowledge. The real universe, where every answer yields new questions, is a good metaphor for a God who is ultimately beyond human understanding.

But that's just my answer. It's not for everybody. I can see how someone could get so caught up in the academic questions that they forget what the gospels are all about. I can also see how some people might get lost in the details and not get anything out of it. God loves and blesses those with a simple faith. But for chronic questioners like me, God provides a way to channel that curiosity to enrich our faith.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

in which i agree wholeheartedly with george w. bush

From The Raw Story:

"I think that God created the Earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution," he told ABC television.

Asked whether the Bible was literally true, Bush replied: "Probably not. No, I'm not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it."

"The important lesson is 'God sent a son,'" he said.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

new testament use of the old testament

I'm not sure how accurate this is. Not being an evangelical, I'm not particularly fond of the grammatical-historical method of Bible study. Still, it's an interesting quiz.

Hat tip: Peter Kirk

NT Use of the OT -- Test Your View!
Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view You seem to be most closely aligned with the Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view, a view defended by Peter Enns in the book “Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” (edited by Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, Nov. 2008). Since the NT writers held a single-minded conviction that the Scriptures point to and are fulfilled in Christ, this view suggests that the NT writers perceive this meaning in OT texts, even when their OT authors did not have that meaning in mind when they wrote. It should be noted, however, that advocates of this view are careful not to deny the importance of the grammatical-historical study of the OT text so as to understand the OT authors on their own terms. For more info, see the book, or attend a special session devoted to the topic at the ETS Annual Meeting in Providence, RI (Nov. 2008); Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Darrell L. Bock, and Peter Enns will all present their views.
Fun quizzes, surveys & blog quizzes by Quibblo

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

jonah the false prophet

A little over a month ago, Henry Neufeld had a post titled The Advantages of Stoning False Prophets. Just prior to the U.S. election, he heard a woman on the radio explain how she decided who to vote for:

She hadn’t been sure, and she had been inclined differently herself, but the good Lord told her to vote for Obama, and she trusted God above all, so that’s what she was going to do.

God said it; I believe it; that settles it. Right?

It should shock nobody that it only took a song and a commercial break for another caller to inform the host that she had heard from God as well, who had told her to vote for McCain.

It turns out God was an undecided voter. Or maybe he was just hedging his bets.

Henry make a great point about hearing from God:
[Our] tendency when someone claims they heard from God is to focus on the word “God.” God is omniscient and won’t lie, though one should remember that he might send a strong delusion (2 Thessalonians 2:11). So what we hear must be true, right?

Hardly! Even if one admits, as I do, that God speaks, there is always the listener.

I'm reminded of everyone's favorite false prophet: Jonah.

The biblical story of Jonah is one of my favorites. Every time I read it I find something new.

In summary, the story of Jonah (in case there's anyone out there who hasn't heard it) is this:

God calls Jonah to deliver a message of rebuke to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and was located across the river from the present-day city of Mosul in Iraq. So Jonah buys a ticket for a boat to Tarshish, or as the Good News Bible translates it, Spain. That's a few miles in the wrong direction.

So God sends a storm, which frightens everyone on the boat. They cast lots; Jonah loses, and is thrown overboard. A big fish swallows Jonah, and three days later spits him up on a beach near Nineveh. Jonah goes to Nineveh and spends a day walking through the city telling the people they are doomed because of their wickedness. The people repent, and God changes his mind and decides not to destroy the city.

Now I've read probably ten or more versions of this story to my 5-year-old, and nearly all of them end the story at this point. And that's a shame, because this is where the drama really begins.

Jonah is angry at God. He goes outside the city and builds a booth. God makes a plant grow to provide shade for Jonah. Jonah is appeased temporarily, but the next morning God makes a worm to eat the plant. Once more Jonah is angry, "angry enough to die".

But God says to Jonah:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

It's a serious indictment: How can Jonah be upset about the death of a plant and yet not care about the lives of so many people who simply didn't know any better? And also many animals?

And yet, I think Jonah has a good point. He may have resisted — who among us hasn't? — but he did stick out his neck for God. He went into hostile territory and said something that was bound to be unpopular. He risked his life to deliver God's message, and then … God backed down. What's up with that? Jonah heard from God, and faithfully repeated the message. In this case it was God who didn't follow through.

To be sure, God's decision not to destroy Nineveh was much more compassionate than the original decision to destroy it. But hadn't he at least considered the possibility that the Ninevites would repent, before he told Jonah to proclaim a message of destruction?

Now on the one hand, as an Arminian I like this because it shows that God doesn't have every little detail planned out from the beginning of time as the Calvinists claim. People really are free to respond to God's call. On the other hand, I'd like to believe God at least makes contingency plans based on a few likely outcomes.

So what's the answer? I really don't know. I've been wrestling a lot with God lately, not just over this but about many things. And frankly, I find a lot of comfort in stories like Jonah's. Many of the heroes and the writers of the Jewish Bible — Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Job, Jeremiah, Koheleth, the Psalmist — either questioned God or outright argued with him. I think that's something Christians ought to do more often.

What do you think?

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

does scripture interpret scripture

Simon Cozens, a missionary in Japan with WEC, examines the hermeneutic of "Scripture interprets Scripture" and finds it wanting.

His first issue is that the Bible writers themselves do not appear to have used this principle:

Indeed, when characters in the Bible make use of other Bible passages, they often do so in an obtuse and allegorical way. Paul wonderfully reinterprets "You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain" as "Give money to missionaries."

His second issue with "Scripture interprets Scripture" is what is missing from the equation:

Take a copy of the Bible. Put it down on a table. Observe it for a while. What does it do? Does it write a commentary on Galatians? Does it exegete some of the trickier passages in Romans? No. That's what we do.

It's worth your time to read the whole post.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

he is relieving himself: issues in translation

In the comments to my last post, Daniel McLain Hixon made the case for the ESV and other formal equivalence translations of the Bible. In general, I prefer formal equivalence too. I use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for most of my Bible study, and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) for checks and balances. Where the two don't agree, it is usually pretty clear which has kept the original and which has rephrased it.

But while I prefer formal equivalent translations for study, I've found that dynamic equivalent translations are better for family Bible reading.

I still have the Good News Bible I got when I was a child, and I've found that its language is good at holding the attention of my 5-year-old son. I've also recently purchased a Contemporary English Version (CEV) to use for those places where the Good News translation seems to go too far astray.

So I can see the benefits of both styles of translation. Essentially, a formal equivalence translation is better for study, because it stays closer to the wording of the original, and a dynamic equivalence translation is easier to read aloud, and easier to understand -- especially for younger listeners.

And yet, it's not really as simple as that. Sometimes, as in idiomatic expressions, the meaning of the original is not conveyed by the words. In such a case, a word-for-word translation will give readers a less accurate understanding of the original.

Let's look at 1 Kings 18:27. Elijah is taunting 450 prophets of Baal who are trying to get their god to light a fire on the altar they have built.

Here's the NRSV:

At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."

And the NASB:

It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened."

That second option, rendered "he has wandered away" in the NRSV or "he is occupied" in the NASB is, I'm told, a euphemism, similar in meaning to the modern English euphemism "he is reliving himself."

The dynamic-equivalent translations don't leave room for doubt. Here's the CEV:

At noon, Elijah began making fun of them. "Pray louder!" he said. "Baal must be a god. Maybe he's day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he's asleep, and you have to wake him up."

The New Living Translation replaces the Hebrew euphemism with an English one:

About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

As does the Good News Translation:

At noon Elijah started making fun of them: "Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone off on a trip! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!"

But which is the better way to translate this phrase? Although I usually prefer a strict word-for-word translation, I think it is better to translate Hebrew or Greek euphemisms into similar euphemisms in English. That gives the reader the best sense of the way the original readers would have understood the passage.

And here's a surprise! Evidently the translators of the ESV have the same opinion. (I'm going to have to take a closer look at this translation.)

Here's how the ESV renders this verse:

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.

It's not always easy to translate idioms. Sometimes there is not an equivalent euphemism. Sometimes we may not know the connotations of the original phrase. But this is one area where, if possible, I think it is preferable to depart from a strict word-for-word translation.

What do you all think?

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

every word of god?

I'm not a Bible scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. In college I considered majoring in religion and philosophy, and took two semesters of New Testament Greek, but that hardly qualifies me to speak with authority about Bible translation and interpretation. Still, I try to be as informed as I possibly can, so I often read blogs of people who actually do something about the Bible.

And so, I've seen a lot of commentary this week responding to a post by one Tim Challies, who apparently is no more a scholar than I am, but who does presume to speak with some authority about Bible translations. Specifically, Challies prefers the English Standard Version translation (ESV) over the New Living Translation (NLT) or the Contemporary English Version (CEV), two translations which Challies describes as "less literal". In Challies' own words:

What I mean to show in these examples is that anything other than an essentially literal translation of the Bible may work to subtly undermine the Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures.

The key to choosing a good translation, according to Challies, is this:

We cannot overestimate the importance of ensuring that what we study is the clearest, best, most accurate translation of God’s Words that we can possibly find.

Challies gives some examples of how the ESV translates a couple verses, and how these other Bibles translate the same verses. Let's see how the "less literal" translations undermine our confidence.

The first example is from Romans 13:4. Here's the ESV:

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

Now the NLT:

But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.

And the CEV:

If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.

For good measure, Challies also includes The Message paraphrase:

But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

The issue, for Challies, is the word "sword".

The translators have seen fit to provide what they feel is the main idea of the passage, that the civil authorities have the right to punish those who do wrong. But this is a verse that has long been used to discuss the Christian view on capital punishment. It is an important verse in this context and in others. But in these three translations there is nothing to discuss, for the “sword” has been removed and punishment, which may be imprisonment, fines or community service, among other things, has been substituted.

This is Challies' first mistake: He doesn't understand the context of this verse. Paul is not writing instructions to the civil authorities on how to handle wrongdoers; he's encouraging the Christians in Rome to do what's right and not get themselves into trouble with the law. If they obey the law, they will have nothing to fear. (History has proven Paul wrong about this; in the year 64, the Emperor Nero had some 7,000 Christians killed as scapegoats after a fire swept through the city, though the Christians had no part in setting the fire. It's likely that Paul himself was one of those who were executed.)

To turn this verse on its head, though, and say that capital punishment is justified, is the same mistake pro-slavery advocates made two centuries ago.

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

That's 1 Peter 2:18, in the New Revised Standard Version. A less literal translation might say "servants" instead of "slaves".

Here's the same verse in the ESV:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.

But I digress.

Clearly, this verse is not saying that it's OK to own slaves, or to treat them harshly if you do -- or even to be unjust to your servants. The instructions in this passage are written to those who are in a position of indentured service. At the time, some Christians were slaves. That should not be taken as a justification of the institution of slavery. Likewise, the word "sword" in Romans 13:4 should not be used as a justification of capital punishment. That's not what the passage is about. To understand a Bible passage, we have to begin by understanding its intended audience.

Surely Challies, the author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, ought to know that much.

Here's Challies' other example, Psalm 32:1. First, he quotes the ESV:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Then The Message:

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.

The NLT:

Oh, what joy for those whose rebellion is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!

And the CEV:

Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away.

Here, Challies' concern is for the word "covered". In the "less literal" translations,

It has been replaced by "wiped clean," "put out of site," or "wipe away." But is "covered" not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book?

In a word, no. The members of the ESV translation committee are listed on its web site, and God's name is not among them. If you like the ESV translation, then by all means use it. But don't try to claim that every word of the ESV is identical to every word of God. That's putting too much confidence in the translation committee.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

evangelism in the new testament

Martin LaBar of the Sun and Shield blog has posted a chart with examples of personal evangelism in the New Testament, along with a blog post of commentary on the chart.

Among the things Martin notes are: there is no set pattern, all the conversations are with strangers, and none of the conversations begin with a warning about sin, or with talk about God's love.

One thing that he doesn't note, but stuck out to me was that in the majority of these cases, the other person initiated or invited the conversation. Nicodemas came to Jesus; the Ethiopian eunuch asked for guidance; Cornelius sent for Peter because of a vision; the jailer asked Paul and Silas how he could be saved.

Does anything else strike you about these examples of evangelism? What about other examples from the New Testament?

To the thief on the cross, Jesus presented the good news in the most succinct version possible, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." This was preceded by perhaps the most succinct "sinner's prayer" possible, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

To Zacchaeus, Jesus took a very passive approach to evangelism, simply inviting himself to dinner and letting Zacchaeus do all the talking. Jesus didn't even mention the word salvation until after Zacchaeus had committed to turning his life around.

Despite the fact that Jesus often waited for people to come to him before he tried to evangelize (and despite the fact that he was Jesus), he was not always successful. The rich young man went away grieving, unable to commit to what Jesus asked of him.

Jesus had a chance to share the gospel with Pilate, too, but couldn't get a better response than a noncommittal "What is truth?"

Paul tried to share his testimony with the governer Felix, but all Felix was interested in was a bribe. Later, Paul tried to evangelize King Agrippa (son of Herod Agrippa) who was not impressed:

Agrippa said to Paul, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" Paul replied, "Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains."

If anything, I think these additional examples give us even less of a clear pattern. Any further thoughts?

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

how do you decide?

In response to my recent post the role of the bible, Robert commented:

I believe the meat of [Ebonmuse's] point can be found in these two sentences:

What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard.

I too am curious how a liberal believer decides which verses are divine and which are human. I often pose this question and receive a myriad of answers. What keeps it all--including the Resurrection--from being assigned to the figurative (or human-produced) category?

I think there are actually three separate issues here. As I see it, the questions are:

1) How does one determine whether a particular scripture passage is of divine or human origin?

2) How does one determine whether a passage should be followed or disregarded?

3) How does one determine whether a passage should be interpreted as literal or figurative?

These questions are not interchangeable. A passage may reflect the thoughts of its human author, may at the same time be literal, and may or may not be applicable within a given culture today. Another passage may have been received by the author directly from God, and at the same time be a parable, and again may or may not be applicable today.

Furthermore, these questions contain hidden assumptions. Question 2, in particular, is not relevant to certain types of Scripture. What would it mean, for example, to follow Psalm 139 or other psalms of praise? What would it mean to follow Micah 4 or another passage about a future peaceful kingdom? Does anyone really think the stories about Jacob in Genesis are an example to emulate? But just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, the proper response by a believer sometimes is to wrestle with the Bible text, to grapple with it to find a meaning. The follow/disregard dichotomy that the question presupposes may be appropriate for some parts of Scripture, but for others it simply doesn't make sense.

Likewise, the literal/figurative dichotomy presupposed by question 3 is not always appropriate. Sometimes a passage is both. In Galatians 4, Paul allegorizes the story of Sarah and Hagar from Genesis. This does not mean Paul believed the Genesis passage to be non-literal. He found a new meaning in the text. The author of Hebrews says in chapter 9 that the tabernacle, animal sacrifices, and objects relating to worship from Jewish Scripture are merely symbols or copies of the true heavenly worship. Again, this does not mean the author believed the tabernacle did not literally exist. Matthew allegorized passages like "The young woman will be with child" from Isaiah and "Out of Egypt I called my son" from Hosea to apply them to Jesus. In the second and third centuries, some Christians -- particularly those in Alexandria, Egypt -- allegorized nearly all of the Hebrew Scriptures to find references to Christ in every book.

This leads me back to question 1: Which parts of the Bible are of God, and which are of human origin? According to one understanding of inspiration, God uses Scripture to speak to us what we need to hear. The message may not be the same for each person. It may be a literal command or an allegorical interpretation. It may be a word of encouragement. It may simply be a word or phrase that leads to a train of thought that ends with the message God wants to reveal. So the real question is not whether a passage is of God or humans, but whether the interpretation of that passage is of God or of human origin.

And ultimately, we can't know, not in an absolute sense. We can pray, we can study, we can seek advice from others, we can meditate, we can act based on our best understanding. Ultimately, the Bible is far too complex a book to squeeze into a one-size-fits-all systematic theology.

Faith is often described as a relationship with God. Relationships are built on subjective experiences, not emperical data. Every relationship is different. That's why two believers may give different answers to these questions. And that's why I can't give a definitive answer myself.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

the role of the bible

I have a confession to make: I love reading atheist blogs. I enjoy them because they challenge my faith and make me think about why I believe what I believe. They expose the irrationalities of Christianity, and remind me that the reasons for my faith are experiential, not rational.

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism has a pair of recent posts, Making Excuses for the Bible and Instruction Manual or Chronicle?, which offer a critique of "liberal Christians."

In Ebonmuse's classification system, there are only two types of Christians: "fundamentalists" and "liberals." Throughout this post I will put the two terms in quotation marks because most Christians self-identify as neither fundamentalists nor liberals.

The difference between the two camps, according to Ebonmuse, is this:

In the eyes of the fundamentalists, the Bible (or Qur'an or Book of Mormon or whatever other text) is God's word, dictated with infallible perfection to the minds of his followers. It's meant to be the deity's instruction manual, telling human beings everything we need to know about how to live.

For liberal believers, by contrast, the Bible is not a direct pipeline to God, but a chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs. God did not speak directly to his followers and tell them what to write down - or, at best, he only did so rarely. Instead, God's followers tried to discern his will in the flow of events and infer what messages he meant to convey.

Ebonmuse notes that the criticisms of the Bible atheists use against "fundamentalists" -- e.g., immoral actions attributed to God -- don't apply to "liberals." If the Bible is understood as as "chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs," there is a possibility that those human beings made some mistakes.

Still, Ebonmuse contends that there are some valid criticisms to be made against "liberal" Christianity.

First: Unless they believe that God spoke to one people exclusively - and most liberal believers don't - then they should acknowledge that their own view of scripture as a chronicle implies that other cultures will also have had contact with God, and other religious texts will reflect the same interpretive process. Why, then, would a believer define themselves exclusively in the symbols and language of one particular religion? Why call yourself a Christian if just as much genuine understanding of God can be found in the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita as in the Bible?

These are tough questions, and different believers may give different answers. There is a wide gap between all religions are equally valid and all religions are false except mine, and I suspect most people would find themselves somewhere in between. For myself, I will readily acknowledge that some truth can be found in other religions. I've written previously about how reading the Tao Te Ching has enhanced my faith. However, my faith is still a Christian faith. I have not converted to Taoism, and I wouldn't call myself a Taoist Christian. I still believe that Christianity is the fullest expression of the reality of God.

Ebonmuse continues:

Second: What are the liberal believer's criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God's message or human error? Since they don't credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard. In most cases this process is guided by the believer's own moral intuitions and by the moral progress society has subsequently made. Now that we know slavery, racism and sexism to be evils, modern liberal theists disregard the parts of their text that teach these things. Other verses which have better stood the test of time are assumed to be true lessons from God.

If this is true, it is surely an indictment of "liberal" Christianity. If our faith is grounded in nothing more than reading modern morals back into the Bible, then why do we need the ancient text? We might as well drop the pretense that the Bible means anything at all.

Indeed, Ebonmuse urges us to do exactly that:

However, once you've come this far, what do you need scripture for at all? Clearly, once a theist has reached this point, their own conscience is a superior and perfectly sufficient guide.

But here is the fundamental flaw of that line of reasoning: Christianity is not merely a system of ethics. If the Bible is a chronicle, it is not just a chronicle of one ancient mideastern people's grappling with their collective conscience.

The Bible does contain teachings about ethics -- I'm not denying that. But it also contains the story of God's interactions with God's people: First with a chosen people, the Jews; then through Jesus an invitation to everyone to participate in the unfolding story.

The stories of Jesus' birth, for instance, are not written as an example of good behavior that we should emulate. But what are they? Should we take them as a literal history of events of one miraculous evening long ago? Are they a romanticized tale to cover up Mary and Joseph's unexpected out-of-wedlock pregnancy? Or maybe an allegory using symbolic language to proclaim Jesus' messiahship?

I would suggest that for Christians to faithfully read the birth stories, we must not merely accept the answer that seems right to us -- whether we are "fundamentalists" or "liberals" -- but to wrestle with what God is saying to us through these stories. We might be surprised at the direction God pulls us if we move beyond the original intent -- whatever it was -- and make Jesus' story a part of our own lives.

Ebonmuse continues:

The final useful line of argument is one that works equally well against believers of all stripes. Namely, by what evidence do those believers conclude that their particular text reflects the will of God, in whole or in part? What makes them so certain that the text reflects any divine influence at all, rather than simply being the product of men, some of whom were benevolent and kind and some of whom were vindictive and cruel? Liberal believers acknowledge that the authors of scripture were wrong about many things. How do they know that those authors weren't also wrong about the existence of God?

Again, I can't speak for others. Personally, I believe God exists because of my own experience with the holy. The Bible played no part in convincing me that God is real. If I didn't believe for other reasons, I don't think I would get much out of the Bible. So why do I believe this text reflects any divine influence at all? Simply this: Jesus' story does resonate with my own story. Since that night God first became real to me, the Bible has shaped my life and transformed who I am.

Are there parts of the Bible that I believe didn't come from God? Certainly. But there are parts, too, that have shaped me even when I didn't like what they said.

I've been very brief in this post -- perhaps too brief. Each of these sets of questions deserves a much more thorough answer than I've given here. If I have time, I'll try to look at each in more depth.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

expressing the truth

Can you imagine, for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by telling what happened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables, beginning with the saying about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle? The first would be regarded as irrelevant, the second merely anecdotal, the last childish. Yet these forms of language are certainly capable of expressing truths about economic relationships, as well as any other relationships, and indeed have been employed by various peoples. But to the modern mind, resonating with different media-metaphors, the truth in economics is believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers.

- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

If, in Postman's quote, you hear echoes of Marshall McLuhan's aphorism, The medium is the message, it's because Postman was a disciple of McLuhan. But regardless of how the media might affect our thought processes, I think it is obvious that the modern mind does not look for truth in the same way ancient people did.

How does this affect our understanding of the Gospels?

In an era where rhetoric was considered as important as logic, Jesus was a skilled rhetorician. But to us, does it really matter whether he made the Pharisees look bad in conversation?

In age of low literacy rates, Jesus was a master storyteller. But today, do the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son have any resonance? What does it mean to us that God's kingdom is like a mustard seed, or like a net full of fish?

In a time when the universe seemed capricious, Jesus was said to have power over wind and waves, and to be able to cast out demons. He was said to be able to feed large crowds with a small amount of food. Do these stories have any meaning for today?

In the 21st century, are the Gospels relevant? Or is our world so different from first century Galilee that we can't really understand them even if we try?

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

bible translations update

In January of last year, the Society for the Promotion of Individualized Theologies (SPIT) announced the publication of the New Conservative Bible and the New Liberal Bible.

Now, scarcely a year and a half later, SPIT has returned with revised versions of both translations. The New American Conservative Bible (NACB) hits the shelves next week, while the New Progressive Translation (NPT) arrives the following week.

Due to my connections, I was able to get a sneak peak at both translations.

Despite the new names, it is clear that these are essentially the same translations, repackaged and rebranded, with colorful covers. Frankly, I have to wonder whether the revisions were warranted, or whether they are simply ploys to force the Bible-buying public to shell out more money.

Furthermore, the few changes that I have seen are not encouraging.

You may recall that I expressed some reservations about the NLB's handling of Matthew 5:9.

Blessed are the PEACEMAKERS!! Don't you get it, President Bush?!?"

It appears that the NPT translators took my criticism to heart, and have changed this verse to read:

Nyah nyah told ya so

Honestly, I think this is actually worse. It ought to have some sort of punctuation, maybe "Nyah, nyah, told ya so," or possibly, "Nyah, nyah! Told ya so!" Additionally, this phrasing doesn't quite capture the spirit of the original Greek, or so it seems to me.

The NACB has similar problems, in my opinion. Here's Matthew 22:35-38.

A lawyer asked him to test him, "Which commandment is the greatest?"

Jesus answered, "A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, A woman should not have an abortion. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Call me old-fashioned, but I am not a fan of this kind of dynamic equivalence translation. I think a lot gets lost in the rewording.

I'm equally unimpressed by the NACB's addition of an eleventh commandment in Exodus 20.

Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

I'm not an expert at biblical Hebrew, but my understanding is that in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, this phrase is merely a margin note.

Speaking of adding to the books, I don't like what the NPT has done to Revelation 22:18.

We know y'all libruls don't really read the Bible, so it don't matter what we put here.

I hate to sound nitpicky, but frankly I'm disappointed in the quality of the grammar of this translation. Didn't anyone proofread it?

In related news, SPIT regrets that the New Emergent Bible (NEB) is still not available. The translators have been engaged in a heated debate conversation, discussing whether we can even know the biblical languages well enough to translate them. The good news is that they have managed to find enough common ground to establish that, if there ever is an NEB, it will not feature book names or chapter and verse numbers, as these are unnecessary and divisive labels.

In a written statement, one NEB translator offered the following, which may be a paraphrase of what other Bibles call 1 Corinthians 13:12.

Dude, we see in part, like in a mirror. I mean, really, can we ever say we know anything, you know, for real? Not this side of heaven.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

on spiritual warfare

Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

- 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

What struck me as I was reading this passage was not the "spritual warfare" language; after all, this is not the only NT passage that uses that metaphor. What struck me is the explicit contrast between physical warfare ("war according to human standards") and spiritual warfare.

In one sense, this contrast is nothing special: the same physical/spiritual contrast is used in other contexts, e.g. "letters of recommendation" vs. "letters written on our hearts" in 2 Corinthians 3:1-2, or physical circumcision vs. circumcision "of the heart" in Romans 2:26-29. In each case, Paul uses scenes from everyday life to draw analogies about spiritual life.

But underlying Paul's arguments is the (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) acknowledgement: Spritual life is not quite like that. In this example, Paul makes it explicit: "We do not wage war according to human standards." [emphasis mine]

The book of Revelation provides a striking image of this contrast:

and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

- Revelation 1:13-16

"From his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword" -- the language is reminiscent of Hebrews 4:12, "Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." In both places, the two-edged sword is associated not with physical might but with spoken words.

And yet so many Christians throughout the ages have gotten it wrong. From Constantine, through the Crusades, to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Christians have for centuries tried to justify military aggression in the name of God.

Will Christians ever learn to be peacemakers and earn the title, "children of God" (Matthew 5:9)? Or don't we have any good news to offer a violent world?

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

the radical center

Last month Andy Bryan wrote a post, Unclaiming the Center, in which he responds to a friend of his who thinks the solution to divisiveness in the church is for liberals and conservatives to look for common ground in the center.

Andy replies:
Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing.

...for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are.

Call him liberal, but don't even think about calling him wishy-washy.

He makes some good points in his post, and I urge you to read the whole thing if you haven't already.

Nevertheless, I tend to disagree with his main point. I think it is vitally important that we do look to reclaim the radical center. But perhaps this disagreement is more in perception than in fact. I may be using the word "center" differently than either Andy or his friend are using it.

As I understand them, "liberal" and "conservative" are political terms that have spilled over into other areas of our lives. In American presidential politics, it is customary for candidates to play up their "liberal" or "conservative" credentials during the primary season, to appeal to the party's "base," then to "move to the center" as the general election approaches, to try to appeal to a wider range of voters.

This can be represented by the following image:

The black part of the line represents the center, and the white parts represent the liberal and conservative wings. Under this paradigm, Andy is correct that liberals (or conservatives) are not being authentic if they try to "claim the center" as a common ground.

But it seems to me that this entire paradigm is missing something.

A few weeks ago my wife took our 4-year-old son to the farmer's market and let him buy something with his own money. He spent a quarter, and got a home-grown peach.

Normally, when he eats fruit from the grocery store, he will eat a little bit from one side and leave the rest. So when they were in the car, and Nicki heard, "I'm done," from the back seat, she didn't expect him to have eaten the whole peach. Yet when she reached back for the remains, he handed her just the pit.

A peach pit is a better metaphor than a political campaign, I believe, for the radical center of the Christian faith.

Here we don't have two fringes at opposite ends, just a solid inner layer with a protective outer layer. The outer, fleshy part of the peach actually provides the nutrients necessary for the seed to grow -- or for a four-year-old boy. One way or another, though, the flesh will be consumed, and only the core will remain.

The core of the Christian faith can be found in the gospels, throughout all of Scripture, and in the ancient creeds. That's not to say that there is nothing more to Christianity than this. The church is one body with many parts, and God calls each of us to fill different roles.

But whether you're anti-oil or anti-abortion, and regardless of how important you personally think those issues are, those are not the essentials of the faith. Likewise, Christianity is not primarily about creationism, fair trade, gay rights, or even a living wage. Our faith may inform us about those issues, but we are almost certain to find ourselves at some point fellowshipping with those who hold different views.

That's when we need to affirm the radical center -- the core -- of our faith. If we cannot fellowship with those who hold differing views on the peripheral issues, we've failed to understand what Christianity is all about.

Unless I'm misreading him, that's essentially what Andy is saying too. So perhaps I don't disagree with him after all.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

they would not have crucified the lord of glory

The atonement has been a big topic of discussion lately among several blogs I read (I've trid to link to one sample post from each blog, but I'm sure I've missed at least one blog). I don't really have anything to add to the conversation; I'm still trying to absorb all the ideas and piece the puzzle together.

The fact that I've been thinking over all this is probably the reason the following passage jumped out at me in my daily Bible reading:

But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

- 1 Corinthians 2:7-8

Let's suppose, hypothetically, that things had happened differently: Upon hearing Jesus' teaching, the high priest Caiaphas suddenly realized that he was in the very presence of God. Or Pilate, upon examining Jesus, decided that he should set Jesus free no matter the personal political cost to himself. What if they hadn't crucified the Lord of glory?

These two verses are just a side note in Paul's discussion of the wisdom of God, but he seems to have considered it a genuine possibility that the rulers of the age could have recognized Jesus for who he was, and changed the course of events on that fateful Passover week.

If Jesus hadn't been crucified, how much different would our theology be? Did God have an alternate plan for our atonement just in case Jesus failed to get himself killed?

Did the atonement really rest on the dicey possibility that those in power would not recognize Jesus? Or is there possibly something about power that it necessarily renders those who have it unable to see God at work?

Now I know even less than I did before.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

why i will not be raptured

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkens have made an awful lot of money with their bestselling Left Behind series. And though the books are fiction, LaHaye and Jenkens have also authored a non-fiction book, Are We Living in the End Times? in which they attempt to show a biblical basis for the events of Left Behind.

Critical to Jenkins and LaHaye's story line is the idea of a rapture of the faithful before things get too difficult. True believers will be snatched away into the clouds to be spared from hardship.

Just how biblical are the Left Behind books, really? Just what does the Bible teach about the Rapture?

Remarkably, this whole doctrine is taken from one word that appears in just one verse in one of Paul's letters near the back of the New Testament.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Greek word harpazo in verse 17 above is the equivalent of the English words "caught up" and the Latin word raptus, from which Rapture is derived. The word appears nowhere else in the New Testament.

Rapture proponents also claim support elsewhere for this idea, most notably 1 Corinthians 15:50-51, Matthew 24:37-42, John 14:1-3, and Titus 2:13.

I'll look at these in reverse order, just because I can.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.

- Titus 2:11-15

Did you see it? I didn't either. To a normal person reading this text, there is nothing to suggest that verse 13 teaches the doctrine of Rapture. To a Rapture proponent who is looking for any support he can get, this is one of the Bible's strongest indications that Jesus is returning twice. In LaHaye's own words:

The coming of Christ must occur in two installments because they are for two different groups of people and fulfill two different purposes. The first is the Rapture, when all living and dead Christians will be snatched up to be with Christ in the Father's house. The second is for all the people of the world, who will be judged for rejecting Christ. The first is secret, for a special group; the second is public, for everyone left on the earth. They are entirely distinct events!

Dr. David Cooper often compared the Second Coming to a two-act play separated by a seven-year intermission (the Tribulation). The apostle Paul distinguished these two events in Titus 2:13 by designating them "the blessed hope and glorious appearing."

- Are We Living in the End Times? p. 104

And it doesn't get much better.

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.

- John 14:1-3

Jesus tells his followers he will go prepare a place, then he will return. Most Christians, who believe Christ will return but do not believe in a Rapture, understand this verse quite differently from the way Rapture proponents read it. For those who believe in a secret Rapture, the words "I will come again and receive you to Myself," acquire an additional meaning. The idea is that Jesus could not come both to comfort his faithful and to judge the nations at the same time. Apparently that's too difficult a task even for the Messiah.

For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.

- Matthew 24:37-42

At first glance, this passage looks like it may support the Rapture doctrine, with its talk about "one being taken" and all that. But what was it like in the days of Noah? Were the righteous taken away and the evildoers left on earth? It seems to me that it was the other way around. So maybe when Matthew says "one will be taken," he means taken away in judgment.

To be continued...

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

he is risen

After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they said to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back. So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe -- and they were alarmed.

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here -- he has been raised! Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: "He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.' "

So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

- Mark 16:1-8

It is fashionable among theologians and "historical Jesus" scholars to assert that the empty tomb is a late addition to the resurrection stories. The followers of Jesus experienced something powerful, something life-changing, and had trouble finding the words to express it.

Classical historians who look at the gospels -- even if they don't believe in Christ -- tend to reach the opposite conclusion.

But in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike -- and even perhaps of the disciples themselves -- are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.

- Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew

Mark, as we have seen, had heard that the three women saw it together. But according to John, the first to see it was Mary Magdalene all by herself. Either of these reports is likely enough to represent the authentic occurrence, since the early Church would never have concocted, on its own account, the statement that this most solemn and fateful of all discoveries was made by women, including a woman with an immoral record at that. Perhaps John's version is the original one, and the other women were added to the story later to make it less shocking.

Who had taken the body? There is no way of knowing. Mary Magdalene thought at first that the cemetery gardener had removed it -- whereas the Jews, not unplausibly, maintained that it had been taken by Jesus' own disciples. At all events it was gone. And because it was gone, and no one knew where it was, this made it easier for people to believe, three days later (a period equated with scriptural predictions,) that they were seeing Jesus alive again and returned to the earth, risen from the dead. The Resurrection is the subject of some of the greatest pictures ever painted, but there is no actual description of it, and nobody claimed to have seen it happen. Yet those who believed that Jesus had appeared to them on the earth after his death have their alleged experiences recorded in a number of passages of the New Testament. Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead.

- Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels

Those testimonies are varied, but generally fall into one or more of four categories:

  1. Apperances of the Jesus the disciples knew and recognized

  2. Apperances of a Jesus the disciples did not recognize

  3. Appearances of a Jesus who can appear and disappear at will

  4. Apperances of Jesus in a vision

In the first group is John 21, where the disciples see Jesus at the seashore, and Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?". Also in this group is Matthew 28:16-20, wher e Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee and gives them some final instructions. Jesus' conversation with Thomas in John 20:24-29 also fits into this category.

In the second group is the story of the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-32. The two disciples walk and talk with him but do not know it is him until the very end. In John 20:14-17, Mary Magdalene at first does not recognize Jesus when he appears to her at the tomb.

The walk to Emmaus also fits in the third group, as Jesus vanishes once the disciples recognize him. Also in this category are stories in John 20:19-23 and Luke 24:36-43 telling of Jesus appearing to his disciples inside a locked room. In the Luke account, Jesus then proves he is not a ghost by eating a piece of fish. Jesus' conversation with Thomas mentioned above can also fit in this category, as he had once again appeared inside a locked room.

The most famous example in the fourth category is the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, recorded in Acts 9 and repeated with slightly different details in Acts 22 and 26. The most vivid example is the vision given to John of Patmos, now known as the book of Revelation.

It is impossible to reconcile every detail of all the apperances. In Matthew 28:10 Jesus tells the disciples to return to Galilee, but in Acts 1:4 he tells them not to leave Jerusalem. In some gospels, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but in others he doesn't. No matter how we put the pieces together, there are elements of the resurrection experiences that must remain a mystery to us.

But for a secular historian like Michael Grant, the only mystery of that first Easter morning is: Who took the body? The great irony is that the empty tomb can be utterly convincing as a historical event, yet utterly unconvincing as evidence of the resurrection. By itself the tomb proves nothing.

That may be at the root of liberal attempts to minimize the importance of the tomb. Because, for the disciples, it was not the disapperance of the corpse that transformed their lives, it was the reappearance of the living Christ. It was the fact that he returned to them, many times and in many ways. And he continues to be present in the lives of Christians even today.

That's where we find the meaning of the resurrection. Christ is alive! He has conquered death, and he will be with us to the very end of the age.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

the fast i choose

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

"Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

- Isaiah 58

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

because you have shed so much blood

King David was a "man after God's own heart." Granted, he wasn't perfect: He had an affair with the wife of one of his soldiers, then had the soldier murdered to cover up his sin. And there was the little indiscretion of the naked public dancing, which didn't make his wife too happy. And he served more than a year in the army of the Philistines, Israel's enemies. And when his son Absalom conspired to sieze the throne by force, David fled to the wilderness, leaving his concubines to deal with the usurper.

But David, unlike most kings of Israel and Judah, worshipped one God. And he worshipped with a fervency not seen again in the history of either kingdom. The stories of his trust in God in extreme circumstances are legendary. David's name appears on more than 70 psalms. Even his naked dancing was an offering to God. Because of his faithfulness, God promised to give David an everlasting kingdom.

David was also a warrior king. He conquered the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and made it his home. He planned to build a house there for his God. But God declined.

David said to Solomon, "My son, I had intended to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. "But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 'You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to My name, because you have shed so much blood on the earth before Me. 'Behold, a son will be born to you, who shall be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side; for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 'He shall build a house for My name, and he shall be My son and I will be his father; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever.'

1 Chronicles 22:7-10

It wasn't David's adultery, or his callous treatment of Bathsheba's husband Uriah the Hittite. It wasn't David's naked dancing, or his defection to the Philistines, or his abandonment of the throne that offended God's holiness such that God didn't want David to build the temple. It was his military success. David was not a man of peace, therefore he could not build a house for God.

Instead, the temple would be built by the brutal and idolatrous Solomon, who as a young man had earned a reputation for wisdom but later abandoned both his wisdom and his love for God. He conscripted 30,000 men -- non-citizens living within Israel -- into forced labor to build his palace and the temple, then kept them in slavery to build other projects for him. Then he married their sisters and daughters, and worshipped their gods. His foolishness split the kingdom in two.

For all his faults, Solomon was not unworthy to build the temple of God. But David -- the faithful one -- was, because David was not a man of peace.

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