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Voting in Local Elections

voting 082614I voted yesterday in the Florida primary. Despite being registered as independent (I oppose recognition of specific political parties by the government) I had one local election in which I was eligible to vote. So I did. I always do. I also like to actually go to a polling place on election day in order to cast my ballot.

It was kind of humorous. I encountered seven poll workers and no other voters, even though it was approaching lunch time. The counter on the ballot reader said 51 people had voted in the precinct, and that they projected 94. I don’t know how accurate that projection is.

This is an unfortunate situation in our democratic political system. (Yes, I know the difference between a “republic” and a “democracy,” a distinction that is overdrawn by many. This is a representative democracy.)  The major focus we have is on federal elections and especially on presidential elections. Then we complain about congress, or about local issues, without realizing that we are enabling incompetent government at the local level. So few people take part in the local elections and, unfortunately, even less seem to know much about them. In fact, information is hard to come by. The one election in which I was eligible to vote this time was for a circuit court judge, and it was, as usual, difficult to get reliable and useful information about the candidates.

American who care about the things that are happening in this country need to get involved in local politics. Learn what’s going on. Vote intelligently for school board, city council, and county level offices. You have only influenced the future course of the country in a very limited way if you vote in the presidential election.

 

Prologue to To the Hebrews: Continuity and Reliability

I’m continuing to read from the commentary on Hebrews by David L. Allen (Hebrews in the New American Commentary). I’m bound to get way ahead in my reading but I want to make a few remarks about the prologue, which both Dr. Allen and I would say goes through verse 4.

I have written on this before (comments and translation notes), and I haven’t found any reason to alter what I said in those posts on the subject. What I want to discuss here is how the prologue relates to the theme.

I think the prologue states the theme. We will find at later points in the book that we can refine the particular nature of the situation addressed and the causes of problems that are addressed, but we already have the basic story right here. The author is interested in two major points, I think: continuity and reliability. He states these in terms of God’s relationship to his people.

Often people get the idea that Hebrews is about discarding the Old Testament. I recall some participants in discussions I have led telling me that it is obvious that he is making the New Testament supersede the Old, or Jesus to supersede all that came before. People can become quite distressed that I do not see such an obvious conclusion. But if you are looking at the structure of the book, you realize that the entire thing falls apart if the author thinks the Old Testament is somehow wiped away. That isn’t the argument at all.

Rather, a certain view of the Old Testament is wiped away, most particularly the view that it is the scriptures and is the end, or that in the Torah one would find the ultimate revelation of God. Rather than saying that the Torah is flawed, he is saying that God didn’t finish by presenting the Torah. There is a new center point, and that center point is the revelation of God through Jesus. I would also suggest that our author is not here saying that this is a change from what the Old Testament writers themselves would have said. I think he would maintain that he is correcting course, that the idea that the Torah was everything was never correct, but rather than it was always God who was the focus, and that until God became manifest in Jesus, we didn’t have the opportunity to see that particular radiance.

So now he is putting the focus of all revelation on God, and letting us know that we can receive God’s message, and that we can enter into a relationship with God because that has been made possible through Jesus Christ, the exact representation of who God is. There is no suggestion here that this eliminates all that other revelation; instead it illuminates it.

So why do I say the structure would fall apart if the author was simply discarding the Old Testament revelation? Surely he can be arguing that the Old Testament was good enough for its time, but now we have something better, and even the Old Testament writers realized they would be superseded. But I disagree. He is not simply aiming at continuity. He is aiming at reliability. Those Old Testament writers were not some kind of failure on God’s part. Rather, they were leading up to the present time (the author’s and ours!) and that chain of connections shows that not only does the revelation continue, but it can be relied upon by us, just as it was relied upon by the patriarchs (and matriarchs, for that matter). But we now have this additional communication and evidence of reliability. God did come through, did send Jesus, did and does still lead us, and will continue to do so until we reach that (to us) coming Mt. Zion.

One of the refinements of this theme comes in chapter 11 in which we have the patriarchs represented as more faithful than they actually were in the Old Testament text. But in God’s faithfulness they are even more faithful than they would appear to us to be in their story. Well before the time of Jesus, when they were weak, he was strong.

I’d suggest spending quite some time with this passage. I’ve read it more times than I can recall. I have the entire book of Hebrews recorded on my phone in Greek so I can listen to it in my car. But I always feel tremendously inadequate as these words roll over me and I realize the freight that has been loaded into these few sentences.

Old Testament Violence Discussion

Allan R. Bevere is hosting a response from L. Daniel Hawk to Adam Hamilton’s three part series on the violence of God in the Old Testament. It’s a topic I find fascinating. I’m going to wait for detailed comment until I’ve read all of Dr. Hawk’s response. But I can tell you what I’m looking for in two quotes.

In Adam Hamilton’s second part he states:

… If we understand the Bible as having been essentially dictated by God, then yes, we have no choice but to accept what is written as accurately describing God’s actions and God’s will. But if we recognize the Bible’s humanity—that it was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived—then we might be able to say, “In this case, the biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God actually inspired them to say.” …

Note that this is extracted from the middle of a paragraph which may contain pointers to how Hamilton would answer the question. I have not read his book. But the issue that this statement raises with me is this: Do we have an adequate hermeneutic that will allow us to discern God’s will and purpose from the human-divine mix? In my experience, very frequently those who say this do not. Note that I’m very definitely one who says that the Bible is a divine-human combination, using an incarnational model. But that combination (not mix), is all present by divine will. Why are those violent passages present? How do I learn from this?

Dr. Hawk, on the other hand says this:

Here’s the main flaw in this line of reasoning. Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.

This time I at least quoted a full paragraph. And what’s my problem with this? Well, in my experience both sides pick and choose and then accuse the other of doing so. There is not only choosing what we accept as relevant, but we need to choose just how some particular passage is relevant. I’m going to wait for the rest, but I doubt Dr. Hawk is suggesting otherwise. Nonetheless statements like ” … our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives” tend to get me on edge, because I am so frequently then told that either we must then accept the orthodox interpretation (also selected by the speaker), or that we must essentially give up on discerning the meaning. I have some confidence that Dr. Hawk isn’t headed that direction, yet paragraphs such as this raise an attention flag for me. I ask here again just how we will discern the message God intended, and discussing the obscurity of it can drive people away just as much as the attempt to discard the humanity.

I’ll say more when I’ve read the final post. I may have to read a couple of books as well, considering that what both of these men are saying comes from much more extended works on the topic.

Introductions to Bible Books: How Detailed Can We Get?

hebrews_nacI’m reading David L. Allen’s volume on Hebrews in the New American Commentary. I’m really enjoying his treatment so far, and this note is not a criticism of Dr. Allen particularly, but rather a concern about claims we make regarding the background of Bible books. By “introductory matters” I’m referring here to all those pesky little details: authorship, audience, destination, where was it written, what’s the main point, what’s the structure, and so forth.

Dr. Allen concludes that the probability is that Hebrews was written from Rome by Luke to a group of converted Jewish priests who lived in Antioch. Now note that he doesn’t skimp on letting us know the alternatives or the potential weaknesses in each of these positions. This is absolutely not a complaint about him in particular. But considering how little evidence we have to work with, how probable is it that he’s right on all those points? For that matter, how probable is it that any of the other folks who have written introductions to the book of Hebrews are right on all of their points?

So everyone who writes an introduction has a series of conclusions on points for which we have extremely little evidence, and then they make specific points about how to read the book based on those conclusions. For example, one might (and I think Dr. Allen does) form conclusions about the meaning of Hebrews 6 based on the idea that the main recipients were priests who converted to Judaism and fled persecution in Jerusalem and Judea, so now reside in Antioch. At this point, based on building probability on probability, what’s the probability that the conclusion is correct?

I would address just one of these points. I have read Hebrews many, many times. I have written a study guide, which awaits completion of a revision and release of its second edition. I do not find any argument in the book that could not be made by someone who had done a reasonably thorough study of the Pentateuch in the LXX (and other passages, but the Pentateuch is most important for this argument), and could not be understood by an audience basically familiar with the material. I don’t see anything there that would suggest that either author or reader would need to be a priest. Yes, there are concerns about priesthood, but people are concerned about priests as well. Further, if one concludes that Luke is the author, as Dr. Allen does, then it seems that he doesn’t see the need for a priest as the writer of the book. What indication is there that this is particularly intended for priests? I just don’t see it. Yes, I can see a non-priestly writer using arguments particularly adapted to priests if writing to priests, though I think the thorough knowledge necessary to such a task might be better attributed to the apostle Paul than to Luke.

My point again is not to attack Dr. Allen, who has written an excellent commentary. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of structure. But I do think that we all need to hold some of these conclusions that are based on speculations very loosely, and try to look for interpretations of the text that are not dependent on such detailed conclusions. I simply don’t see that we have enough text to work with.

Of course, in the case of the book of Hebrews, Luke stands out in the “other than Paul” category for at least having a significant body of literature to which one can compare the style of the book. So many proposals for the authorship of the book are based on such thin evidence that if one doesn’t look carefully, one might mistake it for none at all.

For non-thinness (though I’m not fully convinced), I’d like to recommend David Alan Black’s discussion The Authorship of Hebrews, which I publish.

About Giving (and Receiving) Money for Mission Trips

I appreciate Dave’s comments today on giving money when approached by family or friends to give money for a mission trip. He suggests asking that the recipient match dollor-for-dollar from their own money. I had the policy, when I was leading such trips, that we never gave “full ride” scholarships. When someone donated money to help people join a mission, we would use that to cover up to half.

But at the same time I want to remind people to give due consideration and listen to the Holy Spirit. I recall one summer when I had led a team to Eastern Europe and had already spent several thousand dollars. When I returned someone asked me if I could join another trip to serve as part of a teaching team. I told them I was financially already tapped out because of the trip I’d already completed. They asked if I would go if the money became available. Knowing both that the likelihood of someone donating the entire cost was low, and that the policy of the team leader was that nobody should go without making a personal commitment to the trip, which I clearly was not, I said, “Sure. If that happens I’ll go.”

Famous last words … a couple of weeks later I was told that someone had donated the full cost of the trip for me and that the team leader had approved. So I was stuck! Then just before I left, as though God wanted to underline the “don’t doubt what I can arrange!” message, someone handed me a $100 bill, saying that he thought I should have more pocket money than I was likely to carry on my own initiative.

So off I went on a second trip that summer. Oh, and the first one had been nearly a month, so it was not only money but a fair amount of time away from work.

Speaking for God: Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation

1893729389In about a half an hour I will be leaving for church where I will teach a small Sunday School class. The class has chosen to go through my book When People Speak for God (wow!). I start my discussion in this book by looking at the human factor and the divine factor. It is not enough to claim that God has spoken. We also have to understand what it is that God has said.

This came up in a helpful e-mail exchange with a friend this week, in which I discussed certain views of certain Bible passages and whether these would be consistent with inerrancy. The discussion led me to wonder if I was ignoring the human factor in looking at others. The human factor is most directly involved in our interpretation. I don’t accept the term “biblical inerrancy” as it applies to me. What I do believe is that if we discern the message God has for us, that message is true, and we should act on it. I think it should be our goal to discern this message correctly. A true message ignored is of no value. A true message wrongly understood can be dangerous. We never get away from the need to apply our minds.

As I reread my own material, however, I was reminded of another distinction: inspiration and authority. Just because something is inspired doesn’t mean it’s necessarily authoritative for any particular person, congregation, or for the whole church. I may hear the voice of God leading me to some action. My hearing does not obligate others. This idea could be helpful for those who believe in the continuation of the gift of prophecy in the church. I’ve been asked how words received by a modern prophet relate to the Bible. Ignoring the issue of whether the modern speaker is, in fact, speaking for God, his or her words would only have authority of so discerned and accepted by the broader body, i.e. if they became part of the canon of scripture for the whole church.

I do not mean that the church would make the words authoritative. Rather, the church would recognize that the words were authoritative, and the authority would become active in that way. “Inspired” does not mean “authoritative,” and “authoritative” in one place does not mean authoritative in another place or everywhere.

I’m going to add an extract here that fleshes out some of the difference between inspiration and authority. I’m not saying precisely the same thing, but I am influence by this text. (The author is Edward W. H. Vick, and I publish the book, From Inspiration to Understanding.)

(8) A further category mistake is to relate the notion of the authority of the Bible to the process whereby the books came to be written. The writer was inspired. So the writing has authority. No! These words do not have authority because, in  some manner, they issued out of a process of inspiration. They may have done so. That is a problem to be settled on the basis of appeal to the available evidence. But if they did they do not have authority because they did. They have authority because they are relevant, living words, because something happens of importance when they are read and interpreted. The event of revelation happens. These words provide the means. They are the vehicle of that happening. These words are caught up in the dynamic of God’s revelation. This means that inspiration is a less adequate and less important concept than revelation.

Since they are not the only writings to function in this way, they are unique in that they are the only words which have a unique historical connection with the original Christ-event, with the coming of Christian faith into the world. They are for this reason primary. They are the words which have in the history of the church proved to be the means for God’s continuing revelation of himself. The church asserts the historical givenness of these and not other words. It also asserts the contemporaneity of the revelation of God these words mediate. ‘The Spirit breathes upon the word and brings the truth to sight.’ God revealed himself. God reveals himself.

(Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, p. 81)

I think I place more emphasis on the recognition of the words by the church and less on their functioning. This is because I believe all inspired words will function, in their proper sphere, in similar ways. The question is whether a particular text was meant for the Church, a church, a small group, or a person, and whether it was meant for a moment in time or to have broader application.

So I’m distinguishing inspiration, authority, and interpretation/application (hermeneutics). How important is the distinction?

 

Resurrection, Poverty, Homelessness, and Death

My friend Chris Eyre writes about the reality (but not necessarily physicality) of the resurrection and discusses our preaching. Here’s a line from his conclusion:

But really, I think we probably should be preaching that you should follow Jesus irrespective of the fact that it may lead to poverty, homelessness and even death.

Probably when you saw the title to this post, you thought I was going to talk about taking care of the homeless. And you should. Do it! But this is about what might happen to you and me as followers of Jesus, and how that preaches in the modern world.

I think this deserves some discussion, irrespective of where you come down on the nature of the resurrection.

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

Many people regard the idea of trajectories in scripture as largely a method of avoiding “what the Bible clearly teaches.” I believe that there are clear trajectories in the teaching of scripture, and that in those cases one must be careful that one applies the correct principle to modern times.

One such trajectory deals with priesthood and access to the sacred. I was taught that the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were symbols of God’s presence. And in a sense they were. But they were also filled with symbolism of humanity’s separation from God. Notice how you progress from “outside the camp” to “the camp” to the place where the Levites were encamped closer to the tabernacle itself, then to the courtyard, then the outer room (often called just “the holy place”) and finally to the inner room (“the most holy place”) where we find the Ark of the Covenant and there, between the cherubim, we have the symbol of God’s presence. It’s not filled with an idol, as it might have been in other near eastern temples. God cannot be represented. But there is a sense of separation.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my reading took me to Numbers 18 and 19. If you read both, I think you’ll see the sense of separation. Even the Levites were not permitted to approach certain sacred objects. Those were reserved for the priests alone. In Numbers 19, with the ritual of the red heifer, you have references to “outside the camp.”

Now this is not a New Testament vs. Old Testament trajectory. Exodus 19:6 makes the goal clear: a priestly kingdom. 1 Peter 2:9 makes the application to Christians: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (NRSV, from Bible Gateway).

So why all the separation between? The answer lies in Exodus 20, I think. It is there that the people respond to God’s voice.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (NRSV, again via Bible Gateway).

Now our tendency as Christians is to see this as a failing of Israel, corrected in the church. But I think it is a mistake to read it that way. One of my principles of application (not necessarily of exegesis) is to point the text at yourself first. Whether we admit it or not, we behave this way every day. Let the pastor pray, study, listen to God, and proclaim. Let us sit passively on Sunday morning and hear what God has told the pastor. I visited a United Church of Christ recently. They have a motto, “God is still speaking.” It’s a good one, I think. But the real question is this: Are we still listening? All of us?

Our tendency is to say in good southern style, “God is still speaking. Isn’t that special?” The point being that we want to distance ourselves from anything that gets us too close to the edge, too likely to make people question our sanity. We want God to say comfortable things. It’s easier to only hear comfortable things if you let the pastor do all the listening, and get them properly filtered and shaped into a good sermon.

This week’s Lectionary Psalm is Psalm 99:

YHWH reigns
let peoples shudder
he sits on the cherubim
let the earth be displaced. (Translation from Seeing the Psalter, p. 312)

We don’t admit the fear of hearing from God. We like the idea that God might still speak. What we don’t want is for God to displace the earth. We don’t want him to say anything that would make us shudder. We live in Exodus 20, standing at a distance, appointing our pastors and church staff members as “Moses.”

We’re supposed to be living in John 4, worshiping in spirit and truth, or in 2 Corinthians 6:16, as the “temple of the living God.”

I learned about this in studying Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s 2200 page, 3 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. He maintains (summarizing from a sweep of many passages in his book) that the call to distinguish sacred from profane was part of training, a teaching function of the ritual system, and that the call to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) points to the sacred overcoming the profane. More, not less, comes to belong to the sacred sphere. I really should write a post on this subject in particular at some point and bring some material from that commentary to bear, but that will take more time. Condensing 2200 pages, none of them wasted in my view, is not easy!

But what I saw in Numbers 18 & 19 was that separation them, the one that comes after Exodus 20. It’s not God pulling back from humanity, but rather God accommodating our fear, our unwillingness to get too close to the sacred. To paraphrase another expression, not everyone who says they’re happy to hear from God actually is.

And I do think there is a role for pastors and for priests in the modern church and world, though that role is primarily in terms of outreach. The church should be carrying out a priestly role to the world, mediating the sacred to those around, being Jesus in living, physical, present form. That is the priesthood of all believers, individually and collectively. We do not require a priest to get to God. Prayers by the pastor are not better than prayers by individual members. We should all at various times be receivers and conveyors or God’s Word.

I want to note, in addition, that I’m not speaking solely of those who believe that people in the congregation receive prophetic words. I’m speaking of those who hear God speak through scripture as well as those who hear in their minds, see visions, or catch God’s voice coming through the natural world.

A royal priesthood. Do we really want it? Can we stand it? Will we give up our individual superiority (and inferiority!) so it can happen?

PS: As I was writing this, notice came in of a post by Bob Cornwall, author of Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, dealing with ordination (book extract). Note his conclusion:

Although our churches may use a variety of structural forms, it’s important to recognize that the church isn’t a democracy, ruled by majority vote. It’s also not a clerical autocracy where elite groups of clergy hold sway. In a gift based ecclesiology, there’s the assumption the Spirit rules, and we are tasked with discerning where the Spirit is leading. This is true no matter what structure we happen to be a part of.

“Discerning where the Spirit is leading” is not easy!

Disruptive Inerrancy?

1893729389
Scot McKnight wrote a very interesting post on inerrancy today. I have long rejected use of the term biblical inerrancy, yet have watched as people more liberal (another dangerously slippery term) than I am claim to be inerrantists. This article is very helpful in clarifying the terminology somewhat, though much more could be said, and has been!

My take-away line?

Inerrancy is a disruptive child in the theological classroom.

I wrote more extensively on this in my book When People Speak for God and then published From Inspiration to Understanding by Dr. Edward Vick, which is a senior cousin to mine. I would have footnoted Vick quite a bit had his book been written before mine!

 

Is Killing Every One of Them Really Our Only Option?

I saw a Facebook post that claims that in the light of the beheading of U. S. journalist James Foley our only option is to hunt down and kill every one of them as soon as possible.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a pacifist. I believe acts of violence and even war can be justified. On the other hand, I think they rarely are. The question is whether we’ll really get the results we intend.

I’m human. I’d like the people who did this to pay for it. I would have no problem condemning the perpetrators to death in a court of law.

The question is whether another war is actually going to make anything better. Will it make less people die? Will it reduce the number of fanatics in the world? Will it mean that we won’t see another American beheaded in some other place at some other time?

I hope we think about that.

But more importantly, why did the killing of one American make this sort of violence our only option, but the killing of hundreds of Iraqis did not. Is there a difference in the value of these various lives?

I pray that we, as Christians, will try to apply grace to this situation, to look on everyone, even those committing atrocities, as souls for whom Christ died. I hope as a nation that we will consider looking further forward in time and more broadly in space before we act to solve one problem by creating dozens of others.

There may be a military option. The state bears a modern sword. Were I still in the military, I would be prepared to participate, to help wield it. But let’s look at the results of our previous military efforts before we move too quickly and ineffectively.