Words from the Mouth of God?

In comments to an earlier post one reader notes that there are those who call the Bible “words from the mouth of God.” I respond that I do not think the Bible is words from the mouth of God, but rather the testimony of people’s experience of God. There are those who think I diminish the authority and power of the Bible in this way. I disagree. I think that the testimony that results from the experience of God is much more valuable, and I believe it also more accurately reflects the nature of the biblical text itself.

I believe that it’s valuable to be able to distinguish the nature and function of various portions of scripture. While all scripture is inspired, not all scripture is produce in the same way and it does not necessarily function in the same way. There are some obvious examples, such as the speeches of Job’s friends in the book of Job. That is surely quite a substantial amount of writing that is not words from the mouth of God. One may say that it is inspired and that it is profitable, yes, but in words that the book of Job actually attributes to God, we are told that it is not God’s message in those passages. They contribute to a message provided by the book, but the words are not God’s words.

Now most people who talk about verbal inspiration are not surprised by this sort of statement. There are also those who point out to me that it’s God’s Word, but not necessarily God’s words in all cases. It seems to me, however, that we might as well just come out and say it. Often our affirmations about scripture get in the way of what scripture actually is and how it functions.

I prefer to say that scripture is the testimony of those who have experienced God, brought forth in various ways using various forms. It is providentially preserved by God as the message that we need. It begins with an act of God (which may be an act of communication, but it might even be a permissive act, or lack of action, such as permitting the Assyrians to come against Israel (2 Kings 17). It might be reported as the words of God, as much material in the prophets is reported. It might be reported in the form of a story, or history researched and reported, as in Samuel-Kings. It might be a letter written to a church as in many of the epistles of the New Testament. In the end, it must be recognized by the community and then interpreted, in all cases providentially guarded by God. (Of course, we realize that in the interpretation, at least, God’s providence does not prevent our error or even our stupidity!)

Much of our discussion of inspiration centers around how the original text came into being. This is, indeed an interesting topic, but the majority of our differences come not from potential differences in the source texts but rather from our ways of interpreting them (see my post yesterday, Book: I’m Right and You’re Wrong). Further, I think our affirmations about inspiration often fly in the face of what we actually observe in scripture. This can result in us trying to make scripture fit our conception of what it ought to be.

If nothing else, the incarnation, in which God acts very much contrary to what everyone expects, should suggest to us the dangers of trying to force God’s actions into our molds. But it seems to me that we do this with scripture.

Consider Isaiah 7:1-17. This contains the famous “virgin” passage, but that’s not what I want to discuss. Read the passage carefully and look who’s talking at various points. I identify a narrator who gives the historical situation and then reports that Isaiah got a word from the Lord with instructions for action and a message to give to Ahaz. We also have a report on Isaiah’s action, and then some words that Isaiah said, some of which appear to be the words of the Lord, but some appear to be Isaiah simply expounding on what God is going to do. This entire passage is part of an overall Bible book which includes more than one type of literature, and even includes an historical interlude, but only a fraction of the whole claims to actually be God’s words.

There are those who think I make these comments because I don’t believe the Bible is very historical. I would note that I am not very disturbed by those who are skeptical of the historicity of many Bible passages. But I really find relatively little in the parts of scripture that actually claim to be history that I cannot accept as at least generally historical. What I mean here by “generally” is that I treat an account that says it’s taken from the “chronicles of the kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:29 and many other references) as precisely that: it’s taken from the chronicles and it has precisely the historical veracity of those chronicles, always adjusted for second hand reporting. I don’t see it as necessary or valuable for God to “fact check” the sources. The message (word) of God is conveyed by the testimony (words) of a human writer depending on the words of other human writers.

Considering that those words will in turn be interpreted by very limited human beings such as me, I’m pretty happy with that situation.

Energion Hangout this Evening

Using Google Hangouts on Air, I’ll be interviewing Energion author William Powell Tuck (The Last Words from the Cross, The Church Under the Cross, Journey to the Undiscovered Country, and many more) regarding the season of Lent, particularly as it relates to those who are undergoing trial and testing, those who suffer, and those who are experiencing grief.

The event link is the first part of the text above and provides details. I’m embedding a YouTube viewer below.

Hebrews: Authorship and 6:1-8

Thomas Hudgins links to a post in which someone supports Luke as the author of Hebrews. The post to which he links indeed supports Luke, but I find a number of other things somewhat more interesting. The topic is Hebrews 6:1-8, one of the more controversial passages in scripture, and the title is An Enduring Call for Christian Maturity: An Exegesis of Hebrews 6:1-8. I find the suggestion of Luke as the author of Hebrews quite plausible, though I remain agnostic on the subject, but I found a great deal to disagree with in the exegesis. I need to write something more detailed on this topic. My disagreement shouldn’t be too surprising, as I come at this from the Arminian perspective. I hope, however, that I am also faithful to the text of Hebrews.

On the other hand, the more I have looked at this passage, the more I have begun to think that the term that ties this passage to the previous (and Chilton rightly starts with Hebrews 5:11 which gives clear indication of moving forward), is the various forms/cognates of the word teleios, a verbal form being found in 5:9, referring to the completion of perfection of Jesus, particularly, as verse 10 notes, leading up to Jesus as the Melchizedek figure, which will be the focus of chapter 7.

Contrary to my Wesleyan roots, I’m thinking less and less that the perfection/maturity involved is so much that of the believer as what the believer is brought into in Christ. I agree with Dave Black (you can find some of his comments in his blog archives; search for Hebrews 6) that we should allow the passive force of the verb, “be carried along” to come forth in translation. Now in the overall message of Hebrews, this does mean that something is accomplished in the believer’s life, but the believer’s activity is to continue to be carried.

As I said, I would like to discuss this further, but I don’t have time this afternoon. In fact, I will doubtless spend many more days working with this passage. In the meantime, despite my disagreement on some points, I really appreciate seeing such thorough analysis of this passage. It’s often neglected.

I Didn’t Know They Had a Feast

Today, says Allan Bevere, is the feast of John and Charles Wesley. The source of this is The Lectionary Page. It is, however, listed amongst the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. (It’s an Episcopal site. What can I say?)

Book: I’m Right and You’re Wrong

When I started Energion Publications just over 10 years ago, my primary interest was in Bible study materials. My goal was to get the people in our churches to study the Bible more, and to do so for themselves. My complaint about much of the material available was that it was often shallow and repetitive, and that people had often been seeing the same things over and over again. (I don’t mean that there were or are no good materials; merely that there are not enough materials that address people in the pews.)

It wasn’t just that some material was shallow. It was that often when the material was a bit deeper it tended to present conclusions without really teaching students just how those conclusions were reached. Quite frequently, church members were simply accepting the conclusions they were taught on authority, not because they had really examined them and come to accept them for good reasons. Their pastor, or some well-respected person from their denomination or tradition stream claimed that a verse meant a certain thing, so that’s what it meant.

When people from two different tradition streams would meet, debate could get heated as people fired spiritual canon loaded with pre-interpreted texts. They thought they were firing them at one another, but generally they were firing them past one another, because their targets had memorized a completely different interpretation for that particular passage.

I launched several projects in response to this. First was the Participatory Study Series, the first series I know of to intentionally select authors from different tradition streams to cover different books of the Bible. My idea was to give people a chance not just to study about the various methodologies, but to study a whole book of the Bible with the guidance of a qualified scholar from different traditions. Thus you can study Philippians with the guidance of process theologian Bruce Epperly and Ecclesiastes with conservative evangelical Russel Meek. As time goes on, this variety will increase rather than decrease.

There was still more to be done. Our conclusions about scripture depend heavily on our approach to interpretation, our interpretation depends to some extent on our view of authority, and both interpretation and authority depend, to some extent on our understanding of inspiration.

Thus I published Learning and Living Scripture: A Introduction to the Participatory Study Method, but that little book didn’t really deal with the conclusion. It embraced it and invited more! So I wrote my own book about inspiration and listening to God, When People Speak for God, and then acquired a truly masterful work, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully by Edward W. H. Vick. Shoring up a more conservative viewpoint was Elgin Hushbeck’s Evidence for the Bible.

9781631990991With all those books, the question still remained. How does one learn to understand and even benefit from the variety of approaches to Bible study?

Well, now we have a short, easy-to-read book that will help you understand why we disagree about what the Bible says, and why so many of those disagreements are so intractable. It’s I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it. It’s a challenging title, and in just 40 pages, you’re going to begin to get a picture of the variety of scriptural interpretation.

Author Steve Kindle writes with a gentle passion. This is not a book proving that his approach to interpretation is the one and only right approach. He doesn’t deny that there is objective truth out there; he just doubts that we are going to be able to get there with are finite and not-so-objective minds. What he does instead is try to give us an idea how various approaches work.

There are at least two things you can do, starting with this book. The first is simply improve your ability to converse with people whose approach to the Bible might be different than your own. With the basic information Rev. Kindle provides, you can build your understanding by listening to others. Second, you can use the excellent footnotes to find more detailed expositions of these various approaches and learn more about them than could possibly be contained in a 40 page book.

As a publisher, of course, I would be delighted if you’d also embark on a journey with the Participatory Study Series and actually study some books using guides written from a perspective other than your own.

At a minimum, however, learn how to break through the hostility that often characterizes debates about the Bible to come to understand how someone else has become convinced that he’s right and you’re wrong!

Note: This book is already printing, but we’re leaving the pre-order pricing up for one more day. That means you can order from Energion Direct for just $3.49. If you take this opportunity to get 3 or more copies, shipping will be free. The shipping charge is just $2.00 on orders of less than $9.99.

Was Jesus Really a Healer?

9781938434136sBy this question, I meant to ask whether Jesus actually cured people of illnesses, not whether he accomplished spiritual healing. I asked the question of Dr. Bruce Epperly, author of the book Healing Marks, when I interviewed him last night in an excursus to my series of studies on the gospel According to John. Here’s the video:

I’ve found it quite interesting to discuss Bruce’s views on this with other Christians. His theology, as a process theologian, is different from what you will hear in most churches, especially those which hold healing services. Yet the actions are similar. He describes a different spiritual process (no pun intended), shunning the word “supernatural,” and yet he is describing something very similar to what I hear from charismatic believers.

I have been called “liberal charismatic,” because I take a fairly open view of doctrine (though I don’t think it is unimportant), and also believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are as available today as they were to the early church.

So what do you think? Was Jesus a healer? Can healing take place in churches today?


Are Panentheists Atheists?

Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God

Updated 17:09 central time to fix video link.

Last night I interviewed Dr. Bruce Epperly, process theologian, as an excursus to my study of According to John using Google Hangouts on Air. I’m following the book Meditations on According to John by Dr. Herold Weiss, but I wanted to talk to Bruce about his book Healing Marks, in which he discusses the healings recording in John 5 & 9. More relevant to this extract, however, is his book Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.

Since there has been some recent discussion of panentheists in particular, and liberal Christians generally, I thought would be nice to hear an actual panentheist answer the question. I started my interview by asking Bruce: Are you an atheist? I’ve extracted his answer to this and posted it to YouTube. Here it is:

Now I do not embrace process theology or panentheism, but I’m also not allergic to either term. It seems to me that one of the great tensions in scripture is between the story, which often reads very much like panentheism as Bruce noted, and the theological affirmations, which tend to separate God from the world more. I’m not sure that this tension is not valuable in itself, in that it keeps us from being too certain of our answers. We can see both in action, as God repents of making humankind or bargains with Abraham about how many righteous people need to be found in Sodom for that city to be spared. Both stories speak as if God doesn’t actually know the answers ahead of time. Yet at the same time we have the affirmation that he knows the end from the beginning, and indeed some scriptures that seem to say that he predetermines all. I see a parallel to the “God is sovereign” and “people have freewill” affirmations. Many Christians affirm both (whether they are Calvinists or Arminians), but explaining how they work together is much more difficult.

For those who watched the interview and would like to know where I started with this discussion, James McGrath’s post Is This Atheism? is a good place to start. In fact, it links to one of my points in turn. I’m also planning to post another excerpt from the interview, in which I ask Bruce whether Jesus was a healer. His answer there might be enlightening in connection with asking whether he’s an atheist!

Reminder: Interview with Bruce Epperly on Healing, Panentheism, Process Theology, Truth, and …

I’ll be interviewing Dr. Bruce Epperly on these subjects tonight in a Google Hangout on Air. I note with interest that some of these questions have come up in a post by James McGrath on Exploring Our Matrix, which in turn, links back to one of mine. It must be a hot topic!

Come join us! The Q&A app will be active so you can ask your questions as well.


Serious about Whose Faith

I was mentioned by Ed Brayton (blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars) in a comment to a post on Facebook, and made a couple of comments myself. Here’s the Facebook post:

There are two things here that interest me. First is the claim that moderates and liberals don’t take their faith seriously. This is silly, sort of like the claim that atheists really do believe in God, they’re just rebelling against him. What these two things share in common is that the person making the accusation makes assumptions about the other person’s mental processes that are not justified.

I have spoken to people who called themselves atheists, but who were actually angry with God. They say certain things that tell you they actually believe. I also have spoken to any number of atheists. While they vary in the reasons they don’t believe in God, I have found their thinking quite clear. I have actually occasionally told someone who claimed to be an atheist that they sounded more like a deist or an agnostic (or a whatever to me), and asked them to explain their use of the term. It’s amazing what you can learn just by asking and listening to the response.

On the other hand my faith is my faith, i.e., I have come to believe certain things. I don’t deny that many of these result from my upbringing. I was born into a Christian home, and that does predispose me to be a Christian. On the other hand, I know atheists who were born into a Christian home as well. More importantly, I don’t believe the same things my parents did. My Christianity is somewhat different. They were (and are) Seventh-day Adventists. I am not. They accepted and taught me young earth creationism. I have rejected that and am, to the extent I can tolerate the term, a theistic evolutionist. There are parts of the Bible that they treated as historical that I do not.

How do you find that out? In my case, of course, you could read. But if you want to have dialogue with someone, it’s a good idea to find out what they actually believe. It may differ from your assumptions. I am probably more frequently accused of not taking my faith seriously by people who are more conservative Christians than I am. What they mean, generally, is that I don’t take their faith seriously, and generally I don’t. No, I don’t mean that I don’t take the faith of conservative Christians seriously. What I don’t take seriously is the faith of people who are so shallow as to make such accusations without bothering to investigate and learn.

Let me illustrate this with a more specific example. While guest teaching a Sunday School class I stated that I found prayer at public events questionable at best, and that if asked (unlikely) I would decline to participate. I emphasized that I was not speaking here of constitutionality.  This was not a political position, but a religious one.

One of the class members immediately accused me of not really being willing to stand up for my convictions because I would not uphold them publicly by praying there. But you see, those were his convictions about prayer, not mine.

My convictions say that prayer is communion with God. My prayer takes place most commonly in my office while I’m studying my Bible. My prayer time is largely silent. You might even think I’m sleeping. If I pray in a group setting, I want that to be in a setting where we, as a group or community, pray. My city, county, state, or country does not constitute such a community. I can guarantee that someone in that audience is being forced to participate in my spiritual activity.

I’d like to say that I don’t do it because I don’t want them to be forced to pray, and indeed I don’t want them to. But what drives me is that my own idea of what it means to commune with my heavenly parent is so contradictory to the idea of someone being involved involuntarily, that I find it offensive. I find it hard to pray. You may think I’m stupid, but those are my convictions, and they are the convictions that I will take seriously and uphold.

I feel the same way about public school prayer. I would find it personally offensive for my children or grandchildren to be drafted into a government organized (or any other imposed) form of spiritual activity. So when I oppose prayer in public schools, I am not refusing to uphold my faith. Rather I am upholding it against something that is offensive to it. In my view the place for prayer with children would be at home with their parents,  or in some sort of voluntary faith community, not in the classroom with a public official.

The second thing that interests me is the question of what the Bible actually is. Is it metaphor? Is it myth? Is it history?

The problem here is that the Bible is many things. It contains history, fiction, a legend or so, plenty of metaphors, liturgy, political discussion, and even occasional theological discourse. In addition, it contains literature that is not commonly found elsewhere, such as visions and apocalyptic passages.

Anyone who says the Bible is any one thing is either ignorant or not paying attention. The idea that there is a variety of types of literature in scripture is not a liberal or progressive idea. Conservatives are aware of it. Many fundamentalists will try to deny it. But where the serious divide comes is in determining what is what. Is Jonah some sort of historical story or is it fiction? (I would say fiction, and written to challenge the activities of some folks like Nehemiah, but it’s hard to pin down precisely.)

One of the big questions is whether the early chapters of Genesis consist of myth or history. Obviously, young earth creationists regard them as history. I’ve heard people use the question “Is Genesis 1 a myth?” as a sort of touchstone. If you say “yes” you’re a liberal, but if you say “no” you’re a fundamentalist.

Well, I say no, and yet I accept the theory of evolution. How can this be? Well, quite simply the question of whether a passage contains accurate history and science is quite different from the question of its literary genre. The genre of Genesis 1 is, in my opinion, liturgy. Liturgy does not need to portray accurate history. Genesis 2:4ff, on the other hand, shares most of the characteristics of myth. It’s a different story, told in a different way.

I’ve been asked why, if the two stories are contradictory, they appear side by side. The reason is that they function in such different ways that they cannot really contradict, any more than an Easter liturgy, celebrating the resurrection at 11 on Sunday morning in Pensacola can contradict an account of a missing body at about dawn near Jerusalem. They’re just not talking the same language.

I find it annoying that so much Bible study has to do with proving or disproving the Bible. This often results in people taking positions because of what they need the result to be. One person wants to believe that the gospels were written late because he doesn’t want them to be eyewitness accounts. Another wants them to be written early because he does. Neither desire is relevant to the actual dating. I wrote a post about an hour ago maintaining that I thought it probable that Paul wrote Colossians, a position challenged by some scholars. Does this make me conservative? No, nor does it make me liberal. It means that’s what I believe the balance of the evidence is.

Whether you are a Christian supposedly defending the Bible or a non-Christian who wishes to challenge it, contrived arguments aren’t going to help. Ultimately they’ll undermine your position with thinking people. I don’t mean every wrong conclusion is somehow a disaster. What I mean is every trite, contrived solution whose best evidence is the fact that you need it to be true, is going to backfire.]

Well, at least it will backfire eventually with thinking people.

Date and Authorship Notes

Two weeks ago I participated in a conversation with Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. regarding how scholars determine date and authorship. Readers who consult more than one Bible Handbook, Bible Dictionary, or introductory material from more than one study Bible will find that there can be considerable variation in the information regarding a particular book. Elgin and I only touched on a few of the key issues.

Here’s the YouTube:

I know many of you will not want to watch an hour long discussion. I want to write a few notes here. I’ll provide a link to this post to Elgin, and if he wants to respond on his blog, I’ll provide a link to it here. I don’t actually intend to argue with any of his views in these notes.

Let’s consider a hypothetical case from modern life, the college term paper. Here we have strong external evidence that the material was written by the student, as that student turns it in, perhaps even saying, “Here’s my paper!” There’s a title page with the student’s name. Depending on how one applies the analogy, one might consider the title page internal or external evidence. (Some authors are named internally in New Testament documents, while some are named in titles added later.)

A responsible and reasonably intelligent professor, however, will have to consider the possibility that the student has plagiarized the paper. How might this be done?

Bypassing modern methods of checking the internet, the professor might consider the student’s style as demonstrated in other assignments, as well as the student’s level of learning. A poor student who suddenly turns in a top notch paper might be suspect. References to things the student is unlikely to know, or to experiences the student is unlikely to have had might also trigger interest.

Before there were easily available internet searches, a professor would be limited to using his or her memory and library resources. Now a good deal of potential material can be checked quickly and automatically.

This would be internal evidence, looking at the nature of the document. The synoptic problem in the gospels starts with the fact that there are close parallels between the first three gospels, closer parallels than most believe can be explained by common oral sources, so students of the gospels look for a pattern of copying between these three. Who was first? Explaining common text between Matthew and Luke, text that does not occur in Mark, on the assumption that Mark was written first, results in the idea of Q, a hypothetical written source.

But the analogy also provides us a reason why scholars tend to examine the internal evidence closely, even though there may be quite strong external evidence in favor of a particular author. They see potential motivation for an author to have attributed a letter to a more famous person, thus giving it greater authority. On the other hand, the motivation might be to honor the person named.

In the video I refer to the example of Colossians. What’s interesting in that case is that the main arguments against Pauline authorship result from the theological positions taken and some of the vocabulary used. Standing against this is the fact that the author named in the book is Paul (but see above regarding reasons to question this). If one tries to date the book much later, then it is likely there would be no church in Colossae, as it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in the early 60s CE. Thus both the author’s name and the destination of the letter would be a literary device.

Thus your answer to the question of authorship is going to come down to whether you evaluate the internal evidence (style, vocabulary, theology) as sufficiently strong to overcome both the book’s own attribution and early church testimony, or perhaps that internal evidence as sufficiently weak.

My personal view is that  it is very probable that Paul is the author of Colossians, and that the difference in theme results from a difference in the issues to which he was responding, and in turn the differences in style and vocabulary are due to the differences in theme. I think it also unlikely that a letter to a church in a city recently devastated by an earthquake will not mention [ed 022815] such an experience, and this suggests to me a date earlier than Paul’s death. It is also less likely that a letter will be written in Paul’s name while Paul is still alive to repudiate it.

But notice that I state this as a probability. Historians don’t generally dealing in proving this or that in an absolute sense. They look at probabilities. I think it is most likely, but not absolutely certain, that Paul is the author.