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Can Liberal and Conservative Christians Meet Anywhere?

One of my goals as a publisher is to see people from various streams of Christianity talk to one another and learn from one another. I used the labels “liberal,” “charismatic,” and “evangelical” in the home video I made early in the history of my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’m embedding it here for those who haven’t seen it.

That video should answer the most common question I’m asked: Why do you publish books you don’t agree with? It’s not a question that comes up with the big boys, companies like HarperCollins, Zondervan, and so forth. (Oops! Come to think of it, Zondervan is now part of HarperCollins!) With those big companies, one expects that the editorial policy will be cover a bit of ground.

But Energion Publications is owned by one person, and that person (yours truly) is also the chief editor. So what is my goal? Why wouldn’t I look for and try to publish the TRUTH?!

I suppose I could get into epistemology and tell you that while I believe in truth, I do not believe that we, as humans (finite), ever get to know that. Rather, we make our best, and I think often quite workable, attempt at the truth. But my real reason is that I believe we need dialogue. We need sharpening by others. We need that to go on continually, not just in some starting point.

Early in my time online I was in conversation with someone on the Compuserve Religion Forum. I’m pretty sure at the time I was still accessing this by dial-up, but my memory isn’t clear on the timing. Another Christian asked me if, when engaging in dialogue with non-Christians, I were to discover I was wrong, would I change my mind. Let’s ignore the fact that “discovering I was wrong” implies that I already changed my mind. My answer was, of course, “yes.”

“Then you aren’t a real Christian,” he told me. If I was a real Christian, he explained, I would be unable to contemplate the possibility of being wrong. Now I’m a quite convinced Christian. My experience of God suggests to me that while the details may vary, my ultimate faith in God is not in question. It’s not unstable. I’ve seen it challenged. I’ve lived through times that made me question, and that faith is still there. I’m not that strong of an individual. If my faith has held up this long, it becomes evidence to me that there’s something behind it.

But dialogue means listening, and if I listen, I must consider. If I hear something that is better than what I know already, I must accept that. To do anything else would be dishonest with myself and even with the God who is the Object of my faith. Or, well, beyond object, ultimate concern, and so forth.

So I’m an advocate of dialogue because I think it’s both a critical part of how we discover truth and also of how we keep on trying to discover truth. Sharing and listening are important.

So when I decide whether to publish a book, and later when I edit that book, my question is never whether I agree or disagree with the author, but rather it is how well the author has expressed his or her position and how well supported it is. I may disagree profoundly. But is this something that should be considered and discussed? I do place boundaries on what I publish, but that is because a small publisher has to have some definition of what is and is not within its publishing scope. I have rejected manuscripts that I have then, in turn, urged others to read when another publisher released them.

9781631990915Most of these books advocate one position or another. But my company has just released a new book that is advocating dialogue, precisely the kind of dialogue I established this company to promote. That book is titled: The River of Life: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet. I’m not trying to say that I like this book better than any other book I publish. To be fair to my authors I must be as strong an advocate for each of them as I can. But I’m highlighting this one on my blog because it speaks to the core of my goals.

Do I agree with every word in this book? I’d like to think nobody would ask me that. My normal answer is that I can’t even say that with confidence about the books I have written myself. In fact, Lee Harmon’s liberal Christianity is more liberal and less charismatic than mine. You can see my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic to catch the differences.

Here is a sample from the introduction:

I am also a liberal Christian, living in a conservative world. Most of my family and friends are conservative Christians. Conservatives consider apostolic tradition of utmost importance, meaning they seek to emulate the first-century church as best they know how. This is a noble goal, but it can lead to stringent intolerance for diluted beliefs. It’s the right way or the highway. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, find the creedal requirements which develop from such strictness stifling and contrary to observation and experience. We see God in many people and places, not just in Christian circles. This can lead liberals to a violent condemnation of narrow doctrine. Intolerance is intolerable.

And round and round we go. As a liberal Christian, I have both stooped to verbal aggression and felt the sting of attack. Both sides care so dang much that we can’t help squabbling, but this hardly puts a good face on Christianity. If the two sides could merely take one step backward, digging back to the Jesus we both adore, perhaps there could be a unity of purpose. Even though there can never be agreement about religious belief, the Kingdom could nevertheless advance. That is my hope in writing this book. (pp. 1-2)

I know, of course, that not everyone will agree with Lee on what the key points are. Not even all liberals are likely to agree on that. But that’s a good opening point for discussion. In that discussion we can all hope that we’ll hear our Master’s voice and learn to love a little bit more and show a grace that’s just a bit wider and deeper.

Doctrinal Standards – The New Works

I’ve had some interesting conversations about God’s grace recently, and especially about its limits.

Most people these days seem to firmly resist the idea that we need works in order to earn God’s favor, but many seem to think that we need to have correct beliefs. If we don’t believe the right things about the way grace is sufficient for all our sin, then, well, it won’t really be sufficient. Because, while grace can apparently handle murder, lying, cheating, stealing, and adultery, it is not up to dealing with a failure to discover the correct doctrine about grace. Amazing, isn’t it, that God could be so easily stopped? We seem to have replaced justification by works with justification by correct belief.

I think it’s hard for us to believe that grace is actually sufficient. We want to insert ourselves in there somewhere. Having been told that we can’t work our way in, we still find a distinction, this time about whether we have come to a correct doctrinal understanding.

Now two points:

1) I’m not saying that beliefs are not important. In fact, while I have no difficulty thinking that God can accept a person who is completely wrong in their understanding of grace and how it works, I do think that many people suffer a great deal by not understanding just how gracious God is. Misunderstanding can hurt. It doesn’t make God hate you, but it’s uncomfortable nonetheless. I know many people who live their lives worried that an angry God is going to send them into eternal torment because they forgot to confess one deed or failed to understand some command. That’s sad. Personally, I think grace is sufficient not just for my sin, but also for my stupidity.

2) I’m not a universalist. I think there is real evil in the world and that people sometimes take a turn that way. I know there are those who think there is good in the worst of us, but I think there are those who are just evil. The problem is, with our ability to mask evil with a pretense of goodness, and our ability to obscure goodness through just plain bad judgment, I suspect we aren’t up to figuring out who actually is truly evil.

I could be wrong about any of that. I think it’s important to recognize my potential to be wrong. I think it’s also important for me to try to be as right as I can. But no amount of my wrongness can actually limit God.

Irregular Verbs and Hermeneutics

In a few minutes I’m leaving to teach Sunday School and we’re talking about the inspiration and authority of scriptures and/or of people who claim to speak for God.

But first, I thought I’d write a quick note on the recent discussion of violence in the Old Testament hosted by Allan Bevere. (To follow this discussion from the start, follow the links here.) This may sound terribly disrespectful, but first let me note that I largely agree with what Dr. L. Daniel Hawk said in his three part series. I like the canonical approach. I agree that we need to struggle with all the difficult passages. I would find some time to quibble about the criticism of the biblical theology school and it’s demise. I find that announcements of the death of schools of thought are often a mite exaggerated and tend to dismiss more than they should. So while I teach using a canonical approach to scripture, I think I should be subject a question analogous to the one I asked when reading material from earlier biblical criticism and the biblical theology school: Why? Why is it that you somehow think that when you get back to the earliest stream you are somehow dealing with something better? For me, there are two questions that arise from the same idea: 1) Why is the canonical form of scripture normative (and for what purpose)? and 2) What is the canonical form? (Canonical form is a bit easier to determine in the New Testament, I think.) I, for example, make use of the OT Apocrypha (a personal choice, since my denomination doesn’t recognize it as authoritative [why?]) and also consider the LXX versions of OT books to have similar authority to Hebrew texts in Christian contexts.

Having thus raised more questions than I answer (a normal situation for me), let me get to my title.

I’m a fan of the BBC shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In those Bernard Wooley, private secretary to the minister and then Prime Minister Hacker, produces on occasion what he calls “irregular verbs.” I couldn’t find a good clip on YouTube, but I’m going to provide one for this discussion:

I discern the message, you pick and choose, he discards Scripture wholesale.

Please don’t hear this as an accusation of either Adam Hamilton or L. Daniel Hawk. While I tend to agree much more with Dr. Hawk, my intention is not to throw accusations around. This irregular verb points at me as well. I think, perhaps, that we need to spend more time discerning and discussing the ways in which we pick and choose.

Hopefully I’ll find the time over the next week or so to discuss a few chapters. In the meantime might I direct you at some earlier efforts: The God-Talk Club and the She Bears (a short story/dialog) and Real Guy Interpretation – A Homily.

Link: Second Post on the Violent God of the Old Testament from L. Daniel Hawk

His second post is here. I’m waiting for the third which he has now promised. I’m somewhat dissatisfied at this point, but the topic of his third post is promising.

Our Perceptions Are Frequently Right

It’s fairly fashionable to call the thinking of our time “post-modern” and to talk about how people believe we really can’t know anything for sure, or perhaps just can’t know anything. In many discussions that is the conversation ender. You really can’t know that you’re right,  so I could be right as well. Alternatively we hear “My opinion is as good as your opinion.”

(Boring meditation alert!)

There’s a certain value in humility, in realizing the possibility that we may, in fact, be wrong. But I still tell people not to make use of any epistemology (theory of how we know stuff) that you wouldn’t want used by the designer of an airplane you were about to fly on. In a discussion about aerodynamics, my opinion is not of the same value as that of an aeronautical engineer. It’s possible that either of us could be wrong. Aeronautical engineers have been in error. But it’s more likely that I will be wrong on the subject than the engineer. Similarly if the issue is the translation of a New Testament Greek verse is at issue, I am more likely to be right than the average person who has not studied Greek, or the seminary graduate who has allowed his or her Greek to slip away. I not only have continued to read Greek, but continue to read whole Greek grammars. On the other hand, my opinion on the passage is of less value than that of someone who works with the language on a daily basis, such as a translator or a Greek professor.

That doesn’t mean I’ll automatically surrender my position. As I have frequently pointed out when someone has tried to trump me with the “I’m more educated” card, I can generally provide a reference to someone more educated than either of us. Following which it’s time to discuss our views on the merits. But that assumes that there are merits and that our opinions are not of equal value. One or both may be wrong. One may be more plausible than another.

I recall a debate between two of my undergraduate professors. I worked for one of them, so was able to discuss it with him afterwards. I took one philosophy class from each of them. In this debate the first one picked up a book from the table in front of them, fanned the pages, and said, “This is a book. I know it’s a book. It’s not just likely it’s a book. It is a book!” The other responded, “It’s always possible that I put something there very cleverly disguised as a book.”

Yes, it would be possible. Difficult, but possible. The probability was high that it was a book; low that his opponent had tricked out a fake book facsimile to catch him on precisely that point. But he was very likely right.

Similarly, in a recent discussion I had, an individual strongly derided those who were intolerant. How could they be so sure they were right? Nobody could be that certain. Nothing was that certain. Moments later this individual described another group of people as just plain wrong and said they should not be tolerated.

I was challenged on a similar point. I value tolerance, but I have low tolerance for the intolerant. I’ve been told that this is inconsistent. If I truly value tolerance, I must also be tolerant of intolerance.

I think all of these stories illustrate one problem in different ways. Our knowledge is not absolutely certain. Even the most certain things have some potential, however small, for error. On the other hand, we do have sufficient knowledge of many things for practical purposes. While aeronautical engineers are not perfect, they manage to design aircraft that tend to fly the vast majority of the time. Things may go wrong, but only rarely do they go wrong in a catastrophic fashion. Language is often a target of skepticism. How can we know the meaning of what someone has said or written? The further in time and space we are from the origin, the harder it is to comprehend. Yet communication does take place for practical purposes.

My wife writes a grocery list. I take it to the store and buy groceries. Most of the time I come back with what she wanted. Sometimes I don’t. The communication is not perfect, but it works for our practical purposes. She continues to make lists. I continue to follow the lists. We continue to eat.

We live with the potential for error all  the time, and it tends to work.

The problem we have in discussions is that we (inclusively!) tend to think in binary fashion. People must either be able to communicate, or not. I must be able to understand a scripture passage, or not. But in fact I partially communicate, and I partially understand. (Methinks the apostle Paul said something of the sort!) I don’t get it perfectly, but I don’t (always) completely miss. I’m certain I’ve missed the interpretation of a passage pretty near totally a few times in my life. At least I’ve reversed my position on them, so I was either wrong before or now, or perhaps even both! But still I move forward.

There are two things I’m suggesting here:

1) The uncertainty of your position doesn’t mean mine is right. I’ve encountered this in various historical studies. Your position is weak, so the traditional position must be right. Not necessarily! Let’s discuss its merits.

2) Everything is uncertain so let’s be paralyzed and not act.

I can manage uncertainty in my perceptions of the grocery list. I can manage my uncertainties elsewhere. I don’t have to claim greater knowledge than I possess in order to move forward.

 

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.