By 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?
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!
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.
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.
Thursday night will represent an excursus in my study through the gospel of John, as I interview Dr. Bruce Epperly, author of the books Healing Marks and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, about the healing stories of Jesus. We’ll be discussing what it means to say that Jesus was a healer and we’ll likely have time to talk about words like “panentheism” that have come up in the study thus far. You can use the link above for more details. I’m embedding the YouTube player for this event at the end of this post.
There’s also something to look forward to further down the road. Dr. Herold Weiss, author of our text Meditations on According to John, will join us on March 12 to discuss his approach to the gospel. We’ll touch on date and authorship, but most importantly on the theology of the book.
Using Google Hangouts on Air, I will moderate a discussion on Tuesday night titled Biblical Essentials. What are the essentials of the Christian faith, and why are they essential. If you’d like me to ask our panel a question, put it in a comment, or log in to Google+ during the hangout and use the Q&A app. Guests will be Dr. Alden Thompson, professor emeritus of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University, Dr. Allan R. Bevere, United Methodist pastor and Adjunct Professor at Ashland Theological Seminary, and Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Christian apologist and writer.
Oh, I almost forgot. Pete Enns posted a great cartoon and some interesting comments, obviously just for my convenience and enjoyment.
You can watch on YouTube via the viewer embedded below. Time is 7:00 pm central / 8:00 pm eastern, Tuesday, February 24, 2015.
And remember that on Thursday night, February 26, also at 7:00 pm central time, I will be interviewing Dr. Bruce Epperly as part of my continuing series on the gospel of John.
Thomas Hudgins, writing on the Across the Atlantic blog he shares with Antonio Piñero, asks whether the gospel commission is original with Jesus, i.e., did Jesus say these words. I’ve been thinking of writing a post about historicity in general, though I’ve been focused on the Gospel of John, which I’m working through in a series of Google Hangouts on Air.
(I’ll be announcing details of the next hangout tomorrow, but I’ll let you know ahead that Dr. Bruce Epperly, author of Energion titles Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Healing Marks, will be joining me this Thursday night at 7:00 pm central time. You can find this via my YouTube channel.)
Yesterday I posted on the issue of copying and translation, and there I deal only with the reliability of the transmission process. The original doctrine could be fiction or a forgery for that matter, and it wouldn’t impact my points in that earlier post. Discussing the reliability of scripture involves a number of different topics.
It’s unlikely to surprise any of my regular readers that I think this isn’t as simple a question as it might first seem, i.e., there are more than two (yes/no) answers available to the question of whether Jesus spoke these words.
Here are some possibilities as I see them:
1) This could be essentially a word for word record of words spoken by Jesus. The word for word accuracy could result from someone with an excellent memory, from someone who took notes (unlikely but not impossible), or due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (While I don’t see any evidence that the Bible’s words were dictated by God, I don’t doubt God could if God so desired.)
2) This could be a speech created to fill out a more general memory. In other words, the writer of the gospel might be recording a memory or tradition of a meeting with Jesus in which he gave such instructions to the disciples, but the words themselves could be a literary construction.
3) This could be an event that ratified the early church’s perception of a call to reach the whole world, with this call derived from various things Jesus said to them, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their lives (perceived or actual).
4) It could be a complete construction without any basis other than the goals of the early church.
The reason I think it’s important to break these differences out is that the binary response might result in an inaccurate perception. I, for example, believe that Jesus did meet with the disciples following the resurrection. Various stories of these meetings imply different things about spiritual vs. physical appearances, and I”m not concerned with that issue. For a church that believes in resurrection, things said by Jesus in either form of appearance should be regarded as things said by Jesus, just as Paul’s call, a visionary experience, is considered valid.
Nonetheless I am not convinced that we have an extremely close, word for word record of the activities of Jesus. I believe we have a record taken from memories and orally transmitted. Even if the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, they were written some time after the events were recorded, and recalling every detail of the speech is unlikely.
Again, I fully believe that the Holy Spirit could recall such things precisely, but I don’t see evidence that he did. In fact, to the extent that I see eyewitness testimony in the gospels, I see very human eyewitness testimony, with differences in perspective, in details, in focus, and so forth.
So if you asked me the original question in binary form, I’d feel obligated to say no, but that would tend to make hearers/readers believe that I don’t accept that the gospel commission originated with Jesus.
Quite the contrary, I believe it did, though I believe the church took some time to grow into it. So answering for myself, I would say something like my #2 above. I take this position because I believe that a robust set of appearances of the risen Christ would be necessary to launch the Christian movement.
On the other hand, while I consider #2 most likely, I have no problem with those who would choose #3. I believe that God led not only with the physical presence of Jesus, but with the presence of Jesus with the church through the Holy Spirit. Thus I am not disturbed by the suggestion that this is largely a construction.
Many of my more conservative friends are disturbed by what doesn’t disturb me. (One should note the tag line of this blog, “passionate moderate, liberal charismatic Christian.” There are reasons why I have been called liberal!) But the fact is that while I tend to be slightly conservative in my own assessment of historical issues, I find the reason for my faith more in an experience of the living God.
When asked why I believe, I quote the song: “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” When I returned to the church after a 12 year “wilderness wandering” following completing graduate school, it was not because I was suddenly convinced that the historical problems of the Bible had been solved. There was no change in my intellectual assessment of historical data. What actually happened was that no matter how hard I tried to avoid it, I truly did believe in God.
Fortunately I had already encountered ways of approaching scripture from various teachers that allowed me to re-encounter God in scripture. (Without intending to blame any of them for my own theological positions, I would mention Lucille Knapp, Dr, Alden Thompson, Dr. Larry Geraty, Dr. Sakae Kubo, and Dr. Leona Running, all of whom, and many more, helped shape the concepts that go into my understanding of scripture. Since my return to faith, I have added many more to that list.)
Because it was not a conviction about the historicity of scripture that brought my faith back into activity, debates about the historicity of scripture do not have the power to shake my faith. In fact, I welcome and embrace them.
I am truly delighted that there are people who see and preach the grace and love of God who differ in their understanding of historical (and even theological) issues. I welcome things that clear the way for us to look up (John 3:14-15).
I am confident in Jesus. I am not confident in any particular historical or theological construction. I can discover that I am wrong, and hopefully correct myself. He is always there and never mistaken.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to teach a Sunday School class on the history of the Bible. Teaching a class on how we got the Bible in about 50 minutes requires some serious decisions; you can’t cover everything, but you want to cover the most important thing.
At one time I would have thought this idea of translation of translations and copy of copies would largely be a waste of time. Surely everyone understands at least this much of how copying and translation work, both in ancient times and today. But then there is the truly dismal article recently in Newsweek, which demonstrates yet again that you can’t count on major news sources to do even minimal research and fact checking. It’s not my intention to refute that article; it’s both self-refuting, and has been refuted quite ably multiple times. But I am interested in the number of Christians who don’t seem to know how to respond to a claim such as I have in the title.
So has the Bible been translated so many times that you can no longer rely on the content? Has it been copied so many times that the cumulative weight of errors has made it essentially unrecoverable?
Quite apart from bad journalism, these questions were awaiting me in Sunday School. I’m going to first go through the logic copying and translation generations, then talk about definitions and how we use terms such as “reliable,” “original,” “significant,” and “accurate,” then finally look at what we should do about this sort of thing. I really don’t blame Newsweek, surprisingly enough. They are much more a symptom than a cause.
This first part is simple. If you already have some knowledge of the history of the Bible or of ancient manuscripts, you shouldn’t need to read it at all.
The following chart will help illustrate the discussion:
Translation/Copying generations illustrated.
Translating a document is non-destructive. If you look at the left hand side of the chart you’ll see a simple illustration of generations, A, B, and C. If this is the generations of a translation, then some meaning will be lost between A and B, and then additional meaning will be lost if C is translated from B. An illustration might be the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek in the LXX (Septuagint), and then into Old Latin. Jerome preferred to go back to the Hebrew when he produced the Vulgate.
The loss of meaning is ameliorated if one consults the original while translating from a translation, as shown by the red lines. This latter situation illustrates the story of the Douai-Rheims Bible, which was translated from Latin, but with the Greek and Hebrew texts available. Until Vatican II, Roman Catholic translators were expected to translate the Bible from the Latin. Since that time, a number of excellent Catholic translations have been produced from the original languages, including the NAB and NJB.
Note, however, that the A-B-C chart on the left illustrates the worst situation, a translation of a translation. Not only that, but you will find it hard to locate a translation of this nature in the Bible section of any bookstore, because almost all modern translations are made from the original languages. One exception is The Living Bible. That version stands alone in being properly called a paraphrase, as it was paraphrased from an English version, the American Standard Version, so it was a paraphrase of a translation.
So the idea that the Bible has been translated so many times that we have lost all idea of its meaning is simply false. Most translations are from the original languages, and besides that, I can pick up my Greek New Testament, or one of my copies of the Hebrew scriptures, and read directly from the original languages.
If we look now at the chart on the right, just the part showing A through D, we see this illustration. Yes, the Bible has been translated many times, but the vast majority of these translations went back to the original languages, and not to any translation.
In class I was asked about the KJV. Where does it fall in all this? It’s a translation from the original languages. There are those who accuse the translators of using the LXX as the source for the Old Testament, but what they actually did was consult the LXX as they translated the Hebrew, which was (and is) a good idea.
So what about copies of copies? Notice that when I said the translators go back to the original, it was always “original languages,” not necessarily “original text.” That’s because it’s quite true that we do not have the autographs. Further, we don’t know precisely how many generations of copying have gone on.
But there are two counterpoints to this. First, it is vanishingly unlikely that the number of generations is in the thousands. We have thousands of copies, but those that date back to the first few centuries are doubtless only a few generations removed. Second, and more importantly, the number of copies made actually works against the issue of copyist generations, because it is unlikely that each generational sequence will produce the same errors. So as you look at the right hand side of my chart above, you will see how you can have many, many copies in only a few generations. In the case of the Bible we can look back through history using multiple paths. This allows us to attain a fairly high level of confidence in the text that we use.
And what we use is a critical edition, either one already available, or one made by the translators of a particular version. We don’t go back and just grab a manuscript and start translating. First we must study the text, comparing these many, many witnesses to the source text, and coming to the best conclusion we can. For the vast majority of the New Testament text, there is next to no controversy.
But here is where the issue of definitions comes in. What is significant? What can be considered reliable? What do I mean by confidence in the text? It’s extremely important for us to be clear on these things, otherwise it’s quite easy to seem to be lying.
There are significant variants in manuscripts. What do I mean by “significant” in this case? Simply that these variants would alter the way I would translate. There may be spelling differences, but these I would not regard as significant.
On the other hand, one might consider only those variants that might impinge about a doctrine, or perhaps a major doctrine, of one’s denomination as significant. Such a variant would be the supposed Trinitarian statement in 1 John 5:7-8.
But that, in turn, raises another type of significance: How viable is a reading. A goof by a scribe in one manuscript out of hundreds that might witness to a particular passage hardly qualifies as significant to the textual critic. Interesting in terms of scribal practices and lack thereof, but hardly significant to determining the actual reading. In the case of 1 John 5:7-8, we would have to say that the reading is not significant, at least to the vast majority of textual critics, as it is not regarded as viable. (Disagreement is possible on virtually anything, of course. The question is how valid or well-founded such disagreement is.)
My point here is that we need to be careful with these terms. I find a text that is 95% non-controversial quite reliable as historical materials go. Historians often work with less. But to certain KJV-Only advocates, the only thing that would be reliable would be 100% equivalence. They tend to waffle, however, when presented with printing errors in the history of the KJV.
I read my Bible with confidence, not because I don’t think there’s any question anywhere in it, but because I think the reconstruction is extremely good and the differences that remain don’t make problems for me. In fact, they make the whole thing more interesting. I see God working in the imperfect people who experience His presence and activity and recorded that for us. I again see God working in the amazing distribution and preservation of copies of what those people wrote. I am not disturbed by the problems; I’m astounded by how few there are.
All this leads me to what I see as the problem. People with the training to understand this process rarely talk about these things in Sunday School or from the pulpit. I have heard two reasons for this: 1) It’s too complicated and people don’t want to know, and 2) It might shake their faith to hear about this stuff.
I think both are bogus. I haven’t encountered anyone who can’t understand the process of copying and translation once it’s explained, and people are going to hear about this from someone, perhaps someone who claims the Bible has been translated hundreds of times, with the implication that it has gone through that many generations. Not talking about it isn’t helping anything.
When we do talk about it, we need to do much ore than simply say that we know how it works and you can rely on your Bible. In modern terms people will expect at least 99.9% accuracy when you say that, if not 100%. The first person to come along and point out that there are thousands of variations in the text will then be able to shake their faith.
You may say that claiming this level of reliability is not deceptive. After all, considering historical processes and understanding how copying and translation work, the Bible is remarkably well preserved. But the people in the pew don’t hear it that way because they often don’t have the background in historical methodology to figure it out. They’re going to feel deceived, because they interpreted what you said within their context, and they got the wrong idea.
You may not regard the absence of John 7:53-8:11 from some of our oldest manuscripts as significant, but your congregation almost certainly will. I’ve been told that it isn’t significant, because we can still teach about forgiveness even without the story, but that is a rather loose idea of reliability, accuracy, or confidence.
My suggestion is to take the time, provide the background, and let people understand just what is in question and what is not. Define terms carefully, so people understand just what portion of the text is in question and what is not.
We need to do more than just respond to miserable articles like the one I referenced above. We need to teach this material up front.
After all, in one way or another our congregations are relying on the Bible as at least one witness to the Word of God. We need to tell them why we think they can.
My Google Hangout on Air on the gospel of John tonight will be based on chapter 6 of Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John, “To Bear Witness to the Truth.” I will focus on the meaning of “true” or “genuine” in the gospel.
I’m embedding the YouTube player below. Note that you have to sign in with Google+ to use the Q&A App.