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Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

Perspectives on Paul: Some Comparisons between Galatians and Romans

This will continue the discussion, dealing more with definitions. In the area of soteriology (the study of salvation) we frequently make the same statements in terms of words and structure, yet mean something quite different by it. “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” means quite different things, depending on who is saying it.

When I Dream of Christian Unity

When I Dream of Christian Unity

Everybody, well almost, says they want Christian unity. It’s one of those Sunday School answers. It’s like saying, “Everybody who loves Jesus raise your hand” in a Sunday School class.

But when you raise your hand for Christian unity, what do you mean? What is your vision?

I’ve been thinking of this as I hear various people talk, and asking myself what I would hope for. We can easily be just as disunited about unity as we are about anything else!

It seems to me that there are several possible aspects of unity, and not all of them necessarily work together.

  • Unity of spirit, i.e., we tend to respond in similar ways to similar issues. We may have somewhat different viewpoints, but we get along. Actual unified beliefs may be clearly defined, or they may just be a general set of feelings.
  • Unity of doctrine, where we all accept the same statement of beliefs.
  • Unity of organization, in which we all fall under one umbrella.

I’m sure I could come up with more if I spent time. I might also distinguish any sort of unity as inward or outward looking. Inward looking unity unites us (as we define us) against them, while outward looking unity unites us because we can thus better serve both us and them. These are kind of polar opposites, and most actual cases would fall variously between.

When talking about Christian unity, however, we also have to consider what it is we are uniting. This might fall under unity of doctrine, but it could also be classified as unity of culture. We can end up calling for unity of all conservative evangelicals, just plain evangelicals, liberals/progressives, charismatics, pentecostals, etc., because in our minds that is what “Christian” is. I’ve encountered people who sought the unity of everyone who believes in Jesus. After all, believing in Jesus, they tell me, is all that matters. But when you drill down, they mean very specific things by “believing in Jesus,” such as believing in Jesus in the sense of penal substitutionary atonement.

I say all this to suggest that we do need to think, and hopefully think clearly, about what we mean when we call for unity.

I like the use of metaphors in discussing this, and two metaphors came to my mind as I thought about writing this post. First, dancing. You might think of a dance school or even a dance conference or gathering of some sort. The way I see this is that there are a myriad of things that are called dance, and one person might even think what someone else does isn’t really dancing. At a school or a large gathering, you will likely have a variety of styles, from individual displays to large groups. You’ll find different styles of choreography. Everybody dances, as they see it. There’s a structure and an organization, but the boundaries are blurred as some creative people break the rules. As long as nobody gets violent, everyone can have fun.

Missouri River Sunset – Credit: Openclipart.org

Second, I see a river. The river has tributaries, currents, eddies, changes of channel over time, turns, blockages, and may even, as it arrives at the sea, divide into a river delta. A water molecule may take many different roads along the river path, but in general, the water gets to the sea.

These two metaphors speak two me of common purpose and destination, with intervening differences. They also save me, I think, from going to far in defining someone else’s unity. (I want you to feel the internal contraction is assigning ownership of unity to a person, of a unity of different unities.) You can be a middle of the river water molecule or one who tries all the currents and eddies or spends time in quiet pools near the shore as the river meanders along. You can be in the contests for the traditional dances, or out playing with styles that are seeking recognition. You might get dipped out of the river and used for someone’s shower or bath, or even to flush a toilet before you get back to the river. Gotta love mixing those metaphors, or at least stirring them.

What is your vision of unity?

High View of the Sacraments or Not?

High View of the Sacraments or Not?

I want to briefly reflect on the sacraments. This is not so much a general theological reflection as a personal comment, expressing my own position on this. As I said a couple of days ago regarding hearing the voice of God, in a spiritual movement there is much listening, much hearing, and much creativity. Structure comes in to resolve this chaos into a tighter community, but structure also often works to kill it. Thus we have a closed canon. None of us can be spiritual in a New Testament sense precisely because we have a New Testament, or even more precisely because we have a New Testament regarded in this manner. Both structure and freedom (even chaos) have value in community, but they also are at war with one another.

Herold Weiss, in his book Meditations on According to John, makes this comment (p. 152):

The sacraments were established toward the end of the first century when Christianity was becoming institutionalized and starting to create official channels through which the Holy Spirit could flow under ecclesiastical control.…

This is structure fighting the chaos that results when people listen to God for themselves, or think they are doing so. God’s presence when two or three are gathered is a nice thing, but the organized church much prefers that God’s presence be manifested in groups of two or three hundred, or perhaps thousand, led by an ordained minister, supported by an adequate staff. Breaking out the bread and wine at lunch with a couple of friends, praying over it, sharing it (along with, say, a nice dish of pasta), and feeling the presence of Jesus is not sanctioned by church law.

In thinking about this I think I have a very high view of the sacraments in that I believe that Jesus is really present, that there is something different about communion or the Eucharist than about our common meals. Where I differ from the normal high view, I think, is that I don’t really think God cares that much about our church laws. If two or three friends shared their food and drink with the intention of truly inviting Christ to be present, I think he will be, regardless of ritual, ordination, or the structure in which it takes place. It can happen in a bar as you share beer and pretzels.

Indeed, if someone accepted Christ and a totally unordained person dips them under the water, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I think they have been buried with Christ and will come up in newness of life.

I suspect that the same actions in some of our buildings, performed by persons chosen and ordained for the purpose, sometimes fail to accomplish anything. People just get wet or take a morsel or bread or wine. It depends on the hearts, I think, which God truly sees, and I do not.

I’m not planning to go on a crusade of sacraments outside the church. The reason for this is not the success of the sacrament itself in mediating God’s presence. Rather, I think that God’s call is to community. I would ask the folks with beer and pretzels to find more people with whom they can share the presence of Christ. I would ask them to build bonds and form communities.

Contrary to the idea that the communion meal should remain separate from our secular meals, however, I believe God’s intent is that the communion meal take over from the secular, that more and more of our lives become sacred. We learn to distinguish, as Leviticus says, the holy from the common, but we do so not in order to segregate them, but in order to allow the holy to draw into itself the common until all is holy.

I believe that’s about as high a view of the sacraments as one can have.


Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfectionism is an interesting trait, and can be quite destructive. United Methodist pastors are still asked whether they are going on toward perfection, though I have found few who expressed great comfort with the required “yes” answer, and not a few who had their fingers crossed.

The line comes from Hebrews 6:1, and the more I study Hebrews, the less I see this in terms of attaining a moral standard. John Wesley himself made it clear that “Christian perfection” would be a gift of God, given by grace, and not an attainment (repeatedly stated in his compilation A Plain Account of Christian Perfection).

But what is the perfection to which a Christian should go on toward?

Before I look at that, let’s ask about the verb that is being rendered by “going on” here. This is almost universally translated actively, taking it as a middle voice. (Let me skip all the arguments about the middle voice here and just say that in this context, a middle does justify an active translation.) But it can also be taken as passive, and I think it should.

Let me quote David Allen:

…The verb may be construed in the middle voice in the sense of “to bring oneself forward,” but most likely it should be taken as passive, suggesting God as the one who moves the readers along to the desired goal. Christians are dependent upon God and his grace to enable them to press forward to maturity. (Hebrews, The New American Commentary, p. 400 [Nook Edition])

(I was helped to a decision on this in a discussion with Dr. David Alan Black, who should not be blamed for the rest of this post!)

This fits well with what I see as the message of Hebrews in general, which I summarize as “get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination.” Human action is called for in the book of Hebrews, yet it is always action that is empowered by God, and not by us.

But the other side of this is what sort of perfection is involved. In learning we’re often told to go find the definition of a word in the dictionary and then we think we understand a passage we’re reading. For building language skill, that’s not a bad plan. But for coming to understand a relatively complex piece of theology, it leaves something to be desired.

Biblical languages students start by learning glosses for (a word or phrase seen as an equivalent), then learning that there are numerous possible glosses and that the lexicon provides such lists. After they have become skilled at this process, one hopes they will learn to work with definitions and semantic ranges for the words. But even at that stage, the tendency is to discover what a word means in scripture and then to force that meaning into the text.

I think that’s what is happening here. We see this verse as demanding that we continue the quest to attain a state of moral perfection. But in the book of Hebrews our task is to continue in Jesus, our High Priest. If we stay the course with Him, we will attain the promises. (I’m not going to reference everything here. Many of these are themes stated repeatedly and in different ways through the book.)

We might also consider the perfection of Jesus, who is “perfected” through suffering (Hebrews 2:10). Clearly, Jesus is not brought to a state of moral or ethical perfection. Rather, he is being perfected as a High Priest, acquainted with all our weaknesses (Hebrew 4:14-16) but also above us all in all ways (Hebrews 7:26-27), the perfect person to be the communicator or mediator between God and humanity. In this case we’re looking at a definition on the order of “totally suited to accomplish a particular mission.”

I might use this sense in recommending someone for a job. The “perfect” candidate is not one who is never going to make any mistakes, nor is he necessarily a person who is known never to engage in sexual misconduct off the job. Rather, that candidate is the person who is fully qualified to carry out the assigned tasks. It doesn’t mean he’s not wonderful in all those other ways; it’s just not the element in view.

Thus Jesus can be perfect and need perfecting all at the same time, and we see this developed from Hebrews 2-4. Hebrews 5:9, which immediately precedes our passage (I consider 5:11-14 as the first step in an argument that continues in 6:1. The chapter break separates this in a less than helpful manner.

So now we look at the state of the audience. They are stuck at basics and not ready to understand the discussion of Melchizedek which he wants to start. So having noted both the weakness and what strength would look like, he suggests that we lay aside the basics (the milk) and go on to the meat, whereupon he does precisely that.

“Let us be moved along toward perfection …” calls us away from basics and on to the meaning of this high priesthood. There is, I believe, a call to action and yes, to holiness, in moving on doctrinally, but the call here is to get past basic thinking and move on toward more mature thinking. Let your minds be perfected.

As I’ve commented before, students of Hebrews often divide the book into doctrinal presentations and exhortations. It’s not entirely wrong to differentiate, but I don’t believe these two elements are all that separated for him. The understanding of the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ is, in itself, a call to new action.

“Being carried on” or “being moved on” toward perfection is passive in form, but being carried by Christ is a rather active passivity, as we might deduce from Hebrews 11. Note how the preparation for solid food is through exercising one’s faculties.

Active passivity. Gracious working. It might just describe life “in Christ”!


(This post’s featured image is licensed from Adobe Stock, #115932220. It is not in the public domain.)

 

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

We’re going to start our look at Paul’s soteriology by reading Galatians 2:15-3:18 and looking at Bruce Epperly’s fourth lesson in Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, “The Dynamics of Grace.” Here’s a quote:

Three key words are present in Galatians – grace, justification, and faith. Put simply, grace is God’s love embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is victorious over sin and liberates us to live freely through God’s Spirit. Grace can’t be earned, but is God’s loving gift for all who have gone astray. Earning God’s love by following the law ends up separating us from the grace of God. God gives us everything, but we want to justify ourselves as if the cross and resurrection never occurred. We can’t nullify God’s grace by our dependence on Jewish law; but we can diminish our experience of grace. (p. 34)

Tonight I’m going to talk about some views of what salvation is, what we are saved from, what we are saved to, and how this is accomplished.

Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?

Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?

Because you have been graciously given this on behalf of Christ:
not only in Him to believe,
but also for Him to suffer. (Philippians 1:29, excessively literally)

I’ve been meditating on two texts as the new year begins, Philippians 1:27-30, and Ephesians 5:1-2. I’ve been kind of ignoring this suffering thing so far. But last night listening to music in worship at Freedom Church Pensacola, it suddenly struck me to think: Do we have any songs in which we actually praise or thank God for suffering? There may well be, but I don’t recall one off-hand.

This is certainly not a criticism of the church I was in at the time I thought it. I don’t recall this sort of thing anywhere. We don’t talk about it in the way Paul does here. In fact, we don’t really want to acknowledge the reality of suffering. Often our singing, praying, preaching, and indeed our living presents the pretense that nothing ever can or will go wrong. Have you ever heard anyone say in church, when a testimony is called for, that they have had a horrible week and just don’t know how they can go on? No! That’s a sign that they’re crazy. The intelligent and sane ones pretend.

I don’t think Paul is saying here that suffering is wonderful and good in itself. I think the privilege is that the suffering that will come—and despite our desires, it will—is not vain and of no worth, but rather it is suffering on  behalf of the kingdom. It’s not cheering that there is pain, but rather cheering from the pain that whatever happens is not in vain.

This reminds me of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the frequent change of the line “as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” to “as He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” (You can find more on this here.) Those who have served in the military know that dying may be necessary. It’s not what you live for, but many people have faced death for their nation. Many Christians have faced or are now facing death for their faith. It’s a reality, but just as we change the line in the song, we’d rather not talk about it. Certainly, we don’t want to sing about it.

Conducting ourselves in a way that is worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) may involve annoyance, discomfort, suffering, and even death. God’s gift is that we do it in, with, and through Jesus Christ.

 

God Perfected through Suffering

God Perfected through Suffering

For it was appropriate for
    him,
        for whom everything exists
            and
        through whom everything exists,
    in bringing many children to glory,
        the pioneer of their salvation
    to perfect
        through suffering

(Hebrews 2:10, very literal)

I wouldn’t suggest that any Greek students translate the way I just did, or your Greek teacher may suggest you learn English. I’m trying to bring the focus onto certain things and it’s sometimes hard to gauge what this is going to do for readers of the English text that results.

I think this text is one of those that we tend to discount, because what it’s actually saying is a bit startling. In his commentary, Luke Timothy Johnson points out that this text forms a sort of envelope with 2:18, and that the verses between are a carefully structured argument. I quite agree, but I want to just bring your attention to the stark initial statement. Johnson emphasizes how outrageous this concept would be in the Greek world. I would suggest it would sound outrageous just about anywhere. When a Bible writer says something that sounds outrageous we have our defensive mechanisms: Discounting (take 20% or 30% off the rough edges), find a balancing text so we can believe that one instead, or just move on to something more edifying.

In this case I think we tend to focus on the suffering, since we have heard the story of the cross so many times. That was something shocking to those who first heard it, but it has become routine now, not that when we’re called to suffer as Christ did, we take that very seriously. We  tend to think we’re suffering for Jesus every time we have a bad day. No, we’re just living in the world. Some days just aren’t as nice as others!

But the idea that the Son, described in such majestic terms in Hebrews 1:1-4 is to be made perfect, or perhaps complete, through suffering is a little bit more difficult. Luke 2:52 notwithstanding, we tend to think of Jesus in majesty all the way through. Just look at all the halos around the baby Jesus in art. I suspect not so much halo spotting by Mary. In Hebrews, we’ll hear this theme many times, one of the key ones is 5:9, where “having been made complete he became the means of eternal salvation.

I’d suggest two points here that we avoid, and we need to affirm and absorb instead:

  1. God is much more involve in and impacted by our lives and situation. The incarnation may have been an event in history, but it’s also an eternal reality. God is much more involved. We sometimes wobble between transcendence and immanence. God has no problem with both.
  2. The suffering and death of Jesus was a necessary part of atonement, in different ways. I do not affirm penal substitutionary atonement as the singular theory expressing the truth of the atonement. It is, in my view, just one metaphor that helps us think about our salvation. But if we think incarnation, to be complete it must be real, and, well, complete. Becoming human and then not facing death would be to become something other than human; rather, it would be a contradiction. So Jesus became complete as the means of our salvation by living and dying as we do.

As difficult as it is sometimes to keep this in focus, salvation requires both the glory and the suffering. And when we are called to suffer, or even given the gift both of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him (Philippians 1:29).

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that could involve more than some mild annoyances.

Quick Thought: Stewardship

Quick Thought: Stewardship

Preachers and teachers, myself included, frequently talk about how all that you own belongs to God, but most commonly it is in the context of getting more money for a particular church or ministry. Having led a non-profit ministry, I understand the pressures here.

So: What if we talked about stewardship not less often, but more often, but did so in other contexts, such as:

  • Using and investing your money wisely so that you can carry out God’s mission to your family
  • The needs of other ministries
  • Concern that the way we produce wealth is consistent with being followers of Jesus
  • The realization that this planet and this universe belong to God just as we do
  • Care for those outside our church or ministry
  • Concern for the needs of someone else’s ministry, one that isn’t involved in paying my salary or increasing my prestige.

Just some thoughts. I believe everything belongs to God and we should use what we have and who we are as God guides. But that is a 365/24/7 topic, not in the nature of a fund drive.

A Good Book Review – Running My Race

A Good Book Review – Running My Race

A good book review is not one that says nice things about the book, although nice is nice, so to speak. I occasionally read a positive review that makes me wonder whether the reviewer read the book. There are likewise negative reviews that make one wonder. As a publisher, I must take all these in stride.

A really good review, however, is one that shows the reader read the book and also got from it something the author and publisher had hoped to get across.

Thus a review of Running My Race (David Alan Black) on The Tired Blog. I was feeling fairly tired today, and then I read this review. It really cheered me up. If I can publish a few books each year that make readers uncomfortable, then I’m doing my job.

Of course, as publisher I’d also like to note that Running My Race is a good book! 🙂


Ignoring the Biblical Teaching about Greed

Ignoring the Biblical Teaching about Greed

Credit: Openclipart.org

On a variety of subjects I regularly hear about how people ignore the plain teaching of scripture. I’d like to take away the phrases “the Bible clearly teaches” and “the plain teaching of scripture” from conservatives, while taking “we don’t take that literally” away from liberals. Then maybe we could get around to discussing the nuances and appropriate social contexts for some biblical materials.

But one thing that I hear about much more rarely is the sin of greed, surely one of the things Jesus talked about very frequently in a number of different ways. I’d like to nominate “committing all that I possess to God” as a pretty clear teaching of Jesus.

Nobody is really saying “greed is good” using the word. Instead, we justify greedy actions by ourselves and others. I’d be very shocked to learn that more than a couple of percent of the possessions of the Christians in the United States was committed to God (or the church), and of what’s committed to the church, a significant amount is used in a self-centered manner.

Perhaps this would be an important topic on which to make a new commitment as we observe commercialism and greed used as a way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head.

That was all launched as I was looking back through Christmas stories from my fiction blop (The Jevlir Caravansary), and found How Scrooge Got It All Wrong.

You see, what Scrooge really needed was some good, modern business advice!