@ChicagoRabbi on Responses to Bad Things Happening to Good People

I’m always interested in answers to the question of why bad things happen to good people, though a pastor I know always says this is the wrong question. He says a better question would be why good things ever happen to anybody! Somebody else recently pointed out to me that in Christian theology there are no good people. Not precisely so, I say, and one might also say then that there really are not bad people either.

But more (many more) people are asking why bad things happen to good people, so we’ll go with that. Rabbi Evan Moffic provides two biblical responses and one addition of his own in his post The Hardest Question We Ask of God. I like the simplicity of the response, and it’s a good summary. I suggest you read that post before you read the rest of this one. (And while you’re there, get his free ebook Judaism Demystified. It’s just 32 pages and it covers the most common questions I hear about Jews and Judaism.)

For any who are wondering, the whole Deuteronomic history, and especially Samuel-Kings exemplifies the first response, while Job (and Ecclesiastes, in its own way) exemplifies the second. In Christian theology, Rabbi Moffic’s third option might be seen in some applications of process theology (see Bruce Epperly’s Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God—I can’t resist a commercial!).

I’d like to add two notes, one on Christian theology and one as a personal response.

For many Christians, the response to bad things happening to good people is the devil. The devil does the evil things. This blurs the distinction between the first and second answer, in that while bad things come as consequences of someone’s action, it is not God’s action that is in question, thus the mystery remains of where, when, and why God permits such things. This tends to result in a great deal of misreading of the book of Job by Christians. Satan (hasatan-the adversary/accuser) is not here an independent entity as in much Christian theology. He has access to the court in heaven, and acts in concert with God, at least. I don’t find that the idea that the devil caused something helps very much, but some do.

My personal observation relates to the death of Jody’s and my son James, who died of cancer at age 17. Jody and I find comfort in different explanations, but I think both are explanations that would fall under Rabbi Moffic’s second point. For Jody, God is in control, but the why is a mystery. She believes that she sees God bringing good out of bad, but she doesn’t expect to understand this side of heaven. I, on the other hand, tend to see God involved in less detail. God is the one who ordained certain physical processes, and when the causes come together, cancer results and often kills. James died not because of some specific will of God that he die, but rather that nature functioned as God ordained. God and the people who knew and loved James bring good out of what happened to the extent we can. Feed in a bit of Rabbi Moffic’s point 3 there as well!

What’s interesting to me is that Jody and I have taught together in churches a number of times during James’s illness and since his death. One might think that having two people explain this so differently to the same audience would just be confusing, but that isn’t the case. Some people resonate with one explanation, and some with the other. The critical thing is that people find a way to live with grief and loss.

Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8

I commented earlier on the difficult choices involved in translating an Old Testament reference that does not match the Old Testament passage in your own translation.

Here’s an example from the NIV1984. First, Psalm 8:4-6 –

what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands,
you put everything under his feet.

Now look at this as translated in Hebrews 2:6-8 –

“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet.”

The key phrase here is “a little lower than the angels.” The usage of this line in Hebrews will reflect an alternate translation of the Greek (LXX), “for a little while lower.” The translation is, I believe, accommodated to the phraseology in the Old Testament. The NASB is pretty open about simply translated the text in front of the committee, and leaving it to commentators to deal with the difference in the text and translation.

I find this interesting, though not a major issue. It is valuable, however, to understand the approach taken by your translation. I am much more concerned with the attempt by the NIV to “fix” problems through questionable translations, such as the sudden introduction of an unjustified pluperfect at Genesis 2:19, a rendering that survived from the 1984 to the 2011 NIV.

Through Sacrifice, Not Domination

Author Chris Surber shared some good material in his column for the Suffolk News-Herald today. It’s unfortunate that Chris can’t be at our Hangout this Tuesday. I’m going to be his replacement, and I don’t think I have quite these words:

If the King of Kings came into this world to die on a cross and we are His followers, what makes us think our interaction with the world should be any less sacrificial? We are servants, not masters. Our war is fought through sacrifice, not domination.

Read it all!

Change to Election Response Hangout – Playing Substitute

Due to a schedule conflict for Chris Surber, I will be substituting in the discussion on the aftermath of the election. Host will still be Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. and Joel Watts will still be a guest. I’m not sure I have that much to say about the election, but it was a bit late to get another guest, so here goes.

Link: Using SBL NT on Bible Gateway and NA28 on from Android

I give the fix for using both of these on my tech blog. I like to be able to access them from anywhere.

A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8

A couple of days ago I discussed gender-neutral language in a post dealing with both inerrancy and Bible translation issues. Today, as I was doing some reading about Hebrews, I encountered a vigorous comment against such language in a passage in Hebrews. The passage in question is Hebrews 2:6-8, and it quotes from Psalm 8:4-6. The NIV translates the first anthrwpos as “mankind” and then huios anthrwpou as “a son of man.” They then continue with a series of plural pronouns in the explanation.

In his The New American Commentary: Hebrews, David L. Allen responds to this translation with some vigor. (Note that he is responding to the TNIV, and relying on the text of the 1984 NIV, but the text of the 2011 NIV has in it every difficulty he references in his discussion. I really can’t get the flavor of his arguments without quoting more than I’m going to quote in a blog, but he starts with two major issues. The first is that by obscuring the anthrwpos/’adam reference with a plural (TNIV uses “mortals” while NIV2011 uses “mankind”) one loses the sense of the unity of the human race through descent from Adam. Secondly, by using plural references in succeeding texts, one makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to connect this to “son of man” as a Messianic title for Jesus. Whether this was the intent of Psalm 8 in its original context, it appears to be an intent of the author of Hebrews.

Of these he says:

Third, to change the word or phrase to a more “gender neutral” expression, especially in light of the other two problems above, is simply an exercise in linguistic political correctness. (p. 240, Nook edition)

The issues here are somewhat more complex than any case I was referencing in my earlier post. When you have someone address a congregation that includes both men and women using adelphoi, the issue is more one of referent. In this case, we need to ask a couple of questions:

1) In what way was the author reading the passage? In other words, how would he have understood it in then making his argument? It seems courteous, in a sense, to render a quotation in the same way as the person quoting it intended. This is by no means uncontroversial. If an author quotes the LXX, as is done here, but the Bible translation in question translates its Old Testament from the Hebrew, what should be done? There are cases in which a translation will accommodate their own rendering of the OT verse to the translation as they have it in their OT, whether or not that fits the author. On the other hand, to have the author of Hebrews quote Psalm 8:4-6, and then have the rendering there differ from what a reader will find when he or she turns to the Old Testament in that very same Bible edition can (and will) raise questions. So it is a case of decisions, decisions, and no matter what you do, there will be disagreement.

2) What will your readers miss when they read your rendering? In this case we have two choices. We might leave out some understanding of the unity of humanity and the connection between a singular son of man and Jesus. On the other hand, for some readers, we might be leaving out the sense that this is humanity and not just some particular man. I know of nothing that would cover all options except for an explanatory note, and most of us are likely aware of how many people read explanatory notes.

I don’t consider this a clear case of a change of language requiring a change of translation. The word anthrwpos, as used here, is covering a different semantic range, and the translator needs to take that into account. The danger into which the NIV2011 and the TNIV have both slipped here is that they undercut the author’s presentation by using a different translation of the passage he’s building on. He chose the LXX of his time. Perhaps we should honor the idea of his choosing a translation by translating that translation in a way that matches his use.

What do you think?

CHWRIS or CHARITI in Hebrews 2:9

I chose to do some reading from Hebrews this morning, but instead of using my NA27 or my UBSIV text, I went to Bible Gateway and read from the SBL text. There I encountered (again) the reading chwris rather than chariti. (I checked out NA28 online and I see it still reads chariti.

I tend to lean just a bit toward internal evidence over external in textual issues. The reason for this is that I suspect that most variations in the text likely occurred early in the transmission history, where we by nature will have the least evidence for them. In this case, however, I would have to say that one can argue the internal evidence either way. Which text is more difficult? It depends on how you read it. Using chariti seems almost superfluous to the conversation. Some of the explanations for chwris as a marginal gloss seem pretty reasonable. Either reading could cause someone to go for the other. Either can be explained as fitting the text.

At this point, I think the Nestle-Aland text has it right. The overwhelming external evidence would need to be countered by much stronger internal arguments to convince me that chwris was original.

I took a quick glance through a few translations that are here within arm’s reach, and found none that accept chwris as their primary text. The NRSV and the REB both mention chwris as an alternative in a footnote.

What do you think?

Some Thoughts on the Christ of Faith after Reading Hebrews

As most of my readers know, I’ve been working on revising my study guide to Hebrews. At least I keep mentioning it. I’m only about two years overdue on the project. When one deadline or another must be missed I tend to miss mine and work on other people’s stuff.

So today I was reading in Hebrews, especially the first four verses, and I got to thinking about the distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith.” There are various words used to make the distinction, and it is not a distinction that is uncontroversial. On the one hand there are those who don’t think the Jesus of history is really accessible in a meaningful way, so if we, as Christians, are going to discuss Jesus at all, it will be as the Christ of faith. There are others who think that the Jesus of history is so well established that there is no need of any distinction at all. There are, of course, many variations on these views.

I am not one to deny the importance of history, but at the same time I doubt our ability to access it in any absolute fashion. If one studies history, I believe one studies probability, so I would describe the Jesus of history not as a necessarily accurate portrayal of who Jesus was, but rather Jesus as he can be accessed by purely historical methodology. Just how accurate you believe that picture is will depend on how you evaluate the documents we have, not to mention the methodology we use. But for me the Jesus who can be established historically, while important, is not critical in any sort of detail.

There is, for me, definitely a “Christ of faith.” That is the Jesus in whom I placed my own faith as a nine year old at a church in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. I made that confession when I knew little of a Jesus of history or a Christ of faith. I proceeded to encounter Christ personally through washing one another’s feet and through participating in the act of communion. The person whose feet I washed had walked for three days over muddy trails to be at that place at that time. He was laughing the entire time I washed his feet and then he washed mine. It was a friendly laugh. In it, I encountered a Jesus who definitely transcended history. He is one reason why I cannot conceive of an amount of historical reasoning that would actually change my faith at the core. The details of the stuff I believe might change, and indeed they have over the years. But at the core, that is my Christ of faith.

As I read from Hebrews it occurred to me that while the author of Hebrews builds on history, the Christ he preaches could never be established by historical means. We might make factual statements of all that can be construed as an historical claim, and we would have an extraordinary person by biblical standards (assuming Hebrew scriptures at that point), but that person would not be God, would not be exalted, and would not be the foundation of our faith. All of that is founded on a person, and have no doubt that I believe fully that Jesus came in the flesh, i.e. that God has walked among us and has experienced what we must experience and died. But even a person rising from the dead does not make that person God. There is no set of criteria which a historian could use to say, “This person is God because they meet the criteria.”

Rather, that is a matter of faith. I don’t believe it merely because I have the witness of the New Testament writers, or their witness to witnesses, as is expressed in the early verses of Hebrews 2. Rather, I can believe Hebrews 2 because of what happened when I was nine years old. That experience matches mine, and the two together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, become my faith.

I think it is very easy to change one’s views about history. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change that experience, even if one is distant from it for a time, as I was.

(Though I formed my view of faith before I read these books, they do elucidate my views, and are both by Edward W. H. Vick: History and Christian Faith, Philosophy for Believers.)


Discussion on Grief During the Holidays

Last night Bob LaRochelle hosted a discussion with my wife (and author) Jody Neufeld and author Ron Higdon. This was a Google Hangout on Air and the video is now available. This is unedited with no titles as yet. I think there were many valuable points made in the discussion.

What About the Election?

I’m both unsurprised and unconcerned. Why do I say that when I urged people to vote? I believe in participation. I believe in doing our best with the political system we have available to us. I don’t believe in getting worried about it. In addition, by following good polling data, and avoiding partisan inflation of the favorable (and deflation of unfavorable) results I was fairly certain of most results. While people complain about the accuracy of polling, there are less surprises than it seems. We just emphasize those cases where there was an upset. “Person Expected Wins Race” is a boring headline. “Upset in Election” is much more exciting and memorable.

Does it make a difference? Yes it does. For example, the change in the composition of the senate no doubt alters the landscape for judicial appointments, potentially including ones for the supreme court over the next two years. I think there will be people who stayed home who would have liked a different reality. The question is whether they will recognize the source of the hardships encountered by their causes.

Energion author Bob Cornwall responded in a post titled The Election is Over — God Still Reigns. Just so!

We’re going to have a response from three more Energion authors. Click here for the event information on Google Hangouts. I expect a lively discussion considering the participants.

In case you want to come back here to watch, I’m embedding the YouTube.