Deceiving without Lying

Deceiving without Lying

I got this letter in the mail.

 

If you look at the reply envelope, you’ll see that there is no identification of the company that is sending this e-mail out. Look to the right, where I’ve let a bit of the outer envelope show. It shows a quite correct statement of penalties for obstructing mail delivery. It’s not particularly relevant, but whatever. At the end, in smaller print, we note that this is not from the government..

At the bottom of the pink sheet, we see a note that this is not “affiliated with or endorsed by any government of Medicare program.” Another statement that is likely quite true.

With the “NATIONAL RESPONSE CENTER SENIOR BENEFITS DEPT.” the intention is to keep the recipient from thinking of this as a ad for life insurance, which it is, and to suggest that they are being informed of benefits already earned (Medicare, Social Security), which they are not.

I wouldn’t post this normally, but I did for two reasons:

  1. This is aimed at the elderly, and there are many actual benefits available. There are many organizations and government agencies that do work to provide information about actual benefits. Because of that, someone else can slip in deceptively and imply that they are such a group, while making sure that they don’t actual tell any lies and have all the disclaimers available.
  2. Most of my readers will find this particular mailing trivially easy to analyze and dismiss. In the modern world, you are assailed much more commonly by e-mail, something many of you are much less skilled at evaluating. You need to apply the same sort of logic. How does a reputable company go about introducing you to its services? Does the e-mail you’re looking at look like and function like that sort of introduction? If you look carefully at the e-mails you receive that are legitimate, especially those from businesses with which you have a relationship, you will more likely recognize when someone is playing around.

It’s possible for people to spoof the sender of an email. That means they use a name or an e-mail address that is not theirs. It is much more difficult, but nowhere near impossible to place false data in the actual record of how the e-mail was transmitted. I have nonetheless had friends receive e-mails that purported to be from me. I got them to forward the e-mail to me and I was able to check that it was indeed not sent from the appropriate server, and just my name was faked (not even the e-mail address in a couple of recent cases).

Just like someone could type my name on a piece of paper and forge my signature, so they can fake that information on an e-mail. Or they can fake yours. They can do this without hacking your account. Your information is easy to access.

They could, for example, extract my address from the picture above, but that is ubiquitous on the web. I blacked out my zip code, but anyone who wants it already has it. My point here is don’t assume that simply showing the right return information makes it certain the e-mail is correct. If you have any doubt—and please take enough time that you’d notice—then confirm with the sender before following any links or opening any attachments. A huge percentage of the fraud problems on the internet would be abated considerably by this.

Grace and the Book of Hebrews

Grace and the Book of Hebrews

In my experience, Hebrews has provided a wealth of texts for sermons that call for works and human effort. Pride of place, perhaps, should be held by the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, for which one of the central texts is Hebrews 6:1. No matter how many times Wesley affirmed Christian perfection as a gift of grace, he was unable to prevent this becoming a basis for performance based salvation, judgment, and self-righteousness. (While I believe in sanctification, and will mention it below, I don’t accept the idea of perfection in this life.)

Hebrews 6:4-6 follows, which is often treated as teaching that if we commit some particular sin or other, we will lose our salvation for doing so. I’ve written about this recently, and I disagree, but I’ve heard it preached.

Then there’s Hebrews 10:26-31, starting with the warning against continuing in sin and ending with what a terrifying thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God.

Or Hebrews 11, so often preached as a litany of great accomplishments and presented against the lack of accomplishments in the congregation. We must, of course, become faithful like these heroes of ancient times and hold up our end of the deal. After all, God needs us and demands our service.

Hebrews 12 starts with the clouds of witnesses, which I’ve heard preached as the “encouragement” of having all these wonderful people watching you from heaven, so you had better not mess up. Don’t want all these holy people watching you mess up, do you?

Of course, you aim to accomplish all of this in fear of the God who is a devouring fire (12:29).

James may be seen as an epistle of works (not an accurate portrayal, in my view, but Hebrews may well have been the source of more sermons on performance righteousness.

But is this approach justified by the text of the letter itself? I don’t think so.

Let me make a couple of assertions that I’m not really going to justify. Knowing that I believe these may help you understand the rest of what I’m saying. The first is that there was never a plan for salvation presented in scripture that did not have as its goal the creation of a holy people. From the invitation to the first couple to walk in the garden with God, to the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, to Jesus asking disciples to follow him, to Paul inviting everyone to put their faith in Jesus, the anointed one, all the plans are part of one plan aiming at that point. The second is that grace is one of the, of not the, most difficult things to accept, because if grace is true, we are not in control. We humans like to be in control.

Hebrews is a book about God making a holy people, and it’s a book about how none of us are in control.

Hebrews starts with the description of God’s gracious gift, himself, in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-4 lays out this presentation. The one who is sent is sufficient to the task. As we move through the book, we see Jesus presented as one of us, tested as we are, and sharing in our experience. I have been asked whether I see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement. If this is a question of whether Jesus died for us and for our sins, then the answer is surely “yes.” But if we mean “penal substitutionary atonement,” as in Jesus taking our punishment in a judical context, I think the answer is “no.”

In Hebrews, Jesus is presented as becoming one of us. The necessary elements of the sacrifice is that it must be perfect, i.e., fully connected to God, and also fully ours. Then the form of “dying for” is incorporation. We are in Christ who is our king, our parent, and our priest, and we are incorporated in his death. He dies and we die “in him.” It is not a judicial substitution, but rather that the one dies for the nation (John 11:50) as one of the nation, indeed, as the king. The key here is that we become incorporated into that kingdom, that community, and are thus buried in his death and raised into his life (Romans 6). I think Hebrews is closely aligned with this Pauline theological presentation. Everything we are called to accomplish in the book is accomplished in Christ. That’s why Christ is presented first in the book and his superiority is established. (Refer again back to my post on Hebrews 6:4-6 for some backup for this idea.)

So when we are called to perfection, we are called to be carried on to perfection. This is not the perfection of a person who lives a perfect life, and certainly not something we accomplish on our own. That’s clear through the arguments on why Jesus is the perfect high priest. In order to make that argument, one must establish that we are not capable of this on our own. The perfection to which we are called and to which we are carried is not ours, but the perfection of Jesus (Hebrews 5:9). He, Christ, is the source of salvation.

Of course it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but we can instead be in the hands of the living God through the high priest who is sympathetic to our weaknesses. Of course, there is no more sacrifice for sin. If Jesus has opened a “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:19-20), then the only options are to go through it or not. If we are offered complete access to God and incorporation into his redemption and sanctification, what other option is needed? What other option could possible work?

Then there’s Hebrews 11, which I think provides the key to the view of the message of Hebrews I’m presenting here. Contrary to those who preach Hebrews 11 as a triumph of the saints, it is, in fact, a triumph of grace in action. We err if we read this without adequate consideration of the stories from the Hebrew scriptures of these great heroes. Moses doesn’t fear the wrath of the king in Hebrews 11, but he flees in terror in Exodus. Sarah is rewarded for faith, but in Genesis she laughs. These people were not those who tried to obtain perfection, but those who were carried on to perfection. In 11:40 we are told that God’s plan was that they should attain perfection “with us.”

That perfection, I believe is found in Jesus, and only in Jesus.

These are the witnesses of Hebrews 12. We are being watched as we are carried on by those who have been carried before us. The question is truly simply whether we will truly be carried on. We can miss this both by thinking that we are going to do it ourselves, or by missing that it needs to be done at all. I’ve used the metaphor of a train for the theme of Hebrews. Get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination. You can equally fail by sitting at the train station by never getting on the train, or if you set out to run alongside the train on your own power. Neither one will work. But if you get on the train you’ll move forward. (As with all metaphors, this one has its weaknesses!)

In this view of grace, it is not put against faith. It is not faith vs. works, as though there were two approaches and one was better. It’s not a balance between faith and works. No amount of running, even combined with train-riding attempts, is adequate. But sitting in the station is also not a real option.

What I think Hebrews makes clear is that the grace is available. Jesus opens the way to God. This is grace in action. But rather than being the enemy of true works, works of faith, grace is what opens the door and makes any works, any holiness, and any approach to God possible. Sanctification occurs only on the train, i.e., only when we are being carried on toward perfection in Jesus, our brother, our sacrifice, our high priest, and our king.

That’s why I see grace as the critical key to the entire book of Hebrews, but I also see the book as providing a critical view of grace, a grace that is active, even more, that is God’s action taken in our lives.

In this post I have not provided nearly enough scripture and logic to back this up fully. This is just an introduction. My recommendation is that you consider these ideas while reading the entire book to see what you find.

(Feature image credit: Openclipart.org.)

When Is a Gift Spiritual?

When Is a Gift Spiritual?

Dave Black writes about spiritual gifts and natural abilities. (Link on jesusparadigm.com, to make a permanent link available.) I like what he said. I want to add a note. You can find more of my comments on 1 Corinthians 12-14 under the 1 Corinthians tag on this site.

The problem that I see commonly with our reading of 1 Corinthians 12 especially is that we assume that Paul is setting out to explain spiritual gifts. I don’t think that’s what he’s up to. Rather, he is using the variety of spiritual gifts as a means to talk about Christian unity, and as a way to teach discernment of all of our activities.

Everything is a gift of God. There are gifts that God places in the body of believers for the purpose of carrying out ministry. Whether these gifts are “spiritual” or not is not a function of whether they are received from God or not. All gifts come from God. The issue is under whose authority we place these gifts. If you take a look especially at 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, and then focus on 11, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit,” you will start to get the picture, I think. This isn’t a list of “approved” spiritual gifts, and it isn’t a question of what gifts come from God and what gifts occur naturally. Nature itself belongs to God. The natural is divine by gift of its creator.

Acting under one Spirit, however, is an excellent test. The gift, whether designated spiritual or not, that is used to tear down rather than to build up is distinctly unspiritual in this sense.

Another error we often make is to extract 1 Corinthians 13 from the passage of 12-14. (Of course, the structure of the entire book is important as well.) I recently read an article, and I now can’t recall the source, that mentioned this wasn’t a wedding passage, and indeed it isn’t. Nontheless I will say it’s fine at weddings, because scripture uses the marital relationship as a metaphor to tell us about the divine relationship and also about the body of Christ. But here it is Paul’s principles for the use of God’s gifts in a spiritual way. He in turn makes those principles explicit in detailed action in 1 Corinthians 14.

We shouldn’t be complacent in reading 1 Corinthians 14. We sometimes read it as a corrective to raucous or disorganized worship services, but the worst problem we have is that we don’t have the problems that the Corinthian church had in worship. We don’t have everyone showing up with each having “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (14:26, NIV). We each show up only with a backside to plant in a pew.

We need first to put our gifts into God’s hands for service, and then we can start talking about how to best use them in an edifying, i.e. building, worship service.

These three chapters are powerful, and I think incredibly relevant to the church today. We should have problems like the Corinthian church!

 

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Why I Don’t Control My Wife

Shortly after Jody and I married, I was approached by a member of our church. He had a demand. “You need to control your wife,” he said. “She says [fill in theological thing here] which is wrong! You need to straighten her out.”

I was astonished for a moment, but went with my gut. “I’d suggest you ask her about that idea,” I said. “She’s capable of answering for herself.”

I noted that my response was from the gut, but then I started to second-guess myself. On the one hand I certainly was confident Jody could take care of herself and answer whatever questions might be asked. On the other, I didn’t want it to appear that I was unwilling to defend her. So we had a discussion and concluded that we would both use that same answer when someone asked us to explain or justify the other. “Henry/Jody is capable of answering for him/herself.” It’s worked fine for us. We’d rather have it appear that we are refusing to defend one another than that one of us considers the other incompetent.

The first thing one might imagine was that this person was a male chauvinist who thought men should keep their wives in line. There was likely some of that involved. I doubt that he would have gone to Jody if he had agreed with her and asked her to keep me in line. But that wasn’t the only thing in play. There was, of course, the matter of theology, and also the matter of credentials. People disagree about theology all the time. I’m not concerned with the disagreement. I am concerned with the credentials.

The particular chauvinism involved was the assumption that I would automatically know more about any particular theological issue that Jody would. Some of that, as I said, was likely simply because she’s a woman and I’m a man. This sort of thing can vary from very subtle to quite blatant, as in this case. In regard to that I’ll simply repeat what I’ve said before. I believe that everyone should act and serve according to their gifts. Who should do something or take some office is not determined by anything other than what gifts they have for that activity and how they’ve developed those gifts.

For me this is a simple matter of recognizing each person as a person, and not as a category or a set of categories. I despise the term stupid, but I also despise the term smart as applied to a person. I think those words can be quite valid as applied to a specific idea. “Differently gifted” is often regarded as politically correct speech. I regard it as an accurate way of looking at people.

If I regard someone as stupid, I am absolved of further concern with that person in other ways. I have now dismissed the person. They might have many things they can do, yet because I have applied this general label, I am done with that person. On the other hand, if I label someone as smart, I will then regard them as more valuable in many and various positions, and again I absolve myself of looking at specific gifts. It’s quite easy, however, to assign a smart person to a position for which they are not smart.

I know that in reality it is rarely that extreme. People use a mix of seeing the specific gifts a person has and their overall label. Nonetheless I consider this type of thinking dangerous. It is counterproductive from a strictly business point of view. As a Christian I object to categorizing people in these ways, because I believe it violates the golden rule.

I can illustrate how this works with me and my wife. Let’s start with a question: Who is more important to our business, Energion Publications. I’m the person with training in theology and biblical studies. I do cover design and book layout. I’m the one who figures out which of the various standards and punctuation rules we’ll follow. I’ve written more words than she has. I keep the accounts. Without me, Energion Publications would not exist.

And then there’s the other side. Jody is the one who sets up the production schedule for a book. She’s the one who can organize our presence at a conference and create a display table. She’s the one who sees details in the appearance of a manuscript. She is best suited to recruit and work with certain authors, especially those who write devotionally. She’s the best salesman for a substantial selection of our products. She’s the one who gets me talking to the ones that I need to talk to.

I could list many more items for each of us. Can I say the same thing about Jody—without her Energion Publications would not exist? Absolutely. Even the more academic books which she would not consider herself qualified to edit would not be completed without her efforts.

It would be easy to consider my efforts as more important, just because I’m me, and I like to be important! I could obviously hire someone else to do all these other things. But if I’m honest, I know that there are people with the skills and gifts that I use as well. We are both essential!

So here’s the stupid-smart scale: Which of us is smarter?

That’s a question that just doesn’t work well. The fact is that we each have important, even critical gifts. There is no value in trying to make one better than the other. They are different. They are needed.

Now let’s think about the church. Is a person with gifts of administration less critical than one with pastoral gifts? (Note that I regard almost every modern job description for a pastor as not only unscriptural, as in not even conceived of in scripture, but also unholy.) What about gifts of encouragement or helping others versus gifts of teaching? What are more important? Yet the person who helps, organizes, keeps the books, and so forth is considered less of a leader than the person who preaches or teaches. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you this: Can you find a single church sign that identifies the janitor or even the church administrator? No! It identifies the pastor.

As an aside, I think there is a much better case for hiring a professional church administrator than there is for hiring someone to preach or teach in the local church, and certainly then there is to hire someone professionally to visit people in the hospital. Those duties can easily be divided among members of the congregation according to their gifts.

And thus I come back to my wife and I and theological questions. Why would someone assume that I would straighten out my wife, though she wouldn’t straighten me out? Ignoring basic sexism, which I think does apply, we need to look at training, experience, and credentials.

Many people (perhaps most) that we encounter would present theological questions to me and not to Jody. I have trained to be a teacher. I have a BA degree majoring in Biblical Languages and an MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages. I have taught for years. I have written 13 books, which is considered an accomplishment, though none of them is particularly popular. I have been invited to preach many times and in many places. I am expected to be the theologian and to have an answer. Of course, there are many areas in which I have expertise and the ability to answer those questions.

Jody, on the other hand, does not have a degree. What she does have is one of those old-fashioned three year nursing programs, years of experience in a variety of fields as a registered nurse, experience as a hospice nurse and then director of education for a hospice organization. Further, she has carried on a regular devotional live for decades. She has been invited to teach and to preach, and I can testify she is very good at it. She has written several books as well, at least one of which is more popular than any of mine!

There are some questions you should ask me, but there are many other questions you should ask her. If you ask me, I’m likely going to give you an answer I got from her. If you want someone to visit you in the hospital, she’s the one. My degree, earned via seminary courses (though granted by the graduate school) didn’t teach me how to do that. I have never encountered someone who was sick or facing death who wanted my help translating a verse from Greek or Hebrew, or expounding on ancient manuscripts.

Now how do you rate this sort of thing on a scale. Is Jody smarter than I am or am I smarter than she is? I have no idea, nor do I care. In fact, I don’t think there’s any good way to make that determination. We are each gifted in our own way. We each have a call from God to serve one another and those God places before us. We’re very different, but that makes our teamwork more valuable.

In order to know what we can each do, you have to learn to know us as individuals. An intelligence test won’t do it. I have never been formally tested, but I know that I usually rate pretty well on the type of questions involved, yet I can forget where my local Walmart is located. Am I stupid or smart? Our degrees or lack of them will not do it. I have an MA degree, but I have trouble planning a route around town that doesn’t involve wasted miles. Am I stupid or smart? Jody can’t translate a Greek text for you, but she can help you through the inevitable questions you’ll have dealing with end of life issues. Is she stupid or smart?

There’s the saying that there are no stupid questions. I disagree. I’ve just asked a stupid question several times. Is she/am I stupid or smart? It’s a completely useless question that produces nothing of value, and often helps people excuse themselves from actually looking at the person.

This also goes back to the male/female thing. The assumption that because someone is a man or a woman one can safely make (derived) assumptions about their capabilities is based on a similar mental laziness. I can’t be bothered to determine what this woman or that man is capable of, so I’m just going to assign the general category to them. Whether you’re making the assumption based on a category of credentials, on race, on nationality, or on gender, It all goes back to an unwillingness to get to know someone as a person.

Someone’s going to point out to me that men and women are different. It may shock you to know that I was already aware of that. But the difference doesn’t matter if you’re willing to learn to know the individual man or woman. If you know that person’s gifts, the abilities they share with their gender or other category will also be obvious.

I don’t keep my wife in line. She doesn’t keep me in line. We allow each other to answer our own questions for the simple reason that we can, and that we respect one another and our gifts. Neither gender nor credentials matter.

Free Speech: When the Solution is Worse than the Problem

Free Speech: When the Solution is Worse than the Problem

Those who read my postings regularly, if there are any such, should know by now that I despise the algorithm Facebook uses to arrange my feed. Even the one that claims to be in date order isn’t. There is simply no Facebook reading option that I like.

In addition, I agree with those who say that the algorithm tends to promote the more sensational and less truthful. This isn’t a problem of left or right. I see complete garbage from both sides in my feed. It’s annoying. It’s disturbing to think how many friends I must have who actually share the sort of things I see, assuming Facebook uses my friends’ likes and shares as part of their algorithm.

But today I saw yet another headline about someone wanting to fix all of this by regulation. Bad idea! Very bad idea! This “solution” is much worse than any problem we have.

I find it disturbing that so many of my friends seem to like inaccurate or, when accurate, unhelpful news. I’d really like them to try to be more thoughtful and engage in constructive dialog with their opponents.

The very last thing I want is for the government to be somehow making the determination, or even shaping the way in which the determination is made regarding what I will see and what I will not see. What possible reason would I have for thinking the government would do a good job of that?

I really love the first amendment to the U. S. Constitution, because I believe that free speech in a free market of ideas is the best way to go. I have been accused of being against religion because I also believe that the government shouldn’t be determining or shaping religious speech. Thus I vigorously oppose the legislation just passed by the house here in Florida to put “In God We Trust” in public schools. I oppose this for the same reason. As a sideline, I should note that I see “In God We Trust” as much more the national lie than the national motto. We don’t trust in God, rely on God, or even defer to God. We just use God to try to enforce our own selfish desires. This is government mandated opinions. I don’t want teachers, who act as agents of the government, speaking to a captive audience, to be enforcing prayer. (For what it’s worth, I don’t find the relationship made in the story between the motto and gun control, except for the general uselessness.)

Whoever is in power seems to want to use government authority to try to make people think their way. Sometimes it’s blatant. Sometimes it’s subtle.

However stupid people get, it’s nothing to how stupid they can be when collected into political parties and put in charge of a government.

Jesus and Women, Quote from Dorothy Sayers

Jesus and Women, Quote from Dorothy Sayers

Check out @dianabutlerbass’s Tweet:

I have always loved Dorothy Sayers, and this makes me like her more. Guys, if you’re wondering what annoys the women around you, read the whole thread, and you’ll find a list.

Don’t do those things!

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

Repentance in Hebrews 6:4-6

When I talked about structure, I mentioned that I’d write a follow-up after my Wednesday night class. Here’s the rundown, though I plan to keep it brief. I’m indebted to David Alan Black for the basic note about the participles in this passage, and in a scholarly article I would need to cite a number of additional sources. The structure of the passage followed my own take on it in the context of Hebrews and made the argument easier. I include this discussion in my book To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide, which is currently under revision for a second edition. (The main problem with the current edition is that I created it with readings, exercises, and questions, along with several appendices with discussion. I’m putting some discussion in the lessons!)

There are a number of passages I referenced in class, but there are three passages before 6:4-6 that I see as key, and then one after. The reason is that the author of Hebrews signals new topics well ahead of the main discussion and then ties them in to later discussion.

So if you look at Hebrews 2:1, “drifting off course.” This is an early signal of what I think is the key theme of the book, one that is further developed in 6:4-6 especially. At this point, the author has presented Jesus as the true representation of God and is now ready to open up the door to the result. God has spoken in these last days through a Son, which sounds good, even exciting, but what does it mean?

Frequently Hebrews is read as a book with a message of works and perfectionism. In fact, as someone with a Wesleyan background, I’m used to starting there in my thinking. But the more I study the book, the less I think that is the correct reading. The warnings in Hebrews are not about human performance of good actions, but rather of total confidence in the one who has been presented here in chapter 1. Verses 1-4 present the Who, while the rest emphasizes that Jesus is greater than the angels. There will be more emphasis on precisely who Jesus is, but we have this pause in the first few verses of chapter 2 so we can get a preview of the theme.

Through the rest of chapter two and into chapter five, but especially in 4:12-16, we’ll develop the things that make Jesus ideal as our priest, even though we aren’t quite sure what such a priest will accomplish.

In 5:8-9 we get the second key connection, as we are told that Jesus learned obedience through suffering (and a rich passage that is, even though I’m just going to touch on it only briefly. Verse 9 tells us that he was perfected. It is this “perfection” that I think is the key object of Hebrews, the perfection of Jesus, not the perfection of any human being.

I see 5:11-14 as a bit of reverse psychology, challenging the readers/hearers with their dependence on milk just before he goes ahead and introduces some meat anyhow.

The third key passage is Hebrews 6:1, and “going on toward perfection.” It’s my understanding that United Methodist pastors are still asked this question on ordination, and I believe not a few have their fingers crossed when they answer. Figuratively speaking, of course! But though few translations do it, this can be taken as a passive, and thus be translated “carried on toward perfection” rather than “going on toward perfection.” I would go further and argue that the perfection that we are to go on toward is Jesus, and is only to be attained “in Christ” and not by us or as something possessed by us.

Having jumped from signpost to signpost, this leads to 6:4-6. I have noted previously that I don’t take this as a “once out always out” passage, but rather as a warning against rejecting the voice or urging of the Holy Spirit. Paying closer attention to structure and the participle tenses helped back that view up and expand it.

Here’s my translation with structure:

I have summarized the theme of Hebrews as “get on the right train and stay on it until you reach the destination.” The key is that if you have the best, the greatest, or even the only hope of rescue and you don’t take it, rescue escapes you. That’s why I have the temporal sense here. If you are rejecting the final sacrifice of Christ, according to the concepts developed in the preceding five chapters, what option is there? Jesus, the Christ is sacrificed once-for-all, and cannot be sacrificed again. If we continue to fail to accept the finality, we are crucifying him afresh.

But it’s even more simple than that. You can’t accept while you reject.

Does that make it too simple? Actually, I think it makes it a clear statement of precisely the point of Hebrews. You have two choices: This train or no train.

And that leads to the final passage I want to use, Hebrews 10:26-27. Here we have no sacrifice for sin after Jesus. It’s often used in sermons to threaten people with how seriously they should take New Testament commands. But that’s not the point at all. There is no more sacrifice because the sacrifice has been offered. If you don’t accept the sacrifice, there isn’t another one. You can’t redo it or substitute it.

The whole message centers on confidence in the grace that has opened this “new and living way” (10:20), in the perfection of our High Priest, and in the necessity of placing our full confidence in Him.

Let me add that I believe that the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1ff should be seen as those who are cheering us on because they have experienced the weaknesses and the failings that we have and know the grace of God and the final reward. It should not be used as a club as I have heard it preached, in the sense of: “Look at all these holy people who are watching you. Don’t screw up!”

(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)

 

Do Liberals and Conservatives Really Need Each Other?

Do Liberals and Conservatives Really Need Each Other?

Early in my college days I encountered a man who would have a substantial influence on my life. It started as he explained textual variants and alternate possible translations in Genesis 1 for 2nd year Hebrew. I’d taught myself that far, and hadn’t done badly figuring out the rules, but my knowledge was less than practical. That man was Dr. Alden Thompson, now professor emeritus at Walla Walla University, and author of several books, two of which I publish.

While showing me things that I had never seen before, and wasn’t sure I wanted to see, Alden displayed a gentleness and spiritual depth that had a profound impact on the way in which my theological understanding would develop. It is an approach he has modeled for decades and truly grown into even more as he moves forward.

Looking at the divisions in his beloved Seventh-day Adventist Church, Alden doesn’t want victory for liberals or conservatives or any of the many other variations one might find. What he wants is conversation and an appreciation of the gifts that all bring to the table.

Even though I don’t publish it, as we approach celebration of Consider Christianity Week, I wanted to call attention to Alden’s book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other. Alden is talking about faith and a church organization, but the principles he discusses apply broadly, most importantly, learning to listen to and value the diversity. He matches that with a willingness I often don’t find in either liberal or conservative circles: A willingness to recognize the fear that new ideas and change may bring and to honor the need of solid ground for some people.

While Beyond Common Ground is written very personally and is anchored therefore in its author’s community, it discusses issues I have seen trouble, divide, and sometimes destroy communities of various types. Consider reading this engaging and challenging book as you think about Christianity during Lent, and of course during Consider Christianity Week.

Here’s a short video interview with Alden:


How People Mess Up Interpretation

How People Mess Up Interpretation

No, this is not a post about the crazy ways people interpret the Bible. It’s about the way in which people make precision difficult in communication. Am I thinking about biblical interpretation? Of course I am. If you have to guess what I’m thinking about and I don’t give you a clue, “biblical interpretation” is a good bet.

When I teach Greek or Hebrew, and as I’ve mentioned, this is to people by ones and twos, not in seminary classes, I try to emphasize basic linguistics. How does language work in day to day usage. I can illustrate what I mean by people messing up interpretation using a one line rule I give my Greek or Hebrew students: People are lazy. This rule applies, for example, to the reason why sounds tend to drop out of common phrases. “Good day” becomes “g’day,” an expression that may be more commonly used in Australia. (I say this so that I can get in a bit of a pet peeve. Check this sort of stereotypical thing out if you can. In this case, I find “g’day” in an article titled Outrageous Aussie Stereotypes Debunked. Not promising!)

But my “people are lazy” rule has many problems (or exceptions, if you wish), which also illustrates one of the problems of language. People are diverse. What I think is easy to pronounce someone else may find next to impossible. I remember vividly trying to learn to pronounce a few Hungarian words while driving with my translator. She would pronounce the word and I would imitate. It always went downhill from there. In Hungarian actual vowel length, i.e. the length of time a vowel sound is sustained in speech, is phonemic (i.e., it impacts the meaning). In English, this is not the case. I was taught long and short vowels, but they were not sustained for different periods of time, but were actually different sounds. (That’s a very loose way to explain it! See? I mess up interpretation too by being lazy.) For me, properly judging the length to sustain a vowel sound was next to impossible. For her, it was second nature.

So another rule: Things you have become accustomed to doing will seem easy. To you.

People just don’t follow one set of rules. We may have learned in English class that a paragraph consists of a thesis sentence, followed by three explanatory sentences, and ended with a conclusion. How many paragraphs in this post look anything like that? I tend to paragraph by sound, and often set off a sentence that would either be a conclusion or the introduction of a new element by itself, simulating the pauses for emphasis I might use in public speaking.

Like this one.

When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors (J. Paul Grove at Walla Walla College for those who might know), required me to turn in three sermon outlines a week as part of a course in Hebrew prophets. I thought this was a horrible requirement, as I had no intention of becoming a preacher. I was going to be a biblical scholar. Bless Professor Grove! It turned out to be one of the better exercises of my educational process because it made me think of a connection between the data I was accumulating and the real world. It didn’t result in even one sermon outline that I would ever use in preaching, even though I have preached frequently. That’s because I vigorously eschew three point outlines and diligently work to violent rules of homiletics.

Which means that I’m human. I don’t always follow the rules.

I turn this now to structure, which I discussed a bit yesterday. Studying structure is good in interpreting scripture. Just don’t be too structured about it. I’ve been asked if I accept various outlines of Hebrews, such as Vanhoye’s. I guess it depends on what you mean by “accept.” I find a great deal to commend his work, but I don’t find that any structure is followed closely. I believe that in studying Hebrews you have to carefully track what the author has done, the ways in which he connects and interweaves his topics. He’s flexible; the interpreter must be flexible.

Just like getting stuck on one label when trying to communicate, getting stuck on a structural label can be harmful to your mental health. People rarely follow the rules completely. Most commentaries that I’ve read do provide caveats about their structural conclusions. You should provide more.

Flexibility is a key to sound interpretations, because people are flexible.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org)

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

So NOT the Logic of Hebrews!

A weakness of a great deal of Bible study is in the failure to truly see the details. In our normal conversations we have multiple contextual clues including shared history and knowledge. When reading scripture, we have to be more careful, because it is not addressed directly to us, and we often don’t share those clues. In Old Testament studies, people get used to the idea that the culture was very different. But the New Testament reflects a time and culture also different from our own, though less blatantly so. Thus we need to pay close attention.

That in turn leads to the problem with serious, detailed Bible study. When digging out details, it’s very easy to forget the broader structure. This is particularly critical when reading Hebrews because the author signals upcoming topics, sometimes more than once, then discusses them, sometimes discusses them again in another way, and then looks back at them. You won’t understand a topic in this book unless you are paying attention to the larger structure of the book.

On Wednesday night I’ll be discussing Hebrews 6:4-6 with my class at church. In this, I’ll draw lines from Hebrews 5:9 to 6:1 to 6:4-6 to 10:26-27, from each of those to other connections, all building toward an understanding of this difficult passage. I’ll post about it when the class is over. I don’t really have time to do it justice today.

What I want to emphasize is that studying the structure of the literary work one is studying is critical, and is more critical when it comes from a time and place that is not yours.