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Author: Henry Neufeld

Finished Romans Class

Finished Romans Class

Earlier this evening I finished my Wednesday night class on the book of Romans. For the study of Romans 16, I used a sermon by Dr. Fred Craddock off of YouTube. Here it is:

I have never found anything that is quite like this as a presentation on Romans 16. Dr. Fred Craddock was indeed an exceptional preacher.

In an unpredictable result, the class has chosen to continue immediately and they want me to begin a study of Leviticus. With the number of references I have made to Leviticus in teaching, this is not as surprising as one might think, yet I didn’t expect it.

It will be interesting to see what I can post here regarding the class.

Read my review of Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus, my primary study related to the book.

Evaluating Doctrines regarding the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology)

Evaluating Doctrines regarding the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology)

I have encountered a few questions lately regarding the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly the manifestation(s) and gifts of the Holy Spirit as they may be observed in a church setting. There is always a problem with evaluating theology based on the visible actions of God, because this gets confused with identifying God’s actions. This latter is difficult to accomplish.

My aim in this post is to point to the way in which I look at any Christian doctrine, using as examples the manifestation (note singular) and gifts of the Holy Spirit. By my use of those expressions I point you to 1 Corinthians 12-14, where those are used in verses 4 & 7 of chapter 12.

(I have a prior series on 1 Corinthians 12-14, which includes 1 Corinthians 12-14, 1 Corinthians 12-14 Greek Terms, 1 Corinthians 12, 1 Corinthians 13, and 1 Corinthians 14.)

What I frequently hear done is that one identifies what the gifts of the Spirit are by looking at the list in 1 Corinthians 12, sometimes combining this with lists in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4, and thus identifying whether a gift is “of God,” that is, has its source in God’s action, by whether it occurs in the list. Should one use a gift that is not in the list, that gift is seen as suspect.

I find that process suspect, because I do not believe that Paul is attempting to teach the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit here. Rather, Paul is teaching them about true spirituality, and is using the gifts as an illustration. I imagine that the Corinthians would have agreed with the list of spiritual gifts he gives, and thus he can use it to illustrate the real way to test.

He gives that real way in 12:3, which can be boiled down to the assertion that Jesus is Lord. That is the key assertion. How that works is detailed in verses 4-11, with 11 being the wrap-up. It is one Spirit, that acts in the church under the church’s one Lord.

We depart from this test at our peril in the church, and it is the test that Paul puts up front. He doesn’t say, “Check out whether the person is speaking in tongues,” or “Check out whether they can prophesy,” or even “Look at whether they have some gifts of administration.” Rather, he emphasizes that all of those come from one Lord.

I am not a theologian by profession, though many will point out that a Christian is always a theologian in a certain sense. Having the opportunity of reading and studying under some quite gifted theologians, however, I don’t want anyone to think I’m claiming to be one them.

I found this view repeatedly stated by one of the authors I publish, Edward W. H. Vick. To summarize his various statements, just one of which I will quote below, the way you determine if a doctrine is Christian is by asking whether it is centered in Jesus Christ. He makes this note in his book Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide, in From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully, and Creation: The Christian Doctrine.

I quote the latter here:

The essential Christian conviction is that God moved toward man and made his decisive revelation in Jesus Christ, that what is known of God is known in Jesus Christ, that in Jesus Christ we have the clue to the meaning of reality, not this or that part of reality only (although this as well), but to reality as such. This means that the Christian must attempt to see every aspect of reality in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. We emphasize: the starting‑point, the sine qua non of Christian theology is belief in Jesus Christ. Belief in Jesus Christ is evoked by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. That is given. Once present it is never questioned. The faith in Jesus Christ that is a result of God’s revealing activity in Him provides the theologian with the starting point. All Christian doctrine, works from this starting-point, A Christian doctrine of creation must start here. No scientific research or discovery can touch this basic religious conviction or its theological expression. It is a method of interpreting the world and an explanation of the very existence of the world. It is an explanation of the world that says basically that the world is dependent on a reality that may not be known by an examination of the world alone.

Edward W. H. Vick, Creation: The Christian Doctrine, (Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2013), 104-105.

You can have numbers everywhere and plenty of scriptures and calculations to back them up, but if the center of your eschatology is not Jesus, the Christ, it is not Christian. It may be partially, even mostly, based on scripture, but it will remain outside Christian doctrine. Similarly, you can know ever so much about creation, whatever your view on the details is, but if you do not find Christ in creation, your doctrine of creation is not a Christian doctrine.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can know ever so much about scripture, but if Christ is not at the center of your interpretation, it is not Christian. Note here that I do not mean that non-Christians cannot interpret scripture, nor that Christians should not do historical interpretation using sound, scientific methodologies. I’m speaking of the scriptural interpretation that nurtures and builds (edifies, to use the term from 1 Corinthians 14) our faith and our community.

I use this principle in two ways. First, as you have seen, I define (having learned from Dr. Vick), a doctrine as Christian based on whether it is centered in Jesus Christ. Multiple tie-downs to various scriptures, appeals to experience, or a variety of other options do not make a Christian doctrine.

Second, however, I use this to help me define the essentials. When looking at doctrinal disagreements, I ask how those disagreements impact the view that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3) and that Jesus is Lord. This is not a clean checklist, because not everything has an equal impact. I’m usually willing to trust the expressed intent of the person who holds the doctrine.

I believe it is important to know the difference between essentials and non-essentials in order to prevent ourselves from becoming narrow and judgmental. Romans 12-14 covers much of this ground, and it is often quoted out of context on both sides of the divide: the importance of right doctrine, and the importance of some flexibility and of letting the Lord lead.

This leads me to the way in which I evaluate either gifts attributed to the Spirit or manifestations attributed to the Spirit.

First, the manifestation of the Spirit comes in many ways, one of which is the availability of the gifts of the spirit. The spirit is also made manifest through the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). Most importantly, the gifts are made manifest directly in calling forth the confession that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Second, does the expression of any doctrine of the Spirit center on Jesus Christ, in other words, is the doctrine itself a specific expression of the broader statement that Jesus is Lord?

Third, as Paul expresses himself in the rest of 12 and then reinforces and expands in chapters 13 and 14, is the expression of the doctrine or the manifestation of the Spirit something that builds the body of Christ? (The term we’re used to in chapter 14 is “edify,” which is fine, provided you really hear it!)

The love chapter, 13, is often treated separately from 12 & 14, but Paul is here giving us a key to the way in which we identify gifts. For example, are people claiming superiority over others because of the gifts of the Spirit? That is not manifesting the love of Christ, nor is it building the body of Christ. It is therefore hardly an expression of the statement that Jesus is Lord.

Tomorrow (hopefully I will make time!), I will discuss the idea of manifestations a bit more, but this is going to be the foundation of everything. I think one of our human problems is equating “things that make us comfortable” with “things that build the body.” Those may not be the same thing.

So we’ll discuss!

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Tacky title, eh? I don’t apologize. I had fun constructing it.

The other day someone asked me whether there were any scriptures I liked to go to when I was having problems. I gave the answer immediately and then explained, but I’m going to do the opposite here. I’m going to explain and then tell you the most helpful passage of scripture for me when life varies from irritating to frightening.

Well, I lied. I’ll give you part of the answer. There aren’t any “nice” passages of scripture that I use to give me comfort. In fact, when people quote those at me, I get annoyed. I already know them. If they were going to help me, they would have already.

What good does it do me to be reminded that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Send some of those annoying animals to market and pass the money on to me!

What good does it do me to be reminded that God heals all my diseases when I have a headache and stuffy head and can’t concentrate on my work? Heal my disease, and do it now!

Besides, it’s likely I can give you sound exegetical arguments for why those passages don’t apply to my situation.

It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer, or God’s healing, or God’s provision. I can cite plenty of examples.

Counterexamples, too.

My father was healed in a manner I regard as miraculous. One day in 1971 he was told he would never work again, and would be dead in 10 years. Two weeks later, after he called for the elders of the church and they anointed him with oil and prayer, he was back at work, and was the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital, on call 24/7 for a year. He lived another 35+ years.

Then there was the time when a friend of his had a heart attack. Despite his prayers and his best efforts as a physician, he was unable to revive and stabilize the man. It was the longest and hardest he had ever worked on anyone. He didn’t want to give in. But the man still died.

A friend asked me to pray with him for $1500 to pay his mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. I did so gladly. The next day $1500 arrived in his mailbox.

My thoughts? Where is my rent money for my mobile home? I’m honestly not resentful that people have bigger houses. (I do sin through jealousy and resentment about other things, but I like my mobile home.) But I was having a hard time coming up with the rent at the same time as, apparently in answer to my prayer, my friend got his mortgage payment.

I was asked to go on a mission trip to do some teaching. I’d just gotten back from a month overseas, and had nothing with which to pay for a trip. I flippantly said, well, the Lord has to provide, because I’m tapped out, but I’ll go of God provides. Within the week the trip was paid for. As I was preparing to leave I found that I had no spending money. I figured I’d survive. God had, after all, provided the cost of the trip. A friend drove up in my driveway and said, “You’re going to need some spending money on your trip.” He handed me two $100 bills.

No, no negative “balance” story this time.

Sometimes I’m just whining and crying, but sometimes God doesn’t make it easy. God doesn’t intend to. What I never appreciate is a platitude I memorized a long time ago.

Yes, a passage of scripture can be a platitude under the right set of circumstances.

In scripture, one can balance great promises of good things with times of trouble, times that are ordained by God. We do ourselves and everyone else a disservice by reading the nice stuff and skipping over the bad.

In Sunday school, we hear the story of Peter being freed from prison (Acts 12:3ff). We rarely mention that this comes right after James is beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). We like Samuel and Kings and the message that if we do what is right, God will bless, but we’re less happy with Job, in which a person identified as righteous suffers substantially. Or we have Ecclesiastes 9:11 which seems to tell us that our efforts don’t matter, and instead of proposing an alternative of God’s will, says “time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

In fact, to some extent we are promised trouble, particularly persecution. Perhaps when life is going too well we should ask ourselves whether we are doing what we should!

The problem is one I’ve observed regarding Hallmark movies. The boy doesn’t always get the girl (or the girl the boy), your parents don’t always reconcile at the last minute, your business isn’t always rescued from bankruptcy by a helpful crusader, and no, your child doesn’t always get better. It’s nice to have a movie that says so, but it’s not always our experience.

I remember standing at Disney and listening to them singing about wishes coming true. I was standing there crying while everyone laughed, because I knew that my wish was not coming true. I was fighting that knowledge, but it was still there. My son was not going to be staying with us; he’d be going on to glory. I hated that song in that moment.

In our dealings with others, we need to be prepared to recognize the nature of life and not to say or to imply that God will always solve every problem immediately and according to our preferences.

So what do I find is the most encouraging passage?

Job 38.

Yes, that one.

You see, I know that I’m darkening counsel by words without knowledge. I know that I’m pretty ignorant. I know that God knows much more.

Infinitely more.

But what it also tells me is that while I’m thinking I’m alone, while I’m thinking there is nothing left, God is there. God doesn’t promise that you will not have troubles, but God does promise to be there. I can get that.

God’s promises are quite valuable, but like everything else they need to be taken in context—in the context of life, in the context of the passage of scripture, and in the context of the overall story.

I have two friends who suffer from health issues that many of us would consider overwhelming. Both of them, to the contrary, see God working through their situation. Their prayer is not for healing, but for God to use them in the situation they’re in. I would imagine they would be happy if God decided to heal them at some point, but that is not their focus in life.

They have the promise that God will be with them no matter what the problem.

That is a message I can truly appreciate and appropriate.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

Isaiah 40:22 speaks of God sitting on the circle of the earth and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers.

There is an interesting twist on idolatry that I think happens very frequently, and it makes a problem for people in understanding and accepting the doctrine that we, as humans, cannot do good of ourselves.

Normally we think of idolatry as setting something other than God up for worship. We sometimes don’t think of the way that we can do this to people. Many of the problems of Christianity today stem from Christian leaders who have been placed on a pedestal from which they were certain to fall.

There are also those leaders who expect to be seen on a pedestal. They believe in the doctrine of total depravity, i.e., the total depravity of other people. While they might affirm it of themselves, they really believe they are above the swarming hoard.

In their own eyes they are not, to quote Isaiah, grasshoppers. But from God’s perspective, they are.

God’s view equalizes us and puts us in our place. We are not independently powerful beings. We are not God, or somehow God’s rivals. Yet God loves us. But when this is used as a weapon to put people down, when it is spoken from above, down to lesser mortals, it is a sure sign that the speaker is setting him or herself up as an idol.

When you see that, don’t bow down.

Beware grasshoppers seated pretentiously above the earth!

Of Isaiah 40 and Grasshoppers

Of Isaiah 40 and Grasshoppers

Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed this rather interesting chapter, one that I believe expresses the basics of the gospel message well.

Now I don’t mean by this that it mentions the name of Jesus or even directly predicts anything about his ministry. There is some material here that is used of John the Baptist and Jesus, but that is another subject. What I mean is the basic principles. I will express these as: We can’t, God can, God does.

There are those who find the whole depravity thing in Christian theology somewhat morbid. But there’s a really simple point, and one I think is obvious once you see it. We really can’t!

Once we accept the fundamental idea of God as creator at all, we accept total dependence and our inherent smallness. As Isaiah calls us, grasshoppers. God looks down from the circle of the earth and the inhabitants (that’s us) are as grasshoppers.

If we think about it for a moment, not only can we not do good without God, we can’t do anything at all. We can’t exist. We are, before our creator, nothing at all.

And yet!

And yet, God is coming to God’s people. God cares, in great detail.

Here is the Lord GOD; he is coming in might,
coming to rule with powerful arm.
His reward is with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he will tend his flock
and with his arm keep them together;
he will carry the lambs in his bosom
and lead the ewes to water.

(Isaish 40:10-11, REB)

God’s greatness is not something that should make us miserable. Face it, we have looked at the universe and it is incomprehensibly large. We are small. Yet we are significant. If God is the creator, as we believe, then God is incomprehensibly large, and we don’t really have anything to offer.

And yet!

When I consider your heavens
the work of your fingers
the moon and the stars
which you have put in place,

What is a human being
that you take notice?
A mortal that you seek him out?

Yet you have made him a little lower than God,
with glory and honor you have crowned him.
You have made him rule over what your hands have made.
You have put everything under his authority.

Psalm 8:4-7 (my translation)

Isaiah 40 tells us that while we can’t, God can, and God will.

A Morbid and Boring Christianity

A Morbid and Boring Christianity

The quote above comes from chapter 1 of S. J. Hill’s book, What’s God Really Like?, and I’d like to spend some time with this, looking at it from different angles. The first angle is one of worship.

I was in a church committee meeting some years back where a room full of people were discussing young people and the worship service of the church. The question under consideration was why young people weren’t attending our worship services.

After about 45 minutes of (fruitless, in my opinion) discussion, I asked the question: Might we instead discuss whether we can think of any reasons why the young people would attend our worship service?

I, and every other person in that meeting, attend church out of ingrained habit. We have done it for years, it’s what we do, and come Sunday morning, come hell, high water, or several feet of snow, we’re going to find a church service and attend it.

I don’t mean that that’s the only reason I go to church, but it is something I tend to do. If I don’t like one worship service, I’m going to attend another.

But many people, oddly enough (!), require a reason to get up on Sunday morning and go to church. They want to accomplish something.

At this point some of my friends start talking about “dumbing down” the worship service, or want something “relevant.” The tone indicates that “relevant” is some sort of weak effort to replace “real worship” which will involve actual pain and require grit and determination.

“I barely stayed awake through that service,” says the parishioner, looking and sounding holy. Going through a boring worship service is a test of our commitment to God.

Well, perhaps not.

As I read passages like 1 Corinthians 14, I see the word “edify,” which is just a churchy sounding word for “build up” or something similar. The worship services at Corinth sound a bit chaotic, and, well, interesting. Paul encouraged them toward order, but in the end, if you apply all his rules, you still have something very different from what we do today.

Our problem with 1 Corinthians 14 is that we try to apply the solution without having the same problem. We put a straight-jacket on a corpse. The corpse, in case you missed it, is our time of worship.

Now a morbid, boring, and unattractive Christianity is not just about the worship service, but I think we might start there. You see, I think all those complaints about young people wanting relevant service are just whining. Whining because the young people don’t like what we did all our lives.

But if you look at the state of Christianity in America today, I think you’ll see evidence that was we did all our lives—and I’m talking to my generation (I’m 61)—hasn’t worked all that well. Perhaps we need worship that is actually relevant.

Relevant in several ways:

  1. In expressing our relationship with God. (Subtext here — we might need to have a relationship with God and not just a set of theological reflections.)
  2. In preparing us for actual service. (We tend to use the word “ministry” a lot. I think that allows us to separate ourselves from the word. How about “every member serving others” instead of “every member in ministry”?
  3. In help us to build our relationship to God.
  4. In helping us learn to relate to one another. (Hint: sitting in pews listening to a preacher, then heading out to beat the Baptists [or whoever] to lunch doesn’t build your relationships with other people.)
  5. In encouraging us in our lives as they are in this world.
  6. In helping us realize that “worship” doesn’t occur in a “service,” nor does it follow an “order of service,” but is a lifestyle. In fact, it is our lives (Romans 12:1-2).
  7. In helping us learn new and useful things.

Is that what happens when you go to church?

This just barely touches on this question. I’d like to discuss it some more. S. J. Hill is definitely right about one thing: The way we think about God is going to impact everything. If we think of God as interesting, involved, and yes, cool, we will thing that interesting and exciting things are part of worshiping God. If we think God is vindictive, we’re going to look for the right set of rituals to appease him.

If we’ve really forgotten, as I think many of us have, to think about God seriously (serious and joyful are not contradictory!) at all, that’s also going to impact the way we worship.

If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?

Making Theology Accessible

Making Theology Accessible

One of my concerns as a publisher is making the material accessible to everyone who is interested. This means learning to communicate ideas about our faith and about God clearly and effectively. I am certainly not a master of this goal, but I believe it’s always worth pursuing.

One person who has mastered it, I think, is Dr. Bruce Epperly, and I recently recorded a series of short videos with him. I particularly asked about the presentation of process theology. Process theology is often looked on as obscure, a pursuit of academics and not of pastors and persons in the pews.

Some time ago I asked Bruce to produce an introductory book on process theology for Energion’s Topical Line Drives series. This means a presentation in about 12,000 words. Some friends told me this was impossible, but Bruce did it, and it has become one of our more popular books.

In any case, here is Bruce’s answer about accessibility of theology.

A Different View on Hezekiah

A Different View on Hezekiah

I will now do on my blog what I did last night for my Tuesday night group. Contradict my previous post. Here’s the idea in a Monty Python sketch:

Watch to the end. I dare you!

What I did was quote a scholar whom I respect, and in fact who has been my companion through much of my study of the book of Isaiah, Brevard Childs.

For my part, I am unconvinced that these explanations help in understanding the judgment [the exile-HN]. The very fact that the narrator of the chapter is unwilling to proceed in these directions should check the need for supplying reason. The writer’s emphasis rather falls on establishing a link from one event to another. The judgment that was shortly to occur was not by accident of even directly evoked by the king’s misdeed, but unfolded according to to a divine plan. This theme clearly emerges in the response of Hezekiah to the prophet. Ackroyd (“An Interpretation of the Babylonian Exile,” Studies, 157ff.) has mounted a persuasive case against interpreting it as a smug response that the judgment will not personally affect him. Rather, it is an acceptance of the divine will in which Isaiah’s form of the response (39:8) emphasizes the certainty of divine blessing at least in his lifetime.

Brevard Childs, Isaiah, Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 2001), p. 287.

For my part, I am unconvinced that the normal sparseness of Hebrew narrative is an indication of a lack of moral commentary. I admit that I may read this too much in the context of 2 Kings, but I think the Isaiah context supports this adequately. But Brevard Childs is a really excellent commentator.