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On Violence and Suffering

On Violence and Suffering

9781893729902fMy friend and Energion author Allan Bevere posted this morning on this topic, and I want to call attention to it for several reasons. First, this is a topic I find very interesting. Second, I think it’s appropriate to discuss the problems of violence and suffering together at some points. Third, I don’t think that emphasizing a distinction between the Old and New Testaments really solves the problem. It ditches some texts, so if your plan is to explain things away text by text you make your task easier. But the basic issues remain the same.

I also was reading my own book notes on Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem. Ehrman tends to set a lot of people off, but I don’t find him all that annoying. Do I disagree? Yes, in many ways. But that just makes life interesting. Recently, I published a book on this topic, Bruce Epperly’s Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job. It’s interesting to see what different results people get from reading the same material. Note that Epperly is a progressive Christian and his approach illustrates one of the problems in religious dialog: We dialog with one group and it is applied to a much broader group. I used Waltke in my notes (link above), and Waltke definitely takes a different approach from that of Ehrman. Yet so does Epperly, and it’s a different different approach.

Then there’s the book Allan is reading, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? As the publisher, I’m obviously very happy with that book, but I should add that Alden Thompson was my undergraduate advisor and taught me Hebrew (2nd & 3rd year). The fourth edition of the book was also the first title released by Energion Publications.

Now, to add to the fun, we’re planning a discussion between Allan Bevere (The Character of Our Discontent), Alden Thompson, and myself. It’s scheduled for June 2, 2015. Watch for more information here or on any of my social media feeds.

 

Serious about Whose Faith

Serious about Whose Faith

I was mentioned by Ed Brayton (blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars) in a comment to a post on Facebook, and made a couple of comments myself. Here’s the Facebook post:

There are two things here that interest me. First is the claim that moderates and liberals don’t take their faith seriously. This is silly, sort of like the claim that atheists really do believe in God, they’re just rebelling against him. What these two things share in common is that the person making the accusation makes assumptions about the other person’s mental processes that are not justified.

I have spoken to people who called themselves atheists, but who were actually angry with God. They say certain things that tell you they actually believe. I also have spoken to any number of atheists. While they vary in the reasons they don’t believe in God, I have found their thinking quite clear. I have actually occasionally told someone who claimed to be an atheist that they sounded more like a deist or an agnostic (or a whatever to me), and asked them to explain their use of the term. It’s amazing what you can learn just by asking and listening to the response.

On the other hand my faith is my faith, i.e., I have come to believe certain things. I don’t deny that many of these result from my upbringing. I was born into a Christian home, and that does predispose me to be a Christian. On the other hand, I know atheists who were born into a Christian home as well. More importantly, I don’t believe the same things my parents did. My Christianity is somewhat different. They were (and are) Seventh-day Adventists. I am not. They accepted and taught me young earth creationism. I have rejected that and am, to the extent I can tolerate the term, a theistic evolutionist. There are parts of the Bible that they treated as historical that I do not.

How do you find that out? In my case, of course, you could read. But if you want to have dialogue with someone, it’s a good idea to find out what they actually believe. It may differ from your assumptions. I am probably more frequently accused of not taking my faith seriously by people who are more conservative Christians than I am. What they mean, generally, is that I don’t take their faith seriously, and generally I don’t. No, I don’t mean that I don’t take the faith of conservative Christians seriously. What I don’t take seriously is the faith of people who are so shallow as to make such accusations without bothering to investigate and learn.

Let me illustrate this with a more specific example. While guest teaching a Sunday School class I stated that I found prayer at public events questionable at best, and that if asked (unlikely) I would decline to participate. I emphasized that I was not speaking here of constitutionality.  This was not a political position, but a religious one.

One of the class members immediately accused me of not really being willing to stand up for my convictions because I would not uphold them publicly by praying there. But you see, those were his convictions about prayer, not mine.

My convictions say that prayer is communion with God. My prayer takes place most commonly in my office while I’m studying my Bible. My prayer time is largely silent. You might even think I’m sleeping. If I pray in a group setting, I want that to be in a setting where we, as a group or community, pray. My city, county, state, or country does not constitute such a community. I can guarantee that someone in that audience is being forced to participate in my spiritual activity.

I’d like to say that I don’t do it because I don’t want them to be forced to pray, and indeed I don’t want them to. But what drives me is that my own idea of what it means to commune with my heavenly parent is so contradictory to the idea of someone being involved involuntarily, that I find it offensive. I find it hard to pray. You may think I’m stupid, but those are my convictions, and they are the convictions that I will take seriously and uphold.

I feel the same way about public school prayer. I would find it personally offensive for my children or grandchildren to be drafted into a government organized (or any other imposed) form of spiritual activity. So when I oppose prayer in public schools, I am not refusing to uphold my faith. Rather I am upholding it against something that is offensive to it. In my view the place for prayer with children would be at home with their parents,  or in some sort of voluntary faith community, not in the classroom with a public official.

The second thing that interests me is the question of what the Bible actually is. Is it metaphor? Is it myth? Is it history?

The problem here is that the Bible is many things. It contains history, fiction, a legend or so, plenty of metaphors, liturgy, political discussion, and even occasional theological discourse. In addition, it contains literature that is not commonly found elsewhere, such as visions and apocalyptic passages.

Anyone who says the Bible is any one thing is either ignorant or not paying attention. The idea that there is a variety of types of literature in scripture is not a liberal or progressive idea. Conservatives are aware of it. Many fundamentalists will try to deny it. But where the serious divide comes is in determining what is what. Is Jonah some sort of historical story or is it fiction? (I would say fiction, and written to challenge the activities of some folks like Nehemiah, but it’s hard to pin down precisely.)

One of the big questions is whether the early chapters of Genesis consist of myth or history. Obviously, young earth creationists regard them as history. I’ve heard people use the question “Is Genesis 1 a myth?” as a sort of touchstone. If you say “yes” you’re a liberal, but if you say “no” you’re a fundamentalist.

Well, I say no, and yet I accept the theory of evolution. How can this be? Well, quite simply the question of whether a passage contains accurate history and science is quite different from the question of its literary genre. The genre of Genesis 1 is, in my opinion, liturgy. Liturgy does not need to portray accurate history. Genesis 2:4ff, on the other hand, shares most of the characteristics of myth. It’s a different story, told in a different way.

I’ve been asked why, if the two stories are contradictory, they appear side by side. The reason is that they function in such different ways that they cannot really contradict, any more than an Easter liturgy, celebrating the resurrection at 11 on Sunday morning in Pensacola can contradict an account of a missing body at about dawn near Jerusalem. They’re just not talking the same language.

I find it annoying that so much Bible study has to do with proving or disproving the Bible. This often results in people taking positions because of what they need the result to be. One person wants to believe that the gospels were written late because he doesn’t want them to be eyewitness accounts. Another wants them to be written early because he does. Neither desire is relevant to the actual dating. I wrote a post about an hour ago maintaining that I thought it probable that Paul wrote Colossians, a position challenged by some scholars. Does this make me conservative? No, nor does it make me liberal. It means that’s what I believe the balance of the evidence is.

Whether you are a Christian supposedly defending the Bible or a non-Christian who wishes to challenge it, contrived arguments aren’t going to help. Ultimately they’ll undermine your position with thinking people. I don’t mean every wrong conclusion is somehow a disaster. What I mean is every trite, contrived solution whose best evidence is the fact that you need it to be true, is going to backfire.]

Well, at least it will backfire eventually with thinking people.

Follow-Up on According to John: Theological Development and Determining Date and Authorship

Follow-Up on According to John: Theological Development and Determining Date and Authorship

In my Google Hangout discussion I mentioned using the development of theological concepts in dating a particular writing. I don’t think I really covered the issue involved all that well, so I’m going to follow up briefly here. My purpose is not to argue any particular position, but to illustrate the issues.

If I might start from a slightly broader approach, one of the ways in which one dates a particular writing is by looking at things in it that connect to events outside of it. Hopefully some of those things outside of it can be dated more precisely than the writing itself. In all cases, one should be aware that no single element provides an absolute answer. One normally gathers a set of arguments and searches for the best possible explanation of all the data. Often people reject an argument as weak when it is not intended to stand alone at all, but rather is just suggestive. It has to be combined with other data.

To take an example from the Hebrew scriptures, the destruction of Samaria (722-721 BCE) is described both in 2 Kings and in Assyrian records. We can get quite precise dating from the Assyrian records, while we only have relative dating from Kings. We can tie the events together with a high degree of accuracy because the event is described in both.

Narrowing it down a bit, consider both the authorship and dating of the pastoral epistles, Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy. Many scholars believe that these were written by someone in Paul’s name after Paul had died. Note here how authorship and dating interact. If Paul wrote the pastoral epistles they must date no later than the early 60s CE, since Paul dies in that period. He is unlikely to be producing new epistles after his death! Here, however, it works the other way. If it isn’t Paul that wrote them, then it is likely they were written after Paul’s death. Nobody is likely to be sending around letters claiming to be from Paul while Paul was still alive, at least not without inviting scandal.

But why the later date? One argument relates to church history. Some would hold that the church organization displayed in the pastoral epistles is too advanced to reflect the time of Paul. In a sense, then, the later writer would be using Paul’s name to bless these developments in church organization. I’m not going to try to argue this one way or the other as that’s not my purpose. What I do want to point out is that this form of dating requires two things: 1) A correct reading of the level of church organization reflected in the epistle, and 2) An accurate assessment of the development of church organization.

Regarding the first, let’s consider the Greek word episkopos. When you see this word in the pastoral epistles how do you understand it and translate it? How do you see it’s relation to the diakonos? Is it bishops and priests, or perhaps a more informal general overseer and local minister? What is the role and authority of those making the appointments. I’m not an expert on any of this. What I will point out is that people see these terms and the discussion of church leadership in the pastoral epistles differently. This will impact any decision on dating that relates to the development of church organization.

Regarding the second, one has to determine just how church structure developed. This is a task for a church historian who will look both at the New Testament evidence, and the evidence of the early church fathers as they either reflect or describe the church organization that exists at that point.

Now remember that each argument need not be decisive. Far from it. There will be many minor indicators and many indicators that could be argued either way.

I referenced one in my discussion, the dating of Hebrews, and my difference of opinion with my friend (and Energion author), Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. One of the most important datable events of the first century of church history is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Now, Elgin and I differ on the probable dating of the book of Hebrews. First, note that if the author of Hebrews is Paul (ably argued by David Alan Black in The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul), then it must be dated no later than the early 60s CE. Why? See above on Paul’s death.

But the particular point that I mention here is that Elgin and I take the same piece of evidence and see a different result. I see the author of Hebrews building his entire argument on the tabernacle in the wilderness, and thus see the destruction of the temple (not in existence at the historical time our author is referencing) as much less relevant. In fact, one might argue that the author uses the tabernacle because the temple was no longer in existence. But Elgin argues that one could hardly make this argument after the destruction of the temple without mentioning that event. And as much as I may hate admitting it, he does have a point. So the evidence weighs lightly in this case.

But now we finally get down to the issue at hand, which is dating based on theological development. This is akin to dating the pastoral epistles based on church organization but each element of the argument becomes harder. Let’s consider the case of christology. I would argue a high christology for the gospel of John. The Word was God. The Word became flesh. Case closed. Well, not quite as easily as all that, but I’d come back to those two points after arguing other interpretations.

To date a writing in this way requires one to both read the theology of the writing in question correctly and also to have a well calibrated idea of the way in which theology developed. If you move into later times, you can look at whether a writer argues for or against gnostic positions, and just what gnostic positions are reflected. I parallel John 1:1-18 to the thought developed in Hebrews 1:1 – 4:13. In both cases we have the message presented through Jesus (a Son/the Word) placed against the message presented by Moses, with superiority attributed to the message through the Son. I would argue that the christology of Hebrews 1:1-3 is as high as the christology in John. If I then date Hebrews to the decade or so following the destruction of Jerusalem, some would say that the christology is questionable at that point. Most interpreters since the time of the reformation, for example, have interpreted the term “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12 as referring to the scriptures and not to the person of Jesus.

If we turn to Elgin’s dating, which is earlier, then his reading of Hebrews as high christology (as he does) means that a high christology and the associated vocabulary would be available much earlier. I refer to Elgin because he’s a friend. There are plenty of scholars who would hold either the position I do or that he does. Elgin and I hope to arrange a discussion of this between us, not so that one of us can win, but so that we can clarify the way these arguments are formulated and help readers make their own decisions. This particular type of argument is one of the weakest. I’m not arguing that it’s not worth doing, but it requires a broad knowledge and very careful work to make successfully.

A reverse effect is also possible. One might find a way to read Hebrews as having a lower christology, simply present Jesus as the Son of God, because one assumes due to date that this is the way it should be read. In doing this sort of work, one should always be very conscious of one’s own biases.

My point in going through all of this is to help readers get an idea of how to read introductions to Bible books, especially when those introductions differ. There are massive differences in dating given for portions of the New Testament. Matthew, for example, might be dated all the way from the 40s to the late 80s. Luke is often dated in the mid-80s, but there’s an interesting piece of internal evidence that suggests an earlier date. Acts ends before the death of Paul. One explanation for this is that the book was written before Paul died. There are other explanations; never imagine that a debate such as this is settled in one line! In addition, Luke was written before Acts (relative dating is important!), and so Luke must have been written before the mid 60s because it must have been written before Acts. But if there’s a good reason for Paul’s death to be left out of Acts, other than that it hadn’t happened yet, all this might change!

Knowing how these arguments are formulated will help you read introductions intelligently.

Follow-Up on According to John: Textual Criticism

Follow-Up on According to John: Textual Criticism

This post relates to my follow-up on my second session of studies on the Gospel of John. First, I’d like you to read my earlier Textual Criticism – Briefly. This dates from 2006, but I don’t see anything I need to correct. I would like to expand on a few points, however.

On the matter of older manuscripts, one of the key reasons this is less of a concern than it might be otherwise is that we have so many manuscripts available that we can afford to make a few mistakes. Really! I mean that! There are so many manuscripts, Lectionaries, quotations, and translations that the New Testament scholar can be overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of potential evidence. Having done most of my own work on the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures, I really notice this difference when I turn to NT passages.

Second, we try to avoid other potential problems by looking for a reading that shows up in different geographical areas. The point of this is that we are more likely to be finding manuscripts that reflect different exemplars if they were copied in places that are far apart. This again helps to correct for any other problems that a lack of a detailed history might cause. In modern textual criticism this is accomplished by looking for manuscripts in different families.

Most scholars would still hold that there are three major families of manuscripts, the Alexandrian, the Western, and the Byzantine. One of the current debates is over the value of the Byzantine manuscripts. Unless you get seriously into textual criticism, you will not likely need to engage with this particular debate. Just look for variety!

When you encounter a textual note in your English translation, you likely won’t have this kind of information. The best source for a person who does not know Greek and cannot resort to a good Greek edition is a commentary that discusses the available evidence. A brief explanation such as this might help you understand such discussions.

Finally, let me comment on what variants mean for the reliability of our text. The number of variants in the NT text is often cited as a reason to believe that the text is hopelessly uncertain, but that’s simply not the case. The more manuscripts you have, considering that they are copied by hand, the more variants you will have. But the more manuscripts you have, the better you are able to determine the original reading. In addition most variants are relatively insignificant.

Why do I say insignificant? Let me give an analogy from my publishing work. When I edit a manuscript the majority of issues I find will be very easily identified typographical or spelling errors. There is never any doubt what the author was trying to say, and correction is easy. In a much smaller number of cases a word will be wrong and the correction a bit more difficult, yet one can be fairly certain of the desired result. In a relatively small number of cases an author will have written something I simply can’t decipher, and I have to ask what he or she meant.

The vast majority of errors in the manuscripts belong to the first category. Sure, they are variants, but it’s obvious what the original text is. Of the remainder, a large percentage have an almost overwhelming consensus on what the correct reading is. The number on which there is a viable dispute is rather small.

The problem in debate is the meaning of the word “significant.” I mentioned the need for definition when we use this term the other day. Two people who disagree on the number of significant variants may only differ on the meaning of the word “significant.”

Hebrews Backgrounds

Hebrews Backgrounds

Since I’m revising my Hebrews study guide, and have been for more than a year, I can bring up complaints against the old one. One of the most common complaints was that people had a hard time connecting the background reading to the current passage. I included three reading lists: 1) Minimum reading, 2) Extra reading, and 3) Advanced reading. My normal response to that complaint was to suggest just using the minimum reading, and people generally found that worked. The problem is that sticking with the minimum reading results in diminishing the value of the study. Hebrews is a connected book.

I could say that about any book of the Bible, in that one can see the canon as a form of story, the story of the people of faith who become the church. I say that not to diminish the Hebrew scriptures, but rather to emphasize that, combined into the Christian Bible and Christian canon, the story extends into the story of the church. Being able to see Bible passages in the context of the broader story is very important. Hebrews, however, is very much about the connections, and thus understanding it is very much about knowing the background. One can, of course, jump in at the end of the story. This is like looking at the last chapter of a mystery to find out who really did the deed without looking at the process by which the characters found out about it.

Hebrews asks, and I believe answers, the question of how we, as Christians get from being centered on Torah to being centered on the person of Jesus. How do we go from the scriptures of the people of Israel to the message and mission of the church? In these questions lie the avenues to many errors. One of the most critical errors, I think, is to see Hebrews as proposing a massive disjunction between the Old Testament and the New, a view that the Old Testament was superceded because it was bad. This error results from the forward momentum of the book being read as a denial or denigration of the old. In reality, Hebrews does not put aside the Old Testament any more than the reader of a book dismisses a previous chapter because he begins to read a new one. The old chapter wasn’t bad. That’s not why you turned the page. If the previous chapter was bad, you’re more likely putting down the book entirely. (Note: I follow in this post my usual practice of using the term “Hebrew Scriptures” when referring to the books we Christians call the Old Testament as an historical document and “Old Testament” when I’m referencing those same books as part of the Christian Bible. I see these as different views.)

So when Hebrews starts out talking about how God spoke to our forefathers, this isn’t to say, “Wow, what a lousy mode of communication God used, but now, finally, at the end, God has gotten it right!” Rather, it is to say, “Look at the new thing God is now doing right on time! The foundation is good, so we’ll build on it. But it’s not the whole house.” (I must note that this foundation/house distinction has its own problems. I believe the author of Hebrews sees God’s intention in all of the Old Testament passages he quotes. He’s not saying that God created something new out of whole cloth. The new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is not nearly as new as it looks at first glance. Rather, in this passage God expresses his intention to carry out his plans in spite of human failings. We may fail, but God’s plan continues.

So in order to understand the book of Hebrews one needs to understand this background. If you read it without knowing the material referenced, you may get the idea that this is intentionally new and surprising, when instead it is designed carefully to be (and look like) a natural next chapter. “See,” the author suggests, “this is what God has been building up to for generations.”

I’ve said before that the most formative books for my theology have been Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus in that order. I didn’t actually study them in that order, though I have always been fascinated by Hebrews, but a college independent study working on the first chapter of Ezekiel led to many other things and finally a study through Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s wonderful three volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. So while I could hardly call myself an expert in Torah, I’ve read somewhat more in this area than the average Christian. Working through Leviticus gave me a different view of both Leviticus and Hebrews. The sanctuary system of worship was not really an end in itself, as we so often read it. Rather, it was a means to an end. The details here are well beyond a blog post that is already getting longer than it should!

Some argue that the author of Hebrews must have been a priest due to his knowledge of, and interest in, the temple service. I would suggest that isn’t the case. The knowledge that is needed to write a book like Hebrews is a strong knowledge of the Old Testament passages in the context of their story. Too frequently we see “reading in context” as a matter of making sure we read the verse (or even chapter!) before and the verse after. That’s important, as single phrases can be taken out of their immediate context.

But there is also a broad cultural and historical context. When was the passage written? Who wrote it? To whom was it addressed? All of these are questions that help us understand a passage. I would suggest that the author of Hebrews knows his scriptures well and knows the story. When he seems to deviate, as he does in many stories in Hebrews 11 (compare the story of Moses in Exodus to Hebrews 11), he is doing so for a particular purpose. (Hint: I believe it has to do with the “why” of perseverance.)

In terms of revising the book, I do intend to keep my reading lists, though I’m adding some notes to help draw the lines between the passages. I think it’s important. One of our problems in reading about the Bible is that we are not well enough acquainted with the Bible itself. Thus someone can suggest something that correctly quotes a number of Bible texts, but still misses important points.

Let me give an example. One of the blogs I read (HT: Arthur Sido) pointed me to an article by Greg Boyd talking about the “eye for an eye” command of the Old Testament being superceded. And there is much of interest to interpretation, I believe, in those “you have heard … but I say” statements in the Sermon on the Mount. In applying particular commands to particular times and circumstances, one must be aware of those circumstances. Now I’ve provided the link so you can decide if I’m being unfair to Boyd, but it seems to me that he applies an out of context judgment to Elijah, and as a result manages to quite vigorously dismiss a great deal of the Old Testament.

Some questions that need to be answered:

1) Does “an eye for an eye” or, in fact, any of the “but I say unto you” statements of Jesus apply to Elijah and the prophets of Baal? To me, this looks like applying a command to a situation and a time without any consideration. Reading Matthew 7:1 we might well resist judging our contemporaries for such an act, but we have little hesitation in condemning Elijah with no regard for circumstances or context at all. If you haven’t already, please read at least the second to last paragraph of Boyd’s article. How parallel is the situation of Elijah and that of the disciples who are inconvenienced by having to turn to another village (Luke 9:51-55)? I fail to see here a suggestion of how Jesus viewed Elijah.

2) Do the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount turn the corner on God’s judgment, i.e. bring us to a point where judgment no longer occurs? Consider, for example, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), written by the same hand that recorded Luke 9:54-55. Peaceable scene, isn’t it?

3) While I believe strongly that we have trajectories in scripture, i.e. we are going somewhere with each statement, so we may see modifications, we need to be sure that the place we’re going is not entirely of our own making. One of the things that happens in Hebrews is that the author sees his destination rolled into the texts he cites. He’s building on something he has read thoroughly.

4) What about the eschatological sayings of Jesus? Are these also to be dismissed?

My own response to Greg Boyd’s article is not some sort of revulsion that he suggested an action by Elijah was demonic. Rather, it’s that he pulled so much out of so little with relatively little basis. I’m afraid that it strikes me as inept handling of scripture. I’ve heard so much better, scripturally faithful arguments for non-violence. This is writing your own story in the white spaces without bothering to truly understand the story as you have it.

Is there a need to respond to violent passages in the Old Testament? Indeed there is! And while we’re at it, let’s respond to a few violent passages in the New Testament as well. But let’s do so by understanding rather than dismissing. I think that’s the pattern Hebrews has set, and it’s a good one.

Dating of P52

Dating of P52

This article is fascinating, both because of subject and because of how it demonstrates how paleography functions (HT: Dave Black Online).

I’m posting it here both for the interest and because I have cited P52 in discussing the dating of the Gospel of John with various classes. Just a few points:

1) In my own defense (and that of others who use it), I have always pointed out the potential error in paleographic dating, and used the +/-50 years figure as an approximation. Thus I would have always pointed out that P52 could be as late as 175 CE. It appears possible it could be even later. On the other hand it could be somewhat earlier, even with the evidence cited in this article. Think of a 100 year window moving forward or backward. One might say 2nd century. In fact, I suppose one has!

2) One should also consider that the likelihood that one has laid hands on the earliest copy of a work ever produced is unlikely. So while the gospel cannot have been written after it was produced, it also was not likely written at the same time. A date of 150 or 175 CE would imply some distribution of the gospel at that point. Unfortunately, this amount of time is inherently unknowable. Still, I think it suggests that trying to date the book at or about the time a copy was produced is also questionable.

3) The article also illustrates the considerable problem with dating a small fragment, which simply compounds all of the difficulties involved in paleographic dating. With only a small amount of text to work with, one has difficulty finding sufficient data points to narrow down the result.

Still, the article is totally fascinating!

Irregular Verbs and Hermeneutics

Irregular Verbs and Hermeneutics

In a few minutes I’m leaving to teach Sunday School and we’re talking about the inspiration and authority of scriptures and/or of people who claim to speak for God.

But first, I thought I’d write a quick note on the recent discussion of violence in the Old Testament hosted by Allan Bevere. (To follow this discussion from the start, follow the links here.) This may sound terribly disrespectful, but first let me note that I largely agree with what Dr. L. Daniel Hawk said in his three part series. I like the canonical approach. I agree that we need to struggle with all the difficult passages. I would find some time to quibble about the criticism of the biblical theology school and it’s demise. I find that announcements of the death of schools of thought are often a mite exaggerated and tend to dismiss more than they should. So while I teach using a canonical approach to scripture, I think I should be subject a question analogous to the one I asked when reading material from earlier biblical criticism and the biblical theology school: Why? Why is it that you somehow think that when you get back to the earliest stream you are somehow dealing with something better? For me, there are two questions that arise from the same idea: 1) Why is the canonical form of scripture normative (and for what purpose)? and 2) What is the canonical form? (Canonical form is a bit easier to determine in the New Testament, I think.) I, for example, make use of the OT Apocrypha (a personal choice, since my denomination doesn’t recognize it as authoritative [why?]) and also consider the LXX versions of OT books to have similar authority to Hebrew texts in Christian contexts.

Having thus raised more questions than I answer (a normal situation for me), let me get to my title.

I’m a fan of the BBC shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In those Bernard Wooley, private secretary to the minister and then Prime Minister Hacker, produces on occasion what he calls “irregular verbs.” I couldn’t find a good clip on YouTube, but I’m going to provide one for this discussion:

I discern the message, you pick and choose, he discards Scripture wholesale.

Please don’t hear this as an accusation of either Adam Hamilton or L. Daniel Hawk. While I tend to agree much more with Dr. Hawk, my intention is not to throw accusations around. This irregular verb points at me as well. I think, perhaps, that we need to spend more time discerning and discussing the ways in which we pick and choose.

Hopefully I’ll find the time over the next week or so to discuss a few chapters. In the meantime might I direct you at some earlier efforts: The God-Talk Club and the She Bears (a short story/dialog) and Real Guy Interpretation – A Homily.

Old Testament Violence Discussion

Old Testament Violence Discussion

Allan R. Bevere is hosting a response from L. Daniel Hawk to Adam Hamilton’s three part series on the violence of God in the Old Testament. It’s a topic I find fascinating. I’m going to wait for detailed comment until I’ve read all of Dr. Hawk’s response. But I can tell you what I’m looking for in two quotes.

In Adam Hamilton’s second part he states:

… If we understand the Bible as having been essentially dictated by God, then yes, we have no choice but to accept what is written as accurately describing God’s actions and God’s will. But if we recognize the Bible’s humanity—that it was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived—then we might be able to say, “In this case, the biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God actually inspired them to say.” …

Note that this is extracted from the middle of a paragraph which may contain pointers to how Hamilton would answer the question. I have not read his book. But the issue that this statement raises with me is this: Do we have an adequate hermeneutic that will allow us to discern God’s will and purpose from the human-divine mix? In my experience, very frequently those who say this do not. Note that I’m very definitely one who says that the Bible is a divine-human combination, using an incarnational model. But that combination (not mix), is all present by divine will. Why are those violent passages present? How do I learn from this?

Dr. Hawk, on the other hand says this:

Here’s the main flaw in this line of reasoning. Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.

This time I at least quoted a full paragraph. And what’s my problem with this? Well, in my experience both sides pick and choose and then accuse the other of doing so. There is not only choosing what we accept as relevant, but we need to choose just how some particular passage is relevant. I’m going to wait for the rest, but I doubt Dr. Hawk is suggesting otherwise. Nonetheless statements like ” … our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives” tend to get me on edge, because I am so frequently then told that either we must then accept the orthodox interpretation (also selected by the speaker), or that we must essentially give up on discerning the meaning. I have some confidence that Dr. Hawk isn’t headed that direction, yet paragraphs such as this raise an attention flag for me. I ask here again just how we will discern the message God intended, and discussing the obscurity of it can drive people away just as much as the attempt to discard the humanity.

I’ll say more when I’ve read the final post. I may have to read a couple of books as well, considering that what both of these men are saying comes from much more extended works on the topic.

Meditations on According to John

Meditations on According to John

Meditations on According to JohnAnyone who has made a serious effort to teach from the Gospel of John has likely experienced the difficulty of giving people a clear picture of the connections between various parts of the book, not to mention the frequent allusions to passages in the Hebrew scriptures. One can easily run out of fingers to “hold that passage” while one flips to another in order to compare. The difficulty is that one needs to get an overview of the entire book before one can truly comprehend the individual parts, and people rarely study Bible books in that way. Too frequently they jump into a passage on a particular topic from the middle of the book, and the Lectionary encourages this, and never really get a full picture.

So I was delighted to get a manuscript from Herold Weiss, at one time a professor at my alma mater, Andrews University, and later at St Mary’s College, Notre Dame titled Meditations on According to John. Editors generally look with some disfavor on collections of essays, meditations or sermons. I’ve had to reject not a few such collections. They often don’t sell. One of the reasons they don’t is that people rarely read sermons by anyone who is not famous. They tend to prefer books that cover a particular topic in some detail than a collection of different thoughts.

But this book is not that sort of collection. It does not consist of unrelated thoughts that have no particular sequence. Rather, the 24 meditations on this book take particular passages in the gospel of John, According to John as Dr. Weiss likes to call it following the Greek title, and then fits them into the scheme of the entire book. I like to invite people to read a Bible book multiple times in order to get an overview. With this book, you get that sort of an overview multiple times, each with a different theme.

The gospel of John is extremely simple on the one hand, but very challenging on the other. The language is easy to understand at the basic level. But as you meditate further it tends to grow on you and make you think again … and again and again.

I think I have an excellent group of authors represented in the Energion Publications catalog. I have a long list of books I want to write about, but haven’t had time. Sometimes these books challenge me. Sometimes I am simply saying, “Yes, that was a good presentation of the _____ topic, and people should read it.” But some books stand out in that they inspire me to study as I read the manuscripts as an editor. This one had be referencing my Greek New Testament frequently, and eventually had me re-reading the entire gospel in Greek just to follow some of the thoughts presented.

You may agree or disagree with some of the conclusions. For example, Dr. Weiss does not accept this gospel as the source of sacramental theology:

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. (p. 152)

and

It is a bit disconcerting, therefore, to find that most commentators consider this gospel as the New Testament document that provides the basic source for sacramental theology. This judgment is based on interpretations which see the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as supporting the sacrament of baptism, and the discourse following the feeding of the five thousand as supporting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The texts, however, do not support these interpretations. (p. 152)

Now that will annoy a number of my friends! A bit later Dr. Weiss says:

In According to John Jesus is not baptized, does not celebrate a Lord’s Supper, and does not institute bread and wine as sacraments that need to be administered by authorized clergy. Jesus only institutes the washing of the feet which must be administered by everyone to everyone, in this way democratizing the kingdom of heaven. (pp. 156-157)

That, I think, is worth discussing. Why is it that only authorized clergy can administer sacraments? I know the theology, but is it well rooted?

In any case, both reading this book and reading John after reading this book have been beneficial experiences for me. I strongly commend this one to my friends who are interested in either biblical studies or theology. It’s a great text.