Alden Thompson Speaking at Adventist Forum Conference

Alden Thompson Speaking at Adventist Forum Conference

Alden was my undergraduate advisor at Walla Walla University (then college), I publish two of his books (Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers and Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?), and he is a friend. Many of my friends have heard him speak in person. Here he is presenting a paper at a conference, so is somewhat less free-wheeling than he is normally, but he’s making some important points.

 

In Controversy, Build Community

In Controversy, Build Community

So the disciples decided to send help to the brothers and sisters living in Judea, as each one was able. They carried out their plan, and had Barnabas and Paul deliver their gift. (Acts 11:29-30)

This is a short verse, but I think it’s very sweet. As the story of Acts progresses, we’re entering the phase of controversy between those who are welcoming gentiles to the church (without their first becoming Jews) and those who don’t wish to do so. It will get quite heated as Paul’s ministry gets going.

But here there’s a simple pause. The believers in Antioch send what they can to the believers in Jerusalem. Nobody is asking which side of the controversy they’re on.

Here’s the principle: In controversy, build community.

Responding to Church Criticism

Responding to Church Criticism

Steven Cuss took to The Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight’s blog) to respond to Francis Chan about the church. This is all about a very valid and, I think, much needed conversation about the church.

When we criticize the church in America there can be many responses.

  1. Defensive – we are really, truly doing good things
  2. Could be worse – we have our problems, but we’re doing some good stuff
  3. Look at you – you’re making more mistakes than we are (or you have in the past)
  4. You’re too critical – you shouldn’t point out our problems because that’s negative

There are a few more, I suppose, but those will do.

The problem is that as long as we use these various responses, reform or correction will definitely not happen. Once we have responded, we have generally also minimized our need to act. We function a bit like a vehicle stuck in mud or sand. You can stomp the accelerator because you need to get moving, but all you do is rock a bit forward and then a bit back.

I think that often describes our churches. We don’t take the serious steps that are needed to really have an impact on our culture. We want to be a little bit different, mostly in the sense that we attend church, but not be real salt, scattered through and changing everything.

Now not all criticism is useful. Not all criticism is valid. But a great deal is. The person who aims to change cannot pre-moderate his or her comments. If you are making a call for reform, and nobody is getting upset, you probably aren’t doing it right.

My blog header proclaims me a “passionate moderate” amongst other things. I think moderation is a good thing if you’ve found the right range of options and the right position. But sometimes the right thing is what everyone else regards as an extreme. I’d really like to find that “moderate” position at the center of God’s will.

How about you?

Measuring Success

Measuring Success

It seems to me that one of the most serious difficulties we have in the church today is the way we measure success. We are driven by numbers and money. It’s easy, of course, to justify this. After all, if you don’t have money, you generally can’t help people. I am reminded of Chapter 3 of Acts, in which Peter (with John) says, “Silver and gold I have none,” yet look what they did.

Still, the temptation is great to judge the success of a meeting by the attendance, and the success of a church by its budget. I’d add that I don’t suggest we think the other way either. Just because a church is prosperous does not mean its ministry and mission is in trouble. It’s just that I don’t see the numbers and the money as God’s measure.

With that in mind I was struck by two verses in Chapter 8. Stephen has just been killed, and Luke tells us that Saul continues to persecute the church. Everyone except the apostles is scattered across the countryside of Judea and Samaria (v. 1).

By our standards, this is a bad thing. All this talent is leaving the big church, the one with the resources to carry out the mission! Stephen is dead, and Philip is about to head out. “Everyone” doubtless includes many more. The church is being drained.

If this was an American church, the next question would be how we would pay the bills for the facility. I recall one church that had a serious scattering of membership, and that became a serious problem. You have to sell some buildings or some land, and that can be difficult. Members don’t like the feel of selling off the property and there’s always a question of whether you’ll get enough for it. Besides, selling stuff and downsizing is a sign of defeat!

We’d doubtless feel the same way about persecution. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of persecution. I really don’t want to be persecuted. But if I can put it bluntly, I doubt God really cares what I want.

In this case, something great happens. “As they were scattered, they went about proclaiming the Word …” (8:4). In the movement of the story of the early church as told in Acts we’re in that transition as we move from Judea to Samaria and from there to the whole world. The failure of the church as the members scatter is the success of God’s plan.

I’m thinking we need to spend our time finding God’s plan and measuring our success by how much we’re on that. As I read scripture, I’m suspecting that plan may be different from ours. Let God speak and move in our generation.

 

Literal Problems, Literally

Literal Problems, Literally

I found Should we read the Bible literally via Facebook, and want to commend it to my readers. I can’t tell for sure, but I suspect the writer is perhaps more conservative than I am, yet he makes many points I frequently try to make. I think he may be a bit too optimistic on the hope of recovering the word “literal” from popular abuse.

I’ve often said that if I could take one saying away from Christian conservatives it would be, “The Bible plainly teaches …” Our frequent disagreements as Christians seem to challenge that idea. It’s always possible that the teaching is plain and we just want to work around it, but who has the right view and who’s working around? It would be better to just bring forth the arguments in favor and let someone else decide how plain it is.

On the other hand, the phrase (regarding the Bible) that I’d most like to take from liberals is “We don’t take that literally.” The problem is, how do you take it? The meaning of the word “literally” is “literally” not that settled. Biblical scholars and theologians use it differently than the general population. So whether you’re telling someone to take it literally or not, the odds are they’re going to understand it differently.

For example, I regard Genesis 1 as never having been written with the intention of developing a sequential, historical, scientific view of origins. Rather, it speaks in the context of its current cosmology and gives God’s role in creation. Contemporary readers would likely have perceived it in those senses, but there’s no necessity that one do so, and the elements the stories are trying to convey are not harmed by changing chronology or method of creation. (In my view, at least!) I do not doubt the reality of God’s action. Is that literal or not? It’s a bit more difficult to answer that question than the example of calming the sea in the referenced article. But that’s why I suggest that “not literal” is also not helpful.

What we have to do is specify how we do read the text. For example, I read Genesis 1:1-2:4a as liturgy and the rest of Genesis 2-3 as myth, in the best sense of that word. “Myth” frequently becomes a synonym for “not true” when, in terms of literature, it speaks to the foundational function of a story in a society. A myth might not be a true story, in the sense of narrative history (we often use “literal” here), but it also might be. Historical events do become myths in functional terms.

Ian Paul makes that point in the referenced article with regard to the story of calming the sea. There is extended meaning. One can take the sea and the boat allegorically, but the allegorical meaning is built, for many at least, on the idea that the underlying story really happened. I would disagree that one can’t get allegorical meaning if one doesn’t take the story as historically real, but there would be a difference in that meaning.

All of which simply leads back to the first point. We need to be careful with our use of language. I think that too many Bible students use their own definition of literal, by which I mean the one understood by most Bible scholars, and tell people they should interpret the Bible literally. People in turn believe they are being told to make the Bible concretely applicable no matter what. Which problem is not helped when someone like Tim LaHaye says to take the Bible literally if at all possible, and then applies it by making all the symbols of Revelation apply in a concrete sense to future physical events. Some of the words in Revelation do refer to such things. Others refer to spiritual things. There is a variety of usage. It’s a vision; expect some variety in the author’s (and Vision-givers) intent.

Most importantly, try to be aware of how you are taking a passage. Literal/figurative is not adequate. What type of figure is it? What time of reality does it reference?

In answering those questions, you may well discover why I so dislike hearing that “the Bible plainly teaches.”

Will Antisemitism Ever End

Will Antisemitism Ever End

I get a daily (most days!) e-newsletter from Rabbi Evan Moffic. I find his thoughts inspiring and helpful. I want to quote his letter today in full. You can learn about some of his books through his Amazon.com author page or my Aer.io page for him.

Henry, My grandfather passed away in 2007 at age 95, but in college I recorded several conversations with him. He talked about the Depression and the desperation he and many Americans felt.

He talked about learning to box so he could defend himself against the neighborhood bullies  who called him a Polish Jew. He talked about sneaking into gatherings in 1930s Milwaukee of a group called the The Bund, which were American Nazi sympathizers.

What happened in Charlottesville last week would not have surprised him. He lived through it once before.

But it did surprise me. I grew up with little antisemitism. My application to seminary said the age of persecution was over, and Jewish life needed to focus on more positive engagement and inspiration.

I was naive. Antisemitism has reared its ugly head again. The Nazi symbols and signs proclaiming in Charlottesville “Jews will not replace us” scared me and my children.

I thank God for you—my readers and friends—who are committed to a different world. A world we can worship and live in freedom and respect. Our task is to help preserve that world our children and grandchildren.

Do we have grounds for hope? Well, our ultimate hope rests in God.

But I also take comfort from the Book of Genesis. It begins with an angry murder. Cain kills Abel. Later Jacob steals the birthright from his older brother Esau. Then Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery.

Yet, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers  reconcile with one another. They forgive. They live in peace.

My hope is our country follows our similar path. What can you do now? Join this Facebook group to keep up with ways of fighting antisemitism. It is called, fittingly, Christians and Jewish Fighting Antisemitism and is the first of its kind.

I believe this link https://emoffic.clickfunnels.com/squeeze-page will allow you to sign up for the newsletter, as well as get you the Jewish holidays cheat sheet.

Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

I’m currently reading the book of Acts for my morning devotions and today I read chapter 6. That’s a nice, short chapter!

The disciples find that there are complaints about distribution of charitable works and they decide they shouldn’t be distracted from the Word in order to wait at tables (and other such things). The result is the choice of seven deacons. Again, they pray, and then lay hands on them and commission them to this work. Other than the continuing spread of the message, we’re not told how this organizational structure worked.

As Acts proceeds (since I’ve read it before, I know how the story ends!), we’ll hear quite a bit about Stephen and Philip. It’s interesting to note, however, that we don’t hear about them serving at tables, which, ostensibly, they were chosen to do. In fact, we hear them proclaiming the Word themselves. In chapter 6, it starts with Stephen, and it promptly leads to his arrest.

Let me note a couple of things here:

  1. They don’t record any time of prayer before going out to choose these seven men. It appears they jump straight to the strategy.
  2. They don’t record any time of prayer or deliberation before choosing the seven.
  3. They do pray before commissioning the men by laying hands on them.
  4. We see no record of results of this activity that match the intent. Yes, results. Stephen and Philip are significant players in the story and they are introduced to us here, but there is no record that the issue with distribution of service (apparently particularly food) was resolved.

Now it may be that I’m reading too much into the white spaces here, but this is the second time I’ve noticed this during this pass through Acts. I’d noticed before that Matthias (chapter 1) is appointed as a new apostle and then disappears from history. Considering how much of this portion of early Christian history is recorded just in Acts, one wonders if this is accidental. (My sister Betty Rae pointed this out to me some years ago.) In my reading this time I noticed how the choice to replace the missing apostle is made based on Peter’s interpretation of scripture. There’s no effort made to seek God’s will for this particular instance. Then two people are chose according to criteria they select.

Let’s parallel the numbers:

  1. There is no prayer time as they choose the basic strategy. Unlike Acts 6, this strategy is apparently based on Peter’s reading of scripture.
  2. They choose two people again without any time of prayer.
  3. They now pray and ask God to choose between the two. The situation differs from Acts 6 in that the seven were chosen and then the prayer is offered as they commission them. “Please bless the ones we have chosen,” is the petition. Here it’s “choose one of the two options we’ve given you, Lord.”
  4. No results are recorded.

Now comes the fifth step, which is what’s hitting me on this pass through Acts. God immediately takes action to advance the kingdom, and it doesn’t fit with the human plans, even the plans by the apostles. In Acts 6, Stephen heads right out to proclaim the gospel and defend it. In the case of Acts 1 we have to wait until chapter 9 before we see God choosing someone as an apostle, one who doesn’t fit the list of criteria, but who certainly carries out the mission.

I wonder if Luke is telling us something here? I’m really not that acquainted with scholarship on Acts, so this may have been thoroughly ground to dust somewhere in the commentaries. Still, it’s something to think about.

There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

School is starting, and so we have the regular drumbeat of comments about prayer in school. One of the most common, used at my church today, is the comment that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in public schools. Which is, of course, quite true. Also, largely irrelevant.

Opponents of public school prayer aren’t trying to prevent students from saying, “Jesus help me!” as they start a test. (Well, I should make the “nut” proviso — I’ve discovered that there is really no idea so stupid that there isn’t a nut somewhere who will support it.) No serious opponent of school prayer is concerned with prayer before tests. What they’re concerned with is publicly sponsored prayer. The child is required to be there. The teacher operates with the power of the government. The prayer is sponsored by political authority.

It’s not my intention, however, to discuss the politics, or to examine from the state’s side whether it’s a good idea for prayer to be prescribed or permitted when led by someone with official authority.

My concern is with prayer by Christians, or even more with talking about prayer and promotion of prayer by Christians. What we say about prayer and what we do about prayer is important. My observation is that there are a lot more people talking about prayer and advocating prayer than are actually praying. This makes me wonder about the issues we choose to make central.

During the course of a day I find that I can pray in my bedroom, my living room, my office, my car, walking on the sidewalk, sitting in a restaurant, meeting with a client … Hmmm! Come to think of it, there really are no places or times when I can’t pray in one way or another. The way in which I pray may be constrained. It might not be best to suggest a time of prayer with every client, though honestly most of them would say “yes” if I asked. Each circumstance may require a different approach to prayer, silent, aloud, head bowed, or not, brief, or longer, kneeling (rare for me), or lying down in my bed.

If I complain that I can’t pray in a public place, I’m really complaining that I cannot make it clear and public that I am praying in that public place. If I’m willing for my prayer to be between me and God, the only ones who can block it are God and me.

I’m leaving out of this discussion the question of whether it is good as public policy to allow some sort of officially sponsored prayer at public events. Personally, I prefer prayer to be individual or part of a voluntary community. But regardless of this issue, the opportunity exists.

If your child or grandchild is going to public school, let me ask a few questions:

  1. Will you be praying with that child (if they are in your house) before they leave for school?
  2. Will you be praying for that child irrespective of what anyone at school is doing?
  3. Will you and your church be praying for your children and those of the community?
  4. Will you be modeling a life of prayer for your child or grandchild that makes spirituality inviting?

I’m sure you can find many other opportunities and ways to proceed with prayer. Too often our underlying concern, as evidenced by our actions, is more with the public display of our spirituality than with the spirituality itself. This doesn’t mean that I believe that if you advocate for teacher led prayer in public schools you are somehow less spiritual. But if you do so without taking the opportunities that are available, it may be time for some self-examination.

Come to think of it, even if you, like me, advocated for only voluntary prayer, your (our!) primary concern should be what we’re doing with the opportunities we have to pray every moment of every day.

(Energion books on prayer.)

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

I publish a couple of books that use Acts of the Apostles as a source for principles to guide the 21st century church. I publish such books with a certain amount of trepidation, as it’s very easy to apply material piecemeal, which results in discovering that the biblical book in question tells us to do what we wanted to do in any case.

Two books that deal with this issue in the Energion catalog are Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly and Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black. Now considering that the authors of these two books are some distance apart on the theological spectrum—Bruce is United Church of Christ and Dave is Southern Baptist—one might suspect that there is a wide gulf between what they see as most important or applicable in the New Testament church. In actuality, I found myself more surprised by the level of agreement involved. There are certainly differences, and yet there are themes that are clear to both authors.

I suspect the level of agreement results from greater care in studying the text. No, I don’t believe careful study will make us agree on everything. Careful study tends to do two things: 1) It discovers clear themes, and 2) it clarifies and outlines differences and the reasons for them. I will repeat what I have said before: Most of the heat in arguments between Christians results from not understanding the way in which we’re using our sources. If we did understand the source of an opponent’s beliefs, that wouldn’t mean we’d agree, but it would reduce frustration. There’s nothing like having two people look at a text and clearly see different things. There is a strong temptation to assume the other person is stupid, obtuse, ignorant, or perhaps demonically deceived.

Yet Christianity is a faith that is built on studying sources. We may differ on what those sources are, whether it’s the biblical canon, writers in the theological tradition, or authoritative institutions. The point is not to eliminate the inputs because they might be misunderstood or misapplied. Rather, I would suggest it is to study these sources with an awareness of the differences.

One of the ways to do this is to actually study pieces of biblical literature as they were written. If I get to make a selection of texts, I can definitely bias the results. That doesn’t mean that I will find that everything there applies to my everyday life now, but I do need to be aware of the things I’m not applying and why I’m not applying them.

I started re-reading Acts of the Apostles the other day, and was immediately struck by some of these kinds of issues. Let me note just a few.

  1. Acts 1:2-3 – Jesus teaches the disciples for some time following the resurrection. We don’t have a formal record of this teaching. Is this a plug for apostolic tradition? If it is, note that Paul wasn’t in on this, yet has provided us with much of New Testament theology.
  2. Acts 1:4-5 – Awaiting the promise of the Spirit. Acts was most likely written before John, but here we have that continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit does come upon the disciples, it seems to come upon the whole group. Is this a foundation for the belief that revelation continues and can come to each one of us?
  3. Acts 1:21-26 – Choosing a successor to Judas by lot. This one presents some interesting issues. I enjoyed teaching this to a class in a church that had just completed a search for a new pastor. I asked them if their procedure, much different from the one here, was biblical, which resulted in an energetic discussion. It’s interesting to me that we have no evidence here of prayerful discussion. Peter presents his interpretation of scripture, then two people are chosen that fill the requirements (we don’t hear the source of those requirements), and then one of the two is chosen by lot. God is invoked, but God is invited to choose between the two candidates selected by the apostles. At which point the chosen person disappears into history. Most of the book is about Paul, a person who does not fulfill the requirements and is chosen by a completely different method. So is God’s way casting lots or should we wait for the lightning bolt?
  4. Skipping Acts 2 and going to 3:1-10 – Is this the sort of thing that should characterize a modern church? If so, we’re largely too tame. And we should, of course, consider chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. Church discipline, anyone?

My purpose in making this truncated list is to show that there are things here we do (baptism, preaching, even healing [in some sense]), and others that we don’t (casting lots), and it’s worthwhile to realize that something more than just grabbing sentences or paragraphs and applying what they “clearly teach” is going on. I’m not complaining about that extra stuff going on. That’s part of life and yes, part of faith. The problem comes in when we try to pretend that we’ve dumped everything extra. (Note that there are churches who use a form of lots in selecting leadership, so that is a valid item to list.)

The next question to ask yourself is just why you do certain things and not others. Why would you preach, baptize, accept into membership, but not heal? Why do you find it appropriate to await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but not to choose all church leadership by casting lots? (Notice how I slipped “all” in there when it’s not in the text?) Understanding how we get wherever we are can help us understand one another. It might even help us with course corrections.

Mounce on Translating Every Word

Mounce on Translating Every Word

I used to use Bill Mounce’s introductory grammar in teaching Greek, and I appreciated his attention to linguistics, though I generally wanted more. (I’ve switched to Dave Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek for those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to teach Greek. I’m probably prejudiced as Dave is a friend and I publish the Spanish translation of that book, Aprenda a leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento.)

In a blog post, Mounce discusses the question of whether one needs to translate every word of the Greek text into English to be faithful to get inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. As one who doesn’t believe “inerrancy” is a good word to describe scripture, I find the question especially interesting. It illustrates the reason why I don’t like the inerrancy debate. So often, despite any efforts by scholars who use the word carefully, inerrancy leads to this sort of distorted question. Mounce correctly points out that the word is not necessarily the correct bearer of meaning to try to translate. Mounce suggests the meaning is found “more at the phrase level,” though I would say that meaning is found at a variety of levels, and that the ideal translator would convey the meaning expressed.

In this case, however, the “ideal” translator is more “ideal” in the sense of being “not real.” No translator can convey everything. If a truly master translator, for example, conveys the precise emotional feel of a Psalm, he or she is very likely to obscure the history. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, does an outstanding job of getting the punch of a parable’s message, and the result is beautiful, almost ideal. Well, until you realize that you’re losing both the historical connection, and also in some ways the possibilities inherent in the story form itself. This is not a criticism of The Message. I love it. I like to read it. But by accomplishing some things, the translator of necessity fails to accomplish some others. Therein lies the value of multiple translations.

Therein also lies the value of sharing one’s thoughts. It is imagined that someone like me, who reads the text in the original language, has somehow truly attained and truly understands. But over and over, I read and translate a passage for myself, and then I read it in other translations and find enrichment because those translators chose different options than I did. Sometimes I’ll say, “No, I think my way is better,” while at others I might correct what I did. Sometimes I just find that the other ways of expressing the meaning round out my understanding, while I can’t really find a translation that conveys the whole.

You can check out some books from Energion Publications on inspiration here.