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Acts 12: Reacting to Miracles (and Their Absence)

Acts 12: Reacting to Miracles (and Their Absence)

Acts 12 is an interesting chapter, both because of what happens and what doesn’t.

James, the brother of John, is seized by Herod and killed. No comment, backstory, or reaction provided. One short verse and gone. I’ve just said more!

Then Peter is seized, and they expect him to be killed as well. The whole church prays for Peter. We’ll suppose that the church prayed for James as well, though it’s possible he was seized and killed so quickly the word didn’t get around until he was dead.

I think the stark presentation of James’s death, followed by the prayer of the church and then the rescue of Peter starkly emphasizes that prayer doesn’t always make things work the way we want it to, provided we haven’t figured that out by reading about Stephen’s death in Chapter 7. Yet the church prays.

As we watch calls for prayer regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and recognize the prayer that went before, we should perhaps note that prayer isn’t a means of steering hurricanes according to our desires, nor of doing the cleanup afterwards. As I once heard preached, prayer isn’t a substitute for anything else, and nothing else is a substitute for prayer. Prayer has its own functions.

In any case, this time while the church is praying, an angel is off to rescue Peter. It may be just my imagination, but it feels like Peter is kind of an automaton through the first part. In verse 9, we’re told he thinks it’s a vision. He is certainly not thinking, “Oh, yes, here’s the angel I expected come to rescue me.” Once he’s in the street and the angel poofs, he realizes it’s really happening.

He heads off to where the church people are praying, and here we get a cameo by young Rhoda, who appears in scripture this once to be so happy at hearing Peter’s voice that she doesn’t open the door for him, but rather heads off to tell the other people he’s alive.

There are a few people like her around today. They want to see a miracle happen, or even something they can imagine to be a miracle, and their purpose is to talk about it. They too can forget to open the door to whatever is happening next.

The people in the house are also quite normal people. They don’t believe Rhoda. After all, if you knew the security arrangements around Peter, you likely wouldn’t believe he was there either. I’d probably think someone got the guards drunk, stole the key, and then led Peter out of prison. If it was today, I’d think some kind of sleeping substance added to their food. At least they let Peter in off the street.

Sometimes Bible stories are really sparse. I keep wondering about Peter’s thoughts. He keeps knocking, but I imagine he was a bit put out when they didn’t open the door. Peter’s angel, indeed! (12:15).

Finally, we have Herod’s reaction. Imagine being one of those guards. I know I go off track, but I kind of feel sorry for the guards. They’re just ordinary guys off serving their country/ruler, and Herod isn’t for a moment going to believe that they were miraculously put to sleep while their prisoner was taken. Honestly, Herod’s reaction is quite rational. The best explanation for the facts he has before him is that the guards either shirked their duty or perhaps even took bribes to let Peter go.

Peter, who seems a relatively sensible guy in this story goes somewhere else.

I think if we read this story and let some of the turns sink in, we might away from a mechanical view of prayer and providence. It’s worth a try in any case.

(Some books I publish that relate: Pathways to Prayer (David Moffett-Moore), Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles (Bruce Epperly), and Directed Paths (my mother Myrtle Blabey Neufeld. Featured image credit, Openclipart.org.)

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Who Needs Evangelism?

Who Needs Evangelism?

nt church books(This continues a series that started here, and continues with part 2 and part 3.)

Dave’s first mark of a New Testament church is evangelistic preaching. (Book: Seven Marks of a New Testament Church.) I’m a member of a church that’s part of a mainline denomination. I’m a mainliner. In general, we don’t like the word “evangelism” or related terms like “evangelistic.” You can watch Dave’s remarks starting about about 4:45 in the video and runs for about 4 minutes.

In the book Dave calls this sign “evangelistic preaching.” The word “evangelism” here is used to emphasize that this is not the kind of preaching we normally think of when we hear the word “preach” in modern English. The preacher preaches and sermon and the congregation says “Preach it, brother!” This, on the other hand, is not speaking to the congregation in order to teach them about the faith of which they are already a part. Rather, this is proclamation of the message to those who haven’t heard it before.

The word “evangelism,” and of course the related word “evangelistic” has a bad reputation in mainline circles. (Remember that I’m thinking about this in the context of being a member of and working in a United Methodist congregation.) I don’t particularly mind if people want to avoid the word, just so long as we don’t avoid the activity. Mainliners have an excellent way of avoiding ineffective or offensive methods of evangelism: We just do no evangelism at all. By offensive I don’t mean offense at the gospel itself. There are those who are offended, for example, if I say that Jesus loves even terrorists. That’s fine. I’m still going to say it. Jesus does love them. On the other hand if I say, “You bigoted moron, Jesus loves terrorists as much as he loves you,” it’s quite possible the hearer will be offended (quite justifiably) at being called a bigoted moron and may never even hear the second part.

It’s especially important to realize that people can disagree with you without being bigots or morons. It’s even more important to remember that Jesus loves everybody, and that includes bigots as well. In fact, it would be really great if we quit thinking of people in those categories. Challenge their ideas or their actions as dangerous, but value everyone as a person, especially those you find hard to value.

9781631990465mDave used one way to say “evangelize” in the video when he said “share the love of Jesus with them.” How do I do that? Well, it starts with learning to love them myself. It’s much easier to act from love if you do actually love. Then fit your proclamation, whether in actions, words, or any combination of them, to the particular situation.

We’re going to share the love of Jesus much more effectively when we do it because we are loving like Jesus, rather than doing it in order to build church membership, build up our personal count of people saved, or justify ourselves and our way of life. If we thought of evangelism as “sharing the love of Jesus” I think we would find that easier to remember.

Dave starts with this point because that’s where the passage he’s using, Acts 2:37-47, starts. The passage starts there because this is the historic moment. We won’t always find ourselves with an audience that needs to hear words.

Bruce Epperly, in Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, also presents proclamation in his first chapter. The details are different, the text is different (Acts 17), but I think you’ll see the connection (pp. 13-14):

9781938434648sThe description of Paul’s message at the Areopagus rings a familiar bell for twenty-first century North Americans. Paul is sauntering through the marketplace of spiritualities – it could be Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Madison, or Washington DC where I live. He is gazing at the seat of intellectual, political, and spiritual power and prestige. Statues are everywhere, not unlike Washington DC, London, Paris, or Beijing – to gods and heroes, sacred and secular, known and unknown – each portraying a certain vision of human life and ultimate reality. Paul is both amazed and scandalized at the panorama of diverse and conflicting spiritualities.

Jewish by upbringing and theology, Paul is overwhelmed by the thought of people worshiping objects that are less alive than themselves. Perhaps, he is amazed that people still worship gods such as Zeus who are not only promiscuous in their dalliances with human beings but also vindictive, angry, and punitive. Why would anyone worship raw power when you can experience God’s love? Why would anyone follow a religion of fear when he or she could experience God’s loving acceptance, grace, and companionship? Why would anyone exalt the gods of violence when the prince of peace welcomed them with open arms?

He engages in conversation with some of the local spiritual leaders and philosophers of the city. They don’t know quite what to make of his vision of a universal God, whose life cannot be contained by statues or institutions, and whose love was manifest in a suffering savior. “Tell us more,” they ask, because like our culture, they lived with gods aplenty – there as many religious options as there are cable or dish television stations.

Paul enters into dialogue, honoring their religiosity, affirming their quest, but suggesting another better alternative, the path of salvation and wholeness pioneered by Jesus of Nazareth who was unjustly crucified, but miraculously resurrected to bring healing and wholeness, transformation, and love to all creation. There is an “unknown God,” whose wisdom is luring us forward even when we are unaware of it, and this is the God Paul has experienced through his encounters with Jesus Christ.

Here we tie a different portion of our modern experience to a different portion of the book of Acts. Does the book of Acts seem more relevant to you with either of these approaches?

Now let’s get a taste of how Ruth Fletcher talks about this. Remember that she starts from looking at thriving churches and asking: “How did it happen?” The following is from pages 53-54 of Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, which talks about Spiritual Habit 5 – Engaging:

9781631992070sEvery once in a while, those foreign missionaries would visit the congregation, telling tales of difficult living conditions and cultural challenges they had encountered while trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ in some exotic location. Some were doctors who brought healing to those who were sick. Some were teachers who helped young people learn and grow. Some were engineers who helped villages dig wells and install sewer systems. Some were evangelists who established new churches.

I remember listening to their presentations, being impressed by their stories, and feeling just a little bit glad that they would be returning to the dangers of the mission field while I would go back to putting my change in the offering box in the safety of my own home. Of course, I was not the only one who took comfort in being able to leave the mission work to the professionals; in those days, most members of historic Protestant churches were content to offer their monetary support and prayers for others who would travel to the mission field, out there, over there, while they stayed within the familiar circle of congregational life.

Yet transforming congregations do not just play a supportive role in the mission of the church; they actively participate in that mission. They see that the mission field of the 21 st Century begins at the church’s doorstep and stretches out into the neighborhood and into an interconnected, interdependent world. They understand themselves to be the missionaries who are called and sent, ready or not, to engage in making real God’s New Creation. [emphasis mine]

Now Dr. Fletcher is going to get involved in scripture in the next few paragraphs, but again, look at the starting point.

Also, while the position is different, some focus on mission, evangelism, proclamation, or perhaps we should just say “sharing the love of Jesus” is part of this basic approach for all three authors.

Now you’ll find differences in many areas. That’s part of what I want to celebrate. I believe that as I move to a new congregation (no, I’m not a church professional, just a member), and try to work with my fellow-members of the body of Christ, the ideas of gotten from learning from these three different authors are going to help. What is it that God is calling me to do to share his love in and with this new church community? I’m sure I’ll be finding out soon!

I’m embedding below my interview with Dr. Ruth Fletcher. I don’t have a full interview with Bruce Epperly on this topic, though we’ve discussed a number of his other books in various interviews. Just press “Play” to get rid of my picture and see and listen to Dr. Fletcher!

Experience, Belief, Action: An Exercise from Bruce Epperly

Experience, Belief, Action: An Exercise from Bruce Epperly

9781938434648sI will be putting more material from Bruce Epperly in as I post more on the church, but here’s an exercise he suggests in his book Transforming Acts, pp. 19-20.

Acts of the Apostles is clear that doctrines are symbiotically related to behavior. Our doctrines emerge from spirit-centered experiences. Our experiences are clarified by our beliefs and take shape in practical application. Accordingly, what behaviors might your beliefs inspire in the areas of:
»» Personal stewardship
»» Care of family and children
»» Marriage and other significant relationships
»» Community involvement
»» Political involvement
»» Care of the Earth
»» Response to diverse opinions
»» Ways we respond to personal or global conflict (violence, reconciliation, consensus, peace-seeking balanced by appropriate protection).
»» Involvement in justice issues – first-hand support of vulnerable people and/or political involvement to achieve a social order more reflective of Jesus’ values.

One of the great strengths of Bruce’s book is that he challenges us at the end of each chapter to thoughtfully and prayerfully move to action.

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.

Being Subject to the Authorities

Being Subject to the Authorities

The Forum - from Rome.info
The Forum – from Rome.info

While I haven’t written anything on it myself, I’ve published quite a number of books regarding how Christians should relate to authority. These include Christian Archy and The Jesus Paradigm (David Alan Black), Ultimate Allegiance and Faith in the Public Square (Bob Cornwall), Rendering unto Caesar (Chris Surber), and Preserving Democracy (Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr.). The last one isn’t primarily about the Christian’s relationship to authority, but it does deal with what the author believes are the legitimate functions of government, and ways in which the authorities can definitely be illegitimate.

As I was reading from Luke 12 this morning, and realized that Jesus was speaking to people who were likely facing persecution, sometimes from those very authorities, I started to think a bit about why we tend always to start with the “rendering unto Caesar” passage, and much less from Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, or Acts 5:29. The first of those passages is quite frequently abused by those who believe that one must obey the government no matter what.

I’m not going to write an extremely long post on this today. I just wanted to bring the subject up. The one line I appreciated most in the commentary I read on these passages came from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 2029, commenting on Romans 13:3-5.

Governing authorities derive legitimacy and serve God by punishing bad and approving good—that is, by implementing justice. The just purposes of government evoke submission by the ascent of conscience (v. 5) rather than by fear of punishment. An unjust tyrrany, by implication, would not qualify as an authority instituted by God.…

There are a couple of points in that passage that I believe are overstated, but I think the main point is correct. Paul here speaks of the government carrying out it’s legitimate functions, functions which the Roman government often did quite well. When, at other times, the authorities turned against the good, then one must obey God rather than human authority (Acts 5:29). A Christian would obey the legitimate authority even of an unjust government, where that is possible (often it is not), and would reject only the unjust actions. I think 1 Peter 2:13-17 implies this. Christians were to be model citizens wherever they could thus blunting accusations brought against them. When the state ordered them to do something they could not do in good conscience, then the authorities would be unable to say, “These people just ordinary lawbreakers.” Rather, they would only have the matter of conscience at hand.

Having government ordained by God cuts both ways. First, it gives authority and order a divine imprint, and becoming simply a rebel or an anarchist is precluded short of a complete loss of legitimacy. Second, however, it places human government under the divine authority. Note that I don’t mean by this anything at all like theocracy. I do not think theocracy is desirable, nor is it called for in this passage. Rather, what this means in practice is that one’s conscience controls. It should make me subordinate to all legitimate authority and limit when I can stand against that authority to cases when I would be required to perform an act that was evil or unethical.

The “government no matter what” spin that some have put on this passage tends to make Paul into somewhat of an idiot. Perhaps we need another rule of interpretation: If the way you interpret a passage makes the author look like an idiot, reconsider. Sometimes the God’s wisdom may look like foolishness to us, but so does actual foolishness.

I know I’ve left a huge number of holes in this discussion, but I’ll leave those for later discussion. It’s a blog post, and sometimes I have to write one that is less than 1000 words!

What Allegiance Comes First

What Allegiance Comes First

Dr. Bob Cornwall posts his sermon today, on Acts 5:27-32, dealing with an issue that is quite controversial in the American church, though I think it should not be: Where is my first allegiance as a Christian?

He tells stories of early Christian martyrs and refers to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He concludes:

Peter is asking us the question: To whom do you owe your allegiance? Can we say with Peter, and with all due respect to the laws of this country: “[I] must obey God rather than human authority.” Am I willing to count myself among those early Christians who left the council and “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name?”

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

What is your first allegiance?