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The Value of Theological Disagreement

The Value of Theological Disagreement

Earlier today I posted links to a video by Andy Stanley and a response by Michael Brown. Some people have commented on this issue indicating that it was unfair to “attack” Andy Stanley about his views.  (These were not on my blog post or its Facebook link; the controversy is widespread.) I have a few comments on this.

  1. There are those who claim that one has to listen to the entire series in order to get the context and respond. I would disagree. If you make a short video, be prepared to be challenged based on the content of that video (or audio file or blog post, for that matter). I think there is sufficient material in Stanley’s presentation to which one can respond.
  2. It’s interesting that one is expected not to respond to Stanley, yet Stanley is critiquing quite a number of other Christians. I do not criticize Stanley for doing this. If you’re going to assert that X is true and Y is not, you’re going to critique someone.
  3. As in #2, those who critique Stanley are in much the same position. If they are to assert that X is true and Y is not they will obviously be offering a critique of those who hold Y.
  4. Which leads to my main question: Why is it wrong to question theological statements, especially sweeping ones that are offered as a critique of other Christian positions?
  5. As for the “Marcionite” argument, we’re in a standard name-calling situation. For some reason, we think that by labeling someone we have responded, and, on the other hand, by defending ourselves from a label, we’re defending our position. Forget the label; ask whether the viewpoint is correct, or whether it can be improved upon.

I believe it is very important to discuss theology, and discussion involves the assertion that some things are less right than others. The idea that we can never point out what we believe is an error in the teaching of another is ludicrous. Now if we arrogate to ourselves the ability to judge someone’s salvation or their standing with God, that’s another matter. But to assert that some things are true is by nature to assert that others may be less accurate or perhaps untrue.

In this issue, I actually go farther than I perceive Michael Brown is going. I don’t believe there is a singular, straightforward distinction between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. I believe that there are many cases of God changing the way in which he relates, as God carries out God’s plan to save humanity. Thus the Christian Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments should be read as a single story. There are points of distinction, but they occur in a variety of ways and are usually envisioned ahead and then their interpretation grows afterwards.

I object to simply dismissing a portion of scripture. You have accomplished nothing of value, I believe, by unhitching the New Testament from the Old, first because they are connected by much more than a hitch. There is an earth-shattering change with the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, but this takes place in the midst of a growing understanding of God and his actions in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we struggle to understand this completely millenia later.

As an example, many—I suspect the vast majority—of those who heard Jesus may have been surprised by his attitude toward the gentiles, and may have similarly been concerned by the church’s mission to the gentiles. Indeed, the gospels and Acts record that many were. But Isaiah (2nd/3rd Isaiah, 40-66) would not have been so shocked. One may point to differences, yet I think Jesus appears no more radical in his look at the law than Isaiah 56. So if the audience was shocked, they were missing some of the lead-up story. I think they may have been less shocked than modern people imagine. There were many viewpoints in Judaism at the time.

And if Isaiah 56 wasn’t radical enough, then perhaps Ruth or Jonah would take the place of radical scripture. Or, if we really wanted to get down to it, we might note Genesis 12:3, Genesis 17:5 (from Abram’s call and covenant).

There are certainly things that are hard to deal with in the Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament. There are also some of those in the New. My problem with a dismissive solution, broadly stated, is that the texts are still there. God has been working with people for a very long time and people have been interpreting God’s actions for a very long time.

So let’s disagree, critique, and grow. A bit of love and generosity would be good as we do so.

(Featured Image Credit: OpenClipart.org.)

The Sacred Scriptures of the Early Church

The Sacred Scriptures of the Early Church

I struggled with the title, as this is almost entirely links, and the issues raised cover so much ground. I’m posting these particularly for my Romans study on Wednesday nights.

In both the current class and my previous series on Hebrews I maintained that the New Testament was not intended to set aside the Old, or the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, I refer to the idea that Hebrews is doing that is an author climbing out on a limb and then cutting it off behind himself.

On the Charisma Magazine web site Dr. Michael Brown responds to a video by Andy Stanley.

I would suggest listening to Andy Stanley and see if you can hear some of the approaches to the Old Testament I mentioned. Michael Brown provides what I consider a good response. I’m glad to note he sent Andy Stanley a copy of his critique (see Brown’s article), but I do not accept that they are not that far apart, as Stanley says. Note that the majority of the issues are in the first five minutes of the video, but I think it then pervades the rest in more subtle ways, then comes out more strongly at the end.

Anyone who has heard me teach will know my view on this.

Here are a couple of related books I publish.

 


Linguistics Conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Linguistics Conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Re: Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate

It’s more than a year away, April 26-27, 2019, but this conference looks like about the most fun you can have on a seminary campus without breaking the rules! I see several names I know, some well, and one Energion author, Thomas Hudgins, who will be talking about Electronic Tools.

I’m already planning to be there. Maybe we can meet!

 

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.

 

James and a Living Gospel

James and a Living Gospel

Our pastor at Chumuckla Community Church started a sermon series on the book of James. This provoked me to look again at Bruce Epperly’s little book Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James. Here’s a sample:

Despite Martin Luther’s misguided dismissal of James as “an epistle of straw,” due to James’ emphasis on agency and lifestyle rather than receptive grace as central to Christian experience, James is good news for congregants and seekers. It is the gospel lived out in everyday life, not by words alone or doctrinal requirements, but by actions that transform the world. This is the good news of Jesus Christ who shows us the pathway to abundant life, and not a dead letter or a soul-deadening creed or abstract doctrines about the divinity of Jesus unrelated to daily life. James invites us to be companions on the pathway of the living Christ. (p. 4)

Dave Black quoted today from Gordon Fee’s commentary on the epistles to the Thessalonians, discussing the connection between believing and living. I’m going to link to Dave’s post again tomorrow, when I briefly discuss Bible commentaries, but Dave’s post is worth reading in this connection as well.

Bruce Epperly comments again on the supposed contrast between James and Paul:

While Paul’s theology is often contrasted with the Letter of James, both Christian leaders believed that faith without works is dead (James 5:17).8 Paul affirms “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). (Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, p. xxvii)

I think we frequently see contrasts when we should see differences in emphasis and even in circumstances.

 

Read Now

 

Similar and Different

Similar and Different

Dave Black has been posting some interesting things on his blog, and yesterday he wrote a bit about Greek and Hebrew language and culture. I’ve put this on jesusparadigm.com to provide a permanent link. Here’s the bottom line:

The bottom line: I think it’s a bit misleading to insist that grammar and thought are inherently related. There are just too many philosophical difficulties inherent in any theory of mental representations.

He’s absolutely right. I think it’s difficult to get this sort of thing balanced because of two problems. First, there is a relationship between the forms of language an the culture that speaks it, and second, we like to find a theory that settles everything. So the New Testament must be either all Hebrew or all Greek in thought. Why? Because it’s easier to handle. If I know that the background must be Hebrew, then every time someone uses a background from Greek philosophy in interpreting a passage, I can declare them wrong and come up with one final and absolute answer.

In fact, it’s necessary to check many things. Take Hebrews and “shadows of heavenly things,” for example. Is this an idea based on Plato’s philosophy, or do we adjust it to fit better into some idea of Hebrew thought? Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the author of Hebrews actually has his own view of the relationship between earthly shadows and heavenly realities, and that it doesn’t derive entirely from the background.

Which leads be to an aside. One thing that can suffer when we study the background of thought in order to categorize it, is that we can miss the original thought of an author. But we also need to balance that against the soil in which the thought germinated. There’s probably a reason that an author chooses specific words from those available to him in order to express his original thought.

Similarly, we have the word hilasterion which either occurs or is closely related to words that occur in other Greek literature and is used in the LXX to translate some specific Hebrew terms. So when it’s used in Hebrews do we import the meaning of kapporeth, do we seek for meaning in its usage in Greek, do we spend our time on it’s etymology in Greek (surely an interesting subject!), or do we look strictly at its context in Hebrews?

I’d suggest that we’re going to do some of all of the above, because it’s likely that the author of Hebrews was acquainted with all of that material. He was skilled in Greek, he was acquainted with the LXX, and he was capable of original thought and composition. The final arbiter needs to be the context of his specific usage, but all those other elements form the soil from which that particular meaning is nourished.

I doubt that very many of those who argue the different positions really deny the role of other options. They just sound like they do as the press a theory. Sometimes, however, the main reason to press a theory is that it is distinctive and thus identifiable as our work. I recall hearing a sermon in which the preacher started by saying that he would show us how everyone got the story of the prodigal son wrong. He proceeded to present some good thoughts, though they were not nearly as revolutionary as his opening statement. He denied some other ideas, though his presentation had hardly made it clear that those ideas were wrong. After the sermon concluded, many people left talking about how they had been so enlightened by hearing the “real” meaning of the parable.

I would have said, instead, that they had heard an interesting interpretation of the parable, one with some considerable value, yet neither so original, nor so revolutionary, nor so exclusive as everyone thought. I had to wonder, however, if things had been stated in my preferred way, with “one option for understanding” and “maybe we should consider” and “different understandings are possible” strewn about in the sermon.

When we’re making a point, the temptation is to present all the evidence in favor of our viewpoint and try to downplay the things that are not in agreement. I encountered this in comparative literature. You could find those who thought that Genesis 1 & 2 were clearly copied from the Sumerian and Babylonian stories, and others who thought they were so different that they were clearly unrelated. The fact is that if you get to choose your elements you can make them appear to be very close or very distant. I’d suggest that the reality is that there is a relationship (I suggested in my work for my MA that this was one of sharing cosmological language more than one of literary borrowing/copying).

Similarly I’ve mentioned the etymological fallacy a number of times on this blog. The idea that a word’s meaning is determined by etymology is a fallacy. But I’ve invented the anti-etymological fallacy to go with that. That’s the opposite error which assumes that any use of etymology in determining the meaning of a word is a fallacy. Determines, no. May have some relationship, yes. Thus I’m certain to look at hilasmos and hilaskomai (amongst others) when studying hilasterion. How much help do I get from etymology? That depends on the particular word, and the circumstances of its use.

The pursuit of absolute and certain answers can tempt us to invent them when they don’t exist. It’s nice to settle back comfortably knowing that all words in the Greek New Testament should be understood as expressions of Hebrew thought. One can discard so many thick, multi-volume sets of references, and certainly one doesn’t need to read all those difficult classical Greek quotes to get ideas of the usage of the word. But comfortable and right are not the same thing.

I can think of so many applications of this that I’d better just stop!

Quick Thoughts after Reading Different Greek Texts

Quick Thoughts after Reading Different Greek Texts

Reading Greek editionsYesterday I read a few chapters (4 actually) of Hebrews with Stephen’s Textus Receptus (1550) beside my NA27, both from Logos Bible Software. It was an interesting exercise. I noticed a few things I hadn’t noticed before and was reminded of some things I know, but can easily neglect.

I started into biblical languages to get past the gatekeepers. I wanted to read the original text for myself and discover what was there without depending on others. In that goal I failed. It’s amazing the number of little things you can notice when you look at different edited texts. And that is what our Greek New Testaments these days are. (I’ll stick with discussing the Greek, though I could make similar, but not identical, points about Hebrew.) Someone studies the manuscripts available, or existing editions, or starts with an edition and just looks at particular variants, and produces a text which I then read. I can take the Nestle-Aland 27th edition text and read it from their edition, or from the UBSIV Bible I also have which uses the same text. They list different variants. Why? Because the editors determine that for the purposes of this edition, those are the variants you need to see.

Now it happens I’m fairly happy with most of their choices, though one reason I have various editions is so that I can check on other details. In my reading yesterday, for example, I noticed quite a number of differences in word order. It would be quite a daunting task to cover all those differences in a textual apparatus, but they might actually be meaningful. I’m very careful doing so, but I have been known to argue emphasis based on word order. Do I have the right word order?

My point is not to make one feel helpless. Rather, I think we should be thankful to those who have gone to the work to provide us with these tools. I’m thankful that I can read my Greek New Testament in an edition that combines information from thousands of sources and then gives me notes on a selected set of the most important variants. Hebrews 12:1 has its crowd of witnesses. Whenever I study the Bible, I am standing on a substantial pyramid of other peoples’ shoulders.

At the same time I have to remember that there is a time to get out of the rut of the ordinary and to look at things that are substantially different. I’m now interested in studying variations in word order, though I doubt I will ever have the time. Nonetheless, it looks like a field that could be fascinating to research and study.

Lessons? 1) Always go for the source, even if you won’t really get there. 2) Be thankful to those who have gone before!

Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?

Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?

nt church booksI’m planning to finish resume and complete my blog series on Seven Marks of a New Testament Church with added commentary from the books Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel. This process was interrupted by SBL, by some bug I picked up in Atlanta that slowed me down for several days and by the time taken to catch up afterward.

In the meantime, I encountered the following:

There is no blueprint for churches in the New Testament, and to try to form New Testament churches is only to create another system which may be as legal, sectarian, and dead as others. Churches, like the Church, are organisms which spring out of life, which life itself springs out of the Cross of Christ wrought into the very being of believers. Unless believers are crucified people, there can be no true expression of the Church.”—T. Austin Sparks, Words of Wisdom and Revelation, p. 62, (quoted in Frank Viola, Finding Organic Church, p. 19).

There’s a great deal of truth in that statement, but there is also a great deal of danger. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from Frank Viola from just before he uses this quote to illustrate:

Consequently, the “biblical blueprint” model is rooted in the notion that the New Testament is the new Leviticus. Advocates approach the Bible like an engineer approaches an engineering textbook. Study the structural principles and then apply them.

But church planting is not a form of engineering. And the New Testament isn’t a rule book. It’s a record of the DNA of the church at work. … (Finding Organic Church, p. 19)

I would love to spend some time discussing this view of Leviticus, which is, in many ways a record of the DNA of Israel as God’s people at work, but I’ll skip over my perennial annoyance with the way Christians handle the Hebrew Scriptures. And Leviticus is definitely closer to a  rule book than is anything we have in the New Testament, however inadequate the term may be in describing the book.

Again, I would certainly agree that the New Testament doesn’t provide a “rule book” for your church, though we need to consider our understanding of the term “rule book” as well. Even rule books differ in approach! I would also agree with, and even applaud, the characterization of the New Testament as “the DNA of the church at work.” But there’s a certain negative view of engineering involved here, which is just one of the things I think is potentially dangerous.

There’s an interesting form of binary thinking that seems to go on with the question of whether and how we apply the Bible to anything. Someone asks whether the Bible teaches a certain thing that we believe, and the pious thing to say is that it does. So we say it. Then we’re left trying to find just where it does say it. Take the doctrine of the trinity, for example. Does the Bible teach it or not? Can I discover anything about the Trinity from the Bible? Well, if you want a doctrinal statement of “trinity,” such as you’ll find in any of the Christian creeds (yes, they differ, but take any one), then you’ll have to admit the Bible doesn’t say that. Yet the pieces, or at least the questions, start from scripture. I think you can say something similar about almost any of our doctrines. They are rooted in scripture to various degrees, but we wouldn’t have so many confessional statements if the Bible clearly said what we wanted it to.

Having grown up as a Seventh-day Adventist, I confronted this problem early. We were a church that believed in the Bible and the Bible only. Anyone could study the Bible for themselves, and the Bible was sufficient. Well, except that people kept getting the wrong things from the Bible. So we had a doctrinal statement and  baptismal covenant. When I was baptized I publicly affirmed a substantial list of doctrines, all of which the church regarded as biblical. But it was not regarded as sufficient that I affirm the Bible; I had to affirm the list.

I think humans tend to be somewhat binary in our thinking. On discovering that the Bible doesn’t actually have a full list of the “true” doctrines or the “ideal” rules for governing your church congregation, we decide that there’s nothing at all. Let’s get away from talking about characteristics, habits, marks, or even transforming moments. The true church is the one that is produced by people transformed by the gospel.

And yes, it is. Transformation by the power of the gospel is where it starts and it is the key. But we still read scripture. We still have to decide to meet somewhere. We still are going to do some things during our church service and not others. We’re still going to choose some activities in carrying out the church’s mission and not others.

The danger, I believe, is that we do this sort of thing without thinking and consideration. Transformed people will be motivated to carry out the gospel commission, but will they know what to do next? Generally there is someone who leads. I have been in churches that claimed that their worship services were run by the guidance of the Spirit and were very free. No rules.

Well, on paper. In their rule book it was true. But in practice, there was a definitely hierarchy. Who was a prophet who would speak? Who would give the message, which was as long as, if not as organized as, the sermon in any mainline or evangelical church. The “free Spirit” definitely flowed in the way human beings directed.

In fact, despite my apparently sarcastic description, it is quite possible that the Spirit was flowing precisely as the Spirit wanted to, having chosen to work through those people. But if so, there was more structure than people were willing to admit. There were leaders in the congregation. They were just not acknowledged as formally as they were elsewhere.

And it’s in this informality that there is a certain danger. If we do not acknowledge and plan our leadership and our actions, then some form of leadership happens. It may be good or it may not. But very frequently in places where structures are not defined, people with forceful personalities, or even people with negative agendas can take over the process. These persons are very hard to move aside to allow the Spirit to actually move, because they will often deny what they are doing.

So how do you avoid this? More importantly, how do you avoid this without turning the church into a bureaucracy and the Bible into a procedures manual?

Well, I think you go back to the source. Not just the New Testament, though that should be our starting place as Christians. And not just the Bible, but rather the Bible combined with our discernment and what we can hear from the Holy Spirit as we listen to the Holy Spirit and discern what we need to do as a community of believers in Jesus. I think this will be a constant process as we look at what is around us, at who we are, at our Lord, and how we can be the body of the Anointed One in the world.

We can even learn a little bit from engineers in this process. Yes, engineers can be very picky people. I’m reminded of something Jody said as she was about to enter the doctor’s office. She was taking a particular action which she wanted the doctor to note because, she said, “Doctors are very much cause and effect kinds of people.” Engineers likewise. Every time I get into my car and every time I get on an airplane, I am very happy that engineers are cause and effect kinds of people. That’s because I really like the causes to get together and produce the effect of my car staying on the road and the airplane staying in the sky as needed. I flew nearly 7,000 hours in the Air Force relying on that sort of thing.

One thing an engineer can do is study one thing, see how it works, and duplicate the effect by creating a similar machine. Such principles applied to scripture might include looking at the church in the New Testament and asking what caused the church to grow. Can we duplicate that? Of course times and circumstances have changed. In fact, they changed from one moment to another in New Testament times. Engineers can also take a device and adapt it to different circumstances.

I have a smartphone, for example, that is water resistant. If I drop it in a puddle, I should be able to pull it back out, dry it off, and go on. I haven’t tried this. The prior model of the same phone didn’t have this capability. Some engineers got together and added new capabilities to the ones the previous model had. I used that previous model, and I like the new one better. There are principles that apply to both.

And that’s important. It’s nice to say that if our church comes forth from people who have met Jesus and been to the foot of the cross (or one of those other common phrases). That must be the foundation, because church will doubtless not work with people who have not been transformed (or better, are being transformed; we are none of us there yes). But this is a principle I get from reading the New Testament. And it’s not the only principle I get.

The good engineer knows how to look at principles and apply them to a new environment. The good Bible student knows how to look at the church in action in the New Testament and find out how to apply not every action they took, but the fundamental principles by which they tried to live, to our modern times.

So Seven Marks of a New Testament Church doesn’t provide you with a rule book. It doesn’t replace the New Testament. It certainly doesn’t replace the gospel. But it shows you what one worker in the vineyard has discerned as principles that can be applied. The other two books, Thrive, and Transforming Acts, are doing the same thing.

The problem isn’t really thinking like engineers. The problem is bad engineering, engineering that applies rules without understanding. Not inflexible engineering that ignores the complexity of human communities. Engineering that ignores reality is just bad engineering. I, for one, think the church could use some genuine, good engineering.