Monday, September 22, 2014

WSPK 4: Biblical commands were contextual too.

I decided there were at least two more posts I want to do on hermeneutics in this series on "What a pastor should know about the Bible."

The last post talked about how "all meaning is local." The key points from that post were:
  • There are meanings the words of the Bible had that do not correspond to any words in English or concepts in our world.
  • The first meanings of the books of the Bible was a function of the way words were used at the times and places when those books were written, and those meanings were largely if not entirely a function of their ancient worldviews.
  • My default interpretations of their words are not some timeless, universal meaning. Rather, my default interpretations of their words are also a function of the way words are used in my time and place, and the meanings I see are largely if not entirely a function of my modern worldview.
  • Meaning is always understood locally.
1. This dynamic also applies to actions.
  • The meaning of actions is also understood locally. 
There are actions that have a very similar meaning regardless of time and place. This is because all those local contexts share features in common. For example, the murder of an innocent person no doubt involves very similar dynamics around the world. (although we might be surprised to find differences even on this score).

However, there are many instances where the meaning of an action has everything to do with a cultural context. This is one benefit of spending some time immersed in a foreign culture--so you can see aspects of your own culture that do not apply in other places.

Rude gestures are a great example of how actions and events find their meaning in a particular context. When my son was very young, someone in an elementary school class told him that he couldn't lift his middle finger up. Proudly, my son showed him that he could, leading to uproarious laughter by several students.

The meaning of that action is not inherent in the universe. We learn it as we live in this culture. I could give the equivalent English gesture, and most Americans would think I was giving a peace sign. The meanings of those actions are not universal. They are culturally-defined.

2. So it is that the Bible was not written so blandly and generally that all its instruction is as broad as "Love your neighbor." (Again, even what it means concretely to love someone else can vary widely from culture to culture) When God spoke to the audiences of the Bible through human writers, he spoke in a way that was timely and relevant to them.

The implication of this fact, however, is that some of the biblical instruction is not as directly relevant to every time and place and some of the specific instruction does not apply directly at all. In many cases, our traditions of interpretation have reinterpreted the sense of the biblical words to make them continue to be relevant, even though their original meaning is not.

A good example of this dynamic is the instruction in Deuteronomy 14:21: "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk." We do not know enough of the historical context to know for sure what the reasoning behind this instruction is. Probably the best guess is that it has something to do with Canaanite religion.

What is certain is that it had nothing to do with the way this verse is applied in orthodox Judaism today...

[By the way, being Jewish does not intrinsically give a person any greater insight into the historical context of the Old Testament. At most, one may be more aware of literature and traditions than the average person. But the same historical data that are available to Jews today are available to anyone else. In some cases, acquaintance with the Mishnah and Talmud can actually hinder an open-minded listening to the biblical texts, which predate these rabbinic sources by hundreds of years. Judaism before AD70 was much more diverse than later rabbinic Judaism.

[The bottom line is that while we celebrate the Old Testament people of God today and especially Messianic Jews, their Jewishness does not make them any greater experts on the meaning of the Bible--or give them any greater knowledge of the historical context of the Ancient Near East--than any other scholar. Such an interpreter especially needs to guard against anachronism--reading rabbinic and modern practices anachronistically into the Second Temple Period.]

... In Judaism today, you do not eat meat and milk in the same meal. The meat represents the young goat and the milk obviously relates to the mother's milk. But this tradition has nothing to do with the original meaning of this verse. There was a reason for the verse, one that had everything to do with the context in which the instruction arose.

In the same way, we naturally do our best to make sense of these words within our view of the world. So, metaphorically, is it not cruel to cook a child in the milk of its mother? Does this not point to a gross violation of the nurturing of motherhood? Is this not a horrendous evil?

Those are all truths we can take from the instruction. The point is that it is not at all clear that those were the original truths. They are rather truths that we see in the text as we read it with Christian values.

3  There is a bottom line here:
  • Doing the specifics of what the biblical authors instructed may not have the same meaning that they had. "Doing what they did isn't always doing what they did," especially if doing it in our context doesn't have the same significance today that it had in their context.
Indeed, it could be that "doing what they did" actually has the opposite meaning for us that it had for them. Instruction that actually freed women up for them may have the effect of constricting them today.

Take the question of drinking. None of the biblical texts completely prohibit drinking. They urge moderation, but only Nazirites did not drink at all. Jesus almost certainly drank fermented wine.

But, and here is the crucial point--this fact does not end discussion on whether Christians should drink today in every context. Doing what they did--drinking moderately--may not mean the same thing in every context today. Drinking at all in my own religious context had such a seriously bad significance at one point that I can't imagine that any loving person would have done it, even if it did not bother their own conscience.

Once again the fundamental truth comes home. The words of the Bible were not written originally to us today. No mature reading of Scripture will be unaware of this fact.
  • We should not simply apply biblical instruction in its specifics blindly to today. It is essential that we know why that instruction was given in the first place, which had everything to do with the context in which that instruction was given.
Since the pre-modern interpreter assumes that all the instruction of the Bible was written to them, this crucial dynamic is missed. We might end up dressing like we think biblical people dressed. We might end up doing things that are actually contrary to the point of the original instruction. The result is a kind of hermeneutical Amishness.

This is not, strictly, a matter of determining what in the Bible is cultural and what isn't.
  • Every single word of the Bible was cultural. That is to say, it took on meaning within the historical-cultural matrix in which it was written, just as every word we say has meaning in our own historical-cultural framework.
The question is what also applies directly to our culture, what indirectly can apply to our culture, what needs to be applied differently to our culture, and what should not be applied at all to our culture.

This is not relativism. This is finding the real points of continuity rather than blindly misapplying many things in ignorance. I can show the same spirit as Paul had when he greeted other men with a kiss (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:26)... without kissing them today. A holy handshake will do.

Much of the time, we process these issues subconsciously, using spiritual common sense. Often the Christian traditions we are in have processed them for us, drawing on the God-given wisdom of our communities of faith. Most of the time, we don't even realize this processing is happening.

But when we hit the borderline issues, when we can't agree on the common sense, the principle that the words and instructions of Scripture took their first sense from the contexts in which they were written gives us a fixed point (I would argue that the other important fixed point is the consensus of orthodoxy). It allows us to strip the layers of paint on paint that have accrued over the years, to see our own subjectivity more clearly, so that we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling from a standpoint of better contextual understanding.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

F4. God reveals himself in events apart from nature.

This is the fourth post in the first section in my series, a theology in bullet points. (Here are three of the later sections that I've already done).
God has revealed himself in events apart from nature.

1. Different Christian thinkers define a miracle in different ways. For many, a typical miracle situation is when someone looks like they are going to die but they spectacularly and unexpectedly pull through. Some would be fine with such a miracle taking place through the hands of a doctor. Or let's say that some people are trapped in a mine and it looks like they are going to die, but they "miraculously" pull through.

But I am defining a miracle in a very specific way. If the "natural" is when events follow the normal cause-effect operations of the universe, then a "miracle" is when God interrupts the normal cause-effect operations of the universe to do something. If you could track down and account for all the causes behind an event, you would not define it as a miracle by this definition. [1]

So perhaps the individual's recovery from sickness was unexpected and spectacular. But if you could account for the recovery scientifically, it would not be a miracle by this definition. By this definition, a miracle is when God interrupts and steps into the normal cause-effect chain of events and changes the outcome.

2. Special revelation is, by this definition, miraculous. We tend to think of revelation as informational--God sharing truth or giving a command. But revelation is much bigger than that. In Scripture, revelation is transformational. It is about more than head knowledge. It is even deeper when it involves person knowledge. We catch a picture of this "knowledge" when we realize that the clause, "Adam knew Eve" in Genesis 4:1 is about intimate relations.

So the deepest revelations are about encounter and experience of God. They are about "being known by God" (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9). [2] That sort of revelation changes our existence and is thus, "existential." It goes far beyond mere knowledge of information.

It should be clear by this definition that special revelation includes a vast amount more than the Bible. Indeed, the greatest revelation of all history took place when God stepped onto the human stage as Jesus, the Christ. In Christian belief, Jesus was not just some man that God chose and anointed. Jesus was God himself, interrupting the normal flow of human events, to become a human being.

While on earth, Jesus revealed God through his miracles, events that could not be accounted for under the normal operations of the universe. They were instances of the Spirit interrupting the normal flow of cause and effect through Jesus. Then of course the resurrection was not just a chance event. It was not a mostly dead individual who fooled some Roman soldiers and escaped the tomb a couple days later. No, it was a miracle. It was God changing the course of normal history.

3. Every instance of God speaking or revealing himself to a human being is thus miraculous by definition. Every instance is an instance of special revelation, revelation that involves God's direct intervention and insertion of himself into the world. God was involved in special revelation long before a single word of the Bible was written, and God continues to speak to people today, thousands of years after the Bible was written.

There is a group of Christians known as cessationists, who believe that gifts of prophesy and miracles were confined to the biblical period. But the Bible itself knows no such thing. Never in the New Testament are we given any indication that the gifts of the Spirit have a "sell by" date. When Paul says that, "where there are prophecies, they will cease" (1 Cor. 13:8), the context is not talking about prophecy in general, but about any one specific prophecy.

No, this line of thinking was invented by individuals who wanted to contain God within the words of the Bible. God cannot be so contained and to do so makes God smaller than he is. He is not a genie in a bottle. The whole world cannot contain him! He is a God who spoke and continues to speak.

Here it is worth noting that the "word of God" in Scripture is not in any way limited to Scripture. In John 1:14, the word of God made flesh is obviously not the Bible but Jesus Christ himself. Indeed, it is almost blasphemous to confuse the two, as if written words come anywhere close to the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God. It is almost to make the Bible into an idol.

Hebrews 4:12 is talking about something bigger than the Bible. Following Jewish tradition (e.g., see Wisdom 9:118:15, it is referring to God's spoken word of command, by which he accomplishes his will in the world (see Isaiah 55:11). [3] Similarly, James 1:18 is probably talking about something deeper than even just the preached word (let alone the written word), and the same goes for 1 Peter 1:23.

4. The revelation of God is much, much bigger than the written word, as crucial as it is. [4] God speaks to people in prayer every day. God speaks to us in worship. God speaks to us when we are baptized and as we take communion. To limit God's self-revelation to the Bible is to diminish him greatly, like those who in effect limited God's location to the temple.

But Stephen responds with the words of Isaiah: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?" (Acts 7:49-50). In the same way, the special revelations of God cannot be contained by human words.

God reveals himself in events apart from nature. The greatest such revelation was when God became human, worked among us through the Spirit, then rose again from the dead. [5] The second greatest revelation was in the series of books that we now know as the Scriptures. Beyond that point, God has revealed himself in the Church. But God continues to reveal himself to someone somewhere every day, and thus the "words" of God in history continue.

Next week: F5. There is a spectrum of Christian thinking on many issues.

[1] Some do not like this approach to miracles because they do not like to think of God allowing the universe to operate "on its own" in some way. They would like to see God as intimately determining every event. I do not take that approach. However, if you take my language in terms of how things appear (i.e., phenomenologically), then you can merely reinterpret my language in terms of what appears to be the normal cause and effect operation of the universe.

[2] Think, for example, of the revelation Paul experiences when he experiences the third heaven in 2 Cor. 12:1-7.

[3] This is an excellent example of how we unthinkingly can assume that the phrases we use in English in our traditions (e.g., "word of God") had the same meanings when the words of the Bible were written. But this just isn't the way it works. The meaning of these phrases then was a function of the way they used phrases then, not of how we use them today.

[4] In this series, we will develop a theology of Scripture in our section on sacraments. There we will think of Scripture as a "sacrament of revelation," a divinely appointed means of grace by way of revelation.

[5] You will also notice that, by this reckoning, Jesus himself does not exhaust the revelation of God in the world, at least not in terms of content and certainly not in terms of event.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Family History 17: Notes for My Children

So we come to the end of my family history posts. I'll end with a few notes on my own life.

I was born in Indianapolis in the mid-60s, but my Dad's job took him to Florida in 1970. So I am a Hoosier by birth but a Floridian by childhood. I've never really felt like a Hoosier, although the family history I have been telling is a story that nearly goes back to the birth of the State of Indiana in 1816.

I have always been grateful for the high school education I received in Florida in the 70s. Integration was never a question. My teachers taught critical thinking and the evaluation of ideas on the basis of evidence, not sentiment or tradition. I know several of them were devout believers, but I am grateful that class was a neutral ground, a place where all ideas could be considered and evaluated by the canons of evidence and logic.

I felt like my teachers in high school could have been college teachers. I can't even express what a phenomenal math teacher Mr. Pickett was. He was a devout Christian too. Mr. Atkinson taught chemistry to bring everyone along, so I'm sure we didn't get as far along as we could have. But those were two tremendous years. I still remember some of the experiments we did. Mr. Stock made me a citizen of the world with a run through world culture that included everything from philosophy to art history to architecture. What great literature we read with Mrs. Gauss, Mr. Hadley, and Mrs. Van Roo.

These teachers began to open up my mind to a world of understanding beyond my wildest imagination. They gave me my first glimpse of what it meant to touch the universe with your mind. Those moments of enlightenment can come hard and fast when you're in your teens and twenties (not as frequent in your forties, I'm afraid). My passion has always been to share that world with others, which is why my all time favorite class to teach has to be introductory philosophy.

Central Wesleyan College
After high school, I felt like God wanted me to go to our area church school, much to Mr. Atkinson's puzzlement. I don't know if I'd have been mature enough at that point not to crash during a first year at the University of Miami or Florida State. CWC, now SWU, was a very personal place, where you knew your professors and they were truly in loco parentis. I probably needed that care my first year of college, sad to say. I probably needed to mature more as a person than I needed to learn chemistry.

SWU is in a beautiful location, with beautiful mountains and lakes nearby. The flowers at Clemson are astonishingly beautiful at the beginning of the Spring. I took a physics class there and got a taste of what a big university is like.

I started as a chemistry major. A warning to all high school AP students--whether you get AP credit or not, you should retake courses that are fundamental to your major in college. Two years of high school chemistry just isn't the same as a year of college chemistry, no matter how good your teacher is.

I hate to confess that I was pretty lost in the advanced experimental chemistry classes I found myself in my first year at Central. But there were also advantages to such a small school, with only three chemistry majors at the time. We all had keys to the lab and could spend an all nighter catching up on experiments if we needed to... making instant tea with magnetic stirrers and serving mac-n-cheese in Petri dishes, after boiling the noodles in a beaker on a Bunsen Burner.

I had enough AP credit to graduate in three years. I really didn't want to, but my scholarship only covered enough hours to graduate, not to go four years. My Dad, by the way, was on the Board of Trustees of CWC at that time, which is how I really got acquainted with CWC in the first place.

I finished the first year in chemistry, but felt called to ministry at the end of the first semester. I wanted to finish the degree in chemistry too but, alas, it was not to be. At the same time, I had the hardest time focusing in college. I wanted to read, read, read with all my heart. But I would read the same sentences over and over and over and over. I had the hardest time focusing.

Sometimes you wish you could go back and help yourself out, give the techniques you eventually learned to cope with those sorts of problems.

Asbury Seminary
Asbury was to deepen a new direction and trajectory for me as a Christian. My family was obviously very conservative Wesleyan holiness. I've written a little of my hermeneutical autobiography elsewhere. I don't want to take up much space here to write of my struggles of conscience as a young person.

Let's just say that I spent years tortured over the question of whether I was truly saved or not. The preaching of my childhood clustered around a couple of key themes. One was the need to have certain landmark spiritual experiences, namely, salvation and sanctification. The other main one was the need to live without sinning, including all the external things you shouldn't do.

Given that preaching, I pretty much felt like I was the only Christian at my high school (which was completely false)... except that I constantly questioned whether I had experienced a definitive enough experience to count for any of the landmarks. In college I tortured one girl as much with my self-doubt about whether I was truly saved as I did over whether I was truly in love. I'm sure I was a little reminiscent of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.

College raised questions, brought up "naughty data" about the way I had grown up looking at the world. I had grown up thinking that a spiritual girl, for example, would ideally look a certain way. But some of the most spiritual female students I knew at college didn't look that way at all. I read through Galatians on Easter Sunday, 1987, and had a cathartic moment of realization: my approach to Christianity aligned with Paul's opponents, not with Paul.

It was a major turning point in my Christian pilgrimage, perhaps the most significant one of all. It was the beginning of a path toward peace. Up till then, I spent my days hyper-reflective, filled with introspective naval gazing, a regular cycle of self-doubt and psychological torture. "Lord, please forgive me if I've sinned. Lord, please forgive me if I've sinned."

There was a kind of peace that Easter morning. It wasn't salvation. It wasn't sanctification. I had experiences of peace I counted for those, despite recurring doubts. This was a trajectory of peace. It was a peace about the fact that God was a God of love rather than wrath. It was a peace that God was a God of principle, not of precept.

In retrospect, I would say that I started to emerge from a pre-modern religious worldview at Asbury. Asbury taught me well how to read the Bible in context. Indeed, I consider my grounding in IBS with professors like David Bauer and David Thompson to have given me an advantage over many a PhD in Bible who are not rigorous in the discipline of listening to the text.

Bauer and Thompson are both men of faith, but I never felt like they were cooking the books. I had other professors at Asbury who, even though I agreed with them, seemed to me to be skewing the evidence to fit their version of faith. Ironically, they actually tended to de-convince me of their positions in the process of trying to convince me of their positions.

The IBS I learned at Asbury left me with a strong commitment to letting the inductive evidence go wherever it seemed to lead. Interestingly, I did not consider either Asbury or the Wesleyan Church at that time to be evangelical (a title that apparently only 2% of outsiders 16-29 have a good impression of). Indeed, IBS at Asbury increasingly led me to look with suspicion on the biblical scholarship of the "mainline evangelical" institutions because it seemed like they often were places of deductive Bible study, where they told the text more or less what it could mean.

University of Kentucky
When I switched to become a Religion major at CWC, I imagined that I would be a preacher. I enjoyed preaching because I liked thinking. There is a certain kind of preacher, like Steve Deneff, who are idea preachers. I found that very attractive and did some preaching in college with a traveling team of close friends. I supply pastored a couple summers, mostly preaching and doing visitation.

When I finished college, I didn't feel anywhere near mature enough to pastor a church full turkey, so I did what you did in my shoes. I went to seminary. As my time at Asbury continued, I began to realize that there was also a type of minister who taught in addition to preaching. I began to feel drawn to teaching.

In my final year at Asbury, I put out a fleece. If I became a Teaching Fellow at Asbury, teaching Greek and Hebrew, then I would continue on a trajectory to get a doctorate in New Testament. I had been interested in theology at first in college, because it initially seemed to me like there was more to work out at the intersection of philosophy and God. I figured I pretty much knew what the Bible already said.

But as the pre-modern blinders were more and more taken off, I realized more and more what an undiscovered country the Bible was for me. I also sensed subconsciously, I think, that I would always be a slave to someone else's interpretations if I did not know the Bible. I wanted to know what God thought for myself. I didn't want to be caught off guard.

In a way, the same reason I longed to know physics fueled my desire to study theology and the Bible. I wanted to know the ultimate basis for everything. Physics and philosophy could only take you so far. The Bible and theology could take me to the very thoughts of God.

Between the OT and the NT, it seemed clear to me that the complete mind of God was more to be found in the NT. Also, it seemed like the scholarly study of the OT had more landmines. No one seemed to care about Matthew starting from Mark. But to suggest that Genesis had sources would bring down the wrath of Josh McDowell on you.

If I hadn't been appointed Teaching Fellow, I would have taken a church in Florida and pastored. Who knows where that trajectory would have headed. I was not equipped to be anything but a small church pastor. I imagine I would have thirsted to study more at some point. I might have remained single a long time. The Wesleyan churches in Florida felt like islands far removed from each other.

But I became a Teaching Fellow. There are great moments in your life. 1985 was a spectacular year for me at CWC. 1990-93 were also some of the best. Great friends, a little money. I was largely free of my "Am I going to hell" fears. The future seemed endlessly bright.

I followed in the footsteps of Joe Dongell those years and did an MA in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Kentucky. I always felt like, at the end of a degree, I was where I wish I had been when I started. For example, although I knew Koine Greek, my first foray into classical Greek was Greek Drama--not a good place to start. And I had only had a little Latin in high school. Now I was taking masters classes in Virgil and Cicero. It was tough, to say the least.

I also taught a little at Asbury College while Dr. Harstad was on sabbatical for a year. I also taught some nurses at Midway College. Good experiences. A real privilege.

University of Durham
My three years in England, with a two month time in Tübingen in 1995, were incredibly rich for me. Immersed in a different culture for that long a time changes the way you understand your own culture. You don't get that on a short missions trip. You don't even get that living on a military base in another country.

In those pre-9-11 days, we were those funny, loud, stupid Americans (we became those dangerous, stupid Americans when we invaded Iraq). I think the St. John's College students must have cast me in Romeo and Much Ado just to hear my accent. Durham didn't require nearly the thick skin that Oxford would have required but it did require a little toughening.

It is a tremendous luxury to be able to think freely. Durham was mostly that for me. At the Graduate Seminar, the only rule was that you be able to think well and make a good argument based on the evidence. I was able to teach Greek at the university, which gave me a stipend.

St. John's College graciously hired me as a "Residential Tutor," which provided for my room and board. I taught Hebrew and a little Christology for Cranmer Hall, a theological school within John's. At that time, it trained both Anglican and Methodist vicars. The Methodist church of England has since pulled all its training to a single location, to the great dismay of many.

My time in Tübingen was also spectacular. I lived in the Kellar of Frau Michel, wife of the late Otto Michel, and met regularly with Professor Hermann Lichtenberger. I had good friends there, one of whom had come to Durham for a year. We had been on a rowing team for Johns together, a team of international misfits to be sure, with the other two from Spain and England. Our cox was a quirky aristocrat who could have been straight out of Four Weddings and a Funeral (Sorry, Helen ;-).

The Real World
I guess I'm thankful that I was so naive all those years about how easy it would be to get a teaching job with a doctorate in New Testament. Everyone is plenty willing to take your money for the education, but it's a quite different thing to get a faculty position. The current situation is notoriously difficult, with lots of unemployed, top flight, PhDs out there. I am thankful every day to have a job.

I spent a year substitute teaching in Florida to make end's meet, living at home. In the Spring of 1997, Kerry Kind also asked if I would be willing to spend a few months in Sierra Leone teaching at the Bible College just outside of Freetown. The country was in a lull in its civil war, and he wanted the Wesleyans there to know that they were not forgotten. I was single and expendable. :-) It was a great experience that I treasure, although for me it was not without its fears.

Freetown was overtaken less than two months after I left.

On the way back, Bud Bence arranged to have me come through Indiana to have a preliminary meeting about a possible teaching position at IWU. Very ironic, the thought of returning to the state of my birth. We met at a Steak n Shake in Elwood, now gone.

I think he saw it as taking a chance, to consider me. He felt like he had been burned with a Dunn graduate at Houghton who was at the center of a controversy on a particular issue. Bence was also looking for "thoroughbreds," people who could teach a wide range of courses. He had me pegged as a stereotypical academic who goes deep but not wide.

Ironically, I wasn't hired for that NT position. But they needed someone to teach philosophy for a year because Duane Thompson was retiring. There was no promise of a second. But one led to two, then the person they hired in NT left and I slid into her role. I'm now in my 18th year.

Indiana Wesleyan University
I have been at IWU since the Fall of 1997. I met my wife my first year there. I've raised my children here. I am, as I said, immensely thankful to have a job. IWU has truly been a family. I have felt valued. I have been able to teach subjects and write things I probably wouldn't have been able to teach or write elsewhere. IWU and Fulbright afforded me two more trips to Germany (2004, 2011), the first back to Tübingen and the second to Munich.

I've had a lot of good experiences while at IWU too. I adjuncted several years for Notre Dame, which was a great change of pace. My first few years at IWU, my family was able to go back to Europe for various conferences. At one in St. Andrews, Carey Newman took a chance on me and got Westminster John Knox to publish my first book, Understanding the Book of Hebrews. That was the break I needed to start writing.

In 2009, I felt called to be part of the seminary cadre to form the first ever seminary belonging to the Wesleyan Church. I have learned more about leadership, management, and organization in these last five years than all the rest of my life. In August we had a snapshot with 470 students, making us probably the fastest growing seminary in the world, under the leadership of Wayne Schmidt.

Who knows what comes next... For now, here endeth my family story.

Earlier posts:

1. The Revivalin' Twenties
In the Year 1920 (Dorsey Schenck, also see here)
From Quaker to Pilgrim (Harry Shepherd in 20s)
The Great Generation (my parents)

2. The Depression Thirties
Dutch Reformed Past (Samuel Schenck)
North Carolina Flashback (Eli Shepherd, also supplement)
Wanting to be Rich (Oscar Rich)

3. Passing Generations
Old German Baptist Heritage 1 (Amsy Miller, with clarifications here)
Old German Baptist Heritage 2 (Salome Wise)
The Dorsey Stream (Pearl Dorsey)

4. A New Family
Joining Two Streams (my parents)
A Young Family

5. The Closing Sixties
Prophet, Pastor, and Professor (Harry Shepherd)
The Wright Stuff (Seba Wright)
Flashback to Jamestown (Champion Shelburn)

6. Tales of My Life
Memories of Childhood
Notes for my Children

Friday, September 19, 2014

WSPK 3: Meaning is understood locally.

I have started a series, "What should a pastor know about the Bible?" In the first two posts, I have suggested the following hermeneutical points for starters:
  • The words of the Bible in themselves are susceptible to multiple interpretations.
  • The Bible as Scripture is as much transformational as informational.
  • We are always unaware to some extent of how much of "us" is in our reading of the Bible. Our default is to assume it means as it appears to us, not how it actually was originally.
  • The books of the Bible say they were written to people who have been dead a long time. To read the Bible literally is pretty much to read it as someone else's mail.
  • These books were first written to address many different times and places over many centuries in three different languages. The "y-o-u-s" of the Bible were not originally anyone alive today.
  • The Bible is more like a library of books than a single book. It was not one book originally.
  • For the most part, each book of the Bible was first written to stand alone, not to be read as part of a bigger book.
With this post, I want to end these preliminary observations of hermeneutics. Their implications will resound in profound ways in everything that follows. But I am almost ready to dive into the details.

1. The word "pre-modern" is not entirely helpful. For one thing, it sounds like a put-down. For another, as I define the word, we are all inevitably "pre-modern" and can never not be to some extent. I use it in reference to the fact that we all impose meaning on the world on the basis of our pre-understandings without knowing it. We are all "unreflective knowers" to some degree or another.

The term is often used to speak of a transition that took place in the 1600s in philosophy to what is then called "modernism." But not only has this supposed transition been heavily critiqued, but obviously not everyone in the 1600s suddenly changed hats to become modernists. Nevertheless, the basic concept, as I use it, refers to the fact that we tend to see meaning "in" things when in fact we are the ones projecting meaning onto them.

That isn't to say that there may not be factual aspects of the world that play a role in the meaning I ascribe to them. It's just that there is always a whole lot more of me in my interpretations of the world than I realize. This unreflectivity about the meaning I see in the world is what I mean when I speak of a pre-modern interpretation.

So when we unreflectively read the Bible as one book, not a collection of books, that is a pre-modern reading. We are making it one book in our minds when these were actually separate books written over the course of hundreds of years. When you unknowingly assume that Revelation 22:19 is about the whole Bible ("If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this book"), when it was really about the scroll of Revelation itself, that is a pre-modern interpretation.

Now you can knowingly read the texts as one book too, a "post" modern reading. You can knowingly take Revelation 22:19 in relation to the whole Bible. You might call this a return to a "second naivete." What I am calling pre-modern is when you do it without knowing you're doing it.

2. In the end, I am inevitably the one who understands meaning in things. Meaning inevitably takes place in my head, not in yours. The meaning I see in the Bible is inevitably a meaning I see. It cannot be otherwise. You can communicate your interpretation into my head, but once you do so, it is--as it always is--now an interpretation in my head.

I spent two months in Germany in 1995. Let's just say my German wasn't up to speed at that point. There may have been many a brilliant lunch conversation while I was there, but I don't know it. They just weren't able to get into my head. I used to say that my friends knew more about my time in Germany than I did.

In the same way, from a practical standpoint, it doesn't matter how fantastic the truth of the Bible is on its own time. It will never be more brilliant to me than it is assembled in my mind, at least as far as its informational aspect goes. Meaning is inevitably a function of my mind, and all meaning is understood locally.

3. What does this have to do with reading the Bible? Let's apply it to the first meaning of the books of the Bible. Each word of the Bible had a local meaning for them too, for the Israelites, Romans, and Corinthians.

2 Thessalonians 2:4-5 make help us begin to understand what this fact implies: "He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?"

Who is the "you" here?  It's no one reading this post. It was presumably some Christians who lived in Thessalonica in the first century. I am not the one to whom Paul was writing. [1] They had information, referential information, that I don't have. Paul was not with me a few months ago.

So what is the temple here? There was one standing in Jerusalem when this text was written. Is that what Paul was referring to? Am I to see this "man of lawlessness" in 2 Thessalonians 2 through the eyes of some Left Behind novel I've read? Or is there information Paul and Thessalonians had in common that I don't know, meanings local to them, to which I am just not privy?

4. This is an easy example. We just lack enough information to know for sure what Paul was fully saying. But here's one place that this whole conversation leads:
  • There are meanings the words of the Bible had that do not correspond to any words in English or concepts in our world. 
You just can't translate the books of the Bible straightforwardly into English or any other existing language today (including modern Greek and Hebrew). We just don't have the words. We just don't have the concepts. In ways we cannot even know, the meanings their Greek and Hebrew words had involved elements of their ancient world to which we are not privy and that we are not equipped to understand fully.

Take the idea of sacrifice. We can say, "A sacrifice was killing an animal to propitiate and please the gods." But that doesn't mean we really understand sacrifices. Frankly, the notion of sacrifice was so primal, so deeply ingrained on the subconscious of the ancients, that I'm not sure they even knew how it worked or what it was all about.

There is a "deep structure" to the meaning of sacrifice, requiring a "thick description" of the ancient psyche. I would like to think we can come close to understanding it, but I guarantee you the English word sacrifice doesn't come close. In a world that doesn't offer sacrifices, it's going to take some doing for us to understand sacrifices.

Here is the end of today's post:
  • The first meanings of the books of the Bible was a function of the way words were used at the times and places when those books were written, and those meanings were largely if not entirely a function of their ancient worldviews.
  • My default interpretations of their words are not some timeless, universal meaning. Rather, my default interpretations of their words are also a function of the way words are used in my time and place, and the meanings I see are largely if not entirely a function of my modern worldview.
  • Meaning is always understood locally.
So could not God have inspired them to write universally instead of locally, for all time instead of for their time? This sounds like a pious answer, but it is really asking one of the following questions:
  • Couldn't God have inspired the Bible so that it was irrelevant to the people to whom it was first written and only became totally relevant when I came along and understood it from my modern perspective? or
  • Couldn't God have inspired the Bible so generally that it fit in all local contexts? In other words, so that it really doesn't give much specific help to any one culture but just gives really general information, the kind that would apply anywhere?
The first meaning would be highly self-centered. The second just isn't what we find in the Bible. It's a lot more helpful that that. When we dive into history, we find that these words made total sense at the specific times and places when they were written.

This turns out just to be a defensive reaction that won't hold up against examination. It is a pre-modern perspective in transition to a contextual one.

[1] I'm ignoring for now debates over whether Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians and, thus also, whether it was actually written to Thessalonica.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

WSPK 2: The world in front of the text

I started a series yesterday--What should a pastor know about the Bible? (WSPK) Yesterday I made two key points:
  • The words of the Bible in themselves are susceptible to multiple interpretations.
  • The Bible as Scripture is as much transformational as informational.
2. Today, I want to dive a little deeper into the first one.
  • We are always unaware to some extent of how much of "us" is in our reading of the Bible. The less we know about ourselves, the less we are able to read the Bible as something other than a mirror.
This is especially the case if we have grown up hearing certain interpretations and ways of reading the Bible. So I grew up in the Wesleyan-holiness tradition. So grew up with certain definitions of words like "holiness" and "sanctification." I grew up reading Acts 2 a certain way that I inherited.

As it turns out, these interpretations had as much to do with the nineteenth century American holiness movement as they did with what the various biblical authors likely had in mind. Inevitably, we are all wearing glasses that color our reading of the Bible. No one can escape them completely. We can't know when we're not aware of something... because we're not aware of it!

We call this element of reading the Bible, "the world in front of the text." It's me, and all the preconceptions I bring as a reader, sitting in front of the text. I assume the text is as it appears to me. And I don't realize how different it appears to someone else... including those to whom it was first written.
2. So what is the right interpretation of the Bible? That is the ultimate question, isn't it?

Here's at least a place to start:
  • The books of the Bible say they were written to ancient Israelites, Thessalonians, Corinthians, etc. That means their first meanings were meanings that made sense to these ancient people in the way they used words at their times and their places. 
It may be difficult at first to appreciate the magnitude of this statement and how far its implications reach. We tend to read the Bible as God speaking to us, not as Paul to the Philippians or even God speaking through Paul to the Philippians. What was the literal meaning of the Bible? It was the meaning that was communicated and understood by those to whom it actually says it was first written.

Our first reaction might be, "It doesn't matter that it was written to them first. God inspired it for all times and all places." Let's hold that thought for now. Perhaps this is true in some sense. My point right now is that we know it was written to them. We have to argue it is for us too because that's not really what the books of the Bible themselves say for the most part.

So let's hold off on the question of the extent to which the Bible might be God's word for all times and all places. Let's start with some absolutely obvious truths about the first meanings of the Bible.
  • The Bible was not one book originally. It was dozens of books written over many centuries in at least three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek).
  • They were originally written to audiences at different times and places. That is to say, the "yous" in the Bible were, in the first place, no one alive today. "YOU shall have no other gods before me" was first spoken to ancient Israelites (Exod. 20:3) who lived over 3000 years ago. 
  • For the most part, therefore, each book of the Bible was originally a stand-alone book. For the most part, they were first written to be read separately, not as a collection.
In the first place, we are reading someone else's mail when we read the books of the Bible. Perhaps it is also our mail in some way too. But we should not miss the obvious for that which must be argued. The obvious is that it was their mail first.

What we will find is that to read them for us as well usually requires us to take them in a less than literal way, in an extended sense. Chances are, you know how to read them in an extended sense. The greater blind spot is knowing how to read them for what they literally meant originally, their first meaning in context.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Does your church hit all spiritual styles?

Looking at Gary Thomas' Sacred Pathways in spiritual formation at the seminary. He reminds us that we don't all experience God as naturally the same way. It only makes sense that God would speak to each of us differently depending on our personalities and dominant intelligence.

It is not an excuse to relate to God in only one way--we should expand our experiences of God. And some congregations will almost inevitably minister more to one set of styles than another. But it is worth asking the question. Does your church unthinkingly minister more or less to only one type of person?  Here is my modified version of Thomas' list of styles:

1. The Idea Person
So is your church just about ideas, just hitting one type of person? Is your church just about hearing some nifty ideas on Sunday morning?

2. The Ritual Person
Is your church just a place for the person who likes things like liturgy, saying creeds, taking communion?

3. The Activist
Is your church just about politics and what is going on in the world that needs to be stopped? Is your church just about doing things in the community?

4. The Emotionalist
Is your church just about excitement and getting an emotional rush, miracles, tongues, the public exercise of spiritual gifts?

5. The Caregiver
Is your church just about helping people who are suffering or in need in the congregation?  Is it about fellowship and being with one another?

6. The Contemplative
Is church primarily about prayer and waiting for God? Is it about mystery and deeply personal experiences of the divine?

7. The Monk
There is a kind of person who most experiences God by self-denial and retreat. Fasting and silence are the kinds of things that are tickets to divine encounter.

8. The Senses Person
There is a type of person that encounters God most easily through the senses--the eyes, the ears, the smell, the taste, the touch. Maybe this person can build something for the church as an offering to God.

9. The Nature Person
There is a person who most easily encounters God on a lake, in the woods, or climbing a mountain.

So we shouldn't say that one way of encountering God is better than another, although there are some that aren't optional. Coming together in worship is not optional for the nature person. And the idea person is impoverished if s/he doesn't take communion. The activist needs some ideas to be active about. Etc...

But is your church a one stop shop?  Do you just give ideas with no plan of action? Do you lack actions that are repeated and have a common story behind them? Do you have retreats? Do you have something for the person who needs to do something with his or her hands?

What should a pastor know about the Bible?

I'm thinking about starting a new series. What should a pastor know about the Bible?

I'm not talking about content. I'm assuming a pastor will know the content of the Bible. I'm talking about things contextual and hermeneutical.

What is the Bible?
So I think it is appropriate to make the first post hermeneutical. Hermeneutics, by one definition, is the study of meaning and interpretation. How is it that the Bible comes to have meaning to us?

I imagine a common response to the question, "What is the Bible?" would be, "the inspired word of God." That is the appropriate salute, but what do we mean when we say something of this sort?
  • It is, at the very least, a salute to God's authority as mediated in some way through the words of the Bible.
  • It usually implies that the Bible gives me the right answers to the questions of life.
  • It usually implies that the Bible gives me commands on how to live.
1. However, these responses do not answer the most crucial question of all--how am I to understand the words of the Bible? There is usually an assumption in this answer that the meaning of the Bible is self-evident and obvious, which experience tells us it is not.
  • This is the first insight I would like to mention about what a pastor should know about the Bible. The words are susceptible to multiple interpretations. The panoply of differing denominations is not an indicator of our godlessness. It is a direct reflection of the ambiguity of language, especially religious language (we tend to read Scripture differently than we read ordinary communication). It also reflects the pervasive lack of training in how to read the Bible in context, which at least potentially can delimit the polyvalence of the biblical texts.
I don't see how anyone could even begin to argue anything to the contrary and still drive down your average city block in America with its ten different churches.

2. A second point is much more crucial. These responses to the question, "What is the Bible?" tend toward an informational reading of Scripture. But think about it, if the primary function of Scripture is informational--what I should believe and how I should live--then it is not formatted very helpfully. If the primary function of the Bible is informational, then the best thing to do is to break it down into a systematic presentation of what we should believe and how we should live.

If the Bible is only informational, then we should stop worrying about preaching from the biblical texts themselves and should focus on its implicit theology in preaching and teaching. If its purpose is primarily informational, then its actual genres (stories, occasional letters, prophecies to Israel, etc) are distracting. We should boil the content down and extract it for more efficient use.

This leads us to a second realization about Scripture:
  • The Bible is as much or more transformational as it is informational. We have a different experience when we read Genesis as a story than when we try to extract its implicit ideas and practices. In that sense, it is not primarily a book of answers or ideas. It is a sacrament of transformation, a divinely appointed place to encounter God.
That's enough for today. Today I suggested that a pastor should have a larger sense of the Bible than it simply being an answer, idea, or worldview book. It is a book more for God to do something to us than a book for us to find out something.

More to come...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two Resources for Pastors

I was delighted to receive in the mail yesterday the second edition of Craig Keener's well known The IVP Bible Background Commentary. What a great idea--the one piece of the puzzle you can't get from the text itself is the historical and cultural background of the text. These are the things the text assumes because the original author and audience already knew it, swam in it. But you don't know it because you're swimming in the twenty-first century.

So how about a commentary that goes passage by passage with a view to the background you have no other way of knowing? As you would expect, the commentary comes from a mainstream American evangelical perspective.

Also of tremendous value on this score are the social-scientific commentaries of Bruce Malina.

I also would like to suggest the Eerdman's Commentary on the Bible as the best one volume commentary on the whole Bible. It will give you the most recent historical-cultural background of passages in dialog with the most recent informed discussion of scholarship.

Matthew Henry is good for spiritual insight, but this is the kind of source you want for contextual insight, all in one volume. The authors tend to be British evangelical-ish. That's the best of both worlds--faith-friendly but truth-insistent.

10 Years a Blogger

Today's the tenth anniversary of my first blog post. If you are a young scholar thinking of blogging, here are my reflections.

1. I have a platform. I view my near daily posts as something like a newspaper. People scan the headlines of all sorts of info sources and if my title strikes a fancy, you might just take a gander. The discipline of such regular posting means that I have a voice, for good or ill.

2. I have grown from the interactions. I have learned from critique. I have probably become less provincial, because I get reaction from all sides. I have developed a thicker skin. I've had a taste of what it must be like to be a politician.

3. I have cranked out a number of popular Christian books here, including some self-published one.

1. While I have written nearly ten books by blogging through, my scholarly writing has slowed down. I don't feel like I can blog through scholarly writing for more than one reason. It's hard to set aside time for the slow and arduous task of scholarly writing when you put the near instant gratification of blogging next to it.

2. I have made myself more controversial than I prefer. A blog inevitably blurs differing social roles. There is a way of being with family, with a local church, with a group of scholars, with friends who have one perspective versus friends who have another.

So I am just not sure if it's a good idea for Scotland to leave Great Britain. Most of you don't care. But James Petticrew does! I thought about posting something on the upcoming vote, but in deference to James I won't. :-)

In normal conversation, a polite person moderates their thoughts. A blog makes all thoughts accessible. You can't escape controversy without graying everything out.

On the whole, I think the pros have probably outweighed the cons, although I'm determined to write more on a scholarly level, even if it means backing off daily posts.

P.S. I think Word Press is probably the way to go if you're just starting out.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Worship of Jesus, again

I'm trying to finish a piece on Hebrews and Christology, and I thought I'd use the blog to process some thoughts again. I wrote a piece in 2008 here on the spectrum of positions on the worship of Jesus and received some good feedback from friends. I want to try again.

1. First, let me name the individuals whom I consider to be key players in this discussion. That is to say, any categorization scheme I come up with needs to account with sufficient nuance for the positions of these scholars (I've thrown in some whom I want to be mentioned in the footnotes):
  • Jarl Fossum
  • Margaret Barker
  • Peter Hayman
  • Alan Segal
  • Maurice Casey
  • James D. G. Dunn
  • Loren Stuckenbruck
  • Larry Hurtado
  • Richard Bauckham
  • Paula Frederickson
  • James McGrath
  • Adela Yarbro Collins
  • William Horbury
  • Bart Ehrman
2. What are the key questions? In my 2008 post, I suggested that three questions suffice to adequately categorize these thinkers:
  • Did those who believed Jesus was the Messiah worship him in the strictest sense of that term?
  • If they did, did this worship stand outside the boundaries of mainstream Jewish monotheism?
  • When did this worship of Jesus first take place and what factors facilitated it?
I am pondering whether it would be more precise to present these questions in a slightly more involved form:

a. Was the worship of YHWH exclusive within mainstream Judaism at the time of Christ? A fundamental question is of course what it means to "worship" a being.

b. If it was, to what extent did Judaism allow for the reverence or worship of subsidiary beings as a special case of the worship of the one God YHWH?

c. At what point did the early Christians begin to worship Jesus? Within incipient Christian Judaism? Within early Hellenistic Christianity? Within late first century Christianity or later?

d. Was this worship in continuity with Jewish precedents (especially in conjunction with the answer to #2 above), or did it mark an unprecedented innovation? Was that innovation a "parting" from Jewish monotheism or somehow a new variation on it?

3. So let me try to run Richard Bauckham through this series of questions.

a. He believes the worship of YHWH was exclusive.
b. He also believes that the Jews did not worship any other subsidiary being, even one closely associated with YHWH.
c. He believes the worship of Jesus was very, very early in incipient Christian Judaism.
d. He considers it a clear innovation, but not one that parted from Jewish monotheism. Rather, Jesus is understood to be within the identify of the one God, whose oneness is typified by his role in creation, in eschatology, and in being the sole recipient of sacrifices.

4. Now let me try Larry Hurtado, who perhaps will correct me if I'm wrong.

a. He believes the worship of YHWH was exclusive.
b. He does not believe that Jews actually worshiped any of the agents of God in early Judaism before Christ, although there was the rise of the two power heresy later.
c. He believes that the worship of Jesus was very, very early within incipient Christian Judaism.
d. He considers it a significant mutation, one helped by the traditions about divine agents in Judaism, but of a distinctly new form. Jesus is cultically worshiped in a way they were not. I believe he sees this as a significant discontinuity with mainstream Judaism, worthy of the name, "binitarian."

5. Now let me try James Dunn:

a. He believes the worship of YHWH was exclusive.
b. He does not believe that Jews worshiped any of the agents of God in early Judaism before Christ.
c. He believes that the worship of Jesus in any strong sense was slow to develop within early Christianity.
d. He thus believes that earliest Christianity remained in continuity with Jewish monotheism in the sense that the early veneration of Jesus was not in discontinuity with Jewish precedents.

6. Now let me try Margaret Barker:

a. She did not believe that the worship of YHWH was exclusive. There was at least one other deity, Elohim. (I have always considered her positions bizarre in the extreme)
b. I suppose this makes the second question a bit moot.
c. She thus doesn't have a problem with the early worship of Jesus, I don't think.
d. And she sees the worship of Jesus in continuity with earlier Jewish tradition.

I'd be curious to know if other scholars find this way of approaching categorization helpful. Let me try James McGrath:

a. I believe he considers the worship of YHWH generally exclusive.
b. But he does believe there were precedents for a softer worship of other beings associated with YHWH within a Judaism whose understanding of monotheism changed over time.
c. He does not believe that the earliest worship of Jesus was as robust as Hurtado or Bauckham think. In particular, Jesus was never the recipient of sacrificial worship.
d. He thus does not see the early reverence of Jesus as any kind of departure from the monotheistic precedents within Judaism.

How'd I do, James?

F3. God has revealed himself in nature.

This is the third post in the first section in my series, theology in bullet points. (Here are three of the later sections that I've already done).
God has revealed himself in nature. [1]

1. That is to say, certain aspects of the creation suggest truths about God. As Psalm 19:1 puts it, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." The magnificence of the creation suggests the magnificence of the God who rules over it.

In later articles, we will discuss various options concerning God's relationship to the creation. There, we will suggest that historic Christianity 1) considers the creation to be something distinct in existence from God. In opposition to pantheism, which holds that the creation is God, and in opposition to panentheism, which sees the creation as part of God, orthodox Christianity sees the creation as something distinct from God that God created out of nothing. At one point, the creation did not exist. Then God spoke and it did.

A 2) second consideration is the degree to which God has created the universe to run on its own. That is to say, does God determine everything that happens by his continuous action in the universe on the quantum level? Some Christian traditions would say yes; other traditions leave room for the possibility that God has created the world to run on its own by certain "natural laws." I am writing these explorations of Christian theology, the study of all things relating to God, from a perspective that can allow for belief in natural laws. [2]

The idea of natural law is more or less intrinsic to science, where it refers to the predictable nature of the way the universe works, at least on the macro-scale. [3] We can distinguish between nature and miracle by using the word "natural" to refer to events that seem to follow the normal operations of the universe and "miracle" to refer to God's interruptions of the normal operations of the universe in order to do something. [4]

Natural revelation thus refers to aspects of the universe, in its normal patterns of operations, that point to truths about God. To believe in natural revelation is thus to believe that the normal operations of the world point to truths about God.

2. The three classic arguments for the existence of God fall into this category. The first two relate mostly to the so called law of cause and effect. "For every effect, there is an adequate cause." So if the universe began at a particular point, we seemingly need to account for the cause of its beginning. The current majority position of cosmology (the study of the universe) is that the universe did indeed begin at a particular point in time. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask why it began when it did.

The Christian answer is to suggest that God is the cause, and that God created the universe out of nothing. [5] This is the cosmological argument for God's existence, the argument from cause and effect. We might formulate this argument in this way:

1. Everything event we observe in the macro-universe has a cause.
2. It is reasonable to suggest that the entire universe began in an event at a point in time.
3. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that there was a cause behind that event. [6]

You will notice that I have only suggested the reasonableness of belief in God as Creator. A deductive presentation might start with faith and go in the opposite direction:

1. Christians affirm that God created the universe out of nothing.
2. In order to cause something, there must be as much potential power in the causes as the effects.
3. Therefore, God is "all-powerful" in relation to the creation. He had as much power as he created.

The teleological argument or the argument from design is similarly based on an aspect of cause and effect. In this argument, the complexity of the world suggests that the universe had a designer. For example, William Paley (1743-1805) suggested that, if you find a watch, you immediately wonder whose it is. You do not suspect that nature has accidentally caused the watch to exist. You assume there was a designer.

In the same way, the argument goes, the beauty and complexity of the universe suggests an intelligent Designer. In more recent times, the theory of evolution and chaos theory might be thought to work against the argument from design. The theory of evolution is the theory that holds that the complex forms of life we observe to day evolved from simpler forms of life over the course of millions of years. Chaos theory suggests that instances of complexity will result randomly over time as a result of the sheer number of events taking place (it is the "truth is stranger than fiction" principle).

In the end, these theories merely push the question back further. So evolution takes place by a set of rules, and chaos theory also follows the laws of cause and effect. As Richard Swinburne has suggested, the question of design can be pushed back to the very existence of laws of nature themselves. [7]

A third classic argument is problematic in its earlier forms, but may hold some force if modified. The ontological argument as presented by Anselm (1033-1109) largely amounted to saying that, because we can conceive of God, he must exist. It went something like the following:

1. God exists in my mind as the greatest possible Being.
2. But to be the greatest possible Being, he must exist in the world of senses as well as my mind.
3. Therefore, God must also exist in the world of senses.

This argument does not make sense. It mixes apples and oranges (my thoughts and the world outside my thoughts) on the basis of assumptions Anselm made about the world. These are assumptions with which most of us no longer agree (namely, Platonic assumptions).

However, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) made an argument that we might also modify to create a form of revised ontological argument.

1. The existence of everything we observe is contingent. Nothing we observe has to exist.
2. But if the existence of everything is contingent, then the universe in theory, might not exist.
3. This is contrary to what we know, namely, that the universe does exist.
4. Therefore, there must be at least one Entity that exists necessarily.

Christians call this Necessary Being God, the "ground of all being."

3. These arguments, based more or less on the natural realm, probably do not prove the existence of God. However, they seem to be reasonable arguments. They suggest that the existence of a "First Cause" or "First Mover" who was an "Intelligent Designer" and a "Necessary Being" who grounds all being is reasonable.

Next week: F4. God reveals himself in events apart from nature.

[1] In a later article, we will note that God is not literally male. He does not have sexual organs. If it were natural English to say, "God has revealed Godself in history" or "personself," it would be more literal.

[2] I am writing from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective. This is a perspective that historically derives from the thinking of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) and John Wesley (1703-91). However, it is not limited to their thinking. See F5. There is a spectrum of Christian thinking and practice.

[3] The atomic and subatomic level, as it turns out, is much less predictable, at least in terms of our current understanding.

[4] These definitions can work for those who believe God determines everything that happens as well. They will simply believe that the distinction here is between the normal predictable way God acts, which look like natural laws, and those instances where he does not act in that way.

[5] We discuss the question of where God came from in a later article.

[6] In Christian circles, William Lane Craig is known for a certain version of the medieval Kalaam argument. It goes something like the following (I am paraphrasing): 1) Infinites do not exist in the real world, only theoretically in math; 2) an infinite past would be an infinite in the real world; 3) therefore, the universe must have had a beginning. It seems difficult to me, however, to demonstrate either 1 or 2, despite my agreement that 3 is true.

It is currently fashionable in cosmological circles to speak of multiple universes and the creation of our universe as a sort of bubble that arose within the multi-verse. Such schemes do not disprove the cosmological argument. For example, they could take it further back than we could possibly imagine at this point. There are also alternative creation schemes that, while historically "heterodox" or outside the mainstream, could be engaged in the never-ending search for the all truth that is God's truth.

[7] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University, 2004)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Family History 16: Eli Shepherd Supplement

I've already written about the Shepherds in this series. As this series comes to a close, I wanted to wrap up my further attempts to figure out this line.

1. Elijah Washington Shepherd (1839-96)
My grandfather's dad, Washington, died when my Grandpa was still 12. Washington applied a few times for some sort of pension or disability for injuries sustained during the Civil War. A cavalry horse ran over him, it seems, while he was escorting an unruly soldier back to camp in Arkansas. He seems to have sustained some sort of back injury that he carried with him the rest of his life.

On his pension application, he says he was born in Alamance County, North Carolina on March 25, 1839. This is a curious statement because 1) Alamance County wasn't founded until 1850, 2) all the census records have him born in Indiana, and 3) his parents seem to have been married in 1834 in Scott County, Indiana. Like so much of our history-telling, I think he was giving a truth, but he got a little confused.

I think his father's family was from North Carolina in the Randolph/Guilford/Alamance County (then Orange County) area, but I seriously doubt at this point that Washington himself ever set foot in North Carolina, unless it was passing through during the war.

In 1840, Washington and his two older sisters, Nancy and Ibe Jane, were less than five years old and living in Scott County, Indiana. Both of his parents were illiterate. I don't know what they were going for with "Ibe." She is variously listed in censuses as Ibia (1880) and Ibby (1900), even Ibbia.

By 1850, they had moved to Clay County and had two more girls: Emma (1847) and Louisa (1850).

In 1860 when the census was taken, Washington was working as a day laborer just over the border in Crawford County, Illinois. On August 31, 1861, he enlisted as a Private in Company C, Indiana's 11th Infantry Regiment. I wonder if he was motivated by financial reasons.

After the war, in 1867 he would marry my G-Grandmother Seba. They would live in Sullivan, Indiana. In 1870 he is listed as a "brick moulder." Both he and his wife were illiterate at that time.

By 1880, my Grandpa Shepherd's two older sisters had been born--Marquerite (1877) and Nora (1880). Now he is listed as a Blacksmith. This census suggests he could now read and write, but that Seba couldn't write. She died in 1890 and he died in 1896.

2. Wesley D. Sheppard
Parallel to Washington is either an uncle or a cousin named Wesley, born in the Guilford County, North Carolina area, July 17, 1823. He would marry Catharine Patience Reynolds on March 21, 1850 in Guilford County, and they would immediately leave for Indiana that year.

His name, and the name of his third son, Charles Wesley Sheppard, suggest to me that he was Methodist. Catharine, however, was of Quaker background, although she married out of unity when she married him. Her family had a strong connection with the Center Friends Meeting in Guilford County. She was still 23 when they married. Although she married out of unity, a very nice obituary for her when she died in 1911 suggests she continued to have good ties with the Quaker community back at Center.

I know almost nothing of where Wesley had been prior to his marriage. He must have lived in the area long enough to get to know Catharine. Sometimes I wonder if his family had already headed west and he came back for her.

A contact has added more information to this puzzle. Another individual has a letter from Catharine to a niece of Wesley. Her name is Theresa Sheppard, born in Randolph County, North Carolina in 1843. I have not been able to come up with any Sheppards, Shepherds, or close in Randolph County after 1810, so it's clear to me that the census records are incomplete.

In the letter, Catharine apologizes for not getting to see Theresa when she last visited Guilford, but she had no transportation. She is writing post-Civil War, I suspect in the late 1860s, because she mentions that a cousin of theirs, George Washington Shepard, had died in the war fighting for the South. There are other clues in the letter that I haven't fully figured out. 

One key clue is that Catharine had not heard from "Father Shepard" and "feared most of them dead.." This might suggest to me that Wesley's father had continued west beyond Indiana (or had remained in Kentucky). I'm assuming he would have been Theresa's grandfather.

Here are some other clues, however. Theresa herself seems to have had Quaker associations. This suggests to me that the Shepherds were in fact Quakers in origin, although perhaps not always good ones. My searching of the records suggests that the realities of frontier life often required men to be less than perfect Quakers, especially when war called.

To finish the Wesley story, we pick him up in Sullivan County in the 1860 census. He is listed as a farmer. On July 1, 1863, he is listed in relation to the draft. I'm getting a sense that no one wanted to mention that they were born in North Carolina in that time period.

In 1862, he is listed as a wagon wheel maker in Brick Mill, 12 miles east of Sullivan. In 1864 he died and was buried in Pleasantville Cemetery, Sullivan County. Apparently he was stabbed in Kentucky or Tennessee somehow and died later of infection.

Catharine would then move to Linton and spend most of the rest of her life in Greene County.

3. William Shepperd
There are two William Shepperds living in Randolph County, North Carolina in 1810. I suppose that makes it simple. One of them was probably my ancestor. Both of them have two sons who are less than 10 years old. If my GG-Grandfather Eli Shepherd was one of these two children, then we have the beginning of the family tree I know.

Here is a theory. William Shepperd, born about 1780, was living in Randolph County, North Carolina in the year 1810. At that time he had two sons. One was my G-Grandfather Eli Washington Shepherd. The other's name is unknown to me at this time.

At some point, William moved on perhaps to Kentucky, taking Eli with him. Perhaps the other son was a little older and stayed behind in Randolph to start a family. He would have Wesley in 1823 and probably two other sons whose names I don't know. One of Wesley's brothers was the father of Theresa mentioned above. Another brother, perhaps named Zacheus, had a son named George Washington Shepard, who died fighting for the South in the Civil War (another theory is that Zacheus was Catharine's brother rather than Wesley's).

Then Wesley's father would also head west, perhaps to Indiana and perhaps beyond. I can only speculate whether he took Wesley with him and then if Wesley returned to marry Catharine in 1850.

Meanwhile, Eli (Wesley's uncle in this scenario) made his way north from Kentucky and we pick him up in 1840 in Scott County, Indiana. It is here that he married my GG-Grandmother Lucy, and it was likely here in 1839 that my G-Grandfather Washington was to be born.

4. Lucinda Stark
One of the most interesting theories I have developed has to do with my GG-Grandmother Lucy, the wife of Eli. Their paths seem to have crossed in Scott County, Indiana. Her family, in my theory, were Quakers who had migrated to Indiana from Kentucky after migrating there from Pennsylvania. I don't know whether she and Eli had met in Kentucky. One record actually has him born in Kentucky but I haven't conceded that yet.

She married a man named John Curtis in 1826, perhaps in Kentucky. They moved to Indiana and she had at least one son from that marriage, a Jonathon in 1832. But her husband must have died.

So she then remarries to Eli in 1834. She was a few years older than him, it seems. In 1840 they are still living in Scott County and the thread I mentioned above takes over.

After Eli died, some time in the 1870s, she goes to live with her son Jonathon Curtis from her first marriage, who is now living in Jasper County, Illinois. She is living there in the 1880 census.

5. Back to Ireland
I am obviously not sure that Eli Shepherd's father was one of the Williams in Randolph County in 1810. There are lots of other Shepherds in Guilford County at that time, but they don't fit the family memory. The Shepherds/Shavers of Guilford/Alamance were German. Our family memory is Scotch-Irish, with Quaker connections.

Let me tell you another story.

a. In 1729, Solomon Shepherd Jr. transported himself from Ireland to America by serving as an apprentice of the ship. He was from Tyrone, Ireland, from the Grange Quaker Meeting near Charlemont County. His father was Solomon Sr., and his father was one John Shepherd. They were Scotch-Irish.

Solomon Jr. would serve as a Quaker minister. He married Jane Wilson in 1733 at New Garden Quaker meeting, Pennsylvania. He died about 1749 after they had four children: John, Sarah, Solomon III, and Elizabeth.

I can account for the movements of his children. John and Solomon III went west in Pennsylvania to Redstone County. In 1790, John was disowned by the Quaker community at Fredericktown. Those lines don't connect to me.

What is curious is that Solomon Jr's wife Jane actually moved to Guilford County in 1767. She moved there with her daughter Elizabeth to New Garden Quaker Meeting in Guilford, North Carolina. She would marry a man named Stephanas Haworth in 1768 and they would live out their lives there, dying in 1807 and 1804 respectively.

They moved there because the other daughter, Sarah, had moved there in 1762 when she married one William Brazelton from Maryland. They would then move to Jefferson County, Tennessee in 1790. Since Sarah and Elizabeth took on the names of their spouses, their lines can't connect to me.

b. However, Solomon also had a brother, William Sheppard, who came over from Ireland in 1739, also a Quaker. In fact there seem to have been a number of Quaker Sheppards swimming around Pennsylvania in the mid to late 1700s.

My current hypothesis is that some of his descendants also made their way south to the Guilford area. Some of them, like the William that was the father of Eli, were just passing through. (Could he be the grandson of the William Sheppard who came from Ireland?) Others stayed in Guilford.

For the moment, I'll have to leave it at that.

Earlier posts:

1. The Revivalin' Twenties
In the Year 1920 (Dorsey Schenck, also see here)
From Quaker to Pilgrim (Harry Shepherd in 20s)
The Great Generation (my parents)

2. The Depression Thirties
Dutch Reformed Past (Samuel Schenck)
North Carolina Flashback (Eli Shepherd, also supplement)
Wanting to be Rich (Oscar Rich)

3. Passing Generations
Old German Baptist Heritage 1 (Amsy Miller, with clarifications here)
Old German Baptist Heritage 2 (Salome Wise)
The Dorsey Stream (Pearl Dorsey)

4. A New Family
Joining Two Streams (my parents)
A Young Family

5. The Closing Sixties
Prophet, Pastor, and Professor (Harry Shepherd)
The Wright Stuff (Seba Wright)
Flashback to Jamestown (Champion Shelburn)

6. Tales of My Life
Memories of Childhood
Notes for my Children

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Who was Job's Redeemer? (Job 19:25-26)

1. There is a beautiful Aria in Handel's Messiah based on these verses in Job:

"I know that my redeemer lives,
     and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
     yet in my flesh I will see God."

It is a tremendously powerful picture!  Job is suffering. In one Christian reading of these verses, he faces potential death, but he knows that Jesus is alive, shall we even say that he will rise from the dead! I know that my Redeemer, Jesus, whom the Romans put to death, has risen and that he will come again. One day he will stand on the earth. Long after Job's skin has disintegrated and he is died, he will rise again from the dead. In his flesh, he will see God.

This is a powerful theological reading of Job. Although I can't think of any place where the New Testament actually interprets this verse from Job in this way, it is a fine theological reading of the verse.

2. The question in my mind is what the verse meant when it was first written? The default reading probably goes something like this:
  • "I read the verse against my world and my definitions. As a Christian, Jesus is my Redeemer. "In the end he will stand on the earth," sounds like my belief in the second coming. Skin destroyed and then returning? Sounds like resurrection to me.
The problem is when I try to read the verse against its literary context (the rest of Job) and historical-cultural context (how words were being used in the Ancient Near East at the time, roughly).

a. For example, within Job, look at these verses in the literary context of Job:
  • Job 14:12 come into play: "mortals lie down and do not rise again." 
  • Job 7:9-10: "those who go down to Sheol do not come up; they return no more to their houses"
  • And Job 3:16-19: "why was I not buried like a stillborn child... There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest... The small and the great are there, and the slaves are free from their masters."
In other words, Job does not yet seem to have any sense yet of resurrection or of a meaningful afterlife. For this reason alone, it is unlikely that Job 19:25-26 are about resurrection. The rest of Job does not seem to think in those categories yet.

b. When we expand to the historical-cultural context, the situation doesn't seem to change. The other wisdom books, whose final form I personally would date to the same period, have similar things to say:
  • Psalm 88:3-6: "My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those who remember no more… in the regions dark and deep."
  • Ecclesiastes 9:5: "The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost."
3. So what was Job saying originally? It seems to me that the most likely meaning is captured in the following paraphrase:
"I know that God, the one who is going to get me out of my current situation, is alive. I know that he is going to show up here in the land. My skin is rotting now with these boils. But he is going to vindicate and restore me. He is going to restore my skin to normal. In my restored flesh, I will see God."

Obviously I could be wrong. My point is merely to exercise the method one uses when the goal is what the text really meant originally. Then we are free, I believe, to hear true Holy Spirit meanings as well. For this reason, I will continue to prize the theological interpretation of Handel's Messiah! It is a Christological reading that is fully correct theologically.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bobby Clinton and Mark Driscoll

First, let me preface this post by speaking of the idea of Mark Driscoll. I don't know Driscoll. I shouldn't draw final conclusions on the real Driscoll because I am not involved with him. He has not wronged me personally that I know of. I am using the rumors of Driscoll to ask a question.

Can a leader without integrity be effective? This question begs others. What does it mean to be effective? What do you mean by integrity?

In the rumors, it sounds like Driscoll's leadership style ultimately undid him at least for the moment. It wasn't the accusations of plagiarism though. It was, in rumor, the way he treated other people.

But here is my question. What if a leader's lack of integrity never becomes known? Is it possible that there are leaders out there right now who are, by all accounts, very effective leaders but who have significant integrity issues?  I would almost bet my life on it.

I want to be very clear here. It is essential for truly Christian leaders to have moral integrity. I am not in any way trying to negate the need for inner spiritual health in a Christian leader. What I am saying is this. I don't think for one moment that there haven't been famous Christian leaders we deeply admire and whose ministries we view as immense successes who will not be in the kingdom. I strongly believe we will find out in the kingdom of God that some of our idols, as it turns out, did not have integrity.

This is the principle that God often lets the wicked prosper. In this world, God often lets the unrighteous prevail. Indeed, I would say that it is more likely that, on average, the most righteous in the church are not the leaders but the servants. God uses and blesses the gifts and drive that often are present in great leaders, but that drive also carries with it great temptations.

So I can't see at all how a Bobby Clinton can say, "God won't use a leader who lacks integrity" (63). What about Pharoah? What about Cyrus, king of Persia? True, they weren't Christians, but I think even the barest look at church history suggests this idea is blatantly false. Historically, I suspect some of the leaders we think of having the biggest effect sometimes were far less principled than many under them.

I would edit Clinton's sentence, not to speak of effective leadership but to speak of godly leadership: "Integrity is foundational for godly leadership," for leadership that truly counts. Integrity is essential for a leadership that God values and considers worth a dime, yes.

But by worldly standards, I suspect there are gobs of "effective" and "extraordinary" leaders who have had serious integrity issues. It's just that, in God's eyes, they're schmucks.

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