Sunday, October 19, 2014

What is Wesleyan-Arminian theology?

I took another shot at this one today. Here's what I wrote? Any suggestions?
It is, first of all, a perspective with a history. John Wesley (1703-91) was an Anglican minister in England who started a revival that eventually lead to the Methodist churches of America. He had no intention of starting a new church, which is reflected in the fact that his thinking drew from the best of the Anglicans, the Calvinists, and the Lutherans of his day. He was thus eclectic in his thinking.

After the New Testament was written two thousand years ago, everyone was Catholic for the next 1400 hundred years until about the year 1500. Sure, there was a split between the Eastern part of Christianity (the Orthodox side) and the Western part (Roman Catholicism) in the year 1054. But both sides still considered themselves Catholic or part of the “universal” Church until the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s.

In the 1500s, a man named Martin Luther set in motion a protest that would fragment Christianity. The Lutheran Church came from his protests. The Church of England or Anglican Church would also withdraw from the Catholic Church in the early 1500s. John Calvin led the Reformed movement in Switzerland in the same period, which would spread especially to Holland and England.

The Arminian part of the term comes from the fact that some of the Calvinist influence on Wesley came through a Dutch man named Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). We probably should not take much time delving into the history of these people, but we can use history to give somewhat of an “archaeology” of Wesleyan-Arminian thinking and where it came from.

First, as an Anglican, Wesley was not Roman Catholic, but he was also not quite as “Protestant” as the Lutherans and Reformed. The Anglican tradition tried to steer a middle way between the previous excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and those of other Protestants. For Wesley it was important to have a “catholic spirit,” which meant that you did not exclude people from other groups if they shared the same heart with you.

This idea of a catholic spirit reveals the influence of a group called the Pietists on Wesley. The Pietists taught that you could know in your heart for sure that God had forgiven your sins and accepted you. They believed in having personal experiences of God. They believed that your attitude toward God in your heart was far more important than what you believed about him with your head.

But Wesley was also influenced by Luther. In fact, it was just after coming from a Bible study in which they had read some of Luther’s thoughts on Romans that Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed. Wesley drew his ideas on how we get right with God mostly from Luther.

Wesley would describe himself as being a “hair’s breadth from Calvin.” But he filtered Calvin through Arminius. Whereas Calvin believed that God chose who would be in his kingdom, Arminius believed that God gave us the power to choose. Calvin believed that if we were chosen, we would certainly make it. But Wesley took seriously the strong statements in the Bible about the need for us to be faithful to the end if we expect to be in the kingdom of God, like Arminius had.

Wesley also was more optimistic than Calvin about God’s desire to empower us to live righteous lives in this world. This was one area where Calvin was more optimistic than Luther, but Wesley believed God wanted to make us complete in love toward one another. He was thus even more optimistic than Calvin about how righteous God truly wanted to make us in this life.

A final feature of Wesley’s thought that is especially appropriate today is the fact that he did not see salvation as a purely individual matter. He was also concerned for the oppressed life of the coal miner, the child worker, and the slave. He applied the principle of loving one’s neighbor to the very structures of society. It is no surprise that some of his heirs in America would join those in the 1800s who opposed slavery and advocated the value of women in society. Some of them were the first to play out the principle of Acts 2:17 that God calls women to prophesy as well as men.

The Wesleyan movement has continued since Wesley’s day. In America, it especially went through the revivals of the 1800s. The groups that descend from Wesley today are not slaves to his thinking, as if he were somehow inerrant. In general, when we think of the distinctives of Wesleyan-Arminian theology, we should think of items like the following:
  • God’s primary disposition in relation to the world is love, his primary desire for the creation its redemption and thriving.
  • God created the world to have a will of its own, desiring it to choose him rather than be his slave.
  • The standard of good is thus a standard of intention and choice far more than one of specific action or professed belief.
  • God wants to redeem the creation to the fullest, to empower humanity to do good, to empower us to love one another to the fullest, even to change the structures of the world toward justice. He has made this possible through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The eclectic nature of Wesley’s thinking suggests that a person can be Wesleyan in spirit while belonging to other Christian traditions. Wesley himself modeled this fact, since he never stopped being an Anglican minister. The pages that follow give one Wesleyan-Arminian perspective on Christian theology. They do not give the only such perspective.

Nevertheless, they demonstrate the continuity of this tradition with other traditions, the key points where it might differ, as well as the room for variation within the Wesleyan tradition itself. In the end, as Wesley himself said, “If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mind.”

C3. Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

This is now the third post in a series on Christology, in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation.
Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

1. It is characteristic to speak of the person of Christ, and then also of the work of Christ. The previous two articles have presented the person of Christ, namely, the fact that he was fully God and fully human. No view of Christ that does injustice either to his humanity or his divinity is appropriate.

With this article we begin to discuss the "work" of Christ, which is often characterized by three titles. Christ is prophet. He is priest. And he is king. [1] This article discusses Christ as prophet.

On earth, Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God. A prophet is a messenger from God who delivers God's word to his people. It seems likely that the two primary ways in which the people of Judah and Galilee understood Jesus while he was on earth was as a prophet and as the Christ. We will look at Jesus as Christ under the office of king. While some thought of him in this way while he was on earth, it was probably not the primary way.

The primary way in which Jesus was probably understood while he was on earth was as a prophet. So when Jesus raised a young man from the dead at Nain, the immediate reaction of the mother is to say that, "A great prophet has appeared among us," and, "God has come to help his people" (Luke 7:16).

And Jesus did proclaim the coming kingdom of God, a word from God to the people of God. "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'" (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus was a prophet to Israel of the coming kingdom of God.

Of course, a strand of the New Testament also connects Jesus to the "prophet like Moses" in Deuteronomy 18:14-16. In Acts 3, Peter indicates that Jesus was indeed the prophet like Moses to whom God's people should listen. Jesus is not just a prophet. He is the prophet, the one who brings the definitive message from God. As such, we see this role blur into the office of priest (for the definitive message involves final atonement) and the office of king (for Moses had royal overtones).

For the earliest Christians and the New Testament authors, Jesus also fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. One of the most frequently used Scripture in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1, "The LORD says to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" From passages like Acts 2:33-35, we see that the earliest Christians connected this verse to the resurrection, when Jesus is enthroned as king.

The earliest Christians saw in many other passages key truths and events in the life of Jesus. For example, Isaiah 53 gives us a classic text Christians read in relation to the meaning of Jesus' death (e.g., Acts 8:30-35). In our discussion of Jesus as priest, we will consider other ways in which Jesus may fulfill the Old Testament.

2. In the past, some have distinguished between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. The idea here is that the "historical Jesus," Jesus as we would have observed him if we were there on the hills of Galilee, and the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament and the Jesus in which the Church believes, may not have been exactly the same.

A comparison of the Gospels does show that there are questions to be raised about differences between the accounts, as well as the way in which the Gospel writers may have told the story in a way that brought out their special themes and emphases. In that sense, the so called "quest for the historical Jesus" is an understandable quest. Some will see the difference largely as one of perspective. Others will see the difference as much more significant.

3. In our discussion of the incarnation, we might have discussed the humanity of Jesus more extensively. We did discuss the sense that, while he was on earth, Jesus played it by the human rules. That is to say, he chose to do the miraculous and extraordinary things he did through the power of the Holy Spirit rather than by his power as the second person of the Trinity, in order to show what true humanity can do. He did not operate by his intrinsic omniscience or omnipotence while he was on earth, but lived under the power of the Holy Spirit, as we also can.

When we think of Jesus as a prophet, we are also thinking of him serving in a fully human role, a role that other humans have served in the past and that, arguably, in which humans continue to serve today. [2] In this article, we want to pursue just a little further the manner of Jesus' incarnation, the way in which he took on human flesh.

Here let us suggest that Jesus did not assume or take on "generic" humanity but he took on "particular" humanity. That is to say, Jesus did not come to earth as "everyman" but as a specific man. In a profound way, Jesus came to earth as an individual, not as a universal.

It will help to give some specific examples. Jesus did not come as a Roman or an Egyptian. He came as a Jew. Jesus did not come as a male and a female. He came as a male.

Could God have come to earth as a Chinese person? Certainly he could have. It is just that he did not prepare his coming with that culture as the background story. Israel deserves a certain honor as the people through whom he came to earth, but they are not better than any other people for this reason. In fact, you might argue that God chose a small, powerless people in order to show his own greatness (Deut. 7:7).

Similarly, Jesus did not come to earth as a man because men are better than woman. Indeed, I would argue theologically that Jesus could just as well have come to earth as a woman. But, at least from our normal understanding, he had to pick a gender in the incarnation, and given the patriarchal nature of the ancient world, it made most sense in terms of his mission for him to come as a man.

Jesus came as a Galilean, a seemingly odd choice. Galilee was not in any way central to Israel, let alone to the ancient world. Who in the world had even heard of it? In Jesus' coming to earth as a particular human, he identifies with the fact that every human being is a particular human being with unique specifics.

Jesus likely had a specific personality. His personality presumably was not right in the middle between introvert and extrovert, between the concrete and the imaginative, between the thinker and the feeler, between the open-ended personality and the one that wants closure. He did not come as the ideal personality. He came with a specific personality--probably an introvert, a concrete thinker who cared more about people than logic, and someone who in day to day life was probably more about the journey than the destination.

We can dispute one or all of these, but it nevertheless seems true that Jesus came as a specific person, not as every person. In his humanity, Jesus identified with our human particularity without endorsing Jew over Gentile, male over female, Galilean over Judean, introvert over extrovert, and so forth.

4. Jesus was a prophet of the kingdom of God. That is to say, in his earthly mission he preached that the rule of God was soon returning to the earth and that the people of God needed to prepare themselves. The rule of God would involve the restoration of God's people and the judgment of those who were unjust, oppressive, and resistant to his rule.

We see in Jesus' earthly ministry how these dynamics played out. In his healings and miracles, we see the restoration of God's people. In his exorcisms and conflicts with various leaders, we see him preparing the way for the coming judgment. In his teaching, we hear the ethics of the kingdom and how God's people are to relate to each other. In his recruiting of disciples, we see him preparing leadership and establishing citizens of the kingdom.

In his earthly life, he gave us the example to follow, the example of Christ. The slogan, "What would Jesus do?" is a model for us to live in the kingdom in so far as Jesus modeled the love of God and neighbor, the cornerstones of Christian ethics (cf. Matt. 22:34-40). We must of course be careful not to assume that Jesus, the particular man, and Jesus, the man living in a specific situation and culture, are everyman. But we can take the life of Jesus in general as an example of how to live in the time leading up to the kingdom and then in the kingdom itself.

In his death, Jesus makes the final coming of the kingdom possible, and in his resurrection, he is established as its appointed king.

Next week: In his death, Jesus became the priest of all humanity and the creation.

[1] Although the idea of this three-fold office has been around since the early days of Christianity (e.g., Eusebius in the 300s), it was given new life by John Calvin in the Reformation.

[2] Certainly there will never be another prophet like Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe." However, the New Testament attests to the fact that there continue to be prophets in the New Testament age (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14).

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Your body is a temple...

1. I have never liked making a fool of myself, despite the fact that I do it so easily. So I am particularly keen to help others not make my mistakes, especially when it comes to the Bible or theology. There's a lot floating around out there that we say with confidence, even though it may be obviously wrong.

I did a post a little over a month ago on soul and spirit in the Bible and on biblical words for hell. These are just things a pastor should know. A pastor should know that Sheol isn't the fiery hell and that soul in the OT isn't the detachable escape pod.

Here's another one. When 1 Corinthians 3:16 says, "You are God's temple," the "you" is plural. Paul's emphasis is not on me as an individual, as we Western individualists so easily assume. His emphasis is not that I am God's temple. His emphasis is that y'all at Corinth, together, are God's temple.

This makes perfect sense, if you think about it. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says that the congregation at Corinth is the body of Christ. And here he says that God's Spirit dwells in you. So we have a Spirit in a body, the collective body of Christ at Corinth. We have a collective body that is a temple, taken together.

You, plural, are the temple of God.

2. 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 is why it is especially hard for us not to go individual with this image. "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" (6:19). The "your" and "you" are plural, but body is singular. I believe Paul is saying the same thing here. Your collective body [of Christ] is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

What makes it difficult for us Westerners is that Paul has been talking about those who take their individual, physical body to a prostitute. In 6:15, he talked about their plural "bodies." It's a play on words. When an individual takes his body to a prostitute, he is corrupting the collective body of Christ. The individual body is a "member" of the corporate body of Christ.

This is a hard train of thought for us. It's not the way our culture thinks. What I do with my individual body, I do with the collective body of Christ.

Bottom line, this verse really isn't about not smoking or respecting my physical body out of respect for my Creator. It really isn't the "don't smoke" verse. It's about not defiling the church by involving myself with uncleanness.

I've written a bit on Corinthians, if you're interested. See here and here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Two More Devotionals Published

I was happy to receive the two devotionals today (Wisdom and Witness of Jesus) that go along with my second book on Jesus (Portraits). The three make a set.

The Portraits of Jesus book focuses on special themes in the Gospels (as opposed to The Mission of Jesus, which focused on the basic mission of Jesus):

1. The Basic Story (Mark)
2. The Hidden Jesus (Mark)
3. The Virgin Birth (Matthew, Luke)
4. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew)
5. The New Moses (Matthew)
6. Good News for the Poor (Luke)
7. Good News for the World (Luke)
8. The Book of Signs (John)
9. The Book of Glory (John)
10. The Second Person of the Trinity

The two devotionals go along with this volume. The Wisdom of Jesus is a six week devotional on the Sermon on the Mount. The Witness of Jesus is a six week devotional on the "I am" sayings of John.

I have been working on sermon outlines that go along with these devotionals so that a church can be reading through the devotional for six weeks and then the pastor preach a sermon each Sunday that goes along with what the congregation has been reading each day devotionally.

Friday Novel

My daughter Sophie won't talk to me any more about novels. Even in her short lifetime, she has heard me say time and time again, "Oo, oo, I had a great idea for a novel today." She refuses to hear me talk about any more novel ideas (or listen to any first chapters) until I actually finish one.

So how's this? After I posted, "How to Write a Novel" last week, I picked up one of the fifty novels I've started these last 30 years and planned it out. I figure I have 50-100 pages of raw material already written, and my page goal is only 350. As an incentive, I'll post an excerpt from each week of minimal writing on Fridays until it's done.

So here's the first of, perhaps, 35 Friday posts?
... Perhaps not surprisingly, I picked the profession of champions for philosophy and English majors. I took a job at a local coffee shop. I would become a barista.

After the manager accepted that I would never show up consistently before 10am, it became the first real success story of my life. I had no problem with the ritual, mindless tasks of espresso creation. I actually liked it.

And I made a good coffee bartender. It was fine with me for the customer to do most of the talking, and I had a kind of whimsy that could lighten a tense moment. In a strange way, I think I was one of the few bright spots in the hum-drum, day-to-day life of these middle managers and university staff. It staggered my mind to think of how much some of them spent a year on lattes and Frappuccinos.

The café was always full of university students, at least during the school year. A coffee shop is like the church of the thinker and dreamer. Over time I came to classify them.

First there was the person looking for a relationship of a more Platonic variety. The vulgar classes had their Hooters, their sundry bars and dance clubs. But the thinkers came to Café d’Espoir to mate, where I was bartender.

Then there were the writers and readers. With the bookstore species on the endangered list, the readers brought their books with them, either in paper or electronic form. I could spot the budding novelist. I could see myself in the notepads and lap tops.

My preferred medium was the coffee napkin. I was always getting some idea for a novel in between espressos. It was my ticket to the imagined, dreamy life of a successful novelist.

I would have a log cabin where I could go and write on retreat. How about a castle? I would build a castle somewhere in the woods with a moat and everything. And I would need a yacht, along with a house on a lake somewhere.

I figure in the last ten years I’d written down ideas for at least fifty novels on those napkins. They were in a drawer in my apartment. A few had made it from napkin to the notepad. Less than ten had made it to my laptop...

... We had both grown up some by the time she walked into Cafe d'Espoir one day.

"No way, you have a job?"

"Very funny," I answered. "I actually own this store."

"Now that is funny," the Cafe manager said, not far away.

"Nice to see you too," I continued on, ignoring my manager. "May I offer you a latte, an espresso, maybe a little hemlock?"

"Socrates, right?" she fired back.

"Quite right. Don't get many orders for that one, surprisingly."

"A soy chi latte will do for today," she finally answered.
Next week, an excerpt from chapter 2.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Exegetical Process

How do you interpret a biblical text in context?

1. First, you come to it with an appropriate question.
  • That is, an inductive question, not a contemporary one.
  • Questions of sense - "What did this word or phrase mean?"
  • Questions of genre - "What were these words doing?" (assert, promise, command...), 
  • Questions of impact - "What impact were these words intended to have?" "Why were these words written?"
  • Questions of reference - "To what did this sentence refer in the world of author and audience?"
  • Questions of interrelationship - "How did the parts of the argument fit together?"
  • Questions of inner logic - "Were there things driving the train of thought?" (e.g., personality-wise, situation-wise, culturally, historically...)
  • Questions of authorial intention - "Why did the author say this?" 
  • A question of original implication - "What were the implications for them of what the text said?"
2. Next, you gather evidence to build a case toward the answer.
  • Evidence from the book in which the text is located (broader literary context)
  • Evidence from the immediate passage itself (immediate literary context)
  • Evidence from whatever historical or cultural background is known (historical-cultural context)
3. Finally, you create a hypothesis and test it.
  • Test it against the history of interpretation. Have others made this suggestion or countered this suggestion? You should be a little concerned if no one has ever suggested it, unless you are offering it in the light of new historical evidence. What do original meaning commentaries say?
  • Test it against your continued readings of the text over time, remembering that we can get more and more comfortable with iffy propositions over time even if they really haven't become any more likely.
  • Test it against your peers (especially scholarly peers). How do others who are competent biblical interpreters receive your hypothesis?
4. Appropriate the interpretation in your theology and ethics... but this is a different post.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Charles Taylor and the "Excluded" in a Democracy

Some of us are reading through the selections in Charles Taylor's Dilemmas and Connections this semester. The chapters are individual essays he has written in other contexts, so it is a veritable grab bag of joy. Every essay is his genius applied to some other subject.

I deeply resonate with most of what he says on most topics. He has a certain clarity befitting an analytically trained philosopher but he has the right sympathies for the more obtuse phenomenological thinkers. Most of the time, my reaction to him is, "Of course." He captures the general inklings of the best thinking in society and expresses them with a depth and clarity befitting a world class thinker. I find myself often with delight expressing to myself, "Yes!"

Yet there is not a finality to his explorations. Keith Drury compared his writing style to a cat that is playing with something. He moves a subject along without giving any impression that he has given anything like the last word on it. He is like a genius hitch hiker we pick up for a few miles, talk about something with and then leave at the next truck stop.

1. This chapter seemed particularly helpful in expressing what I think educated people think about democracy but that few of us could have expressed as clearly as he does. Here are some of its key thoughts:
  • "Democracy, particularly liberal democracy, is a great philosophy of inclusion" (124). By "liberal democracy," he means one that truly includes everyone, not the pretend democracy of America's origins, where women and slaves didn't count.
  • There is, however, a dangerous side effect of democracy--at various times, there will be "excluded groups." For example, if you are a Democrat in Indiana, your vote will almost never win. You get to vote, but your vote more or less doesn't count as far as its effect. 
  • Countries regularly have national minorities who are outvoted every time and, if the majority does not treat them with respect, will inevitably increasingly feel oppressed.
And let me just stop here and give what I take to be the bottom line of this essay. It is important for the majorities of a nation to treat national minorities with respect, to make sure that they feel included in the conversation even when the votes don't go their way. Similarly, the national majorities should give some lee way toward these groups even when it has the power not to.

So democracy, whose essence is about inclusion, will often regularly gravitate toward the exclusion of national minorities. This essay is inspired by Quebec in Canada, which could be outvoted by the English-speaking majority of Canada easily on every issue. But it is in Canada's long term best interest to respect, converse with, and court Quebec within reasonable limits.

The fact that this essay is about Canada is also a convenient aspect to it, for few people can be objective about their own country. Like Nathan with David, it is easier to see ourselves in someone else's story.

2. So he plays around with the idea that "nationalism," as it were, can be a by-product of democracy (127).
  • When minorities begin to flow into a country, there is a tendency to want to exclude them from the democratic process. We did this when the Irish came. We did it with blacks. We are doing this now with people from Latin America. We say, they aren't true Americans. They shouldn't get a say in the destiny of America. 
  • The attempt to pass voter ID laws in the US right now is transparently an example of this--an attempt on the part of the majority to exclude the unwanted minority from the democratic process.
  • In its worst form, "nationalists" might try to conduct a kind of ethnic cleansing so that only the true "whatever" is left. (cf. the congresswoman wanting to ferret out those from Congress who aren't "true Americans"--textbook reaction to a perceived majority sensing a loss of control)
  • By the same token, the majority can never be allowed to vote democracy itself out. This is why we have a Bill of Rights. This is why we have the judicial system, to keep the majority from oppressing the minority. 
  • I believe there are Americans who don't get this. American democracy does not mean that the majority wins no matter what. The majority can't vote to kill the minority. There are boundaries to what the majority can decide or else the democracy itself will self-destruct.
Much of what I have just said doesn't actually come from Taylor's essay, but I have applied it to America. I know it will be controversial and that saddens me, because I can't imagine how anyone could argue against it (or why a Christian would want to). I am really dumbfounded that anyone could disagree with anything I just said.
3. Back to Taylor:
  • "The condition of a viable political identity is that people must actually be able to relate to it, to find themselves reflected in it" (143). In other words, the minority must feel like it belongs even though it is consistently outvoted.
  • Minorities and majorities must share an "identity space." "There are no exclusive claims to a given territory by historic right" (144). 
  • And those of us in the majority had better be nice to those in the minority, or they won't be nice to us when they become the majority. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Schrodinger's Doctrine

At the Theological Research Seminar at IWU yesterday, I was presenting a historical and theological response to Richard Bauckham called, "Jesus and the Identity of God." My basic conclusion was that Bauckham's theology is spot on and his readings of NT texts are appropriate Christian readings but that they seem a little too complex and convenient from a historical perspective.

But what really seemed to resonate was more a model of looking at Christian doctrine and orthodox readings of biblical texts I called "Schrodinger's Doctrine."

You may have heard of Schrodinger's cat. It is an illustration from quantum physics where we don't know if a cat in a box is alive or dead until we open the box. More profoundly, the cat in a sense is both alive and dead until it is observed. Quantum physicists call this "superposition." A particle can, for all intents and purposes, be in two different places at once until it is observed. It's position is undetermined up to that point.

So, I suggested, until the Church "opened the box" on key issues, the position of Christianity on that issue was not yet determined. In AD324, both Arius and Athanasius are in the box. In AD325, the Church opens the box and finds Athanasius.

I don't wish to suggest that Philippians 2:6-11 or 1 Corinthians 8:6 did not have an original, historical meaning prior to what would become the Christian reading of them. We can debate it if you wish. But I am suggesting that, for Christians, these texts did not have a determined meaning of sorts until they did, until the Church opened the box.

As my friend and colleague John Drury likes to say, quoting Hegel, "History is lived forward but understood backward."

One problem I see with our inquiries is that we almost seem to assume that ideology was the first order of business for the earliest believers. Rather, as Larry Hurtado has argued, practices wagged the dog.

The earliest Christians didn't stop to work out the fine nuances of monotheism or dig up some copy of Ezekiel the Tragedian. They sang. They praised. Theology came later, and what theology came later was as much rhetorical as ideological.

So did Christianity include Jesus within the identity of the one God? Yes! Did Christianity include Jesus within the eschatological monotheism of the one God? Yes! Did Christianity include Jesus within the worship of the one God? Yes! Did Christianity include Jesus within the creational monotheism of the one God? Yes!

When the box was opened, yes!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

C2. Jesus is "God with us," God's Word become flesh.

This is now the second post in a series on Christology, in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation.
God became a man in the person of Jesus, the Christ.

1. As we saw in the previous article, Christians believe that Jesus has existed from eternity past. He is the "eternally begotten" Son of God. He is a distinct person within the Trinity--he is not God the Father and he is not God the Holy Spirit. But there is only one God and he has the "same substance" (homoousios) as the Father and the Spirit.

So Christians believe that Jesus is fully God, 100% God.

Christians also believe that Jesus became fully human, 100% human. At Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), Christians had wrestled with the Trinity. Is Jesus fully God? Once that issue came to rest, Christians turned to the person of Jesus. How could he be human and God at the same time?

There were a number of suggestions made in the years between the "Council of Nicaea" in 325 and the "Council of Chalcedon" in 451. It was at the latter council that the understanding we now have was finalized. So was Jesus one person, both human and divine (the right answer) or was he almost two different people (Nestorianism). Did Jesus have two natures--one human and one divine (the right answer)--or did he pretty much just have a divine nature (Monophysitism).

One man, Apollinaris, suggested that Jesus had a human body but that his soul was divine, made up of the Logos or Word of God. Another, Eutyches, suggested that Jesus' divinity was so vast that his human nature was like a drop in the ocean. So while you might technically say he had two natures, when they got mixed together, his human nature could hardly be found. The Church ultimately rejected both of these suggestions.

2. The official position of Christianity, the position that Christians have more or less held in common since the mid-400s is found in the description of Christ that became official at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Here is somewhat of a paraphrase of the definition they set down there:

"He is complete in his God-ness and complete in his humanity, truly God and truly man. He has a rational soul and a body. He is of one substance with the Father in relation to his God-ness and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his humanity. He is like us in every respect, except for sin... He is recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The distinction of his two natures are not in any way nullified by the union. Rather, the characteristics of each nature are preserved and come together to form one person and subsistence. They are not parted or separated into two persons, but they constitute one and the same Son..."

Again, the other suggestions were not heresies until the Church had come to this common agreement. Before then, we simply had well-meaning Christian leaders trying to make sense of a mysterious idea, namely, that Jesus was somehow both fully human and fully divine. The consensus that emerged was that Jesus was both. He was only one person, but he had a fully human nature and a fully divine nature. Any option that minimizes either his humanity or his divinity is off course.

3. In eternity past, God the Son was entirely divine. John 1:14 speaks of Christ taking on human flesh: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." [1] We call this moment of God assuming human flesh the incarnation. The Nicene Creed of 381 puts it this way: "For us humans, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made human." Now, for eternity future, Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.

The word for "made his dwelling" is related to the wilderness tabernacle of the Old Testament (skenoo). It gives us the picture of God's presence wandering through the wilderness with Israel. In the same way, Jesus is "God with us," Immanuel (cf. Matt. 1:23; 28:20).

4. In the New Testament, we occasionally find imagery of Jesus as the Word of God. This language of Jesus as the Logos found its background in Jewish thinking about God's Word, the instrument by which God enacts his will in the world. So God spoke, and the worlds were created.

So it is no surprise that we usually find language of Christ as the agent of creation in New Testament passages that have overtones of the Jewish Logos. Thus John 1:1, 3 say, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made..." Similarly, the "Colossian hymn" of 1:15-16 says, "The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him." [2]

Christians thus frequently speak of Christ as the agent of creation, although some do take this language more to speak of Christ as the ultimate meaning or significance of the creation.

5. The Apostles Creed says that Jesus was "born of the Virgin Mary." The Council of Chalcedon also clarified that Jesus was divine even when he was in the womb. Mary was the "Theotokos" or "God-bearer." The primary purpose of this language was not to exalt Mary but to make clear that Jesus was God even when he was in her womb.

The conception of Jesus by Mary when she was still a virgin has been a key belief of Christianity since before the great "Christological" controversies of the 300s and 400s that we mentioned above. There is technically a difference between the virginal conception and a virgin birth. Roman Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin anatomically even during childbirth and that she remained a "perpetual virgin" for the rest of her life, never having sexual relations.

However, common Christianity only affirms that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. When we commonly refer to the virgin birth and confess it in the creeds, we are confessing our faith in the virginal conception of Jesus.

Although the Virgin Birth is a core Christian dogma, it is significant to note what it is not. Jesus was not half man and half God. Therefore, there is no obvious reason why Jesus could not have had a human father and a human mother too and still be fully God. His genes had both an X chromosome (from Mary) and a Y chromosome--which was a human chromosome the Holy Spirit must have created out of nothing. The Spirit did not have sex with Mary and contribute a divine Y chromosome!

This a significant point. The Y chromosome does not contain our sin nature, as if women with their XX genes have no sin nature. The male gene does not contain the sin gene. Therefore, there is no obvious reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin either to be without sin or to be fully divine. All the same genetics necessary for him to be fully human had to be fully human anyway. Whether the Holy Spirit contributes the adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine--or if Joseph had--these are still fully human molecules.

Our faith in the virgin birth is thus a reflection of our faith in the common Christianity of the centuries and the historicity of this biblical story. Other than giving a sense of Jesus' greatness and the miracle of his entrance, there is no obvious truth about Jesus' nature that the virgin birth makes possible, at least from our current understanding of genetics.

4. If anything, Christians today probably minimize Jesus' humanity and overemphasize his divinity. Like Eutyches, it is common for Christians to have such a high view of Jesus' divinity that he is hardly like us at all. Yet, if diapers had existed in the first century, Jesus would have dirtied them. He had sexual urges, like the rest of us. If he had married, it would not have made him less holy.

Here is an important point and one that fits well within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. Is it not likely that Jesus "played by the rules of humanity" while he was on earth? That is to say, it is not likely that Jesus chose to do what he did as a human through the power of the Holy Spirit--the same Spirit who lives in believers today--rather than through his power as the second person of the Trinity?

It is a core Christian belief that Jesus never ceased to be God. We must believe that Jesus, as the divine Son of God, retained all his attributes as God. To that extent, any kenotic theory (from the Greek word for "emptying") that sees Jesus as losing his divinity when he came to earth is unorthodox.

However, it would fully fit with the biblical texts to believe that Jesus set aside in some mysterious way access to his divine powers while he was on earth. So Mark 13:32 indicates that Jesus did not know all things when he was on earth. In some mysterious way, the second person of the Trinity seems to have bracketed many of his divine powers and prerogatives when he came to earth.

So Jesus did not come out of the womb speaking Aramaic, let alone English. He learned it like anyone else. Jesus did not hover through Nazareth but learned to crawl and walk. He was probably not fully aware of his full divinity when he was a child, let alone aware of what would be declared at the Council of Chalcedon.

This is also a mystery but it is the only way to be true both to Scripture and the consensus of Christianity. The Bible does not waver on the full participation of Jesus in humanity. We can plausibly suggest that when the earthly Jesus knew more than other humans, he was relying on the Holy Spirit. When Jesus performed miracles, he was relying on the Holy Spirit.

The special case of Jesus not sinning is perhaps more complicated. Presumably, his divine nature would not have let his human nature fall prey to sin. Yet we can plausibly suggest that he was relying on the Holy Spirit to have the power not to sin, just as we can rely on the Holy Spirit not to sin. Jesus indicates that it is not part of the essence of humanity to have to sin. [3]

So Christians believe that Jesus was fully God and that he came to earth and fully assumed humanity. He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made human. He is God's word made flesh. He is Immanuel, God with us.

Next week: Jesus on earth was a prophet of the kingdom of God.

[1] You can see where there was plenty of room within what the biblical texts say for someone like Apollinaris to argue for his position. Indeed, Christians probably stopped using language of Jesus as the Word in the late 300s because it was susceptible to interpretations that did not fit with what the Church would finally conclude.

[2] From the perspective of the original meaning, it is difficult to know the extent to which the New Testament authors were being poetic with this language. Nevertheless, we as Christians generally take this language literally today.

[3] And here we are talking about intentional sin. We are not considering mistakes to be sin. It is possible that Jesus made mistakes while he was on earth (e.g., forgetting where he left the donkey), but this is not sin.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Happy Saturday

Hard to do it, but I'm going to try to have a blog sabbath today.

Happy Saturday!

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to Write a Novel

So many of you have been asking how I go about writing my novels... NOT!

I reckon I have started over thirty novels over the last thirty years... never finished a one, although one is at 100 pages. But in the process I figure I've learned a thing or two about writing novels, not to mention the fact that my doctoral dissertation was on the story substructure of Hebrews.

My novel starting-but-not-finishing bible has long been How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. So here is how I would go about writing a novel if I were to finish one.

Viki King looks at a movie from the standpoint of the pivots. Here's my novelized version:

1. You have to start in a way that grabs attention. That means in medias res--start in the middle or at least in the middle of some action. This is especially the case with a first novel because you have to sell it to an agent or publisher.

By the way, the days of sending things to publishers are mostly over. You have to have an agent to get anywhere. It's a little better in the Christian world, but even that is closing up for open submissions. Best bet is to go to a writer's conference and pitch directly to someone there.

Basically, keep your day job at Starbucks.

2. I pulled some of my family's favorite novels off the shelf (not mine, of course). The later novels always seem to get longer so I'm just going with the first in the series. Hunger Games is 374 pages, Twilight 498. The first Harry Potter was 309. So 300 pages on your normal Microsoft Word format is reasonable.

Of course the publishing world thinks in terms of words rather than pages. I figure the first Harry Potter is about 85,000 words. No sweat. My dissertation was 104,000 (don't tell Durham... there was a 100,000 word limit). So let's aim for 100,000 words for the novel.

3. So, converting from Viki King's movie template to word count, here's how it might play out:
  • Act I - the first fourth of the book, 25,000 words.
  • Act II - the middle half, words 25,000 to 75,000.
  • Act III - the final fourth, words 75,000 to 100,000.
Here's the way she lays out these acts:
  • In this scenario, Act I sets up the story. Frankly, it might be less than a fourth of the story for a novel. King is only thinking of a two hour movie and a 30 minute set up.
  • Act II then involves the protagonist overcoming obstacles that stand in the way of the plot reaching its appointed goal.
  • Act III is then the resolution of the story, the achievement of the goal (comedy) or not (tragedy).
In the structuralist model of analyzing a story, a plot basically begins with an unfulfilled goal and ends with the achievement of that goal (or not). To achieve the goal, the hero of the story needs to overcome obstacles in the way. This three act model corresponds well to this model.

4. Within Act I King suggests several key phases to the set up. Here is my novelized version with some of my additions:
  • Beginning: The first couple pages need to grab the reader's attention somehow. I prefer short first chapters to hold attention. 
  • Keep reading: A key moment is at the end of the first chapter. Will the reader start the second chapter or not? You need to compel them to the second chapter. Each chapter at the beginning has to get them to the next. So it's best to leave something unresolved at the end of each of the beginning chapters.
  • Direction: In the first 20 pages, the reader should have some sense of direction. Is this story going anywhere? They should at least feel like it's moving somewhere and they want to know more.
  • Problem: By 10,000 words (35 pages), the reader should have a good sense of the problem that the story is trying to resolve... or they should at least think they do.
  • Pivot 1: At 25,000 words (80 pages), the first major turning point should happen. A change of setting. The hero is majorly set back in some way. A secondary quest opens up that the hero or someone has to pursue to get back the main task.
5. Act II involves overcoming the obstacle(s) that arose at the end of Act I.
  • Pivot 2: There might be some minor change around 38,000 words (130 pages). Perhaps the hero begins to grow in some way that opens up the possibility of forward movement, a change of heart, a change of mind, a new set of skills.
  • Pivot 3: Around 50,000 words (170 pages), the hero is in trouble. Will he, she, or it be able to achieve the goal of the plot? But s/he emerges from the struggle successful and with resolve. 
  • Major Crisis Pivot 4: At the end of Act II, around 75,000 words (240 pages), it looks like all is lost. Then, as King says, "something happens that changes everything" (43).
6. Act III then takes us down the final slide to the end, the resolution of the plot. The hero prevails (or not) and we all cry or shout.

7. So here's a process:
  • Get a novel idea, a basic concept that you could describe in a few paragraphs.
  • What is the problem and the solution, the beginning and the end? What's wrong at the beginning that drives the plot? What is the final conflict at the end that resolves the story?
  • How does it start? What grabs the initial attention and keeps them going for the first 20 pages until they're into it and have a general sense of its direction?
  • What is the end of Act I? What happens a fourth of the way through the novel that completely changes the setting and sets up the long haul of the story, trying to get back on track?
  • What is the end of Act 2, the point when it looks like all is lost? What happens to resolve the middle section and enable the slide to the end?
  • Early in Act 2, what change happens in the key characters' mindset or skill set that allows them to move forward with new force?
  • Late in Act 2, what major crisis does the protagonist face that gives him or her the resolve to finish the main task of the story?
  • Fill in the details.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Latin Sayings (Wheelock chaps 1-9)

Here are some famous Latin sayings based on the vocabulary of the chapters in Wheelock.

Chapter 1
ex nihilo - "out of nothing" (as in creation out of nothing)
quid pro quo - "something for something" (tit for tat; you scratch my back, I'll scratch back)
cogito, ergo sum - "I think; therefore, I am" (Descartes)
Ave atque vale - "Hail and farewell" (hello and goodbye)

Chapter 2
fama volat - "fame flies"
pro forma - "for good form" (due diligence in a proposal involving finances)
audentes fortuna iuvat - "fortune favors the bold"
dies irae - "day of wrath"
pro patria mori - "to die for one's country"
sub rosa - "under the rose" (secretly)
ars longa, vita brevis - "art is long, life is short"
Et tu, Brute - "and you, Brutus" (Shakespeare's Julius Caesar)
sine qua non - "without which, not" (that without which, something essential)
id est - "that is" (i.e.)

Chapter 3
vox populi - "the voice of the people"
de facto - "on the basis of this fact"
semper fidelis - "always faithful"
semper paratus - "always prepared"
sic semper tyrranus - "thus always a tyrant" (death to...)

Chapter 4
ante bellum - "before the war"
summum bonum - "the highest good"

Chapter 5
mea culpa - "my fault"
gloria Deo - "glory to God"
verbum Dei - "word of God"
pater noster - "our father"
gaudeamus igitur - "therefore, let us rejoice"
mens sana in corpore sano - "a sound mind in a sound body" (Stoic ideal for happiness)

Chapter 6
deus ex machina - "god on a machine" (in drama, when a god swoops in to save the day)
ex libris - "from the books [of so and so]"
quid nunc - "what now"

Chapter 7
amor vincit omnia - "love conquers all"
habeas corpus - "let you have a body" (law phrase, need to produce sufficient evidence)
corpus delecti - "body of what is desired" (need for proof that a crime has been committed)
corpus christi - "the body of Christ"
ad hominem - "against the person" (logical fallacy that attacks a person rather than an argument)
homo sapiens - "thinking man" (human species, as opposed to homo erectus or homo neanderthalis)
homo novus - "a new man"
nomina sacra - "the sacred names" (abbreviations in ancient manuscripts)
pax Romana - "the Roman peace" (ushered in by Augustus)
pax vobiscum - "peace be with you"
Oedipus Rex - Oedipus the King (play by Sophocles)
tyrannosaurus rex - "tyrant dinosaur king"
tempus fugit - "time flies"
terra firma - "solid ground" (sailor coming to shore)
post mortem - "after death"'
post meridiem - "after midday" (p.m.)

Chapter 8
fides nostra victoria - "faith is our victory"
ad nauseum - "to the point of nausea"
ad infinitum - "to infinity" (to talk on incessantly)
ex tempore - "on the spot" ("from the time")
ex post facto - "from after the fact" (retroactively)
quod erat demonstrandum - "what was to be demonstrated [has been]" (Q.E.D.)

Chapter 9
locus classicus - "a classic passage"
ad hoc - "to this " ("on the spot")
post hoc propter hoc - "after this, because of this" (logical fallacy)
alter ego - "another self"
sola fide - "by faith alone"
sola gratia - "by grace alone"
solus Christus - "Christ alone"
sola scriptura - "by Scripture alone"
soli Deo gloria - "glory to God alone"
e pluribus unum - "out of many, one"
homo unius libri - "a man of one book" (John Wesley on the Bible)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Book Review: The Epic of Eden (Introduction)

I'm not going to commit to finishing the reviews, but I finally cracked open The Epic of Eden by Sandra Richter over lunch yesterday. I don't think I've ever met Sandra in person but I first became aware of her at Asbury. Then I knew she had gone to Wesley Biblical and is now at Wheaton. Word on the street is that she is crazy smart, Harvard wile without the Harvard style.

Lara Levicheva has been on me to read Epic for years now, so I have finally taken the dive and read the introduction during lunch yesterday. (Maybe Tuesdays will be epic lunches)

I was not surprised to find that this is a book of biblical theology. That is to say, it is a book about reading the Bible as a unified whole, as a true canon with a unified message. I've argued here before such a biblical theology is completely appropriate--especially from a Christian perspective. I have also argued (cf. Gödel's incompleteness theorem) that such a theology cannot be done without some organizing metanarrative from outside the Bible.

There are several options that have been used to organize biblical material in this way, and Dr. Richter's is a very valid one, one that fits well with the Wesleyan tradition. Her organizing principle is the theme of redemption. For her, the Bible has "one very specific, completely essential and desperately necessary objective--to tell the epic tale of God's ongoing quest to ransom his creation" (15).

She suggests three reasons why so many Christians overlook the Old Testament...

[As an aside, let me say that growing up in an old holiness context, this was not my experience. In fact, going into college I knew far more stories from the OT than I did from the NT. A key here is that the old holiness preachers preached the OT typologically and allegorically. As such, the OT stories were a gold mine for preaching morality.]

... The three reasons are:
  • a sense that the OT is not the Christian story but someone else's story
  • the challenge to get past the historical, linguistic, cultural, and even geographical obstacles to understanding
  • "the dysfunctional closet syndrome"
1. As far as the first point is concerned, she suggests that Christians have a kind of "Christian Alzheimer's disease" when it comes to the OT. She does not suggest this flippantly, as if to make light of a serious disease. Indeed, for her this loss of a sense that the OT story is our story is a very serious loss of memory of our past indeed. "The church does not know who she is, because she does not know who she was" (17).

I'm sure I must grate on some OT professors when they hear me say things like "The NT trumps the OT." I want to make it clear, however, that I completely agree with Sandra and Joel Green when they say that the OT is our story, not the story of some other people of God. From the NT perspective, we Gentiles are incorporated into true Israel (Rom. 11:17). It's not that the Church replaces Israel.

But they are flying up in metanarrative territory, with a theological reading of the canon. I fully approve of that reading. But I live in a fundamentalist world, not their Methodist world with its different struggles. I deal with a world where, sometimes, people still take to heart comments about not trimming the edges of your beard (Lev. 19:27) or not working on the (reinterpreted) Sabbath.

I can't imagine anyone who could successfully argue against my claim that, if Jesus in Mark says that God has declared all foods clean, then I can eat pork despite the fact that Leviticus says not to. The same goes for circumcision and Sabbath observance. When I say that the NT "trumps" the OT, I am speaking very concretely in the light of premoderns and fundamentalists who actually want to apply OT law to us today that the NT clearly says is not obligatory.

In fact, these practices stood at the very heart of what Paul meant when he said we are justified by faith and not works of Law, and he tells the Galatians that they will have lost their salvation if they get circumcised. So I agree on the metanarrative, but the concrete dynamic seems pretty obvious to me.

2. Dr. Richter sees the historical cultural context of the Bible as another obstacle, "the great barrier." This is certainly true from a modern perspective. The verses leading up to Isaiah 7:14 or Jeremiah 31:15 used to be completely incomprehensible to me.

Of course since I was raised with a memory verse hermeneutic to these sections, I thought I perfectly understood these island verses once I got to them. Not knowing the context was no obstacle to preaching holiness sermons about Isaiah 35:8. There's a reason why Fee and Stuart tell their readers not to read the OT stories as moral lessons (92). In my world, that's exactly what the premodern preachers of my world have always done.

But she is in a modernist world and trying to move beyond the limits of modernism. If your goal is to understand the OT at all in its historical-cultural context, there is going to be a learning curve about the Ancient Near East.

3. Her real target, though, is what she calls the "dysfunctional closet syndrome." By this she means the situation where you may know a lot of details from the OT, but they are in no particular order, like a messy college dorm room where the clothes are more or less in a random heap. "My goal in writing this book... is to deal a mortal blow to the dysfunctional closet syndrome" (19).

"Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law" (19). What she is saying here is that she intends to give us a Christian metanarrative by which to read the OT texts. She is going to give us a Christian organizing principle by which to bring the individual texts of the OT into a coherent whole.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

How to Build a Movement

There were some key elements to the civil religion I posted on yesterday. Why does the America cult have such staying power? Why does any movement have staying power?

In fact, the way I described civil religion fits with what N. T. Wright has called the elements of a worldview: story, ritual, symbol, and answers to basic questions. I don't want to go into all that. This post isn't about worldviews. It's about movements that have staying power and momentum.

Organizations that have a founding story or key stories that express their identity and mission tend to draw people. It's not just about serving people in some obvious way. There's something about the human being that wants to belong to a group that has a destiny.

The Greeks and Romans understood this with their myths of the Trojan War and the founding of Rome. This is what we might call a founding myth. If you think a myth of this sort is just a fake story, you've missed something profound. We humans thrive on these sorts of identity-destiny-mission-giving stories.

I know of churches that people flock to because they have a founding story of this sort. Wesley Seminary has a story of its founding that makes people feel like they are joining something more than just an institution. These stories don't have to be false--in fact, the truer they are, the more powerful the sense of being part of something with a purpose.

When we started the seminary, we thought it was important that it have a building--even though we knew it was destined primarily to be an online seminary. Sure, the faculty and administration needed offices. Sure, we needed to have a place for some classes. But it was more important for symbolic purposes. We wanted students to know that there was a place that was the seminary, that the seminary was a real seminary rather than an imaginary one.

This was one of the purposes that the temple served (in addition to that atonement thing ;-). God had an address on earth. It's not necessarily easy to make a symbol. Often the most powerful ones have to do with the founding stories. Take the cross, for example.

With that example, you can see that we're not just talking hokey here. Symbols are more powerful than words, if you have the right one.

It is unfortunate that some Protestants so overreacted to medieval Catholicism that they tried to strip Christianity of its symbols and rituals. These are some of the most powerful elements of the human psyche.

Movements have rituals. Worshiping on Sundays is a ritual. "Sacred days" are symbols that also entail rituals. Every year at the seminary we come back together to start a new year in a service of worship. Churches can have unique rituals that are essential to who they are, in addition to the common rituals of Christianity.

Universities have rituals that can bind everyone together. IWU has its World Changer Convocation, its busts in the rotunda. Students at IWU long for the Friday Night Live comedy nights. Homecoming is a socially cohesive ritual event. Of course rituals have to have buy-in too. It has to be the right kind of ritual, one that resonates in some way.

Basic Perspectives
Surprising to some, the ideas we connect to these stories, symbols, and rituals are secondary to the power they have in themselves. Human beings are not "thinking things" at their core, but we use thought to conceptualize the significance of these more elemental forces of the human psyche.

So there will be words that go along with these more powerful elements. Slogans are more powerful than paragraphs--"We say yes."  "It's about the people." "If you don't look good, we don't look good."

These are really mission statements but packaged in their most effective human form. Again, if they don't resonate with people they become a joke or just fade away. But find the right one and you're moving.

It's not easy to manufacture these elements, although some people just have a knack for it. These are the people who lead movements. These are the politicians that move people. These are the pastors to whose churches people flock.

We like to spiritualize these things (which is part of the mythic quality) and I would never want to reduce movements to mere mechanics. But I suspect most people over-spiritualize them.

Some thoughts for a Tuesday morning...

Monday, October 06, 2014

What is "Civil Religion"?

Things that we value get mixed. Since all the mixing takes place in our heads, we often don't realize it. We look out at the world through one set of eyes, so we may not realize that we have apples and oranges all twisted up in our perceptions of the world.

Our religion and our nationalism VERY frequently get intertwined to where we can't tell where God ends and country begins. After all, they are both two things we love, so it is easy for them both to get mixed up together. (By the way, Keith Drury wrote on this 15 years ago).

It's often pretty innocent. So we celebrate July 4 in church. We have an American flag on the pulpit. In church we honor those who have lost their lives in war.  Maybe we even call Americans to repentance and to turn to the Lord. These are all fairly innocent mixings of our faith with our nationalism.

Of course it drives Christians who come here from Canada crazy. German Christians who visit us find it very alarming indeed. We have no idea how silly we look to faith-filled believers who aren't swimming in it like we are--a fish doesn't know it's wet. But as long as no one gets hurt, it's probably not worth fighting over.

How does it work? Here are some of the dynamics (thanks to the Facebook discussion for some of these):

1. The Founders become apostles and saints.
It becomes increasingly hard to view any of the founders of the country as normal people. "I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree." As great as these people may have been, they become more than superheroes. They become saints, and to say anything different evokes the same reaction as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

In fact, their words take on a Scriptural quality. Like memory verses in the Bible, we rip their words out of their historical context and quote them as inspired truth. So we forget that, in addition to being a brilliant thinker and inventor, Benjamin Franklin was also an adulterer who seriously doubted that Jesus was divine. Instead, we quote with pious devotion the words, "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped." [With solemn music playing in the background]

2. The Constitution and Declaration become the Scriptures.
Not only do quotes become Scripture memory verses. But the founding documents take on a certain Scriptural quality. The right to bear arms, the freedom of religion, these become quasi-Ten Commandments. The founding stories become like the story of the Exodus. Our emotional commitment to these things is pretty much the same as our commitment to Scripture.

Like the biblical canon, we have the Genesis stories of Christopher Columbus and the Mayflower. We have the exodus stories of the Revolutionary War as we escape from the hands of Pharaoh (or King George as the case may be). The Boston Tea Party is like blood in the Nile. The stories of Lincoln and the Civil War are another book in the canon, a kind of New Testament that completes the Old.

We treat these stories as if they are as holy as the stories in the Bible. The emotions they raise and our devotion to them is incredibly similar, if not the same. So also is our hostility toward those "liberal scholars" who might question the historicity of some of our traditions. We show the same hostility we show toward "liberal" biblical scholars in relation to the stories of the Bible.

3. Patriotic songs take on a hymn-like quality.
I get stirred up singing about Christ. I get stirred up singing about America. So why not sing about America in church, since I get the same feeling? Even more, let's sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and "How Firm a Foundation" at a Fourth of July celebration of America. I get the same feeling singing both.

God judges the heart, so I imagine we're ok, but this is really almost blasphemous. How spooky would it be if a crowd of Wesleyans sang "How Firm a Foundation" about God's founding of The Wesleyan Church with Lutherans and Baptists sitting with us? Now imagine singing that about America, which isn't even a church, with Christians from Africa or England listening in.

4. America becomes Israel and the Church.
America isn't in the Bible. It certainly isn't Israel. 2 Chronicles 7:14 wasn't about America. Of course it's fine for Americans to repent, but America isn't the "my people" of this verse. Really pretty arrogant of us, when you think of it. We're not even saying that American Christians are better than "second rate" Christians in Iraq or Africa who haven't suffered like we have. We're saying that a nation filled with non-followers of Christ is something like the body of Christ.

Think about it. Not even earthly Israel has this status. Paul can say of his own people, "they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" (Rom. 9:6). Yet we would somehow equate America with God's people? It would be ludicrously hilarious if it weren't so seriously misguided.

Still worse--again, really blasphemous--God overlooks our ignorance--1 Peter 2:9 should NEVER be applied to the United States. Peter is referring to the body of Christ here, the invisible Church.

Imagine if I applied this verse to The Wesleyan Church--"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation..." Some might laugh at me--seriously a denomination? This relates to the universal Church, the invisible body of believers everywhere and spread throughout all time. I suspect more would be quite outraged that I would consider a denomination to be God's special people.

But then see how much FAR more inappropriate it is to connect a verse like this one to a nation like America. No nation is holy enough. It's really blasphemy of incredible proportions. Thankfully, God judges our hearts not our smarts.

4. Soldiers become martyrs.
Certainly I believe in honoring those who fight for America, but they are no more saints than the founders. You don't automatically go to heaven if you die in battle. You don't get years off purgatory for being wounded in battle. There are virtuous soldiers and there are wicked ones. You are not justified by works in battle. Nope, still faith in Jesus Christ.

5. We have holy days and holy rituals.
In many churches, July 4, Memorial Day, and Veteran's Day are as or more significant than Christmas or Easter. Those same churches perhaps have never heard of Advent or even think of Lent as evil, some Catholic perversity. To me it is perfectly acceptable to celebrate the blessings God has given us as a nation, as long as we don't actually think we are somehow more special in God's eyes because we were born here.

And that's actually an important point. God loves the illegal immigrant just as much as he loves the person who breaks the speed limit or cheats on income taxes.

6. The flag becomes a symbol like the cross.
I imagine that there may be as many American flags on the platforms of American churches as there are crosses. Indeed, there are probably a good many American churches that would be angry at the idea of having a cross because of some association of it with Catholic perversity.

But don't you dare question having an American flag there! For a sense of how bizarre this is, imagine seeing a British flag on the platform of a British church or a Russian flag in a Russian church or a German flag in a German church.

I know we don't mean anything by it. We're not seriously suggesting that loyalty to America is somehow as significant as submission to the Lordship of Jesus. We're not seriously suggesting that America is holy somehow like the Church is holy. We don't take our shoes off near the flag as if God somehow dwelt in it like the burning bush.

We just love our country and that's good. I believe God isn't offended at the inappropriateness of confusing what we do in church with what we do when we vote. He is very patient with us, I believe.

7. Those who question become heretics.
I hope I have been kind enough not to raise too much anger with this post. The indignation and wrath of those offended in relation to civil religion is often of the same intensity as that toward those who mess with traditions about Christian faith. That's because those who have a civil form of religion can't fully tell the difference between the two.

Again, I'm eternally grateful that God judges us by our hearts rather than by our smarts.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

C1. Christ has been the Son of God from eternity past.

This is the first post in the beginning of the second set of articles in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation. This second set has to do with Christ and Salvation.
1. In theology, the study of Christ is called Christology. It primarily concerns the "person of Christ," although it is sometimes difficult to discuss the "person" of Christ without also discussing the "work" of Christ. The early Christian debates of the 300s and 400s dealt extensively with questions about the person of Christ and how he related to God the Father. The creeds that came from these debates set down clear parameters for what Christians should believe.

These creeds, short though they are, reflect centuries of agonizing discussion in the early church. In the New Testament, we have some hints of things the early Christians said or "confessed" about Christ. We sometimes call these sorts of statements, credos, after the Latin for "I believe." One of the earliest was probably the simple affirmation, "Jesus is Lord" (e.g., Rom. 10:9; Phil. 2:11; 1 Cor. 12:3).

Some form of what would become the "Apostle's Creed" probably existed by the year AD200. Its statements about Jesus are in somewhat of a story or narrative form:

"I believe... in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day, he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father, Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead."

This is a good summary of the story of Jesus as we find it in the Gospels.

2. However, this story line did not answer the kinds of questions that arose after the New Testament period. Is Jesus the most exalted of God's creations, or is he God himself in some sense? If he is truly God, then how does his divinity fit with his humanity? Indeed, the New Testament itself is not entirely clear on these sorts of questions, arguably because the New Testament authors just weren't asking them.

There were faith-filled individuals in the early centuries of Christianity who argued both sides of these debates from Scripture, just as today different groups argue contradictory things from the same Scripture. This is a significant point. Some Christians who would be "heretics" now (individuals who disagree with core Christian dogmas) were not yet heretics when they argued for certain positions back then. That is because "orthodoxy," or right belief, was not yet established at that time.

For example, a faith-filled believer named Sabellius argued in the early 200s that Jesus was actually the same person as God the Father and the Holy Spirit. These were just three different faces or three different manifestations of one person changing roles and appearances. [1] In the Old Testament he appeared as God the Father. Then he came to earth as Jesus. Then he came back now as the Holy Spirit. To Sabellius, these were not three persons--as most Christians have always believed--but only one changing hats.

From the perspective of orthodoxy--the common consensus of Christians since the earliest centuries of Christianity--there are a couple positive aspects to what Sabellius suggested. First, he maintains what was essential even to Israelite faith in the Old Testament--there is only one God (e.g., Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:6). This position is the bottom layer of biblical confessions about God and was thus always the bedrock of this discussion in early Christianity. There is only one God, not three. [2]

Sabellius also believed that Jesus was fully and 100% God, which is the position the Church would eventually conclude in the 300s. No doubt Sabellius looked to verses like John 10:20 as the basis for this belief. There Jesus says, "I and the Father are one." There were those who interpreted this verse differently. After all, two people can be in complete agreement and say things of this sort. Two kings might be unified on a policy and say, "We are one on this question."

Indeed, there appear to have been some forms of Jewish Christianity in the 100s who believed that Jesus was the Messiah but not that he was God in any sense like God the Father was God. There was a group known as the Ebionites, for example, and another called the Nasarenes, which was still in existence in the 400s. [3] And here we also need to remember that the Roman emperors were known as divine as well. The memoir of the first emperor, Augustus, is titled, "The Story of the Divine Augustus."

So Sabellius was orthodox in his belief in one God, and he sided with what would become the orthodox belief that Jesus was fully God. Where he would later be considered unorthodox is in his sense that Jesus and God the Father were not two distinct persons but the same person.

3. Another position that would be considered wrong by the end of the 300s is that of a church leader named Arius. [4] Arius correctly taught that there was only one God, but he did not include Jesus within him. On the one hand, Arius did believe that Jesus had existed before he came to earth. That is to say, Arius believed in the pre-existence of Jesus.

There are a number of passages in the New Testament that have led most scholars to conclude that Paul and certainly John believed that Jesus had existed before he came to earth. [5] John of course clearly states this position in statements like John 17:5: "Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began." [6] In Paul's writings, Philippians 2:6-8 are usually taken to refer to Jesus coming to earth from heaven: "Though he was in the form of God... he emptied himself... being born in human likeness (NRSV)."

Arius believed all this. Indeed, Arius affirmed strongly on the basis of Scripture that Jesus was the "firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15, NASB). He believed that Jesus was Lord over all creation, much higher than the angels. He believed that he could affirm everything said about Jesus in Scripture.

But Arius placed Jesus on the creation side of the dividing line. Jesus was the most exalted of all God's creation but still a creation. He taught that, "There was a point when the Son did not exist," a point before time. He might have said about Christ something like what the Jewish thinker Philo said about the Word of God--"I am neither uncreated like God nor created like you, but midway between the two extremes" (Heir 206).

The debate came to a head at the Council of Nicaea in AD325, the first universal council of Christianity. It was called by the Roman emperor Constantine, who had just finally declared Christianity a legal religion in AD313. It was important to him that Christians not fight among themselves but come to some point of agreement on this question.

The champion of the other side, the side that would eventually prevail by the end of the 300s, was Athanasius. The doctrine of the Trinity is the orthodox position of Christianity in large part because of his doggedness on the issue. No compromise position was accepted, such as the suggestion that Jesus was of similar substance to God the Father (homoiousios). Athanasius was insistent: Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father (homoousios).

Athanasius won at the Council, but it would take the better part of the 300s for his position to win in the churches of the empire. Nevertheless, in 381, the second "ecumenical" or worldwide council produced the Nicene Creed at Constantinople, which gives the position that Christians have generally held ever since:

"I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father..."

4. So we finally get to the claim of this article. Christians believe that Christ has been God since eternity past. He is "of one substance" (homoousios) with God the Father. He is not like God; he is God.

He is "begotten, not made." Arius argued that Jesus was made, part of the creation. Athanasius pointed to language in John of Jesus being "begotten." There is a difference, Athanasius argued. "Made" seems to imply that Jesus came into existence at some point. But Jesus was "eternally begotten." He has always been the Son who comes from the Father. They have always existed in this relationship.

A later creed from the 500s called the Athanasian Creed spells it out even more clearly:

"We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godness of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. ..

"The Father is eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. So similarly the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God...

"The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another."

So common Christianity affirms that there are three distinct persons who constitute the one God. This is a mystery. It affirms everything that needs to be affirmed and leaves the rest unsaid, for any attempt to clarify more seems to end in a position that the early Christians rejected.

5. So Christians historically believe that Jesus Christ is a distinct person from God the Father but they both are the one God. They have existed eternally in the relationship of Father and Son. [7] According to historic Christianity, Jesus is not even subordinate to God the Father, as you can see in the final line above from the Athanasian Creed. They are "of one substance."

Christians believe that Christ has been true God, of one substance with God the Father, although a distinct person in the Trinity, from eternity past.

Next week: C2. Jesus is God's Word become flesh.

[1] In addition to the name "Sabellianism," this approach is also called "modalism" or "monarchical modalism," because God is just appearing in different "modes" in history, even though it is just the same person. In the church today, "Oneness Pentecostals," who do things in the name of "Jesus only" are modalists of this sort (e.g., the United Pentecostal Church). They do not believe in the Trinity.

[2] Belief in more than one god is called polytheism, and it has never been a serious option within Christianity, although it no doubt took place on a popular level after Christianity became the only legal religion of the Roman Empire in 380 under Theodosius I. Polytheism then went underground for some time among people who officially had to call themselves Christians.

[3] The Nasorenes (which I spell this way from Jerome, Epistle 19, so as not to confuse them with modern day Nazarenes, another spelling) even believed in the Virgin Birth.

[4] His thinking is thus called, "Arianism."

[5] There is surprisingly more debate on these issues among New Testament scholars than you might think. For example, it was nearly the consensus in the 1970s among New Testament scholars that Paul did not teach the pre-existence of Jesus. See James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

[6] John is unique among the Gospels in having statements like this one. The other three Gospels, usually called the "Synoptic" Gospels because they give such similar presentations of Jesus' earthly ministry, do not explicitly say anything about Jesus' pre-existence. We might easily miss the fact, for example, that while Matthew and Luke tell of the Virgin Birth, they say nothing explicitly about Jesus before his birth. For an argument that the Synoptics imply Jesus' pre-existence, see Simon Gathercole, The Pre-Existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[7] Remembering that these genders are metaphorical. No genitalia is involved, meaning that God is not literally gendered.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A Biblical Worldview

I am not opposed to using worldview language. There are important cautions that need to go along with it, to be sure.

1. For example, the relation between people's thinking and action is far more complex than some consistent movement from thought to action. Our professed ideas often aren't the real reason for what we do. And most of what passes for a "worldview" is a gross oversimplification, like goo-goo ga-ga talk. It's embarrassing to think of a college class calling something "faith integration" that takes a doctoral level understanding of one field and tries to "integrate" it awkwardly with some kindergartenish worldview concept. In many, perhaps most cases, it would be better for the professor not even to try and just be a person with faith teaching a subject they are actually an expert on.

Still more problematic is language of "biblical" worldview. I will use this language below but most of those who use this language are pre-modern, unreflective interpreters. That is, they are Bible readers who define the words of the Bible by the definitions of their tradition. They read the Bible like a mirror and rip a selection of key mirror verses to express what their community already thinks.

It is somewhat difficult to speak of a biblical worldview if you know how to read the Bible in context. For example, the way the Israelites who wrote down the books of the OT viewed God among the gods was arguably not exactly the same as the way Jews viewed God by the time Paul came around. You will not find the best original meaning Bible scholars even speaking much of biblical theology in relation to the whole Bible, let alone the more simplistic biblical worldview construct.

But it is now potentially a "post" modern time. That is to say, I am open to speaking reflectively of a biblical worldview in a way that is aware that it is loosening the original meanings of the biblical texts and organizing them by an outside organizing principle.

I believe for Christendom, that organizing principle is best some form of common Christianity or orthodoxy. For me, that pattern also might involve the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, which I believe is the best "constructive" version of Christian tradition in relation to the modern world. (We all at least partially construct our theologies in dialog with modern issues of thought. We just don't always admit it to ourselves.)

2. So what might such a "biblical worldview" look like?
  • It believes in a loving, powerful, knowing God who exists apart from the world but is involved in the world. 
  • But God does not determine everything that happens, even though nothing happens apart from his permission and will. We have a responsibility to choose the good and can choose the good.
  • God speaks. He has spoken through Scripture and he continues to speak to people today, especially those among his people. The Spirit helps us arbitrate between what is his speaking and what isn't.
  • But there is much truth we can know without a special word from the Lord.
  • It believes that the world needs to be reconciled to God. The world is alienated from God. Although God is working everywhere--there is hope for goodness everywhere--humanity's default state is one of disempowerment and degradation everywhere. We need rescued.
  • The key to the restoration of fallen humanity is Jesus. He is the means of restoration and reconciliation. He is also the Lord and master of all the earth.
  • History is moving toward an ultimate restoration. We are eternally accountable to God for our lives, although his disposition is one of mercy toward those who trust in his mercy.
  • There are two great ethical requirements of humanity by God. The first is to submit to his absolute rulership, a submission that is not onerous because he is a loving Sovereign. The second is for us to live lives of love toward one another.
3. A sound "biblical worldview" has implications for the specific issues of our world (e.g., abortion, poverty) but flies more at a "meta" level. For example, I do not believe that it makes sense to speak of a "biblical" perspective on abortion unless you are a pre-modern reader who is simply seeing the Bible as a mirror of what you already believe. There is rather a biblical perspective on murder, especially on the basis of the love ethic. Our position on abortion then tries to play out that worldview perspective in the specific case of an unborn child.

But the Bible read in context, either on the whole (which is where "biblical worldview" comes into play) or in some particular verse (which then is not usually flying on the level of worldview but more on the level of ancient situation), does not take a position on human identity in relation to human development. This is a question from our world, not theirs. What we do as communities of faith is apply the basic principles of our Christian worldview to specific situations like these in our contemporary world.

The freedom of speech and our democratic worldview enables those in America with means to speak our minds loudly and with great vigor in the public forum. I'm afraid that, much of the time, we more or less embarrass ourselves when we speak of a biblical or Christian worldview and turn off intelligent outsiders to faith. We are a people of easy answers where, in the name of our religious tradition but invoking the Bible, a person of mediocre thinking ability can speak with the authority of God.

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