Thursday, November 26, 2015

Giving Thanks, Without Being Perfunctory

During my prayer time last night, the subject of thanksgiving entered my mind because, well, it is Thanksgiving!  Philippians 4:6 came to my mind: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (KJV).

There are many verses that I have read in the Bible.  Some have been impressed in my mind.  Some, not so much!  I first came to appreciate this verse when I read John MacArthur’s book, Anxiety Attacked, back when I was in high school.  I read that book a couple of times.  I read it once, then I reread it during the final exam period, a time when I was particularly anxious.  John MacArthur had a chapter in that book about Philippians 4:6.

But the years passed, and I have not thought about that verse that often since then—-maybe sporadically.  But I thought about it last night.  And what I thought was this: I spend a lot of my prayer time making requests to God.  That is not all that I do, of course, for I read something devotional: the Bible, the pseudepigrapha, and currently the “Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan.”  But requests are a significant part of my prayer time.  I pray for others first, one reason being that I care for the people I pray for and want to see good in their lives, and another reason being that I want to cultivate compassion within myself.  Then I pray for my own needs and desires: help me to get paying employment so that eventually I can pay off my student loans, help my blog to do better, help me to have more peace in social situations, fill me with your Holy Spirit, help me to make progress on my dissertation, help me to move on from past hurts.

I make these requests, and I do not think that is a bad thing.  This is a broken world, after all.  I am broken.  Others are broken, looking for a breakthrough, or at least peace.  Life is broken.  I would be wrong to refrain from praying for things, for that would imply that everything is all right.  It’s not.

But, unfortunately, I rarely make these requests with thanksgiving.  It’s not that I never give thanks.  It’s just pretty sporadic.  I thank God for the good that happens in the lives of others: when someone fears that she has cancer and learns that she does not, I give God thanks.  Yes, bad things happen to people in this life, but it is good to be happy about the good things that happen in people’s lives.  I also thank God for some of the joys or conveniences that I experience: that movie, TV show, or book that really moved me or made me think; that resource that I found for my dissertation (and, believe me, resources are not always easy to find!).

But I think that I should make thanksgiving a regular part of my daily prayer time.  But I want to do this without being perfunctory.  I don’t like having a long list of obligatory things that I have to say when I am praying.  I get to the point where I am not feeling what I am praying.  Currently, I have my standard list of people I pray for each day, and I keep that pretty standard: I rarely add to it.  But there is also a part of my prayer time in which I pray for people who are not part of my standard list—-people who come to mind at that moment.  That can vary by the day.  I find this approach more authentic than feeling as if I have to pray through the phone book.

I can do something similar with thanksgiving.  I can set aside a part of my prayer time in which I mention something that I am thankful for.  I don’t have to go through a laundry list, but I can mention something, and maybe more than one thing.  It can pertain to myself, or to something good that is happening in the life of someone else.  There is a lot to be thankful for: people who have helped me, our cats, and the list goes on.

I spend a lot of time complaining and griping about life.  That probably won’t change.  I believe that I have things to complain about!  I might as well not pretend otherwise, though I generally will try not to burden my readers with that (which is not a promise, but just a policy I may follow).  But I should spend more time than I do being thankful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Book Write-Up: Dinosaurs, by Dr. Tim Clarey

Dr. Tim Clarey.  Dinosaurs, Marvels of God’s Design: The Science of the Biblical Account.  Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Tim Clarey is a young earth creationist, who serves at the Institute for Creation Research.  According to his profile at the ICR’s web site, he has a Ph.D. in Geology from Western Michigan University.  He was also an exploration geologist for Chevron, and he taught geo-science at Delta College in Michigan.

Clarey presents a young earth creationist perspective on dinosaurs.  This perspective is that God created the dinosaurs on Day 6 of creation, when God created the other land animals (Genesis 1).  According to Clarey, this means that the dinosaurs were on earth thousands of years ago, not millions, and Clarey challenges the reliability of scientific dating methods that point to an older age for the dinosaurs.  Clarey believes that all of the dinosaurs were originally vegetarian, and that the carnivorous ones became carnivorous only after the Fall of Adam and Eve; these dinosaurs had a vegetarian diet on Noah’s Ark, however.  For Clarey, the dinosaur fossils were the result of the catastrophic Flood in the time of Noah, and this accounts for phenomena better than uniformitarian and evolutionary explanations.  According to Clarey, Noah took some dinosaurs onto the Ark, and Noah was able to fit them on the Ark because the average size of dinosaurs was about the size of a bison, and Noah took the bigger ones onto the Ark before they hit their growth spurt; the dinosaurs on the Ark, in short, were not huge, so they could fit.  For Clarey, humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth at the same time, and this is evidenced by stories about dragons and representations of creatures that look like dinosaurs.  Clarey believes that dinosaurs became extinct after the Flood: before the Flood, Clarey argues, there was a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and that suited the cold-blooded dinosaurs, but the environment was not as warm after the Flood.  Clarey also criticizes evolution in the book: he states that there is no evidence of transitional fossils when it comes to dinosaurs, and he disputes the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds.

That is Clarey’s perspective.  Does he try to support it?  He does.  He argues that organic material found in dinosaur bones, and carbon-14 dating, indicates that the dinosaurs are thousands, not millions, of years old, since organic material would not last for millions of years.  He believes that phenomena demonstrated in the fossil record—-animals dying suddenly (and at various stages of life), dinosaurs being mixed with marine creatures, footprints indicating that dinosaurs were fleeing from something, and fossils of herds found together, etc.—-are consistent with a catastrophic Flood.  In arguing against the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs, Clarey notes differences in the breathing apparatus between birds and dinosaurs, and Clarey also states that “Birds with real feathers are found in rocks much deeper and buried before the most birdlike dinosaurs” (page 125).  In conventional science, deeper in usually earlier, so, for Clarey, the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs fails even on conventional scientific grounds.

Did Clarey interact with other points-of-view, or alternative explanations?  He did refer to alternative explanations.  He mentioned the view that the carbon-14 dating of material in dinosaur bones may be due to corruption of the sample.  He said that scientists have proposed ways that organic material could have been preserved in dinosaur bones for millions of years.  He referred to the view that ancient people may have developed their ideas of mythological creatures after finding dinosaur fossils.  He also said that scientists have attributed certain examples of fossilization to local catastrophes (i.e., floods) rather than a single global Flood in the time of Noah.  Did Clarey go into a lot of depth in refuting these ideas, or answer many of the objections to Flood geology that scientists have made?  Overall, he did not, but some of his discussions were more in depth than others.

Did Clarey attempt to provide a young-earth creationist interpretation, or way to account for, the evidence often cited in favor of uniformitarian, evolutionist explanations?  He did, at times.  One argument against humans and dinosaurs co-existing is that human fossils have not been found with dinosaur fossils.  Clarey tried to account for this by saying that humans and dinosaurs lived in separate places: dinosaurs were on the low ground, whereas humans and various other mammals were on the high ground.  Clarey also tried to account for fossil layers, which mainstream science says demonstrate chronological successions of life and evolution over millions of years.  Clarey, as a young-earth creationist, does not think that one fossil layer on top of the other means chronological succession, for he believes that the animals in all of these layers existed at the same time and were destroyed by the Flood.  Clarey sought to explain the fossil layers by saying that the Flood could have buried one ecosystem on top of the other, and that marine creatures would logically be deeper in the ground than creatures that were able to find higher ground in the time of the Flood.  For Clarey, that explains why fossils of marine creatures are deeper in the ground than dinosaurs and mammals.

Some of Clarey’s proposals may be original to himself; many things that he says have been said by young-earth creationists before.  Young-earth creationism is rejected by most scientists, and there are many web sites out there that respond to young-earth creationist arguments from an evolutionist or uniformitarian perspective, and that highlight problems in Flood geology:,,, and are sites that come to mind.  These sites, and others, provide a lot of arguments and rebuttals, and I will not rehearse all of them here.  Many of them demonstrate that there is more to the story, or more nuance, than what young earth creationists present.  I would like to highlight some anti-young earth creationist arguments that I found particularly compelling.  One argument asks why, if dinosaurs are young rather than old, it is such a rarity that we find organic material inside dinosaur bones?  Another argument maintains that the young-earth creationist view that more developed animals could run to higher ground in trying to escape the Flood does not work, for there are fossils of developed animals that are rather deep in the ground, and fossils of marine animals that are higher up.  Plus, one can observe development in marine animals from one strata to another.

I am not a paleontologist, or even a scientifically-minded person, but, even before looking at the web to see ways that scientists have responded to young-earth creationism, I had questions in my mind as I read Clarey’s book.  Clarey’s book is not just a defense of young-earth creationism, but it also aims to describe the characteristics of various dinosaurs.  One can almost get the impression in reading the book that certain dinosaurs were designed to be meat eaters: their body was structured in such a way that would enable them to catch their prey or to eat meat safely, or the T.Rex’s appetite could only be satisfied by eating quantities of animals.  The information that Clarey presents, in these cases, appears to conflict with his view that the carnivorous dinosaurs were created by God to be vegetarians.  In addition, I would submit that evolution may account for some of the details that Clarey mentions better than design does.  Clarey argues, for example, that an animal having sharp teeth does not preclude it from being a vegetarian, for we know of vegetarian animals that have sharp teeth.  Why, though, would God design an animal with sharp teeth that it does not need?  On the other hand, evolutionists point to animals who have organs or body-parts that they do not seem to use, and they believe that is consistent with evolution.

In looking at the web—-and ignoring the creationist web sites—-I do get the impression that Clarey highlights at least one controversy within the mainstream scientific community, and that concerns the question of whether birds evolved from dinosaurs.  There does appear to be some debate about that within the mainstream scientific community, as some say that certain dinosaurs may have evolved from earlier forms of birds.

I give this book four stars because Clarey does attempt to support his position and to interact with other points of view.  His love for his subject matter was also evident and endearing.  The book may also be a helpful resource on the history of research into dinosaurs and dinosaur characteristics.  Moreover, this book can stimulate thought and research, particularly if it encourages readers to find out about what other scientists think about young earth creationism, the phenomena that Clarey discusses, and the rationales for their positions.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Cross Focused Reviews, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Does "The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan" Agree with John Walton?

I have been reading “Adam and Eve,” which is in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.  The book is often known as “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan.”  It is a Christian work, originally written in Arabic and translated into Ethiopic. Its date is uncertain, ranging anywhere from the fifth century C.E. to the ninth century C.E. (see here, here, and here.)

In reading “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” I was thinking of an argument that biblical scholar John Walton made in The Lost World of Adam and Eve (see here for my review).  Walton argued that the Garden of Eden was God’s sanctuary, where Adam and Eve served as priests for humanity.  By eating from the Tree of Life, within the context of a relationship with God, Adam and Eve could be immortal.  Outside of the Garden of Eden, however, even before Adam and Eve sinned, people and animals killed each other.  After sinning, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, deprived of access to the Tree of Life, and thus got old and died; the implication may be that they were inherently mortal even before the Fall, but they could extend their lives as they continually ate from the Tree of Life.  Once they were expelled from Eden and cut off from the Tree of Life, however, that possibility was closed to them.

This interpretation is an attempt to reconcile two concepts, or at least to show that they are not mutually contradictory: the Genesis 2-3 story about the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the existence of killing and death for millions of years, even before the date of the biblical Fall, which was only thousands of years ago (if there even was one).  There are many Christians who believe that there was no death before the Fall of Adam and Eve, for Paul in Romans 5:12 states that Adam, by sin, brought death into the world.  Notwithstanding the Christian view that death entered the world only after the Fall of Adam and Eve, numerous fossils appear to indicate that death and killing were around much longer than that, for millions of years.  Is there a necessary contradiction between the biblical Fall story and the existence of death for millions of years?  Walton does not think so, for he proposes a model in which the biblical story is consistent with the existence of death even prior to the Fall.  According to this model, inside of the Garden before the Fall, Adam and Eve were living by partaking of the Tree of Life; outside of the Garden, there was death.

I heard a similar argument on the British radio program, “Unbelievable.”  In the episode, “Is God the Best Explanation for Apparent Design in Nature?”, the host, Justin Brierley, was interviewing Jonathan McLatchie and Cory Markum.  Markum is an atheist and a blogger, and McLatchie is a Ph.D. student in cell biology who believes in Intelligent Design.  McLatchie was addressing the question of how there could have been death prior to the Fall, and, appealing to William Dempski, he suggested that the pre-Fall death was God’s retroactive punishment for the Fall.  Revelation 13:8 states that that Jesus was slain from the foundation of the world, even though Jesus was actually killed later, in the first century C.E.  Many Christians believe that some of the redemptive benefits of Christ’s death were applied retroactively, prior to Jesus’ life on earth and death, which would explain why God in the Old Testament is in a relationship with sinful humanity rather than killing all people for their sins.  For McLatchie (if I am interpreting him correctly), something similar is going on with the Fall: God is retroactively punishing the world with death prior to the time of the Fall.

Walton in his book admits that there is not a whole lot of support for his model in the history of biblical interpretation.  Indeed, the Jewish Book of Wisdom, in Wisdom 2:24, appears to imply that the Fall brought death into the world.  Moreover, Walton does not believe that Adam and Eve were necessarily the first human beings, which would be consistent with what mainstream science and history say about the history of humanity.  The history of biblical interpretation, by contrast, tends to say that they were the first human beings.

Now for the question that the title of my blog post raises: “Does ‘The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan’ Agree with John Walton?”  Is this ancient Christian work an example from the history of biblical interpretation that would agree with what John Walton and Jonathan McLatchie propose?  I have not read “The Conflict of Adam and Eve” in its entirety, but I do notice overlap in what I have read so far, as well as differences.

Allow me to highlight the overlap between “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” and what McLatchie and Walton have proposed.  First of all, the “Conflict of Adam and Eve” maintains that God designed the world in anticipation of the Fall.  Even before God made the world and Adam and Eve, God knew that they would sin, and God designed the world accordingly.  In 1:2-4, we read that God created a sea north of Eden in which human beings could wash themselves, for God knew that Adam and Eve would sin and leave the Garden.  In 13:12-13, God said that he made the sun so that human beings could work during the day, whereas they would rest at night.  But there was no day and night in Eden, for it was always light there, and that is why Adam and Eve are struggling to adjust to their new post-Fall reality, in which they have to deal with darkness at night and the blinding sun during the day.  God, prior to creating Adam and Eve, created the sun and the moon knowing that Adam and Eve would sin and leave the Garden.  God fashioned the way the world was with the Fall in mind.  That somewhat resembles what Jonathan McLatchie was saying about God retroactively applying the effects of the Fall to the world before the Fall even took place.

Second, to repeat what I said above, life in the Garden is different from life outside of the Garden.  Inside of the Garden, there is continual light.  Darkness is not present there.  Day and night are irrelevant inside of the Garden.  But day and night do exist outside of the Garden; God, after all, created day and night, the sun and the moon, prior to creating Adam and Eve.  That somewhat reminds me of Walton’s suggestion that Adam and Eve were living within the Garden of Eden, whereas people and animals were dying outside of the Garden.  And what “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” presents may be consistent with seeing the Garden of Eden as a sanctuary for God—-a place that is apart from the world, a place that is timeless.

There are differences between “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” and Walton’s model, however.  “Conflict” presents Adam and Eve as the very first human beings, whereas Walton does not.  “Conflict” has Cain marrying his sister, whereas Walton appears to lean towards saying that Cain was marrying someone outside of his family (since, for Walton, there were more people besides the family of Adam and Eve).  Walton does not see Adam and Eve as naturally or inherently immortal in the Garden, for their immortality came from eating from the Tree of Life.  “Conflict,” by contrast, seems to believe that Adam and Eve lost something that was a part of their original nature in the Fall: prior to the Fall, they were luminous beings; after the Fall, they were flesh.  In “Conflict,” the Fall of Adam and Eve does have profound natural consequences (or that is presented as a possibility): Adam and Eve after the Fall fear that the animals will no longer be subordinate to them, as they were in the Garden, as if the Fall changed the animals’ nature.  Walton, by contrast, would  argue that the animals outside of the Garden were already killing each other, even before Adam and Eve fell, which would imply that the Fall of Adam and Eve did not change the animals’ nature for the worse.

I do find the areas of overlap interesting, though.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Write-Up: Evangelicals Adrift, by Matthew E. Ferris

 Matthew E. Ferris.  Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism.  Great Writing, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

A number of evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, seeking in these faith traditions what they believe is lacking in the evangelical tradition.  In Evangelicals Adrift, Matthew E. Ferris contends that such a trend is misguided, and that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions do not actually provide what evangelical converts are seeking. Ferris focuses mostly on Roman Catholicism, but he does occasionally interact with Eastern Orthodoxy.

Ferris is not opposed to Christians reading the church fathers and regarding them as fellow pilgrims in the faith, but he does maintain that embracing Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions can compromise a Christian’s adherence to the Gospel.  Ferris supports looking to Scripture alone, read with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as the authority for Christian faith and practice.  For him, this contrasts with looking to the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church as the authority for faith, practice, and Scriptural interpretation.  In terms of his soteriology, Ferris apparently holds that faith in Christ’s finished work brings a person forgiveness of sins (past, present, and future) and makes a person an adopted child of God, and that this status cannot be lost through fluctuations in the quality of one’s spiritual life.  For Ferris, this view differs from the Roman Catholic church’s emphasis on merit (either one’s own merit or merit that is transferred from the saints), performing acts of penance to receive forgiveness, belief that justification is infused rather than imputed righteousness, belief that Christ is sacrificed at the mass, and belief that one can enter the church as an infant at baptism, when one cannot yet make a faith commitment.  Ferris also holds that Mariology and prayers to saints detract from the focus that believers should place on God the Father and Jesus Christ.

There are at least three assets to this book, though, in noting them, critiques can be made.  First of all, Ferris consults primary sources and secondary scholarship (including Roman Catholic scholars) to argue that church history is messier than many Roman Catholics and evangelical converts to Roman Catholicism may believe.  According to Ferris, many traditions that Roman Catholics embrace do not go back to the apostles and were not even universally embraced by the church fathers, who had differences of opinion among themselves.  Moreover, Ferris argues, church councils and papal pronouncements have contradicted each other, so how can they be an expression of the will of God?  Ferris’ point is that the certainty that evangelicals seek in Roman Catholicism, as they are disappointed by the myriads of denominations and beliefs in Protestantism, is not present in the Roman Catholic church.  In terms of sources, there was at least one time when I wished that Ferris provided a reference for a point that he was making: Ferris stated that Origen dismissed the historicity of the Old Testament story of Lot and his daughters, without citing a source.  Overall, however, Ferris referred to primary and secondary sources to back up what he was saying.

Second, Ferris wrestled with Scriptures that Roman Catholics have cited in support of their positions, or that, at least on the surface, appear to contradict his own religious beliefs.  Does the baptism of households in the Book of Acts support infant baptism (which Ferris opposes)?  Do Acts 2:38 and I Peter 3:21 mean that water baptism saves a person from sins?  What did Jesus mean in John 20:23 when he said that those the disciples forgive are forgiven, whereas those the disciples do not forgive are not forgiven?  Was Jesus investing in the apostles and their successors the authority to forgive sins?  What did Paul mean when he said in Colossians 1:24 that, in suffering for the church, he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?  Does that deny the adequacy of Christ’s sufferings for atonement?  Ferris did well to wrestle with these Scriptures, and, overall, he did so well, although some of his interpretations were better than others.  Ferris also raised additional considerations: in arguing against the view that water baptism is salvific, for example, he referred to I Corinthians 1:17, in which Paul appears to distinguish preaching the Gospel from baptizing people in water.  There were Scriptural passages, however, that Ferris would have done well to address but did not (as far as I can recall): I think particularly of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 about apostolic authority to bind and to loose (which, in Matthew 18, relates to church discipline).

Third, while Ferris’ portrayal of the Roman Catholic church may appear contradictory in significant areas, that is because Ferris is acknowledging diversity and nuance within Roman Catholicism, and Ferris does well to highlight that.  Does Roman Catholicism view the church itself as authoritative, or does it believe that the church should justify its positions through appeal to other authorities (i.e., Scripture, tradition)?  Does Roman Catholicism believe that its traditions go back to the time of the apostles, or rather that doctrines, faith, and tradition developed over time?  Does Roman Catholicism insist that all Catholics believe and behave the same way, or does it tolerate “cafeteria Catholics”?  Ferris concludes the book by saying that evangelicals who become Roman Catholics will have to accept what the Roman Catholic church says, even if it goes against Scripture or their own conscience.  I wonder why that would be the case, since Ferris showed that there are Catholics who do not accept everything that the Roman Catholic church says!

A question that Ferris should have addressed in more depth is this: is there a sense in which the church (however one defines that) is authoritative and, if so, how?  I can appreciate Ferris’ view that the church cannot legitimately justify what it is saying solely through appeal to its own authority.  But does it have the authority to make rulings that are somehow binding on its members, which is different from a scenario in which each believer does what is right in his or her own eyes, according to his or her  own private interpretation of the Bible?  Acts 15 comes to mind: the church did not arbitrarily arrive at its decision or justify its decision solely through appeal to its own authority, but rather it consulted Scripture and experiences of what the Holy Spirit was doing.  Still, the church did make a binding decision, ruling that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised but had to follow specific rules.  There were arguably other ways to interpret Scripture than what the Jerusalem Conference decided: the Judaizers could have appealed to Genesis 17 to argue that those who joined God’s covenant people (Gentiles included) needed to be circumcised.  Still, the Jerusalem conference made a decision on faith and practice, and the church needed to follow it.  Is there room for this sort of scenario, in Ferris’ Protestant view?

In addition, Ferris is critical of the Alexandrian methods of interpreting Scripture, for they are allegorical and allow the Scripture to be interpreted in all sorts of ways that differ from their original or literal meaning.  Ferris should have wrestled, however, with the times that the New Testament itself does not appear to be faithful to the original meaning of passages in the Old Testament.  I think of Matthew’s interpretation of the Old Testament, or Paul’s apparent allegorization in I Corinthians 9:9 of a law from the Torah.  Ferris is rather critical of those who reject biblical inerrancy, but perhaps they do so because they are actually being faithful to the original or literal meaning of Scripture!  Maybe Scripture itself is messy, as Ferris portrays church history as being!

Ferris’ portrayal of Eastern Orthodoxy also intrigued me.  Ferris portrayed it as rather rigid and dogmatic.  This is interesting to me, since, so often, recovering fundamentalists see Eastern Orthodoxy as a refreshing contrast to the dogmatism that they are escaping.  Frank Schaeffer became Eastern Orthodox, after all!  Many recovering fundamentalists (who are still Christian, on some level) also prefer Eastern Orthodox views on hell and the atonement to the views that are in Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism.  Ferris said that the Eastern Orthodox church tends to be rigid on the question of whether people outside of its church are saved, leaning in the “no” (or at least the “I don’t know”) perspective.  I knew an Eastern Orthodox person who attended Intervarsity, however, and he did not seem to me to be that rigid.  Ferris’ points deserve consideration, though.

I myself do not care if evangelicals convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, for I respect those religions as paths on which people can find God.  At the same time, Ferris does well to warn about the possible spiritual effects of certain Roman Catholic beliefs and practices.  His historical discussions were also informative.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Cross Focused Reviews, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Matthew 25: The Sheep and the Goats

This morning at church, the pastor preached about Matthew 25:31-46.

This is the passage in which the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats.  The Son of Man welcomes the sheep into the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and they receive life eternal.  The Son of Man tells the sheep that they fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, gave him clothing when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison.  The sheep ask the Son of Man when they saw him in these states and helped him, and the Son of Man replies that they did these things for the least of those in his family, and doing that was the same as helping the Son of Man.  The Son of Man then reprimands the goats for not doing these things, and they are told to depart from the Son of Man into eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.  They receive eternal punishment.

The pastor referred to some things that I would like to record here for future reference.  The pastor relayed to us a story from Roman mythology about Bacchus and Penelope.  This story is about gods who look for hospitality, and their search is in vain until they find a lowly married couple.  This couple helps the gods, without knowing that they are gods.  This is similar to Matthew 25, in which people help the Son of Man, without realizing that they are helping the Son of Man.  This story interested me on account of the ways that I read Christians conceptualize Greco-Roman culture in their attempts to make Christianity look superior or revolutionary.  Maybe Christianity was those things, in areas, but Greco-Roman society did value hospitality; that was why Josephus tried to present the Jews as hospitable, or to highlight their hospitality in biblical stories: he was trying to rebut the view that Jews were clannish and misanthropic, to a culture that prized hospitality.

The pastor also told the story about the last lecture by Professor Randy Rausch before he died of pancreatic cancer.  It was about achieving one’s childhood dreams, and it has received millions of views on YouTube.  My impression is that most people at church this morning were aware of this lecture.  I heard of it a while back.  The pastor was saying that Matthew 25 may have been Jesus’ final address, and he was telling his disciples to take care of each other.  That was what he was leaving them with.

The pastor made a brief point about hell.  The goats, he noted, would be separated from God forever.  They would not see God.  The thing is, however, that they did not see God in this life.  They failed to see God in the vulnerable.  They failed to receive God’s kingdom of helping people when it was around them.  Hell was a continuation of how they lived on earth.

Now for my rambling thoughts:

A.  A lot of times, Christians interpret Matthew 25 in terms of helping the poor in general.  A case can be made, however, that Matthew 25 is not about that.  Rather, it is about helping those in Jesus’ family, namely, Christians.  Atheist biblical scholar Robert M. Price interprets the recipients of help as Christian missionaries, who depend on hospitality.  Indeed, this sort of message does appear in the synoptic Gospels.  Matthew 10 talks about this, and it concludes by saying that those who give a glass of cold water to one who is a disciple, because he is a disciple, will not lose his reward.  That is a fairly decent point: it does, in a way, reconcile Matthew 25’s emphasis on good works with Paul’s view that salvation is by faith in Jesus, for the good works in Matthew 25 arguably flow from a belief in Jesus, manifested in hospitality towards Jesus’ disciples (though, at the same time, the sheep do not know that they are helping Jesus).  Yet, there are also passages in the synoptic Gospels about helping the poor and the vulnerable, and the poor are not necessarily disciples of Jesus.  In Luke 14:12-13, Jesus exhorts his audience to invite the poor when holding a banquet, for the poor cannot repay, and the person hosting the party will be rewarded in the resurrection of the righteous.  This accords with Judaism, which stressed the importance of almsgiving.  Jesus also healed people who needed help, even if they may not have made a commitment to him.

B.  Take care of each other.  The pastor was talking about helping anyone who needs help, whatever his or her background.  I do not know if he was referring indirectly to the Syrian refugees, but he did say last week that we should pray for wisdom in that area: we want for those who need help to receive it, but we also want to be safe.  In any case, in discussing Matthew 25, the pastor was talking about outreach.  But his statement about taking care of each other may be consistent with people in church taking care of each other.  We see this sort of theme in the New Testament.  In Acts 4, Christians donate their possessions, and the proceeds went to the needy, such that there was no one in the Christian community who lacked.  In other Christian writings, however, there appear to be qualifications to this.  Galatians 6 talks about bearing one another’s burdens, but also the importance of each person bearing his own burden.  II Thessalonians 3 says that people should work in order to eat.  I Timothy 5 is about helping the widows who truly need help.  How all of this plays out in my church, I do not know.  My impression is that we usually focus on helping people “out there.”  If someone inside of the church needed help, however, the church may provide it, on some level.  I would not be surprised if there are people in church who visit church members when they are sick.

C.  Salvation by good works somewhat scares me.  I would like to believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone, for there are days in which I do not feel like a good person.  At the same time, I can see the point that entrance into the Kingdom involves having a good character: to return to my pastor’s sermon, would a person who failed to recognize God in this life really appreciate being in God’s presence forever and ever?  If I find that I lack love, however, I should not despair, but I should take it to the Lord in prayer.  I should also be sensitive to the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, etc.  When I am hungry, I eat, and thereby live.  What makes me better than someone who is hungry and is not sufficiently nourished but dies of hunger?  The answer: nothing!  We are both human.  We both deserve a chance to survive.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Church, by David Zac Niringiye

David Zac Niringiye.  The Church: God’s Pilgrim People.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

David Zac Niringiye is an African theologian and former bishop in the Church of Uganda.  In The Church: God’s Pilgrim People, Niringiye critiques the current state of the church (not the Church of Uganda specifically, but the Christian church in general) and offers a biblical history of the church in order to define what the church is and what it is supposed to be.

Niringiye argues, understandably, that the church falls short of what it should be.  As Niringiye notes, it is a problem when many people in Ruwanda attend church, yet hate their enemies and seek to kill them.  There is an obvious disconnect there.  The Western church does not escape Niringiye’s criticism, either, for he is critical of the disparities in wealth in the worldwide church.  For Niringiye, the church has largely failed to be the community of love that it should be, or to be salt and light in the world.

For Niringiye, the church itself is not the Kingdom of God, and yet the church relates to the Kingdom of God: Christians are citizens of the Kingdom, they pray for it to come, and they do their part to bring the world under the rule of Christ.  The church is present in the Old Testament, Niringiye narrates, as God sought to establish a community of worshipers through Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses.  The successor to Old Testament Israel, according to Niringiye, is the Christian church.  Niringiye strikes me as supersessionist in his view, here.

Niringiye believes that the church should be a missionary church, proclaiming the good news of what Christ has done.  At the same time, Niringiye also does not preclude the possibility that God may be involved in non-Christian cultures and the lives of non-Christians.

Another point that Niringiye makes is that Christians from different ethnicities can learn from one another, and that this can give them a fuller appreciation of Jesus and God’s love.  As an example, Niringiye states that Jewish Christians in the first century considered Jesus the Messiah, whereas Greek-speaking Christians called Jesus lord, “the titles that Greek Christians used for their cult divinities (Acts 11:19-21)” (page 183).  Both learned from one another, Niringiye states.

There were cases in which I was not entirely sure if I agreed with Niringiye, but what he said was thought-provoking.  On page 41, for example, in talking about Moses, Niringiye contrasts the God of Israel with the gods of Egypt.  According to Niringiye, the God of Israel was “relational, in-community, in himself and with humankind and creation”, whereas the Egyptian gods were “distant” and “impersonal”.  (This is in terms of how they conceptualized their deities.)  Was this the case?  Was the God of Israel conceptually more relational than the gods of Egypt?  Some believe that the God of Israel was different from ancient Near Eastern deities, whereas others highlight the similarities, seeing the God of Israel as just another ancient Near Eastern deity, not fundamentally different from how other ancient Near Easterners conceptualized their deities.  I am skeptical when Jewish and Christians, to support their religion, maintain that their religion was superior to other religions in the past; at the same time, I do not rule out completely that ancient Judaism and Christianity may have been better, in areas, from a humanitarian perspective.  Some would say it was worse, in areas.  Niringiye’s comments, and similar comments in the book, provoked thought about this issue.

Niringiye talked about Christians helping to bring the world under the dominion of Christ, and that frightened me, a bit.  It sounded somewhat like Christian Reconstructionism, or what elements of the religious right want to do.  I respect that Niringiye was talking about missions, love, inclusion, and social justice, but, since he was a religious leader in Uganda, I wondered what his stance was towards the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill.  I will not try to define his position myself, but I will provide two links:

The book is a bit meandering.  It sometimes speaks in generalities rather than fleshing out what it is trying to say.  Still, in its own way, it was an edifying read, and it made important points.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Write-Up: Jesus Behaving Badly, by Mark L. Strauss

Mark L. Strauss.  Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Many Christians struggle with what is in the Old Testament, with its laws, wars, and portrayal of God’s wrath.  That is understandable, but, speaking for myself personally, I also struggle with the picture of Jesus that is in the New Testament.  A number of Christians believe that Jesus was a nice, accepting guy, and so they maintain that Jesus should be the focus of religion and spirituality, and that we should look primarily to Jesus to see what God is like.  And what we are supposed to see is love!  When I read about Jesus in the Gospels, however, I am often troubled by what I see.  Sure, there are elements of Jesus that fit in with the positive view of him, but Jesus also comes across as an uncompromising fanatic, one who preached about hell, said that it is difficult to enter the Kingdom of God, sounded a bit cultish and absolutist, and could be impatient with people, places, and things.  There is also the possibility that Jesus may have mistakenly predicted an imminent end of the world, which calls into question whether Christianity is even true.

Mark L. Strauss is a New Testament scholar, and his book, Jesus Behaving Badly, was written for people with questions like mine.  Some of Strauss’ answers, I found satisfactory, or at least interesting.  Others, not so much.  Either way, I had to respect Strauss for honestly and seriously wrestling with issues.  Strauss did not sugarcoat what is in the Gospels, and, in his discussion of various viewpoints (i.e., about hell, about scholarly views on Jesus’ resurrection), I found him to be fair in summarizing them and presenting their better arguments.  There were also cases in which Strauss did not simply settle for an answer but wrestled some more because the answer was not perfect in accounting for details in the text; Strauss did not always do this, but he did it quite a bit.  For all of this, I give the book four stars.

I would like to offer some criticisms, however.

First of all, Strauss did well to quote Second Temple Jewish sources, and that showed his scholarly background.  At the same time, I thought that he was quoting them rather one-sidedly, to make Judaism a foil for Jesus.

Second, Strauss was not particularly critical in his treatment of the Gospels.  He referred to the Parable of the Prodigal Son to argue that the historical Jesus saw God as a God of grace, and elements of Luke’s Gospel to argue that Jesus envisioned an outreach to the Gentiles to bring them to God.  There are scholars, however, who would say that these things are Lukan and do not go back to the historical Jesus.  In my opinion, Strauss would have done better to have used scholarly criteria of authenticity (which he does in arguing that Jesus’ resurrection is historical) to support his portrayal of Jesus.  Granted, the book is probably for a popular audience, so Strauss did not intend it to be a work of dense scholarship, but Strauss could have used the criteria while not going too far over readers’ heads.  Could Strauss argue, using the criteria of authenticity to evaluate what is historical in the Gospels, that the historical Jesus supported grace?  Hans Kung did so, so it is not impossible!

Third, in his chapter arguing that Jesus rose from the dead, Strauss refers to some of what he says as “practically indisputable facts.”  I think that is overreaching, even though Strauss does present arguments that deserve consideration.  Bart Ehrman, after all, would argue differently from Strauss on the question of whether we can trust the story about Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus, and (contrary to the impression one may get from Strauss’ book) Ehrman’s arguments go beyond a naturalistic assumption that resurrection from the dead is impossible.

Fourth, in arguing for hell, Strauss says that God must be just.  Strauss appeals to evildoers to make his point: murderers, for example.  Strauss states that God upholds the rights of the poor.  That does not make the problem of hell go away, however, for, if a poor person does not accept Christ before her death, she goes to hell, according to many evangelicals.

Fifth, I am conflicted about Strauss’ discussion of whether Jesus envisioned an imminent end of the world.  Strauss does well to argue that early Christianity believed that, on some level, Jesus at his first coming fulfilled Old Testament eschatological expectations about the Kingdom of God, such as the Gentiles coming to God.  In that sense, from a Christian perspective, the Kingdom of God was near, as Jesus proclaimed.  At the same time, I question whether we should appeal to Paul or Hebrews in trying to understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.

Strauss also interprets Jesus’ soon coming, in places, as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., which, according to Strauss, vindicated Jesus and ushered in a new spiritual era, with the end of the Jewish sacrificial system.  But Strauss acknowledges that there are places in the Gospels in which Jesus’ coming refers to his second coming, what many Christians understand as the second coming of Christ.  Can we really pick and choose when Jesus’ coming means that in the synoptic Gospels, and when it does not?

In talking about Jesus’ discouragement of the potential disciple from burying his father, and the potential disciple from saying goodbye to his parents, Strauss says that Jesus’ calling was urgent, since what was predicted by the prophets was being fulfilled.  Why was there urgency, though?  Urgency would make sense to me if Jesus were expecting an imminent end of the world (though I am open to other explanations).  If Jesus expected for thousands of years to pass before he returned a second time to set up the Kingdom more fully, then why was there urgency during his first coming?

In discussing Mark 13, Strauss, like others, argues that Jesus was alternating between talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and talking about the second coming of Christ.  That, Strauss says, would account for the contradictions within Mark 13: Jesus saying that this generation will not pass away before all these things take place, and Jesus saying that no one, even he, knows the day or the hour.  For Strauss, the first refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and the second refers to the second coming.  This is an intriguing proposal, though I am not sure if I find it convincing.

I did learn things from this book, such as the fact that there usually were tiny figs on fig trees when Jesus cursed the barren fig tree.  The book also included endearing stories and anecdotes, which made the book more enjoyable and relatable.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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