Monday, October 29, 2018

Church Write-Up: Family Doesn’t Bow; Whispers; Jesus the Good Samaritan; Simon’s Bitterness

Here are some items on last Sunday’s church services:

A. The key text at the LCMS church service was John 6:34-36. Jesus says there: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (KJV).

In the part of the service for the kids, one of the children dressed up like a king. The youth pastor’s point was that everyone except for the king’s family had to bow down to the king. God, in Christ, has made people part of God’s family. There are texts in Scripture about Christians bowing to God (i.e., Ephesians 3:14), but the point is well taken: Christians are not mere servants of God but are part of God’s family.

The pastor’s sermon talked about how Satan whispers in our ear to estrange us from God, and Jesus sets people free from that. On one extreme, Satan aims to discourage people, telling them that they are not good enough or are too sinful to be in relationship with God. On the other extreme, Satan tells them that they are fine without God. Of course, people are sinful, but that is why God sent Jesus.

I thought of an episode of Superbook that I watched not long ago. I watched Superbook when I was growing up, and it is about two children named Chris and Joy, who go back to Bible times with their robot friend, Gizmo. What I watched as a child were episodes from the 1980’s, but, every Saturday over the past few months, I have been watching episodes from the 2010’s. The episode that came to my mind was about the Book of Revelation. Chris accidentally burned down the house, and he encounters an “angel” who is actually the devil. The devil tells Chris that what Chris did is too bad for Chris to be forgiven. According to the devil, Chris had might as well despair of forgiveness from God and his parents and follow Satan, who is also on the outs with God! Thoughts of spiritual hopelessness have been in my mind before.

B. The Sunday school class was continuing its series on homelessness. There was a Bible component to the class, though, as the pastor talked about Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. What follows are aspects of Luke 10, along with the pastor’s interpretation.

Galilee was an area of conservative Pharisaic influence, and many Pharisees sought to earn God’s approval through good works and looked down on Samaritans and the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus associated. Jesus sent his disciples two by two, and Jesus is critical of cities in this righteous conservative region because they reject the disciples, after seeing their miracles. Jesus states that God has revealed the truth to babes, implying that those who are wise by the world’s standards need to become like children to receive God’s truth. They need to become empty of their pride, ego, and self-righteousness, in short.

A lawyer then asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer was not like Perry Mason, the pastor said, but was a scholar of the Jewish law. He was like a seminary professor coming to test the rural village parson. Jesus responds by asking the lawyer what is in the law. Jesus is trying to show the lawyer that the law is not about trying to earn God’s favor through rules but rather concerns love and mercy: God’s love and mercy towards us, and the love and mercy that we then pass on to our neighbors. The lawyer asks Jesus who his neighbor is, perhaps because the lawyer excluded certain people from his definition of neighbor: Samaritans, and the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus ate.

Jesus then tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the hated Samaritan helps the beaten-up man, whereas the esteemed priest and Levite pass him by. The pastor said that the Good Samaritan was a Christ figure. The Samaritan paid the innkeeper two denarii, which are two days’ wages, to lodge the beaten up man. Similarly, Jesus went to great lengths to save us. Someone in the class said that Christians are like innkeepers, conveying care to the wounded on behalf of Jesus.

Someone asked about those who do not use God’s grace. The pastor replied that there are people who may lack an opportunity to use God’s grace, but they still have it and cannot run out of it. I appreciated his point about opportunities: as a shy person who has had times when I have not interacted with people, I have lacked opportunities to witness. Still, I wondered what the pastor would say about the unprofitable in the Parable of the Talents who was cast into outer darkness for not doing anything with the talent given to him (Matthew 25:30). I didn’t ask because I didn’t figure that was the time or the place, since the class needed to move on to talk about homelessness.

C. At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor was continuing his series about Acts. One of the stories that he covered was in Acts 8. Disciples are laying hands on people and giving to them the Holy Spirit, and Simon the Sorcerer, who became a believer, wanted to buy the power to confer this gift. Peter told him he was in the gall of bitterness. The HarperCollins Study Bible refers to Deuteronomy 29:18, which likens idolatrous Israelites to a root bearing gall and wormwood. Under this interpretation, Peter may have simply been calling Simon a bad apple. The pastor, however, said that Simon was actually bitter about something. Simon had a reputation as one with the power of God, and the apostles were moving in on Simon’s territory, lessening his influence. Simon wanted to preserve or regain that influence by having the same power the apostles had: to lay hands on people and impart the Holy Spirit. A problem with bitterness, the pastor said, is that it encourages people to exclude others from God’s table, and maybe even exclude themselves, if they will not go to the table where certain people are.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Derek Leman on the Akedah (Genesis 22)

Derek Leman’s Daily Portion today comments on the Akedah story in Genesis 22. Here are his comments:

SPOTLIGHT

God wants to know. He gives Abraham a terrible test, the worst. What kind of god asks his devoted follower to sacrifice his son? What kind of person would kill his son for a god? Does Abraham fail the test or succeed in that he is willing to do the deed?

Every indication in the story of Genesis 22 is that Abraham passes the test. הָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם ha’Elōhim nisach et-‘Avraham, “That [same] God tested Abraham.” From God’s point of view, this test was real. And then after Abraham shows he is willing to kill his son, עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי־יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים ‘atah yada’ti ki-yerei’ ‘Elōhim, “Now I know that you revere God.” God’s purpose in the test was to know something [by experience, by seeing it in action] about Abraham’s trust and reverence.

How can we understand this test? For one thing, gods expecting mortals to offer up a child was a known thing in Abraham’s world. Also, we see from the story that God would not allow Abraham to actually offer his son. It’s bad enough, it seems to us, that God asked. At least we know God would not actually desire a child’s death to satisfy his need to be worshipped. But there is also one other implication in the way the story is told that can help us have confidence in God’s goodness.

The way the story is told, Abraham and Isaac are both struggling to understand what is about to happen. Abraham makes several statements which could be seen as lies, something we know he is capable of, or as hopeful expressions of trust that the situation will end without tragedy.

Abraham tells his attendants, “The boy and I, let us go there and worship and let us return to you” (the verbs are in the cohortative mood, though most translations ignore it). Abraham says Isaac will return with him.

Later Abraham tells Isaac, who is becoming frightened, “God himself will provide the lamb.”
Abraham seems to trust that the outcome will be a good one. No doubt he is fearful. It’s possible he is lying to his son and the servants. The story is deliberately opaque, leaving us to consider multiple possibilities.

But we have to consider, perhaps the test was not “will Abraham kill his son to show how much he adores me, his God and benefactor?” but perhaps something else: “Will Abraham trust that I am not like other gods?”

OVERVIEW

Vs. 1 explains God’s purpose in asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. God is testing Abraham. For Abraham, perhaps the test is giving up the one thing that makes God’s promise work and thus lose all that God promised. If he accedes to Adonai’s request, he will have no offspring and thus he will no longer be a blessing after his death. For God, perhaps the motive is to see if a mortal can love him more than life, offspring, and blessings. Will Abraham continue with this deity who takes back the one thing he has desired?

As writer Skip Moen has emphasized in his book, Crossing, the request Adonai makes, “Take your son . . . and offer him,” is not a command. The verb take has the particle of entreaty נָא (na’) following it and should be rendered “take, please.” Abraham is not obeying a command from Adonai, but acceding to his request.

Vss. 7-8 are troubling. Does Isaac suspect? Does Abraham’s answer calm his fears at all? It cannot be, as some have said, that Abraham knew and intended by his words to say, that God would substitute a ram for Isaac. This was no true test if Abraham had no fear God would take back the child of the promise. Abraham is being deliberately obtuse to his son, deceiving him. Yet Abraham’s words are true in a way that the patriarch does not suspect.

God will save the boy though Abraham will not.

The meaning of the story is clarified greatly by vs. 12, when God says, “Now I know.” Readers have spun many theories over the centuries: Abraham knew Isaac would not die or he thought the boy would be resurrected or this was really just God teaching against human sacrifice. All of these theories crumble under the weight of vs. 12. God wanted to know if a mortal could love him with “disinterested love,” that is, love for God’s own sake and not for the things he can give.

The test was so that God could know Abraham’s heart truly. But isn’t God omniscient? Does he need to test us in order to know what is in our hearts? The story teaches us something wonderful about knowing: to know by experience is infinitely greater than to know by cognitive awareness. What good is it to know in our head that a beloved person loves us in return? We want them to show us or tell us. And this leads to a wonderful realization about God: he desires our love. We might imagine the Omnipotent is immune to such needs or think that they are weakness.

“Now I know that you revere God,” he says to Abraham (I am translating “fear” as “revere, hold in awe”). The positive message of this story fits with much we read elsewhere, especially Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (e.g., Deut 6:2; Prov 1:7; Eccles 12:13).

But there is no denying the story is upsetting. Would God have a father take the life of his son? How can we relate to a God who would ask such a thing?

This is not a contradiction of belief in divine omniscience. Knowledge is more than cognitive awareness. A higher kind of knowledge, which God seeks here, is experience. The purpose of Abraham’s test is that God would know by experience the depths of his trust and faith. Abraham is the father of faith and his great crisis story shows us what deep faith looks like, loving the Giver more than any gift. If God was willing to take away the very promise that drew Abraham out of his clan and away from his gods, what reason would Abraham have to love God? Only the awe of heaven could explain Abraham’s clinging in spite of God’s taking away. This is exactly what God says in response.

Current Events Write-Up: Arms Control

The only article I feel like sharing for this week’s Current Events Write-Up is this blog post on arms control. I was wondering why Trump wants to cancel that nuclear agreement with Russia, and this blog post showed up on my feed. I already shared it on my WordPress blog, so this is a rerun for readers there. I read other articles this week, but this is the only one I feel like sharing.

Dan Smith: The crumbling architecture of arms control

Friday, October 26, 2018

Book Write-Up: Last Call for Liberty, by Os Guinness

Os Guinness. Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat. IVP, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Os Guinness is a leading Christian thinker. This book, Last Call for Liberty, reflects on the preservation of liberty in the United States of America.

For Guinness, a variety of concepts are significant in the preservation of liberty. First, there is the idea of covenant: that Americans historically made a covenant to be a nation of freedom. Guinness cites quotations from early American history that stress the biblical concept of covenant in America’s institution. Guinness is critical of football players who refuse to stand for the national anthem to protest injustice, for he believes that they are disavowing America’s covenant, thereby sawing the branch on which they are sitting.

Second, there are religious faith and personal morality. Guinness denies that America was founded as a Christian nation, but he states that the founders believed that freedom works best when the people are religious and moral. According to Guinness, a belief in God provides a basis for human worth and dignity that atheism does not. Freedom should also have a telos rather than existing for its own sake: when God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, for example, God delivered them unto something. Of particular importance to Guinness is religious freedom, which Guinness believes the Obama Presidency and the PC-police have undermined. Guinness also calls for civility in public discourse.

Guinness frequently draws a contrast between the American revolution, which he favors, and the secular, anti-religious, mob-like French revolution, which he thinks is echoed by the radical Left today. In the course of this book, Guinness is critical of utopianism, noting that it has led to totalitarianism, and he promotes instead a realism about human nature that checks the power of government. Guinness also is critical of looking to technology to attain personal immortality, likening that to the Tower of Babel.

The book has its advantages. It is thoughtful and eloquent. Guinness makes a lot of informative historical allusions, as when he notes that Voltaire, a skeptic about religion, still acknowledged the importance of religion in providing non-elites with a moral basis. Guinness’ perspective seems conservative, overall, but not knee-jerk conservative, for he is critical of drone warfare, denies that America was founded as a Christian nation, and mentions a time when he was at odds with the religious right. Some of Guinness’ arguments also make a degree of sense. Although America has its share of hypocrisy, as Guinness acknowledges, freedom is still a part of its heritage, and freedom works well when people are ethical.

In terms of critiques, I have a few. For one, the sorts of points that Guinness makes have been made elsewhere, so there was little that was earthshakingly new in this book. This is something to keep in mind if you are deliberating about devoting your time to reading it. Second, Guinness did not really flesh out what freedom is and why it is so valuable. Third, the book is short on solutions. Okay, freedom works best when people are religious. But what if a number of them are not?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Church Write-Up: Martin Freedom; Festival of Lights; Conservatism and Language; John 8

Here are some items from last Wednesday’s LCMS Bible study.

A. Reformation Sunday is coming up, so the pastor gave us a brief history of Reformation Day and the events that it commemorates. Initially, the pastor narrated, Martin Luther was not aiming to take on the papacy. Luther assumed that the pope was unaware of the indulgences, so he sought to inform the pope about them so that the pope would put a stop to them. No such luck! Another factoid that the pastor shared concerned the name “Luther.” Luther’s family name was actually “Luder,” but scholars in those days often translated their names into Greek and Latin. Melanchthon, for example, actually had the family name of Schwarzherd, “black earth,” and “Melanchthon is the Greek for that. “Luther” is from the Greek word “eleutheria,” which means “freedom.”

B. The biblical text that the pastor discussed was John 8. John 10:22 places this visit of Jesus in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah, assuming that John is chronologically accurate here and is not simply grouping stories together thematically. The pastor gave us background about the festival. He noted that Jesus during this time calls himself the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5; elsewhere in John, such a concept occurs in 1:9; 3:19; 11:9; 12:46). His handout also said that “During the Festival, the Temple was illumined by hundreds of lights—-like luminarias—-and there was a huge menorah visible from all over Jerusalem—-that was lit.”

I was wondering about this because I have heard that the standard story about Hanukkah—-that one cruse of oil miraculously lasted for eight nights—-was a late tradition. Without that tradition, could Hanukkah in Jesus’ day have been considered a “festival of lights”? Looking at James VanderKam’s article on “Dedication, Feast of” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, I learn that Hanukkah was associated with lights early on:
The Festivals of Tabernacles and Hanukkah also resemble one another in that both are associated with light. But their lights are very different: Tabernacles involved illuminating the Women’s Court of the temple (m. Sukk. 5:2–4), while Hanukkah came to include lamps and lights at each one’s home. As part of the pre-festival renovations and repairs, 1 Macc 4:49–50 notes that the candelabrum was brought into the temple and that its lamps were lit so that they gave light in the temple; 2 Macc 1:8; 10:3 allude to the same events. The second letter that is prefaced to 2 Maccabees refers to the festival of cleansing as a time of tabernacles and fire (1:18) and adds a story about a miraculous fire from the altar of the first temple that eventually turned into “nephthar” and later kindled the fire on the new altar in Nehemiah’s time (1:19–36; cf. 2:1, 8–12). Nevertheless, these sorts of references to lights and fire hardly prepare one for Josephus’ claim (Ant 12.7.7 §325) that the festival itself was named “Lights” (phōta). He had previously (12.7.6 §319) written that lights were kindled on Kislev 25, but here (§325) he explains the reason for the name Lights: “giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared [phanēnai] to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it.” Lights did indeed become a major characteristic of the festival, though the original reason for them seems to have been forgotten (for another early reference to the Hanukkah light, see m. B. Qam. 6:6).
C. In discussing the Hellenization of Palestine, the pastor said that Greek then was like English today: it was the language of commerce and trade. The Sadducees were Greek-oriented, the pastor said, whereas the Pharisees were conservative and held on to Hebrew and Aramaic.

D. In John 8, the Pharisees begin by challenging Jesus’ authority. Jesus is only bearing witness to himself, they say, so his witness is not true. Jesus responds that there are two witnesses attesting to who he is. There is himself, who knows where he is from and where he is going, and there is the Father. Jesus refers to the Deuteronomic principle that two witnesses establish a matter as true (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:5).

Jesus and the Pharisees debate, then v. 30 affirms that many believed in him. Jesus encourages those who believe in him to continue in his word, and the truth shall set them free. V. 33, however, then says, “They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” (KJV). This puzzles scholars, for why would those believing in Jesus be so antagonistic? The pastor referred to two explanations. The first explanation is that the crowd included those who believed in Jesus but also the Pharisees, who were resuming their antagonistic discussion with Jesus. Another explanation is that those who believed in Jesus lacked a deep faith and were doubting. In any case, Jesus was exhorting them that believing he is the Messiah is not enough, for they must see him as the revelation of God and be in an intimate relationship of “knowing” with him.

Vv. 34-36 states: “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” A slave could be passed on to an heir or sold to someone else. The son of the household, however, could set the slave free. Jesus does that and makes people into fellow sons of the household.

There is a debate about paternity in John 8. The Pharisees see themselves as Abraham’s seed, defining Abraham’s seed in a national sense; meanwhile, they attack Jesus as one of questionable paternity. The pastor brought in Genesis 3:15 and Pauline passages about Jesus being Abraham’s seed, the one who would bring blessing and knowledge of God to the nations (see Galatians 3:16). Jesus says that the antagonistic Pharisees are children of the devil; there may be an echo of Genesis 3 here, in that they twist the concept of Abraham’s seed, as the serpent in Genesis 3 twisted God’s truth in deceiving Eve. They are enslaved to sin and blind to who Jesus is. While Jesus has harsh words for them, the pastor said he believes Jesus was inviting them to repentance, as the father invited the grumbling older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Derek Leman on Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah Story)

Derek Leman’s Daily Portion today comments on the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis 19. Here are his comments:

The contrast between Lot’s seeming riches and Abraham’s humble wealth continues. Abraham remains the migrant owner of flocks in the dry steppe land while Lot is the city dweller in a well-watered place. Lot has risen to some status, sitting in the city gate of Sodom. As in Genesis 18 Abraham virtually compelled visitors to accept hospitality, so does Lot. Something of his virtue remains in spite of the wickedness of this city and its vain worship of comfort and ease.

For their part, the angels have come to verify the wickedness of the city.  Sarna interprets the intended rape as a policy of the town to molest all wayfarers and prevent new people from coming to the rich town and sharing its goods. The town’s crimes include violence, sexual assault, and failure to protect travelers in their gates.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah becomes one of the Bible’s most repeated themes. Westermann (Genesis 12-36, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981) suggests that in looking at all later biblical references, there were multiple versions of the Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim destruction story. Alternate versions have been lost but hints of them remain in biblical allusions.

Was Lot’s offer of his daughters real or was it a hypothetical one intended to shame the violent townsmen? There is a parallel story in Judges 19:15-21, when a Levite and his concubine came to the Israelite town of Gibeah. Westermann compares the events: arrival of the guests, attack and repulse of the attackers, demand by attackers, householder offers his daughters, repulse of attack by guests. The difference in the Judges story is there were no angels to resolve that situation. So the woman in Judges 19 was gang-raped and killed.

In the Sodom story, Lot’s offer (whether real or hypothetical) is dismissed. The miraculous intervention of the angels alone saves them. Lot thought he had become a respected citizen, but his neighbors still resent him as an outsider. The city dwellers have a prosperous, easy life and they fiercely protect it, with brutality to any who dare come for hospitality.

The theme of urban vs. rural life has a purpose in the theology of Torah. The attraction of gathering into large population centers is self-reliance which does not breed faith or justice. We band together as humans to increase power. Yet our responsibility as a human race is not power, but justice. The problem is not the city, per se, but the way we use our collective power. The Torah endorses hospitality, social justice, and love as alternatives to the pursuit of wealth and power for their own sake.

Meanwhile, the angels announce coming destruction and Lot tries in vain to save his sons-in-law. The lure of city life — this story’s theme — prevents them from wisdom. Even Lot is so reluctant to leave his wealth and ease in the city that the angels must take hold of him and force him to leave. Lot begs to be allowed to settle in another small city, which would have to be spared by the angels from the coming destruction. He cannot imagine life in the desert hills. Westermann comments on the significance of this story in the Abraham cycle: “Abraham becomes a witness of the destruction of cities . . . the promise of blessing for the peoples has its line of demarcation in God’s action as judge, the ‘peoples of the earth’ remain exposed to disasters.”

Church Write-Up: Journey and Desperation; Poverty and Homelessness; Ascending and Descending

Here is my Church Write-Up about last Sunday.

A. At the LCMS church, the pastor told a personal anecdote. He was traveling to find himself, and he was on an interstate. He kept on driving to see how long his gas would hold, when the car was running on empty. He was confident that a gas station would be nearby, since this was an interstate. But he crossed the state line, and the rest of the interstate had not been built yet. He was desperate and prayed to God, and he found a small gas station in the backwoods.

The pastor drew some spiritual lessons from this experience. First of all, he reflected on how God is at work in the stuff of everyday life. God ordained for this gas station to be built for him and others. Second, the pastor drew parallels between his experience and that of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The author was on his own search for meaning and had hit a lot of dead ends, which he found wealth and pleasure to be. He found meaning when he acknowledged God as the provider. In the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:23-34. The rich young ruler obviously had some dissatisfaction, since he was coming to Jesus and inquiring about eternal life. But he had not yet reached the state of desperation that the pastor reached years before on his journey, and which Qoheleth reached: the rich young ruler still clung to his possessions for meaning rather than giving them up and following Jesus, as Jesus requested.

B. At the LCMS Sunday school, there was a class about poverty and homelessness. This is a two-week class, and it is setting the stage for the church’s work with an organization to ameliorate homelessness. We watched mini-documentaries and took quizzes. The first mini-documentary profiled families who are struggling with poverty. The parent or parents work full-time, but so much of their income goes to rent, that they and their kids do not get enough food. Some of the families cannot afford health insurance, yet they make too much to qualify for state insurance.

The quiz served to highlight how prevalent poverty is, hitting more than ten percent of the U.S. population. Many of its victims are families with children. Child care is too expensive for them. The minimum wage, even the relatively high minimum wage in Oregon, is not enough for them to meet their needs. There is also a drastic shortage of low-income housing for those who need it.

The facilitator warned us that the second mini-documentary would be controversial. This church is rather conservative, so I wondered how people there processed it. It started by narrating how slavery hindered African-Americans from forming long-term families, and they were freed, without skills. In the early twentieth century, working class neighborhoods were more integrated than they are today, as people moved to where there was work. But the federal and state governments encouraged segregation by only lending to areas that were homogeneous and by treating neighborhoods with African-Americans as too risky. Because money for schools was based on the local tax base, public schools in poor African-American areas were poorly funded. One African-American lady said that her parents had masters degrees and, unlike most people at her school, she did not grow up on welfare. Still, in second grade, she had six teachers in one year, and she tested a few years behind where she should have tested. Low-skilled jobs have moved to the suburbs. The reason that there is high crime in poor areas is that a lot of people are concentrated there, and these areas have few jobs.

C. At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor began a series on the Book of Acts. A significant point in Acts is that God invites all kinds of people to his table. The pastor went into other issues, though. He was talking about his recent trip to Japan. A person with whom he conversed there rejected Christianity because American Christianity is about “I,” whereas Japan is about “we.” The pastor learned in the course of the conversation that this person hated Americans. We all hate someone, the pastor said, and that is why we need Jesus. The pastor also offered an interpretation of John 1:51, in which Jesus tells disciples that they shall see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. The “Son of Man,” in this case, is the body of Christ, the church. What descends on them is the Word of God, and what ascends to God is the fruit of the Word of God: people’s confession, the changed lives, etc. I wouldn’t promote this interpretation in an exegesis paper, but it was interesting.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Book Write-Up: Warriors, by R.A. Denny

R.A. Denny. Warriors. (Mud, Rocks, and Trees, Book 4). 2017. See here for more information.

Warriors is the fourth book of R.A. Denny’s “Mud, Rocks, and Trees” fantasy series.

Five things of note in this book:

A. Burlem is part of the Armored species and has been a companion to Tuka, who also is part of the Armored species. What is intriguing about Burlem is his religion, which differs from the monotheistic faith of Tuka, a believer in the god Adon. Burlem holds to a dualistic creed, which inspires him to join the side of good in an attempt to check the side of evil. Burlem carries around a lot of guilt because he failed to avenge his family, so he hopes not to encounter his family in the afterlife. Tuka and Burlem discuss Adon’s forgiveness.

B. Metlan is now king of the Samalitans, who are cat-riders. He learns from the captured prophet Baskrod about his true lineage: he is part of the royal line of Tzoladia, the greatest empire. Metlan has shown himself to be a friend to Brina, a heroine in the book. A lingering question is whether Brina can trust him, or if he will ultimately look out for himself and his own political interests. Surrounding him is political intrigue. The evil emperor Zoltov of Tzoladia and his general, Zaheil, are at odds, as each has suspicions of the other. Bladar, the ruthless leader of the Sparaggi, would like to exploit this conflict so as to install Metlan as emperor of Tzoladia, hopefully with the assistance of the Karsonians, against whom the Tzoladians are fighting.

C. There is the question of whom Brina can trust, and whether she is wise to make deals with the devil. Bladar is ruthless, and he killed the family of Amanki, a hero in the series. Brina tries to make a deal with Bladar, and one wonders if she knows what she is doing.

D. Emperor Zoltov hates those whom he calls “subs,” yet he uses them for his tasks. The Webbies hope to show themselves valorous in Zoltov’s war so that Zoltov will not annihilate them.

E. Pilezer is a brigadier in Zoltov’s army. He was kind to Tuka after Tuka was injured. Tuka wonders if Pilezer is secretly a worshiper of Adon. Zoltov, for that matter, does not entirely trust Pilezer! Is Pilezer a follower of Adon?

Those were intriguing elements in this book. The book also had a lot of battle scenes.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. My review is honest!

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Current Events Write-Up: Carson’s Zoning Reform; GOP Environmentalism; Pharmacy Gag Orders

Time for this week’s Current Events Write-Up. This week I will be sharing articles that claim that the Trump Administration and the Republicans are doing some wonderful things. I hope what they’re doing is on the up and up!

National Review: “Ben Carson Takes On High Housing Costs,” by Michael Tanner.

By setting his sights on local zoning and land-use laws, the HUD secretary might just help millions of poor Americans — and silence his critics in the process.

Townhall: “The GOP’s Behind-the-Scenes Environmentalism,” by Benji Backer.

According to Backer, Republicans are helping green energy, wildlife, parks, and the seas and are taking steps to reduce carbon emissions.

The Epoch Times: “Trump Signs Bills to Eliminate Pharmacy Gag Orders,” by Holly Kellum.

“The bills allow pharmacies to tell patients about cheaper drugs than what are covered by their plans.”

Friday, October 19, 2018

Book Write-Up: Daniel, by John C. Whitcomb

John C. Whitcomb. Daniel. Moody Publishers, 1985, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

John C. Whitcomb has taught theology and Old Testament at Grace Theological Seminary. This commentary on Daniel is conservative, dispensational, pre-tribulational, and pre-millennial. “Conservative” means that Whitcomb dates the Book of Daniel to the sixth century BCE rather than the second century BCE. That allows the prophecies in the Book of Daniel to be actual predictions that at least partially came to pass, rather than fake prophecies written after the “predicted” events. “Conservative” also implies that Whitcomb regards the Book of Daniel as historically authentic, as opposed to containing historical errors. And it entails that Whitcomb sees the Book of Daniel as predicting eschatological events that will actually be fulfilled in our future, not predictions about the Maccabean era that failed to materialize. “Dispensational” means that Whitcomb contends that the Book of Daniel concerns Israel, both historically and in the last days, not the church; still, the tribulational saints who believe in Jesus after the rapture of the church seem to factor into Whitcomb’s exposition of Daniel. “Pre-tribulational” indicates that Whitcomb believes in the rapture of the church prior to the Great Tribulation, and “pre-millennial” implies that Whitcomb thinks Jesus will return to earth and will then establish a literal millennial reign.

Here are some thoughts:

A. An asset to this book is its conservative arguments for the Book of Daniel’s historical authenticity and sixth century date. Whitcomb responds to the more liberal scholarly arguments that the captivity of Daniel in the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign is factually inaccurate and contradicts Jeremiah 46:2; that the Greek words for musical instruments in Daniel 3 attest to a Hellenistic date; that there was no historical “Darius the Mede” who conquered Babylon; that, contrary to Daniel 5, Belshazzar was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar and was not the actual king of Babylon; and that there was no law of the Medes and the Persians stating that a king’s decree cannot be revoked. Among other things, Whitcomb appeals to the Aramaic of Daniel, a late second century fragment of Daniel at Qumran shortly after the time that liberal scholars think Daniel was written, Babylonian customs, the existence of different Israelite dating systems, and a detail provided by the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (second century BCE) about Darius III that sounds like the irrevocable law of the Medes and the Persians. The endnotes provide more extensive scholarly discussion and documentation.

B. Was Whitcomb convincing in his conservative arguments? I would say “Perhaps, but…” to a lot of these arguments. Whitcomb appeals to Kenneth Kitchen’s 1965 article, “The Aramaic of Daniel,” which appeared in the book Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel. Kitchen indeed does argue that the Aramaic of the Book of Daniel fits the seventh-fourth centuries BCE more than the Aramaic in the late second-first centuries BCE. At the same time, Kitchen’s conclusion appears rather modest: “Some points hint at an early (especially pre-300), not late, date—-but in large part could be argued to be survivals till the second century BC…It is…obscurantist to exclude dogmatically a sixth-fifth (or fourth) century date on the one hand, or to hold such a date as mechanically proven on the other, as far as the Aramaic is concerned.” Whitcomb refers to the scholarly argument that “Darius the Mede” was the Median Gubaru, whom Cyrus made governor of Babylon, Syria, and Palestine. Why does the Book of Daniel call Gubaru “Darius the Mede,” however, as well as the son of Ahasuerus (Daniel 9:1)? Are these not names of Persian kings? Whitcomb does well to refer to a possible non-biblical reference to the unchanging law of the Medes and the Persians, while responding to scholarly arguments that it is not such. Still, a question occurs in my mind. Michael Fox argues that the proto-Alpha text of Esther came before the MT Esther, and the proto-Alpha text presents the king of Persia revoking his previous decree. Could that indicate that the concept of an unchanging law of Medes and Persians was a concept later invented (or applied) by biblical authors rather than a historical memory? While Whitcomb characterizes the liberal position as dating all of Daniel to the second century BCE, scholars such as John Collins and John Goldingay maintain that many stories in Daniel may be older than the final version of the book.

C. This is not to suggest that I find liberal arguments completely convincing. Liberal scholarship tends to interpret the second kingdom of Daniel 2 and 7 as the Medes, the third kingdom as Persia, and the fourth kingdom as Greece, culminating in Antiochus Epiphanes. That coincides with its view that Daniel is a wishful eschatological hope about the end of Antiochus’ reign. Conservative scholars, by contrast, contend that the second kingdom is Medo-Persia, the third is Greece, and the fourth is Rome. The problem with separating the Medes and the Persians is that Daniel often combines the two (Daniel 5:28; 6:8, 12, 15).

D. In his chapter on Daniel 8, Whitcomb states: “Toward the end of the times of the Gentiles…we should not be too surprised to find certain aspects of the third kingdom still existing.” Whitcomb speculates that “the eschatological extension of the third kingdom” will be Gog from Magog (Ezekiel 38-39). A liberal scholar might understandably conclude that Whitcomb is trying to force what the Book of Daniel is—-a document from and about events in the second century BCE—-into an eschatological scenario that concerns our future.

E. At the same time, Whitcomb raises some legitimate arguments that call into question whether the prophecies in Daniel culminate solely in the second century BCE. If the King of the North was only the Seleucid Empire, Whitcomb asks, why does he take such a circuitous route to get to Israel, attacking countries on the way? If his base were in Syria, all he would have to do is go straight south to Israel.

F. The book offers interesting interpretations and prophetic scenarios. For instance, Daniel 12:11-12 refers to the 1,290 days and the 1,335 days. Whitcomb argues that Christ returns 1,260 days after the Abomination of Desolation. Christ then spends thirty days cleansing the sanctuary, and the days after that consist of judgment of those who survive the Great Tribulation. Whitcomb also attempts to reconcile the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, and to read both books in light of each other. For example, Whitcomb interprets the Beast’s deadly wound being healed in Revelation 13 in light of northern attacks on the man of sin in the Book of Daniel.

G. The book used historical arguments to illuminate the Book of Daniel, but there were also homiletical meanderings. Whitcomb at one point refers to Saul not knowing about Samuel the seer (I Samuel 9). In discussing how Darius threw the wicked men’s families to the lions in Daniel 9, Whitcomb says that the Israelite culture was much more humane than the Persian.

H. The book would have been stronger had Whitcomb explained why God in the Book of Daniel would talk both about the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and end-time events long after that. Whitcomb somewhat touched on this, but not adequately.

I. A slight pet-peeve: on page 165, Whitcomb dates Antiochus Epiphanes’ reign to 175-64 BCE. Whitcomb frequently did that with BCE dates: cut off the first digit in the terminus ad quem year. He should not do that with BCE dates because it is confusing. Antiochus IV’s reign ended in 164 BCE, not 64 BCE, as Whitcomb knows.

My critiques notwithstanding, I still give this commentary five stars. It is informative, interesting, and meaty.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Church Write-Up: Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:23-34; Ecclesiastes 5

Here are some items from this week’s LCMS Bible study:

A. Our first text was Hebrews 5:1-10.

The pastor said that one reason that the author of Hebrews was discouraging his audience to go back to Judaism, in an attempt to avoid persecution, was that they would find no assurance in Judaism. In the Old Testament, the priest went into the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement, and there as no guarantee that he would come out. Because of Jesus, however, Christians can come boldly before the throne of grace, knowing that God hears them. There may be something to that. I wonder how this view would account for passages that suggest that God will not hear certain prayers. Most of them appear to be in the Old Testament, so one can perhaps say that God operated that way in the Old Testament but now, in this age of grace, God hears the prayers of those who trust Christ’s grace for salvation, period, as flawed as they may be. Yet, there is I Peter 3:7, which warns Christians against hindering their prayers through family discord. There are also New Testament passages about God not giving people what they request (James 1:6-7; 4:3), due to certain moral or spiritual issues. But could one say that God at least hears their prayers due to God’s grace, even if God does not give them what they want?

Hebrews 5:5 states: “So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee” (KJV). The pastor said that this is quoting Psalm 2, which was a coronation Psalm. God, by begetting David, was essentially anointing David to be king. Similarly, God’s begetting of Jesus at baptism was God anointing Jesus to be priest.

Someone in the class asked about Melchizedek. The pastor said that the rabbis had a tradition that Melchizedek was an eternal priest and showed up when Abraham needed him. I checked the Jewish Encyclopedia, the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and the Lexham Bible Dictionary. My impression from the last two is that Qumran interpreted Melchizedek to be a heavenly eternal priest, but later rabbinic literature largely repudiated that idea and was responding to the Epistle to the Hebrews by contending that Melchizedek was Shem, son of Noah, not a supernatural figure.

The pastor tossed in the historical detail that, by Jesus’ day, the high priest was elected for a year or so. The Sanhedrin elected him, and Pilate had to approve.

The pastor drew contrasts between Lutheran/Protestant views of the priesthood and Roman Catholic views. Lutherans see Jesus as the high priest, whereas Catholics believe that priests somehow continue the Aaronic priesthood by conveying God’s forgiveness to people. The pastor said that he does something different from that when he pronounces the church people as forgiven every Sunday, for he speaks forgiveness under the authority of Christ. The pastor also said that Catholics see the mass as a nonbloody sacrifice for sin, whereas the pastor consecrates the Eucharist rather than treating it as a nonbloody sacrifice.

B. The second text was Mark 10:23-34, the story of the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler thought that he was blessed of God due to his many possessions, and that he was righteous because he had kept the commandments. He thought that, naturally, he would be a good follower of Jesus. He was too full of himself to be full of God. Jesus said it was easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to inherit the Kingdom of God. The pastor rejected the idea that the eye of a needle was a narrow gate in Jerusalem, saying there is no archeological evidence for this. But the pastor had a spiritual problem with this view as well. Seeing the eye of a needle as a mere gate implies that a camel can get through with enough effort. Similarly, we might think that we can get into the Kingdom of God by being humble enough. But that is impossible, for we can never be humble enough. That is why salvation is about what God does. The pastor said that the saying about the eye of a needle may be based on a Persian saying about an elephant being unable to fit through the eye of a needle; the Hebrews adapted that saying to an animal in their own setting, the camel.

Peter told Jesus that he and the disciples left everything to follow him. On first sight, the pastor said, one might think that Peter was making salvation about himself and what he did rather than what God does. Alternatively, though, Peter may have been shedding light on the practices of the early Christian community. Jesus said that those who leave family and lands for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel will gain family and lands, along with persecution, in this life, as well as eternal life. When one becomes a Christian, one enters a new family. Christians back then shared their possessions, pooling them together and using them for the needs of people in the community (Acts 5). In that sense, Christians gained lands. Someone in the class drew a parallel between that and today’s Christian health insurance plans. Jesus mentions persecution, the pastor said, to bring Christians down to earth so that they do not get caught up in earthly possessions. Christians may have earthly possessions, but they view them from the perspective of their life in Christ. I thought of I Timothy 6:17-18, which exhorts rich Christians not to be highminded but to do good and to be rich in good works.

C. The third text was Ecclesiastes 5:18-20. The pastor commented, though, on Ecclesiastes 5 as a whole. Ecclesiastes 5 opens by telling people to hear from God rather than making vows. They are trying to make a deal with God, to impress God with their vows; that differs from what Hebrews has, namely, being confident on account of what Christ has done and is doing. Ecclesiastes is also about the futility of wealth. One may work hard all his life and leave his wealth to a foolish son. Or one may work hard and at the end of the day be tired, as his employer gets most of the profit. You can’t take it with you. What is the source of happiness? Seeing God as one’s provider. At the beginning of the class, a lady read a note about how the life of faith includes being so full of joy that one is preoccupied with that and not one’s problems.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Church Write-Up: Finishing I John Class

For my Church Write-Up today, I will post items from the LCMS Sunday School class. The pastor was completing his series on I John.

A. I John 5:16 states: “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it” (KJV).

There is a sin not unto death, and a sin unto death. The pastor said that the sin unto death was rejecting the faith. The reason that this sin is unforgivable is that faith is the means to receive forgiveness from God, so, if a person refuses that, he or she is shutting himself or herself off from forgiveness. We cannot judge who has committed this sin, though, because only God knows the heart. Even someone who appears to have rejected the faith may have some flicker of faith that the Holy Spirit can fan.

I asked the pastor to explain the part about praying and not praying for people who sin. Christians are encouraged to pray for those who have committed non-mortal sins, but John denies saying that Christians should pray for those who have committed the sin unto death. The pastor offered two explanations. First, Christians can pray that God might forgive those who have committed non-mortal sins, but they are offering a futile prayer if they pray that God might forgive those who commit the sin unto death. Why? Because as long as those who commit the sin unto death shut themselves off from faith, they cut themselves off from the possibility of forgiveness.

Second, the pastor suggested that John may have had a pastoral concern here. The church had suffered a huge split, as numerous followers of the Docetists left the church and rejected the Gospel that Christ came in the flesh and died for people’s sins. The church was trying to move on from that. John was recommending that they focus their prayers on those who sin yet stay in the faith, for it is too painful for them to pray for those who left the faith.

B. The pastor shared some illustrations. First, as he did before, he illustrated the church split in John’s day with the split that occurred in the Lutheran church in which he grew up. A charismatic movement split the church, resulting in the loss of half of the deacons and half of the children’s Sunday school class. That does sound rather jarring. Second, the pastor talked about an LCMS pastor who left the pastorate and his family to live with a man and was assuming the role of a Messiah to the gay community. I don’t know what the full story is there, but, after that pastor left, an elder told the church that the church is not its pastor, for the gifts and the forgiveness that they have are from God. John is making a similar point after his own church had undergone a traumatic split.

C. The pastor talked about the Johannine Comma, which appears in I John 5:7: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (KJV). The KJV has this verse, but most other modern language versions lack it, and the pastor explained why. I was familiar with the Johannine Comma, since I grew up in a non-Trinitarian church, and it said that the passage was inauthentic and was lacking in the earliest manuscripts. But I had not studied the details about this. The pastor said that the Comma was in Greek and Latin manuscripts produced later than the fourth century CE, and that it was probably added in response to an anti-Trinitarian heresy known as Priscillianism. After the eighteenth century, however, scholars had access to even earlier manuscripts, dating to the late third-early fourth century. One was a Greek New Testament in the Sinai monastery, one was in Alexandria, and one was in a Russian library. They lack the Comma.

Carroll D. Osburn’s article on the “Johannine Comma” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary goes into where the Comma appears and where it is missing. It was controversial before the eighteenth century, for it was lacking in many Greek manuscripts and Greek fathers, those one would expect to appeal to it if it was authentic. Priscillian is mentioned in the article: “The earliest uncontested use of the Comma is the Liber Apologeticus (1.4) of Priscillian, a 4th century bishop in Spain.” I will not do a research project about this right now, but I do wonder why Priscillian quoted it. What point was he trying to make? This and this source both state that Priscillianism was accused of being non-Trinitarian.

D. I John 5:8 states: “And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one” (KJV). How do these three things bear witness on earth? The pastor offered two interpretations. First, the passage may be about the death of Christ. Jesus gave up the spirit at death (John 19:30), and, on the cross, water and blood came from his side (John 19:34). John 19:35 affirms the testimony of the person who saw this. Jesus’ death was significant in I John because John was combating the Docetists, who denied that Jesus was a flesh and blood human being who literally died. Second, the pastor said that the Spirit, water, and blood are witnesses on earth in a saving sense: they relate to the believer’s burial and resurrection with Jesus, as well as the reception of the Holy Spirit, at baptism.

E. John concludes his letter by saying: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (I John 5:21). Why? The pastor said it was a summary of John’s overall message: if John’s church is to take away anything from the letter, make sure it is this. Worship the true Jesus, not the false, idol Jesus of the Docetists.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Current Events Write-Up: Mental Health Facilities; Military Transgender Policies; Brazil Presidential Election

Time for this week’s Current Events Write-Up.

National Review: “To Help Fix American Mental-Health Care, Reform Certificate-of-Need Laws,” by Mark Flatten.

The simplest way to eliminate the nation’s dire shortage of inpatient mental-health beds is to remove the chief obstacle to new facilities’ construction.”  Another example of corporatism driving up the cost of health care.

The Federalist: “Stop Lying: The Trump Administration Has Not Banned Transgender Americans From Military Service,” by Chad Felix Greene.

“The administration has merely required that transgender individuals meet the same requirements as all other Americans who apply for military service.”  Detailed examination of the pre-Obama policy, the Obama policy, and the Trump policy, with the rationales and the challenges.

Opposing Viewpoints: “Future of Western Democracy Is Being Played Out in Brazil,” by Pepe Escobar (Consortium) vs. “Jair Bolsonaro’s Campaign to Save Brazil From Corruption And Crime,” by Brian Darling (Townhall).

Two opposite perspectives on the left vs. right political battle in Brazil’s Presidential election.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Book Write-Up: Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, by George Hawley

George Hawley.  Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism.  University Press of Kansas, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

George Hawley teaches political science at the University of Alabama.  This book, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, is about right-wing movements that are outside of mainstream American conservatism.  They include:

—localists, who believe that people should be rooted and grounded in a local community rather than having mobility; they are critical of big government and big business;

—conservatives who are atheists;

—libertarians, both mainstream and radical;

—paleoconservatives, who are non-interventionist on American foreign policy, are critical of immigration, and are culturally conservative;

—the “New Right” in Europe, which supports racial and ethnic homogeneity, yet some of its adherents are willing to form alliances with Islam to resist Western cultural influence; it is critical of capitalism and of American interventionism;

—the radical right, specifically white nationalists.

Hawley provides historical background about conservatism in general and American conservatism in particular.  He seeks to arrive at a definition of conservatism, finding many of the proposed definitions to be problematic.  The definition on which he settles distinguishes conservatism from liberalism by saying that liberalism prioritizes equality, whereas conservatism has other priorities.  These priorities differ, depending on the conservative.  Some stress the free market, and some prioritize culture, community, tradition, or ethnic homogeneity.

Throughout the book, Hawley profiles the ideas, figures, and success (or lack thereof) of these conservative movements.  The paleoconservatives, for example, have a lot of Ph.Ds, but they lack numbers and funding.  They have also lost historic battles with neoconservatives for influence within the conservative movement.  Pat Buchanan was a significant paleoconservative figure, and his candidacies had the potential to unite paleoconservatives with paleolibertarians; instead, he alienated the libertarians by emphasizing his support for trade protectionism.

The white nationalist movement is gaining more influence through the Internet, yet the KKK has very few members.

At the end of the book, Hawley offers a thoughtful discussion about the future of American conservatism.  On the one hand, he sees indications that its influence will dwindle.  America is becoming more racially diverse, and conservatism, overall, has not appealed to racial and ethnic minorities.  Marriage and religion are declining, and those who marry or who are religious tend to be conservatives.  Popular conservative books are more numerous than conservative intellectual books, so Hawley concludes that modern conservatism lacks intellectual heft.  At the same time, Hawley does not pronounce conservatism dead.  People have pronounced conservatism dead in the past, yet it keeps on existing.  The concentration of liberals in the cities and the presence of conservatives in the numerous rural areas will ensure that conservatives receive a sizeable representation in government.  There is also a possibility that conservatism will appeal to racial and ethnic minorities.  Hawley mentions conservatives who have embraced criminal justice reform, but another factor is that, as ethnic minorities become more prosperous, they may become more conservative.

Here are some items:
  1. The book sensitized me to how serious expulsion from the mainstream conservative movement could be prior to the advent of the Internet. William F. Buckley had the primary influential conservative publication, National Review. If conservatives could not write for that, their influence declined dramatically.  They may have had their own small publications, but it is costly to produce a publication and to circulate it.  Nowadays, the situation is different.  One reason is the Internet: marginal conservatives can create websites that look just as polished as mainstream sites.  Another consideration is that, with the death of Buckley, there is no uniting, overarching leader of the conservative movement.  As Hawley notes, Ann Coulter was banned from National Review, yet that has not hurt her writing and speaking career.
  2. A recurring question that I had in reading this book was “What about Trump?” This book was obviously written before Trump became an electoral phenomenon.  Hawley even raises the possibility that Rand Paul might win primaries in the 2016 Presidential election, and we know that didn’t happen!  Hawley mentions the possibility of writing an update to this book, and, if that happens, I am sure that it will talk about Trump.  What is ironic is that Trump won as he embraced paleoconservative positions (i.e., anti-immigration, anti-war, perhaps protectionism), even though paleoconservatism is the most marginal conservative movement, in Hawley’s telling.
  3. Hawley raises interesting points as he tells the stories of conservative thinkers. He says that many conservatives today look back at the 1950’s as the ideal time, but then he refers to a conservative thinker who saw medieval times as the ideal!  While there are libertarians who support open borders, there are also libertarians who advocate the opposite of open borders: if people have property, and there are not many publicly funded roads, that clamps down on the ability of immigrants to come here and settle!  Although Murray Rothbard eventually became more of a white nationalist, there was a time when he was reaching out to the anti-war and the Black Power movements, thinking he could find common conservative ground with them.  Hawley quotes someone who states that, on race, the way to determine someone’s virtue is by looking at his or her stances when they are unpopular.  Is a person for equality when racial equality is unpopular (i.e., the Jim Crow south)?  That person, not the person who gives expected PC answers, is the virtuous one.  Is a person a racist when racial equality is the mainstream position?  That person has moral problems.  Hawley refers to a thinker who thought that capitalism was inconsistent with cultural conservatism.  I thought of a biography of Jerry Falwell that I read (Michael Sean Winters’ God’s Right Hand Man: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right), which noted the irony that Falwell was a strong advocate of free market capitalism, even though the things that he criticized, such as pornography, are the products and beneficiaries of capitalism.
I checked this book out from the library.  My review is honest!

Book Write-Up: The Mystery of the Trinity Revealed, by T.R. Bosse

T.R. Bosse.  The Mystery of the Trinity Revealed.  Dove & Word, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

T.R. Bosse has studied the Bible for over forty years.  This book actually addresses a number of subjects.  On the subject that is in the title, the Trinity, Bosse is unclear.  More than once, he refers to the Trinity coming into being.  Coming into being?  Has not the Trinity always existed?  Or is Bosse implying that the economic Trinity (which concerns how the persons of the Trinity relate to the world) came into being?

In terms of prose, the book could have been better written.  The reason that this book deserves at least four stars, though, is its fresh and interesting look at biblical topics.

Some items:

A.  Bosse offers a picture of biblical anthropology and soteriology that tries to take into account the disparate biblical claims about the spirit of human beings, the soul of human beings, the Spirit of God, and the life-giving blood of humans, while merging biblical anatomy with modern scientific understandings of anatomy.  No small order!

B.  Bosse also shows from the Bible that God has a soul and a Spirit.  A number of Christians would not take those passages literally and may say that Bosse’s claim violates the idea of divine simplicity.  Bosse maintains a very literal approach to the Bible throughout this book.

C.  Another interesting discussion was when Bosse argued that Jesus was God’s Word from the heart (or bosom, John 1:18) of the Father.  Words, in Scripture, come from the heart, and Jesus comes from the Father’s heart.  For Bosse, this explains how Jesus could claim to be in heaven (John 3:13, at least in the Byzantine texts), even while he was on earth talking with Nicodemus.

D.  Bosse says that one reason the Trinity is not explicit in the Old Testament is that God did not want Satan to know about his plan of salvation.  I Corinthians 2:8 is one text that Bosse cites to support this, and he interprets the rulers who crucified Christ out of ignorance as demonic entities.  Did Satan in Old Testament times know about God’s plan of salvation through Jesus?  From both the Bible and the church fathers, one can make a case either way.  Some Christians argue that, in the Old Testament, Satan assaults the seed that would become Christ, explaining, for example, Athaliah’s slaughter of the Davidic line when Joash was a child (II Kings 11).  In the New Testament, Satan attempts to instigate Jesus’ death (Luke 22:3), even as he tries to discourage Jesus from the cross (Mark 8:33).  Justin Martyr thought that Satan was aware of the coming Christ, for he attributed the parallels to Christianity in pagan religions to Satan aping the true religion.  Yet, the ransom theory of the atonement seems to depict Satan as clueless about Christ’s identity when he puts Christ to death.  Bosse does not cover all of this territory, but the issue that he raises is profound.

E.  Proverbs 20:7 states: “The spirit of man is the candle of the LORD, searching all the inward parts of the belly” (KJV).  Bosse interprets that to mean that God searches the human heart to see if there are any signs that it is receptive to salvation.  Bosse appears to lean towards the synergistic model of regeneration, though he also seems to imply that humans can come to God from their own volition.

F.  Where Bosse was slightly unconvincing was in his arguments about Jesus’ blood.  According to Bosse, blood is what passes down original sin.  Jesus got his pure blood, not from Mary, but from God.  The risen Jesus forbade Mary Magdalene to touch him because he needed to ascend to heaven to place the pure blood on the altar; otherwise, Mary Magdalene might defile him.  The risen Jesus lacked blood, since he referred only to his flesh and bones (Luke 24:39).  As far as I can recall, Bosse did not offer rigorous evidence from the Bible that original sin is passed through blood.  Still, the speculation that he based upon that premise was rather interesting.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author through Bookcrash.  My review is honest!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Church Write-Up: Temptation, Pointing the Wounded to Christ, Love Manifest, God’s Joy and the Fat

Here are some items on last Sunday’s church services that I attended.  Bible study is not meeting this coming Wednesday, so there will be no write-up on that this week.

A.  The youth pastor at the LCMS church talked about temptation.  He played the devil, and a rope represented temptation.  He and a boy did a tug of war, and the devil won that.  When the boy got the pastor to help him, however, the devil lost.  The point is that Jesus helps us against temptation.

B.  The sermon at the LCMS church was about the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The pastor opened with an anecdote about a woman who had undergone a horrible church experience, and she was reluctant to join another church body.  She said that churches contain the walking wounded.  The pastor said that many of us are walking wounded and we pretend that everything is all right, refusing to let others in.  The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were experiencing persecution (albeit not to the point of death) on account of their Christianity.  They saw that the Romans left the Jews alone, so they were contemplating going back to Judaism.  The author of the epistle did not beat them over the head with law, telling them to get their act together, but rather the author pointed them to Jesus.

C.  The LCMS Sunday school class continued its way through I John.  The topic was love.  Points that were made: God manifestly demonstrated love through Jesus.  Love from God pours into Christians and manifestly goes out to others in the body of Christ.  What does love look like?  It can entail praying for someone we do not like, without telling that person we are praying for him or her, as that can be offensive.  It can mean introducing ourselves to others by name, sharing our stories, and hearing their stories.  It may involve service projects, especially when we do not feel like doing them or are too busy, or giving money to someone in need rather than spending it on ourselves.  We need not fear losing out, for God provides for us, now and in eternity.  Love is not quid pro-quo.  We give love, and it is up to the recipient of that love how he or she responds.  Love is difficult, as there are different personalities, so we are fortunate that love does not begin with us: it begins with God.  We can become exhausted in our attempts to love, but God continually renews us.  As we receive love from God, and that love flows out to others, our hearts do not condemn us: we are assured of salvation.

D.  The “Word of Faith” church introduced the sermon with a brief video.  This series has been playing these videos.  Someone from the church talks about his or her strengths and weaknesses, then we hear from others in the church positive things about that person.  I identified with the person speaking today.  He said that he may come across as rude because he often does not know what to say, so he is quiet.  Others in the church then said that he is eager to do service projects, and they appreciate that.

The pastor’s sermon was about the joy of the Lord.  He referred to passages about God rejoicing over God’s people, and he said that, when God sees us, he wants to give us a high five.  God’s holiness is too overwhelming to us, not because we are sinful worms and God is too pure and wrathful, but because God is so joyful that we could not contain such joy.

The pastor referred to Nehemiah 8:10, in which Nehemiah tells the Jews: “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (KJV).  The pastor observed that Nehemiah was telling the Jews to eat fat, which Leviticus forbids the Israelites to eat, since the fat belonged to God (Leviticus 3:16-17; 7:23-25).  Nehemiah was telling the Israelites to eat from God’s very portion.  That probably deserves more study.  Perusing my commentaries, not many deal with it.  The Word Biblical Commentary simply denies that the fat in Nehemiah 8:10 is the same as the fat that the Israelites are prohibited to eat.  Rashi says nothing about the fat in commenting on the passage, and certainly one would expect him to see the Book of Nehemiah as consistent with the Torah.

I’ll leave the comments open, in case anyone wants to weigh in on that part about the fat.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Current Events Write-Up: Economy on Paper, Abortion and Ireland, Jerry Brown

Time for this week’s Current Events Write-Up.

Global Research: “Trump at the UN: Lies, Damn Lies, & Statistics,” by Dr. Jack Rasmus.

Essentially, the article argues that what President Trump said about the economy is not so.  What is on paper and what is on the ground are not the same thing.  The same thing can probably be said for many leaders who brag about their economic records, not just Trump.

The Federalist: “The Irish Mother Emma Thompson Wrote To Didn’t Die Because Abortion Was Illegal,” by Nicole Russell.

An nuanced look at that case, as well as an interesting look at abortion law and politics in Ireland.

Townhall: “Governor Moonbeam: Making California Great Again?”, by Arthur Schaper.

A conservative finds things to praise about Governor Jerry Brown of California.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Book Write-Up: An Introduction to the Old Testament, by John Goldingay

John Goldingay.  An Introduction to the Old Testament: Exploring Text, Approaches and Issues.  IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

John Goldingay is a biblical scholar who teaches Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.  As the title indicates, this book is an introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Here are some observations and thoughts about the book:

A.  The book asks readers to read biblical passages and answer questions about them.  One may enter into this book thinking it is a workbook, but such an impression would be misleading.  Although readers are asked to do some work, Goldingay still shares his own insights about the meaning, messages, and theological significance of biblical writings, along with issues surrounding those writings, such as the question of their historicity, and how they compare with ancient Near Eastern religion and writings.

B.  Goldingay frequently refers readers to online material, which is located at his web site.  The online material goes more deeply into issues that are raised in this book.

C.  I just read this book, without reading the tempting online material and the biblical passages.  Just reading the book by itself, I questioned how effective of an introduction to the Hebrew Bible this book would be for beginners.  Don’t get me wrong: the book presents a lot of scholarly information, in a lucid manner.  You will get the history of the Documentary Hypothesis, a summary of various positions on the historicity of key biblical stories (i.e., the Exodus, the Conquest), and a summary and interpretation of the highlights of each biblical book.  Not only was the book helpful in clarifying the biblical text, but it also presented models and insights that were new to me; its explanation of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as its model for the development of the Book of Daniel, come to mind as excellent discussions.  Each chapter is two pages, though, and that can easily give the impression that the treatment of the material is rather cursory.  One needs to pay attention to what one is reading, or one may miss significant details: it is like a quick car ride, in areas.  If one reads and interacts with the biblical passages, consults the materials on Goldingay’s web site, and lingers over each chapter, however, that may enhance, round out, and deepen the educational process.

D.  The best aspect of this book, in my opinion, is its sensitivity to Christian students who may have issues with the historical-critical method of reading the Bible.  Goldingay embraces that method.  He embraces positions that are conservative, but also positions that conservatives would reject.  But he attempts to offer a way forward for people to accept the historical-critical method, while still having faith in the Bible as divine revelation.  For example, he rejects the idea that the biblical writings are a bunch of pious frauds.  When the Book of Daniel depicts events prior to and during its day within the genre of predictions about the future, as if Daniel was a figure from the past who foresaw those events, Goldingay does not regard that as a con job; he thinks that the Book of Daniel’s second century BCE audience was well aware that those prophecies were written in their own time rather than in the sixth century BCE, but they saw the point of the book as God’s sovereignty over history.  When people wrote in the name of Moses or Isaiah, Goldingay maintains that they were not seeking to be fraudulent, for people back then honored those who inspired them by writing in their name.  Goldingay does not really provide rigorous support for these claims.  One can challenge some of them: I think of Bart Ehrman’s argument that forgery in the New Testament period was looked down upon, even though it was practiced.  Still, Goldingay does well to offer these suggestions.  If one wants to give the biblical writers the benefit of a doubt, to posit a model in which they sincerely believed in their message yet did things that many today would see as fraudulent, then Goldingay’s suggestions may be the way to go.

E.  The book frequently revisited the question of whether Old Testament prophecies were actually fulfilled in history.  When Isaiah said something would happen to Assyria, for example, did it happen?  That is an important question, and Goldingay did well to address it, honestly yet with sensitivity to theological ramifications.

F.  I was ambivalent about his discussion of animal sacrifices.  Goldingay tried to distance sacrifices from being about atonement and the forgiveness of sin.  In one place, he states that the Epistle to the Hebrews is right: as far as the Old Testament is concerned, the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin!  According to Goldingay, when Psalm 51 talks about sacrifices being offered, that is after the broken divine-human relationship is restored; the sacrifices are not what lead to the restoration, but they are the worship of God that occurs after the restoration.  Goldingay may have a point.  Unlike some evangelicals, I doubt that every reference to sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible is about atonement.  They may concern seeking God’s favor by offering a gift, showing God honor, or fellowship with God by eating a meal with God.  At the same time, I doubt that sacrifices can be divorced from atonement.  There are sin and guilt offerings, and, in Leviticus-Numbers, they seem to relate to the forgiveness of unintentional sins, sometimes even transgressions.  In addition, if sacrifices were unrelated to atonement, why does Hebrews go out of its way to deny that the blood of animals can take away sin?  Why would the blood of animals and atonement be mentioned in the same sentence, if at least some did not posit a connection between the two?

My critiques notwithstanding, I give this book five stars.  It was informative and, in some cases, profound.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Church Write-Up: Hebrews’ Audience, Intermediaries, Retroactive Atonement

The LCMS Wednesday Bible Study was on the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Here are some items.  Occasionally, I’ll quote from the pastor’s handout.

A.  In terms of the audience of Hebrews, the pastor mentioned two possibilities.  First, it could have been a house church in Jerusalem, Judea, or Galilee.  Second, it could have been a house church of Jewish Christians, maybe priests, in Rome during Emperor Claudius or Nero.

I asked why the Epistle is written in Greek rather than Aramaic, if its audience was located in Palestine.  The pastor, of course, narrated how Alexander the Great’s conquests made Greek the lingua franca of the time.  Greek was the language of commerce, and people communicated with each other in it.  The pastor also drew parallels with the time when French was the language of diplomacy and German was the language of science; his point may have been that the Jews of Palestine spoke both Aramaic and Greek.  The pastor cautioned, however, that, if Hebrews were written to Palestine, it would probably be written in koine Greek, the common language of the people, rather than the sophisticated Greek that Hebrews actually manifests.

I would like to quote something that I wrote in a draft of one of my dissertation chapters.  I am discussing burial inscriptions in Palestine, some of which are in Hebrew, and some of which are in Greek: “On the question of why these inscriptions in the land of Israel are in Greek, Louis Feldman speculates that ‘perhaps it was intended to deter non-Jewish passers-by from molesting the graves.’  Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 14.  Feldman does not believe that many Jews in first century C.E. Palestine were fluent in Greek.  There is scholarly debate, however, about the extent to which Jews in Late Antiquity knew Greek.  See John C. Poirier, ‘The Linguistic Situation in Jewish Palestine in Late Antiquity,’ Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 4 (2007): 110-125.  Poirier states that a desire for social status may have been a factor driving the growing influence of Greek, and also that Greek may have been prevalent in certain pockets of Palestine.”

This could explain why Hebrews could be written in Greek, while having a Palestinian audience: some Jews embraced Greek due to a desire for social status, or there were pockets of Palestine where Greek was prevalent, and Hebrews was written to a house church in such a pocket.  Other possibilities that I would like to toss out there: perhaps they are Hellenistic Jews, or there are Gentiles associating with the Jewish Christians, and the author of Hebrews writes in Greek, the common language of Jews and Gentiles, so that both can understand it.

On the possibility that Hebrews was written to Jewish priests who had become Christians, I have issues with this proposal.  The argument seems to be based on the idea that Hebrews manifests a knowledge of the Temple, which priests would have.  However, Hebrews focuses on the Tabernacle, not the Temple.  One does not need intimate knowledge of the Temple to understand Hebrews, just the Books of Exodus and Leviticus.  In addition, some have argued that Hebrews gets the Tabernacle wrong, placing the golden altar of incense inside the Holy of Holies with the Ark rather than outside of the Holy of Holies (cp. Hebrews 9:3-4; Exodus 30:1-6; 40:26); see here, though, for a conservative Christian attempt to harmonize that apparent difficulty.  At the same time, Hebrews does focus on the cult, and priests especially would appreciate that.

The pastor speculated that Hebrews was written “before Nero’s persecutions in AD 68 but after earlier persecutions in Rome—-AD 54.”  Christians were beaten and their property was confiscated, but they were not yet brutally martyred.  The pastor said that the Jewish Christians may have noticed that, overall, the Roman authorities left the Jews alone, so they contemplated going back to Judaism.  The Epistle was written to discourage that.

B.  The pastor argued that Hebrews was challenging Greek philosophical notions about God, particularly those of Aristotle.  Greek philosophical notions held that God was perfect and pure, and thus removed from humanity.  God interacted with people through angelic intermediaries, for God was too pure to interact with them himself.  Moreover, God could not change, as human beings did.  Hebrews, by contrast, depicts Christ, the Son of God, becoming a human being and thereby a brother of human beings.  Moreover, Hebrews depicts Christ, not angels, as the mediator between God and humanity.

The pastor talked some about this last Sunday, in his class on I John.  He said that the Docetists claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human because they opposed any notion that God could become a human being.  The pastor was differentiating between what Greek philosophy said about the divine and how Greek mythology depicted gods.  Greek mythology, of course, depicted gods directly interacting with human beings and possessing attributes of humans, which differs from Greek philosophy.  I asked the pastor to unpack that.  He replied that the stories of Greek mythology were believed to be ways to communicate with the common people: to tell them about the divine in a way that they could understand.  The stories also helped common people explain things: they are having a bad day, so it must be because Zeus was punishing them.

I took a class years ago on pagan allegory.  Certain Greeks took issue with Greek mythological depictions of gods.  They did not care for gods with flawed human attributes, so they allegorized them rather than taking them literally.  Did only the intellegentsia do this, or did the non-intelligentsia do so as well?  Well, Docetism was a challenge that John’s church at Ephesus faced, so Greek philosophical beliefs about the divine apparently impacted the popular level, not just the intellegentsia.

C.  The pastor said that Hebrews believes that the Old Testament saints were forgiven through the death and resurrection of Christ; Paul, by contrast, thought that forgiveness was held in abeyance until Christ’s death and resurrection.  Not much detail was provided, but I have wondered about this in the past.  Does the New Testament present a retroactive application of the blood of Christ to the Old Testament saints?  Both Paul and Hebrews maintain that there were “righteous” people in the Old Testament: Abraham was justified by faith, and Hebrews lists heroes of the faith.  Could they be that, without possessing divine forgiveness?

More can be said, but I will stop here.  I will leave the comments open, in case anyone wants to provide additional information.  Just don’t put me down for not knowing things that I probably should know!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Church Write-Up: Youth Day, God’s Love and Changelessness, Nehemiah’s Challenges

Here is this week’s Church Write-Up about last Sunday’s services.

A.  The LCMS service was led by the Youth Pastor and the kids.  They talked about their trip to Texas to help victims of a hurricane.  While there, they made sure that they were rooted and grounded in the faith by having Bible studies each morning.  They exercised their gifts, and their presence cheered the people of the church there.  Another theme in that service was newness.  The kids put on a skit about babies who were reluctant to proceed to the next stage of their development, since they were used to where they were and were hesitant to change.  But kids who had moved on were talking about the fun they were having: going on the swing by themselves, for instance.  The point there was that we may fear change, but we can put our minds at ease, for God is with us.

B.  The LCMS adult Sunday school class continued through I John.  John was saying that God has loved us by sending Jesus Christ, and the result is a community whose ethic is love.  The pastor said that the notion of a loving God ran counter to the Greek philosophy of the day, particularly that of Aristotle.  Love implies that the object of God’s love can somehow move God, and that contradicted the Greek notion that the divine was changeless, since perfection implied changelessness.  The pastor’s point made me think about Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica I am going through slowly.  Aquinas, of course, sought to interpret Christianity in light of Aristotelianism.  My impression is that he, too, had a problem with God knowing objects, so Aquinas argued that God knows objects through his knowledge of himself.  And, for Aquinas, God’s love does not contradict God’s changelessness.  It is not as if God is moved to love, whereas he did not love before, but God’s nature is love.

C.  The “Word of Faith” church was continuing its way through Nehemiah.  The pastor highlighted Nehemiah’s words: “The grace of the LORD was upon me.”  Things were challenging the post-exilic Jews’ appreciation and appropriation of that grace.  For one, there was covetousness, the love of money.  Wealthier Jews were exploiting poorer Jews, thinking they were doing the poorer Jews a service: at least the poorer Jews were in debt to other Jews rather than foreigners!  An over-attachment to money can warp our perceptions.  Second, Sanballat and Geshem in Nehemiah 6 invited Nehemiah to Ono, but Nehemiah would not be distracted from doing God’s work.  The pastor told a story about a couple years ago who decided to blow off church to have lunch with friends, and their children did not end up serving the Lord.  The pastor said that it is not wrong to skip church service, but he asked if there is something inside of us that is dedicated to God and refuses distraction.  Third, people in the land of Israel were accusing Nehemiah and the post-exilic Jews to the Persian authorities.  The pastor said that the church is not a place of accusation.  It may confront, but when it does so, it will not feel like confrontation.  Rather, it will be asking people about their desire to leave behind the old for the new.

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