Monday, January 21, 2019

Church Write-Up: Spiritual Gifts, Roman Pedagogy, Constantine, Septuagint, Text Criticism

Here are some items from church last Sunday. I attended the LCMS church.

A. The theme was spiritual gifts. The youth pastor asked the kids if they have ever been on a team. If a person is on a basketball team, she may feel bad that she does not shoot as well as another player. But she may have her own strengths, such as defense. God has given to us by sending his Son to bring us salvation; similarly, we should give to others.

The pastor in his sermon said that, whether we are proud of our spiritual gifts like the Corinthians, or we lament that we do not have impressive spiritual gifts, the focus is on ourselves. In addition to I Corinthians 12:1-11, our text was John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana. The wedding occurred on the “third day,” a pregnant term in Scripture, as that often indicates a time of dramatic divine intervention that changes things for the better. Jesus was bringing that. Our spiritual gifts should focus on Jesus’s love and forgiveness: what Jesus is doing. The pastor talked about things that the church is thinking of doing: following up on visitors to make sure they know they are welcome, and visit members who are going through difficulties.

B. I have four items on the Sunday school class.

The teacher talked about Roman pedagogy. Elite Roman children had pedagogues, tutors who taught them reading, writing, and rhetoric. Rhetoric was important if they were to go into politics. The pedagogues were highly educated slaves, often from Greece after the Romans “annexed” it. Some of them were harsh towards the children, acting as their disciplinarians when their fathers were away for war. When the Roman empire became Christian and Christians were the elites, the question was whether Christian elites should continue to read Homer’s writings, which were about pagan gods. Some Christians said “no,” but the Bible was deemed too unsophisticated to use: the New Testament was written in common (koine) Greek, not literary Greek. Public schools came much later. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, the vernacular, but what good was the translation if most were illiterate? Consequently, Luther appealed to the German princes to set up public schools. These would be for both boys and girls.

The teacher talked some about Constantine. The Roman empire had more than one emperor because it was too big for one person to rule it. There were heir apparents so there would not be civil war once an emperor died, but that did not work. Constantine receives a vision convincing him to rule the entire Roman empire. He reaches a deal with another emperor, the Edict of Milan, saying that the government will no longer hunt down Christians, though Christianity is still illegal. Constantine triumphs militarily though he is overwhelmed. Constantine may not have been totally open about his Christianity, but his empire incorporates cross imagery. Constantine returns property that was taken from Christians during the third century persecution, and, to make up for the burned Christian books, he orders twenty-five manuscripts of the Christian Bible to be produced with Christian money.

The teacher talked about the Septuagint. The Septuagint of the Pentateuch was produced in third century BCE Alexandria, Egypt. None of the synagogues in Alexandria spoke Hebrew or Aramaic; for that matter, Hebrew was rarely spoken in Palestine, which was why a person would translate aloud the Torah portion into Aramaic. Most of the synagogues then were Greek-speaking and outside of Palestine. There are different legends about how many translators produced the Septuagint, seventy or seventy-two. Legends say that the translators worked in separate cubicles and all ended up producing the same document, miraculously. The teacher doubts that really happened, but he thinks that Alexandrian Jews told this to Palestinian Jews because the Palestinian Jews treated them as second-class citizens and lorded over them. The Alexandrian Jews were saying that they did not need to use the Bible that the Palestinian Jews did, for the Septuagint was divinely-inspired.

The teacher gave us a taste of text criticism, but that will be the main topic next week. Ordinarily, he said, earlier manuscripts are more reliable, in terms of being closer to the original text. But what if you have an earlier Latin translation of a Greek Gospel? Or a later Syriac translation preserves an earlier line of text from Antioch?

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book Write-Up: Revelation, by Charles C. Ryrie

Charles C. Ryrie. Revelation. Moody, 1996, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Charles Ryrie was a renowned conservative Christian scholar, theologian, and author. This book is a commentary on the Book of Revelation, written on a popular level yet influenced by scholarship.

Ryrie’s perspective is pre-tribulational and pre-millennial. “Pre-tribulational” means that he believes that the church (both living and dead saints) will be raptured to heaven before the seven year Great Tribulation. “Pre-millennial” means that he believes that Christ will return at the end of the Great Tribulation and establish a thousand year reign on earth. Ryrie defends these views occasionally, while describing other views, using helpful visual aids.

Ryrie is also dispensational, but he overlaps with and differs from other dispensationalists whom I have read, such as E.W. Bullinger, who is often called a “hyper-dispensationalist.” At its basic level, dispensationalism distinguishes between the church and Israel, rather than treating the church as the new Israel. Ryrie adheres to dispensationalism in this sense. Unlike Bullinger, however, he does not treat the church as spectators of the Lamb’s marriage with Israel but rather holds that the Lamb is marrying those redeemed from among the Jews and the Gentiles. Yet, like Bullinger, Ryrie does make distinctions when it comes to the Lamb’s marriage. On pages 152-153, he states regarding the friends of the Bridegroom in Revelation 17:9: “These guests are not the bride, and they are not unsaved people, so they must be redeemed people who are not members of the church, the body of Christ.”

Like many dispensationalists, Ryrie also believes that the church operates under salvation by free grace and once-saved-always-saved. This perspective influences his approach to certain passages. Revelation 19:8 states that the bride is arrayed in fine linen, which is the righteous deeds of the saints. Ryrie states: “The bride is the bride because of the righteousness of Christ; the bride is clothed for the wedding because of her acts” (page 152). In Revelation 3:5, Christ promises the church at Sardis that the overcomer will not be blotted out of the Book of Life. Ryrie interprets overcoming as believing in Christ, in light of I John 5:4-5, and he states: “This statement does not threaten the possible loss of one’s salvation but rather promises assurance that no believer will ever lose it” (pages 35, 41). That is Ryrie’s approach to the promises to the churches in Revelation 2-3: they are not rewards for doing good, but rather they represent Christ trying to reassure the churches about the blessings that they already have, as that can strengthen them amidst temptation and persecution. Unfortunately, Ryrie does not really address Christ’s threats to the churches. What did Christ mean in Revelation 2:5 when he threatened to remove the Ephesian church’s candlestick, unless she repented? Is that a loss of salvation?

Ryrie is not exactly an antinomian. Regarding those who are cast into the Lake of Fire for certain sins in Revelation 21:8, Ryrie states: “Notice that the text does not say that anyone who has ever committed any of these sins will be excluded, but people whose lives are characterized in these ways” (page 167). He later calls them “unsaved people.” This is both helpful and unhelpful. Why are the “fearful” included in that list of unsaved people? Ryrie does not say. My guess is that, in the Book of Revelation, those who fear the world and the Beast will give in to them, and that brings condemnation. My problem with the verse is that I have long struggled with fear, and not just occasional fear.

As a conservative Christian, Ryrie tries to address the passages in Revelation that seem to suggest that the end is near, as in, expected to occur in John’s day. There were not many surprises there. Like a lot of dispensationalists, he interprets “things which must shortly come to pass” in Revelation 1:1 to mean that, when Christ does finally come, it will be quickly. But he realizes that Revelation 22:10 states that “the time is near,” so he says, “these events are near because a thousand years are as a day with the Lord (2 Peter 3:8)” (page 18). To his credit, Ryrie does cite passages in favor of his interpretation of “shortly.” He is not very convincing, though, for Revelation often conveys a tone of urgency.

In terms of strengths, the book is informative. For example, in discussing the Lord’s day in Revelation 1:10, Ryrie notes that kyriakos outside of the New Testament means “imperial,” so the Lord’s day could be when Christ “takes the reins of earthly government” (page 23) rather than Sunday. Ryrie sometimes ignores details, but at other times he tries to explain details, and he sifts through different perspectives in so doing. He refers to translational issues: the angel of Revelation 8:13 is actually an eagle; Ryrie does not explain the significance of that, however. Occasionally, Ryrie is rather elliptical. On page 146, he interprets Revelation 18:2’s statement about fallen Babylon being the cage of unclean and hateful birds by saying: “The latter phrase possibly alludes to the birds in the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32), indicating the demonic forces at work in the apostate system.” What? The birds who rest in the branches of the tree in Matthew 13:32 are demonic? The book has a cozy tone, and yet one has to pay close attention lest one miss an intriguing insight.

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

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Church Write-Up: Spiritual Gifts, Idolatry, Cross Plus

I went to the weekly adult Bible study at the LCMS. It resumed meeting, after a hiatus.

The pastor started a series on I Corinthians.

Here are some items:

A. A key topic in I Corinthians is spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are acts of God’s grace. They are given to believers, not because they are deserving or conjured them up themselves, but because of God’s free gift. They exist to glorify God and to build up the church. Unfortunately, Christians in Corinth, on the basis of these gifts, acted as if they were superior. Those with flashier gifts, like tongues, thought that God liked them more than those who had less flashy gifts, like hospitality.

B. In Corinth was a temple to Apollo. It had Corinthian columns, which bulge in the center for support and for an optical illusion: so that the columns from a distance will look straight. If the column were straight, it would look caved in from a distance. Wherever people in Corinth would go, the temple of Apollo would look over them. Corinth had a lot of idolatry. As a cosmopolitan city and a trading hub connecting the east and the west of the Roman empire, it attracted different ideas, not just goods. Paul believed that the idols were nothing, yet he also thought that idolatry was an entry-point for demons, who use it to promote orgies and prostitution.

C. Some Christians in Corinth thought that the cross was good as a beginning, but that something needed to be added to the cross in order for one to become intimate with God. They claimed to have special wisdom and knowledge, so Paul opens I Corinthians by saying that God’s wisdom is in the cross, which is above human wisdom. Paul in I Corinthians 12:3 says that no one speaking by the Spirit of God can say Jesus is cursed. The pastor said that this does not refer to Christians cursing Jesus under threat of persecution, for that was the time before the Roman persecution of Christianity. The pastor suspects that Paul is criticizing adding Christianity to other things. When Christianity is mixed with other belief systems, Christianity is what gets compromised. Some examples that he cited were Christian socialism and Thomas Merton incorporating Buddhist meditation into Christian monasticism. But he referred to other controversial issues: organs were played in the Roman collosseum, while Christians were being killed by lions. Consequently, some Christians recoiled at using organs in worship, but they were eventually accepted because they could be heard in large cathedrals.

Here, questions enter my mind.

Is the cross (and I include Jesus’s resurrection in this) the only thing that Christians need to know? Is Paul’s problem that the Corinthian Christians were saying that one needs to know something in addition to the cross? Or is his problem more that they were marginalizing the cross of Christ—which is of paramount importance in terms of how God is and how Christians should live—in favor of human-made ideas?

Does not the New Testament, at times, treat the cross as the beginning, or as one of the basics, while thinking Christians should move on to other material? Paul says he needed to feed the Corinthians with milk because they were not ready for meat. (And, by the way, I remember reading E.W. Bullinger speculate that this was why Paul came to them knowing nothing but Christ and him crucified, according to I Corinthians 2:2.) Hebrews 6:1-3 talks about not laying again the foundation, which includes repentance, baptism, the resurrection, and judgment; those are basics, and Christians are to move on to perfection. I asked the pastor about this, and he replied that, in Hebrews, the author is exhorting his audience not merely to trust their outward confession of their faith, with their lips, but rather to internalize their confession in faith. Back to my original question in this paragraph: I do not think that the New Testament treats the cross as something from which believers graduate. It is part of the advanced material, as well.

Is it wrong for Christians to practice Buddhist meditation, or to be socialists because they believe that coincides with the principles of their Christian faith? There are Christians who are Republicans because they believe that the Republican Party reflects their Christian values. Obviously, one can look at the German Christian movement of the 1930’s and see an example of where mixing Christianity with something else can go bad. Christianity plus racialism, or Christianity plus devotion to the Fuhrer. The result, of course, was that Christianity got marginalized. And this could occur with other mixtures: is Buddhist meditation taking one’s focus off of Christ? Does Christian commitment to a particular political creed lead one to hate and demonize those with a different political persuasion? I think a key question is: What sets the agenda? Is it the Christianity, or the something else?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book Write-Up: Jerusalem’s Queen, by Angela Hunt

Angela Hunt. Jerusalem’s Queen: A Novel of Salome Alexandra. Bethany House, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Jerusalem’s Queen is the third book of Angela Hunt’s “Silent Years” series, which is about the period between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The first book is about Cleopatra VII, and the second book concerns Judah the Maccabee. This third book is about Salome Alexandra. Salome Alexandra was the queen of Judea in the early first century BCE. She empowered the Pharisees.

Jerusalem’s Queen alternates between the perspective of Salome Alexandra, originally called “Shelamzion,” and Kissa, her servant from Egypt. The book goes from the reign of John Hyrcanus I, through the oppressive reign of Alexander Jannaeus, to the death of Salome and the rivalry between her sons, which led to the Roman takeover of Judea and the end of Jewish political independence. In the book’s moving ending, one of the characters encounters Simeon, the man in Luke 2 who saw Jesus Christ before his death.

Overall, the book effectively explores theological issues, as Sadducees dialogue with Pharisees, and Essenes get into the discussion. Honi the circle-drawer has a cameo. Shelamzion questions her uncle John Hyrcanus’s Hellenism and the royal airs he puts on as high priest. Political tensions recur in the book, and powerful personalities encounter powerful personalities. Hunt makes use of ancient sources, such as Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic literature, and she presents her critical assessment of the sources in an appendix.

Reading about Salome, there are additional stories that Hunt could have included, which may have rounded out the book a little more, but Hunt chose as she did. I disagree somewhat with something she says in the appendix. She presents Shelamzion and Kissa together in the Jerusalem temple, and she says that this is plausible because, prior to Herod’s temple, there were only two courts: one for the people, and one for the priests. There was not yet a “Court of the Women” or “Court of the Gentiles.” Yet, Antiochus III’s decree in 200 BCE (Josephus, Ant. 12.145–46) presumes that Jewish law forbids Gentiles to enter the temple enclosure. That should factor into the discussion somewhere. Incidentally, I do not remember the scene in which Shelamzion and Kissa are together at the Jerusalem temple—only the scene in which they are at the Heliopolis temple. If Kissa was a slave when she was at the Jerusalem temple, perhaps she would have been allowed at its enclosure, since slaves were considered part of Israelite households (Genesis 17:12; Exodus 12:44).

The book has an evangelical perspective, which influences the issues that are placed on the table. In one part of the book, a Pharisee was saying that the Messiah would be a king and a priest, like a Christian would. (Elsewhere in the book, an Essene says that there would be two Messiahs, one priestly Messiah and one royal, and that is what is in the Dead Sea Scrolls.)  I wondered how plausible the Pharisee’s speech was, or if Hunt was placing evangelical beliefs into the mouth of the Pharisee. I suppose it is not impossible that a Pharisee would say that, since the Hebrew Bible does sometimes depict David as a priest-king (II Samuel 8:18; Psalm 110:4), and perhaps a Pharisee could pick up on that. On whether such a sentiment occurs in rabbinic literature, that is a question that deserves further research.

The book’s evangelical perspective does lead to an interesting discussion: is obeying the rites of the law sufficient to be righteous, or is something further than that necessary? In a poignant scene, Kissa acknowledges that she obeys the law as part of Shelamzion’s household, yet she does not feel a connection with God.

There is an intriguing statement on page 305. An Essene Torah teacher is responding to Shelamzion’s question of whether the Messiah will overthrow her husband Alexander Jannaeus. The Torah teacher replies: “The Teacher of Righteousness has called your husband ‘the wicked priest,’ but I do not believe he considers Alexander Jannaeus the wicked priest described in the text. Your husband does not rule Egypt and Syria.” Shelamzion then sighs and says, “So we should not expect the Messiah until later?” At the moment, I do not know where the Dead Sea Scrolls say that the Wicked Priest rules Egypt and Syria. But there have been different ideas about the identity of the Wicked Priest, and whether there was only one.

This is my favorite book in the series thus far.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Book Write-Up: Rewire Your Heart, by David Bowden

David Bowden. Rewire Your Heart: Replace Your Desire for Sin with Desire for God. Nelson Books, 2018. See here to buy the book.

How can Christians overcome sin in their lives? One suggestion, of course, is “Just say no.” But I have heard alternative advice from Christians over the years. “Don’t focus on not lusting, but draw closer to God, and then you will not lust.” I heard a pastor offer similar advice about smoking.

David Bowden leans more towards the latter advice. For Bowden, sin is the result of misplaced affections. We seek fulfillment from sin when only God can satisfy those needs. I remember Tim Keller making a similar point: maybe, contrary to Freud, religion is not the result of unsatisfied sexual desire, but rather our search for sexual fulfillment is really an aim to satisfy a religious need.

In my opinion, and other readers may differ, the book is a little thin on how Christians can replace their desire for sin with a desire for God. The book talks about focusing on God’s free grace in Christ. Bowden draws a lot from Reformed thought, but, unlike some prominent Reformed thinkers, he leans heavily towards the grace side of the grace-law/works/fruit continuum.

Such an approach leaves questions unanswered. How can a Christian rest in God’s grace, when there is so much in the Bible about divine wrath, the need for good works, and the contingency of forgiveness, or even God’s acceptance? If simply trusting in God’s free grace decreases a desire for sin, why do so many believers in God’s free grace still struggle with sin, and in some cases simply give in to it?

And can devotional religious activity or thinking the right religious thoughts decrease sexual desire or addictions? I do not hastily answer “no” to this question, for people do look to sex or addictions for a sense of peace or fulfillment, often in unhealthy ways. But some desires are due to human biology.

The book has its assets, though. Bowden offered effective illustrations. His interpretations of Genesis 3 and Romans 7 were intriguing. He does well to attempt to offer something positive, rather than merely saying “Just say no” to the negative.

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

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Church Write-Up: Parental Equation, Bruised Reed and Smoldering Wick, Costly Parchment

Here are three items about Sunday morning’s LCMS service.

A. The youth pastor was saying that children should honor their parents. Our parents are not perfect, he said, but they have done for us more than we have done for them. That may not be true for everyone, but it has been true for me.

B. The pastor talked about how we do not like to fail. Some of us quit projects midway because we are frustrated and we would rather quit than fail. Or we paint a bulls-eye around our arrow, rationalizing to ourselves that we hit the target. When it comes to God’s commands about how we should live, we find ourselves in many cases missing the target altogether. God did not give us the law just so we can fail, however, for the law instructs us as to how to live God’s way of life, different from what the world lives.

Jesus is God’s ultimate servant who acted in a manner that glorifies God. Isaiah 42:3 affirms that the servant shall not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. A bruised reed was a reed that was bent over by the winds and unable to become straight. We may find ourselves broken by life and by our sins, unable in our own strength to get back up. Like a smoldering wick, our sin and selfishness have snuffed out our relationships with God and others.

C. The Sunday school class was the series about the production of books in antiquity. Papyri were good for books because they were from plants, whereas animals (for leather and parchment) were costly to raise. But papyri mainly grew in Egypt and, as plants, dried out and became brittle. Leather and parchment were more durable but were from animals, and it was costly to raise animals for writing material, to devote time and resources to feeding and watering them when most people went to bed hungry. The teacher was illustrating and reinforcing a point that he made last week: that it was costly to produce books. Consequently, even scribes with adequate materials abbreviated some words to spread out the supply of their materials.

Suppose, the teacher said, you have Ron in one city and Jay in the other. Both are Christians. They ask each other what books each other’s church has. Ron’s church has the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of the Ebionites. Jay’s church has the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mary. They then ask each other what they use in church services, and Ron’s church uses the Gospel of Matthew, and Jay’s church uses the Gospel of Mark. Each wants a copy of the other’s Gospel, but it would take a while for them to get that. They have to get the materials and find a scribe, then transporting the material will be time-consuming. The teacher was saying that one reason for canonization—deciding which books to copy and circulate for usage—was economic: they had to pick which books they deemed important, since books were costly to make.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Power of the Cross Unveiled and Revealed in Jesus

Jim Taylor. The Power of the Cross Unveiled and Revealed in Jesus. Crosslink, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Jim Taylor is a Church of Christ minister who formerly worked in electronics.

This book primarily engages Romans 5:12-21. Taylor’s main argument in this book is that Christ’s death on the cross eliminated the guilt that humanity had for Adam’s sin. According to Taylor, nobody now, Christian or non-Christian, is held accountable for Adam’s sin, in the eyes of God. Still, human beings are accountable for their own sins after they reach the age of accountability, which was twenty years old in the Old Testament (Numbers 14:28-32). To be forgiven of those sins, Taylor argues, people must repent (turn from sin towards a different way of life), be baptized, believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and abide in Christ. On page 117, Taylor states: “When the children of God live the best life they can live according to their conscience and according to the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:6), and they abide in the truth according to their Father’s commandments (John 8:31-32; 1 John 2:3-5) and walk in the light (1 John 1:7), they are never charged with sin (1 John 3:9).” That does not sound like once-saved-always-saved; rather, it sounds as if a Christian needs to repent continually in order to keep his or her salvation.

While some may feel that such a soteriology fails to offer assurance, there are beautiful passages in the book about the love of God. Taylor inquires how many people would be willing to sacrifice their own children to save somebody else. Few, if any. Yet, God the Father sent his Son to suffer and die for our salvation.

Taylor discusses another issue in Romans 5:12-21, as well: Romans 5:13-14’s statement that sin is not imputed when there is no law. Taylor argues that people were not guilty of sin or punished for it prior to the law of Moses. To his credit, Taylor does attempt to explain how this view can accord with God’s punishment of Noah’s generation with a Flood and God’s punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Taylor resorts to saying that people could still follow their consciences after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and God stepped in with wrath when people’s consciences became overly seared. Some considerations, Taylor does not explain. For instance, Taylor states that there was not a system of forgiveness of sin prior to the Torah. Maybe, but did not Abraham pray that God might remove Abimelech’s guilt in Genesis 20? Is that not forgiveness of sin?

Taylor explores other issues, too, such as how Melchizedek was an intercessor between humans and God prior to the time of the Torah. A lot of what Taylor says was not surprising, in terms of my understanding of what Church of Christ people believe: baptism as a requirement for salvation, the risk of losing one’s salvation, and the treatment of the Kingdom of God largely as a heavenly reality. Some things were surprises, assuming that Taylor is stating Church of Christ beliefs and not just his own personal interpretation. For instance, Taylor states that Christ will eventually shed his fleshly body and return to his preincarnate state, which had a spirit body that lacked flesh.

This book had strengths and weaknesses. The strengths were that Taylor covered interesting topics and tried to account for Scriptures that might, at first sight, seem to challenge his scenarios. Taylor offers food for thought. One weakness was that Taylor did not successfully defend his thesis that Christ’s death erased human guilt for the sin of Adam and Eve. It just seemed to me that he asserted this rather than demonstrating it from the Scriptures, and questions were left unanswered. Why would Christ’s death in Romans 5 absolve all humanity of Adam’s sin, whether they believe in Christ or not, but not for their personal sins, whether they believe or not? Why do people still experience the penalty of physical death, which came from Adam’s sin? Perhaps Taylor should have looked at how others, such as John Wesley, have defending the sort of view that he is promoting, without sacrificing his own original contributions. Although the prose was fine, the book could have used more focus and better organization. And the paragraphs should have been indented.

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

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