Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Church Write-Up: The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)

The adult Bible study today talked about Jesus’s Transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-9. Here are some items:

A. Transfiguration Sunday marks a transition between Epiphany and Lent. Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus as God, to both Israel and also the Gentiles. It covers the magis’ visit of Jesus and goes to the Transfiguration, where Jesus reveals himself to be God to Peter, James, and John. Lent then commences on Ash Wednesday, which focuses on our fallen humanity as well as Jesus’s humanity, which includes his hunger, his suffering, and, ultimately, his death. The Transfiguration, too, transitions to an emphasis on Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus speaks about those things more often after the Transfiguration than he did before. He also forbids his disciples to say anything about the Transfiguration until after Jesus’s death and resurrection. According to the pastor, this is because Jesus is saying that Jesus’s death and resurrection, not only his glory, are crucial aspects of who Jesus is. Jesus wants us to understand him in light of his death and resurrection, not just his glory. That brings us to the next item.

B. The pastor was criticizing Christianity’s current focus on “your best life now”—-prosperity—-and becoming better people through sanctification. Its focus here is on glory. Christianity in the first two centuries, however, did not recoil from suffering. Ancient Christians saw suffering as a mark that they belonged to God, and they believed that, in suffering, they were more like Christ. As Christians pull away from the anti-God world (not necessarily socially), the world abuses them in an attempt to keep them under its dominion.

C. Matthew 17:1 states that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain after six days. The pastor referred to the view that this could be an allusion to Exodus 24:16. After six days, the Israelites see God’s glory while Moses was in a cloud. Like the Israelites, Peter, James, and John behold divine glory after six days.

D. When Peter sees Moses and Elijah standing alongside Jesus, he proposes to make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter was placing Moses and Elijah in the same boat as Jesus, as if the three of them were equal. But Jesus is above Moses and Elijah. Only Jesus glows brightly in glory, something that is not said in Matthew 17:1-9 about Moses and Elijah. In addition, God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets: God’s intentions laid out in the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus. But also, when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, that shows that Jesus is not Elijah or one of the Old Testament prophets, contrary to rumors (see Matthew 16:14). Jesus is beyond Elijah and the Old Testament prophets.

E. While we are on Matthew 16, Jesus says that flesh and blood did not reveal to Peter that Jesus is the Christ, but the Father did so. Peter’s understanding is incomplete, however, for Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross. The pastor referred to a belief in the Missouri Synod of the nineteenth century. In those days, the LCMS believed that it was the one true church. It still held, though, that people could have appropriate faith in their heart, even if that faith was not fully correct in their minds. The pastor mentioned his mother, who, on some days, does not have clarity about her religious beliefs, or much else. But she still was a faithful, lifelong Christian, and she believes in her heart, if not (with full clarity) in her head. The pastor speculated that something like this was going on with Peter: he believed in his heart, but not with full precision or accuracy in his head.

F. The Transfiguration demonstrates the Trinity, the pastor said. Jesus and the voice from heaven are two distinct persons. We do not see here modal monarchianism, in which God revealed himself as the Father in Old Testament times, as Jesus during the life of Christ, and as the Spirit after Jesus’s resurrection. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons, not three manifestations of only one person.

G. Jesus touches Peter, James, and John after they fall down in fear and reverence. The touch communicates reassurance and also acceptance and belonging, as a handshake (touch) does.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Book Write-Up: The Victory of the Cross, by James R. Payton Jr.

James R. Payton Jr. The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

James R. Payton Jr. teaches history at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada. This book is somewhat of a primer on Eastern Orthodoxy. It gets into Eastern Orthodox perspectives on the significance of the cross, atonement, the divine inspiration of Scripture, the extent of human sinfulness, the salvific role of the incarnation and life of Christ, and the divinization of humans. Payton draws from church fathers, some of them church fathers on whom Western Christianity has relied. But Eastern Orthodoxy goes in a different direction from Western Christianity. To highlight a few examples, Eastern Orthodoxy has a stronger view of human free will and a weaker view of human depravity. Eastern Orthodoxy also does not see the cross as Jesus appeasing the wrath of a just God but embraces more of a ransom view of the atonement, in which Jesus delivers people from the power of the devil.

In my periods of discontent with conservative Protestant Christianity, some have recommended that I take a look at Eastern Orthodoxy. After reading this book, I am confused. Here are some areas of my confusion:

—-The ransom view of the atonement has never made sense to me. I can accept the ransom view that Jesus delivered people from the power and authority of the devil: that the devil gained authority over human beings after the sin of Adam and Eve, and Jesus took that authority from the devil. Where I differ from the ransom theory is in its view that the devil did not fully know who Jesus was when Jesus was on earth. According to the ransom theory, the devil did not realize that he was putting God to death in killing Jesus, and thus the devil was overreaching. I think a case can be made, however, that the devil knew Jesus’s divine identity. He and the demons frequently call Jesus the Son of God.

—-One cannot read the New Testament and avoid the conclusion that Jesus’s death brought about the forgiveness of sins. How did it do so? Western Christianity has a clear answer: Jesus paid the death penalty for our sins. I am unclear about how Eastern Orthodoxy believes that Jesus’s death brought about forgiveness of sins. From the patristic quotes that Payton provides, it seems that the Eastern Orthodox are somewhat similar to Western Christianity on the mechanics of atonement, only the Eastern Orthodox have different emphases. Yet, Payton argues rigorously that, when the church fathers speak of Jesus paying a debt, they do not mean the same thing that Anselm later meant (i.e., Jesus paying a debt to God). So I am back to square one.

—-The concept of human depravity is a stumblingblock to me, when it comes to embracing Christianity with full conviction. I acknowledge that humans are morally imperfect. But there is also good in them. Of course, believers in TULIP have an answer to that, as Payton acknowledges. Their answer is that the image of God did not completely vanish with the Fall, and that total depravity does not mean that humans are as bad as they possibly can be, but rather that even the good that is in them is corrupt. First of all, when it comes to human depravity, I wonder what exactly the difference is between the TULIP conception and Eastern Orthodoxy: both acknowledge some good within humans, but also serious flaws. From what Payton says, the Eastern Orthodox even maintain that some divine grace is necessary for humans to believe the Gospel: prevenient grace. That overlaps with TULIP, which does not believe in prevenient grace but still thinks that divine grace (in this case, irresistible grace) is necessary for people to believe the Gospel. Second, if TULIP believes that there is some good within humans, why is it so insistent that humans cannot believe in the Gospel on their own? Cannot that good part within humans turn towards God, albeit imperfectly?

—-Eastern Orthodoxy believes in the divinization of humans. This means that Christians partake of the divine nature because they have the Holy Spirit, have immortality like God, and are on the road to becoming virtuous, like God. In some sense, according to Eastern Orthodoxy, the incarnation relates to human divinization: Jesus, as God, became a human being and in the process elevated human nature beyond what it was before. How did Jesus elevate human nature through the incarnation? At least prior to his resurrection, he was not personally immortal, for he could die like other people. Did he make human nature more virtuous, as his divine nature made his human nature better morally? Is Jesus, as a human being who has God as part of his nature, analogous to Christians, who are human beings with the Holy Spirit inside of them?

—-Irenaeus held to incarnational recapitulation: that Jesus, as God becoming man, recreated humanity. Jesus not only did right what Adam did wrong, but Jesus, throughout the various stages of his life, embodied God’s will for human beings, thereby recreating humanity after God’s desire. How did this recreation of humanity occur? I can somewhat understand the Lutheran perspective that Jesus fulfilled God’s righteousness on our behalf, so Jesus’s righteousness is imputed to believers. But how did Jesus’s incarnation make human beings practically righteous? Here, the answer may be staring me in the face: Christianity is about God transforming human beings. Connecting that with the incarnation is a bit nebulous to me, but perhaps it’s not impossible.

Moving on to another critique, it seemed to me that Payton was projecting a modern evangelical conception of divine inspiration of Scripture onto the church fathers. That conception is that God speaks but through the distinct human personalities of the authors. I doubt that the church fathers had that high of a conception of the human role in Scripture. Payton also tries to apply patristic ideas to the creation/evolution debate. Here, he has valuable things to say, as when he notes that some church fathers did not interpret Genesis 1 in a strictly literal, historical sense. Still, the church fathers probably would not agree with Payton that, at some nebulous point in the past, human beings disappointed God and fell. They likely accepted the Adam and Eve story as a literal and historical account of how the Fall occurred.

Where the book was helpful is that it clarified, somewhat, the image and likeness of God within humans. Where this issue has been confusing to me is that I have wondered if humans are in God’s image right now. On the one hand, there are passages that seem to indicate that they are, and that is why humans should treat each other with respect (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). On the other hand, there are passages that appear to imply that humans, since the Fall and apart from Christ, are not in God’s image. Adam was made in God’s image, but Adam’s son Seth reflected Adam’s image (Genesis 5:1-3). And sanctification is God enabling believers to reflect the image of God (Colossians 3:10), implying that they currently do not, apart from Christ. One way to reconcile this is to say that humans, apart from Christ, bear God’s image imperfectly, and Jesus enables people to reflect it fully. According to Payton, the church fathers had another approach: all humans are in God’s image, but Christ enables people to reflect God’s likeness (i.e., virtue). The church fathers may be drawing a distinction that is not present in the biblical text—-the biblical text seems to use the terms image and likeness interchangeably—-but I appreciate their attempt to wrestle with how humans bear the image of God.

Although the book is a bit muddled, it is replete with patristic references, and Payton does well to wrestle with questions, and with a friendly tone.

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

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Church Write-Up: Law, Keeping It Real, and Sharing One’s Faith

At church this morning, I felt a lot of law. You need to reconcile with people; otherwise, people who know you are a Christian may question Christianity when they see that you can’t get along with others. Do not let anger linger. You should value your relationship with a person above the hurt you suffered from him or her. Bless people by investing some time in making their day better. It is not enough not to curse; you treat people as worthless when you ignore them or shrug your shoulders at their problems.

Not sure what to say about this. I am introverted. I am somewhat of a loner. I am also done with trying to give fake, cheery “encouragement” to people.

At the same time, the service did remind me about how we hurt others. When one calls another “stupid,” that makes that other person feel stupid.

The Sunday school class was kind of a vacillation between law and grace. Something I appreciate about the group is that the people there are honest about their struggles. How do I deal with my temper? How can I deeply share my problems with people I neither know nor trust, after being burned so many times? How can I trust God with the future, when I have been diagnosed with PSP? You would be surprised by how lacking honesty is in a lot of Christian groups. They act as if it would be unthinkable for a Christian to feel anger, or to have sexual thoughts.

The teacher also said that, sometimes, we back off from discussing our faith with people because we feel we are in over our heads, since we are not a Bible wizard or theologian. But we can still share what we think God is doing in our own lives. I can identify with the “over your head” part. I know my Bible, but I am not sure if I could convince a skeptic to accept Christianity. Do I, therefore, have to study Christian apologetics to be prepared to give an answer? That seems so artificial! At the same time, I am hesitant to share what God is supposedly doing in my life, and the reason is that I am not dogmatic about what God is doing in my life. I remember sharing with an atheist professor about why I believe in God, and I said God provided me with an apartment when I could not find one. He was not impressed! It meant a lot to me, though, since, for months, I was wondering if I would find a place to live. I can say the same today about having a job: I consider that to be God’s provision, but I doubt I could convince a non-Christian of that.

I guess, if I were to try to defend my faith, I would draw some anecdotal “evidence” about the lives of others: that others testify to experiencing miracles. That convinces me that something is out there, even if it does not directly occur in my own life.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Book Write-Up: Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures

Jayson Georges. Ministering in Patronage Cultures: Biblical Models and Missional Implications. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

This book is written in the same vein as Jayson Georges’s previous book, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, only this book focuses on patronage. As in Honor-Shame, Georges draws on his own and others’ international experience to show how Christians can minister in non-Western cultures without unnecessarily and unintentionally offending people. Things that appear innocent in the West can come across as offensive in Majority World cultures, for Western presuppositions are different from those of Majority World cultures. On the issue of patronage, the West is rather individualistic, whereas the Majority World is built on long-term, reciprocal, and mutually-beneficial relationships, which is what patronage essentially is. An honor-shame mindset permeates patronage, as both patrons and clients seek to gain honor and avoid shame before each other and the broader society.

Patronage has more of a biblical focus than Honor-Shame. Georges shows that patronage is a concept that permeates Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. God is the ultimate patron, to whom people owe their allegiance. Georges’s discussions illuminate sections of Scripture that may baffle some readers. For instance, there is Jesus’s enigmatic parable about the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-13, in which an unjust steward reduces people’s debts to his master in an attempt to save his own job. According to Georges, both honor-shame and patronage underlie this parable. The unjust steward was gaining friends (clients) by doing the debtors a favor, and these debtors were thereby obligated to him. Meanwhile, were the master to return the people’s debts to their higher levels, he would have been shamed as a patron, so he had to uphold what his steward did. The steward was tying the master’s hands with the patronage and honor-shame systems, thereby saving his own job.

At the same time, Georges talks about where Scripture diverges from the standard patronage system. Patronage said that people should help those who can help them back, whereas Jesus taught love for enemies and giving without expectation of payment. In addition, God shows love to people who have dishonored him, so God’s act of grace runs contrary to a patronage concept that is based on reward and obligation.

The book could have been clearer on two issues. First, there is the issue of divine grace. On the one hand, Georges seems to argue that God’s grace runs against a patronage mindset. On the other hand, he appears to contend that it coincides with a patronage mindset, for patrons did people favors (grace), and people responded with their allegiance to the patron (faith), just as occurs in the Gospel. This is relevant to current Christian debates about free grace and the role of good works in salvation, as some Christians present grace as less than totally free and accompanied with strings and obligations, just like the patronage system. Both currents—-the Gospel as pro and anti-patronage—-have elements supporting them. Paul does distinguish grace from law and depicts God as more generous than a lot of patrons, yet Paul also holds that certain sins can disqualify people (even Christians) from the Kingdom of God.

Second, Georges could have more clearly tied his anecdotes to the concept of patronage. In Honor-Shame, it was clear how the stories related to honor-shame and what Westerners did wrong. In Patronage, that was not as clear. How exactly does a person helping someone else in a particular way, for example, step on the complex patronage networks? Georges was fairly clear, but he could have been clearer.

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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Church Write-Up: Grace and Soul Keeping

The Sunday School class that I am attending is going through John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping. The session today was about grace. Ortberg seems to define grace as God and others filling our fuel-tank. By this definition, not only do we need grace, but Jesus (in his humanity) needed it, too, as he drew from God for sustenance. We try to achieve and to gain worth through our achievements. Jesus, however, knew that he was already accepted by his Father and that his Father and the Holy Spirit were present with him.

People talked about how they got to be present with troubled people by listening to them. Last week, the teacher mentioned the limits of that: should he feed his soul with someone’s troubles? In some cases, he may need to back away and let someone else minister to the person.

Someone else shared that there is not a whole lot of grace in this world, as people are harsh with one another, and therefore it is difficult for them to receive grace. They feel they have to earn whatever favor they get. At the same time, this person confessed that he recognizes his need for grace, but it has been difficult for him to extend grace.

Ortberg in the video talked about how his children were crediting his wife with an insight that Ortberg shared with them. This mattered to Ortberg because his wife was very verbal, and he feared that she would make a greater and more lasting impression on his kids than he does.

The teacher said that we should be thankful for people in our lives, especially for people who, for whatever reason, have put up with us for a long period of time. I identify with that.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Church Write-Up: The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s Fulfillment

At today’s adult Bible study, the pastor talked about Matthew 5:3-20, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount.

Here are some items:

A. The widespread Christian view is that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is Moses 2.0: that Jesus doubles down on the commandments of the law and requires people to obey them; otherwise, God will be upset with them and they will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In medieval Catholic imagery, Jesus is shown holding up two fingers as he preaches the Sermon on the Mount, and that signifies that Jesus is the lawgiver. The pastor, by contrast, offered a Christ-centered, Gospel-centered approach to the Sermon: that the beatitudes are descriptive of life in the Kingdom of God (God’s reign in and through Jesus, here and in the eschaton) rather than prescriptive law. In some way, shape, and form, I have heard this sort of message, but the pastor put it together in a rather coherent manner, one that takes into account the various aspects of the Sermon. The next item will summarize this.

B. Vv. 3-6 promises blessing on those who recognize their need for God, God’s gifts, God’s grace, and what God has done in Christ. They realize that they have nothing in themselves to offer to God, they mourn over their sins, and they desire God’s righteousness. God promises to fill them with the Kingdom of God. Vv. 6-12 discusses how Christians live in light of God’s grace. Because God has shown mercy to them, they show mercy and forgiveness to others. They carry the message of peace: God has extended to people the offer of peace through the Gospel, and God’s love shapes people and allows them to have peace with God and others. Unfortunately, because the world has different values and elevates self-importance and self-exaltation above dependence on God, it will resist and persecute the church.

C. Jesus’s message comes with a warning. Those who refuse to be rooted in Christ will experience wrath and destruction. The Pharisees focused on their obedience to the law and they missed the Kingdom of Heaven because they failed to see their need for God’s grace in Christ. Jesus’s statements against anger, lust, divorce, and oaths serve to remind people that, if they rely on the law for salvation, the law will crush them, for they fail to adhere to God’s high standards.

D. Christians, impacted and shaped by God’s grace and gifts, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. If Christians fail to be salty—-to be grounded in Christ and God’s forgiveness and love in Christ—-then how will the world be salted? Salt and light are like God’s word, which is effective and accomplishes God’s purposes. Salt makes changes in whatever it touches: it brings flavor, fertilizes, preserves, and cleanses. Light brings illumination.

E. Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets. Jesus fulfills the purpose that God had for Israel by being a light to the nations (foreshadowed by the visit of the magi during his childhood). Jesus, like Israel, comes from Egypt. Jesus in the wilderness behaves as Israel should have done in the wilderness but failed to do: rather than testing God with his complaining, as Israel did, he submits to God’s testing of him in submission and obedience. Because a lot of Jesus’s words later in Matthew’s Gospel concern his death and resurrection, the pastor believes that Jesus’s death and resurrection are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Why, then, did Jesus say “until heaven and earth pass away”? The pastor does not believe that “until heaven and earth will pass away” and “until all be fulfilled” are parallel, meaning the same thing; rather, in his interpretation, “until all be fulfilled” is the main point, and the fulfillment can take place before heaven and earth pass away. My question would then be why Jesus said in v. 18 “until heaven and earth pass away,” and I may ask him that sometime. It does seem, though, that the pastor believes that the law has continuing relevance to the Christian. The law, in Christ, is summed up in love for God and neighbor. Christians cannot pick and choose from God’s commandments, but those who fail to observe what they consider to be the least commandment are still in the Kingdom: they are the least in the Kingdom, however.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Book Write-Up: From Adam and Israel to the Church

Benjamin L. Gladd. From Adam and Israel to the Church: A Biblical Theology of the People of God. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Benjamin L. Gladd is associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Essentially, this book is about the mission of God’s people from Adam, through Israel and the church, to the eschaton. God’s people function as a light to others of who God is, as subordinate stewards and rulers of the cosmos, and as priests to God who worship God and steward the divine presence. Gladd differentiates himself from dispensationalism in that he believes that the church, in a sense, continues the people of God in the Old Testament (Old Testament Israel), but his focus is not on dispensationalism in this book. Gladd states that he expands upon the contribution of G.K. Beale.

This book is most impressive in the questions that it addresses. What was the function of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, and did it relate to Adam and Eve’s priestly function? In what sense was God present in the Old Testament sanctuary, while also being in heaven? In what sense did Christ inaugurate the end times at his first coming? What does Paul mean when he calls the risen Christ a spirit in I Corinthians 15? Who or what exactly will Christians rule in the new heavens and the new earth?

Some of Gladd’s answers (Old Testament sanctuary, first advent) are satisfactory. Some (risen Christ as spirit) miss the mark. The answer on what Christians will rule is a noble attempt and may be on to something but generates some “but what about”s (i.e., in the Old Testament, not only animals but also people seem to be ruled in God’s earthly paradise: who are those people?). The answer on the Tree of Knowledge is profound but purely speculative: it was to give Adam and Eve discernment in ruling the Garden, Gladd argues, but how would they gain that from the Tree without eating it, which was forbidden to them?

Gladd’s discussion of how believers are priests was poignant to me because it overlapped with things I have been thinking about in my own personal reading of Scripture. In the Old Testament, God’s presence had to be carefully managed, for it could be deadly to those who were impure. Gladd says that God’s presence is even greater for Christians, and that Christians, as priests, should be vigilant in being spiritually pure. I wonder how God’s presence is greater for Christians, however: Christians usually need not fear God striking them dead for some mis-step. God’s presence seemed to be more palpable for Old Testament Israel. Gladd tries to address this question but fails to do so as clearly or substantially as he could have.

I disagree somewhat with Gladd’s argument about the restoration of Israel. Gladd does not seem to foresee an eschatological restoration of the physical nation of Israel, for he states that this was not predicted in the Old Testament. What the Old Testament predicted was the restoration of a remnant, not the entire nation with its institutions. Glass is trying to argue that the church is Israel, but his argument, as it stands, does not work. The Old Testament depicts the restoration of Israel and its institutions to her land: monarchy, priesthood, Temple, possession of land, dispossession of enemies. God will build this nation on a remnant—-those who are left after his judgment—-but God is still restoring the nation itself.

This book is still charming and edifying, in its own way.

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

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