Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Book Write-Up: Live Like Jesus, by Putty Putman

Putty Putman.  Live Like Jesus: Discover the Power & Impact of Your True Identity.  Minneapolis: Chosen, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Putty Putman has a Ph.D. in theoretical quantum physics and is the founding director of the School of Kingdom Ministry in Urbana, Illinois.  He also serves at a Vineyard church, which is charismatic.

This book addresses Christians who wonder if there is more to the Christian life than what they are experiencing, or if they are even experiencing what Christians are supposed to experience.  Putman opens the book with case-studies that effectively illustrate this predicament.

Putman then proceeds to question the conception of the Gospel that is held by a lot of evangelical Christians: that Jesus Christ died to procure forgiveness for sinners because, otherwise, God in God’s holiness could not tolerate to be around them.  Putman asks excellent questions, which have also occurred to me.  If God cannot tolerate to be around sinners, then how could Jesus in the Gospels, God-incarnate, freely associate with tax-collectors and sinners?  In bringing forgiveness, did Jesus bring anything new, since sacrifices brought forgiveness to Israelites in the Old Testament?  Do many evangelical Christians marginalize Jesus’ resurrection in stressing that Christ’s death atoned for people’s sins, when New Testament passages stress the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection?  Do Jesus and Paul contradict each other in the foci of their Gospels?  Putman also criticizes the tendency of many Christians to think that their sinful flesh is still a living reality, against which they must wage intense war.

Putman offers what he believes is an alternative picture.  It includes the following elements:

—-God created Adam and Eve in God’s image, with the authority to rule God’s creation.  Adam and Eve submitted to the serpent (Satan) in sinning, and their authority over the world was transferred to Satan.  Adam and Eve also gained a sinful human nature, which they passed on to their children and descendants.  Centuries later, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, which was expressed through healings and exorcisms.  In dying and rising again, Jesus essentially killed the sinful flesh of those who unite to him.  Jesus also brought them righteousness, which Putman sees as practical righteousness and a restoration of pre-Fall human nature rather than imputed righteousness.  Believers do not need to struggle with the flesh because their sinful flesh is dead, and they simply need to acknowledge and live in that reality, as they are connected with Christ; for Putman, their struggle is not against the sinful flesh but against wrong thoughts, and they need to renew their minds.  Putman also believes that believers have the authority that Adam and Eve lost, and they demonstrate that authority by performing miracles (through God’s power) and by working for social justice.  Financial prosperity is also part of the equation, but Putman states that financial prosperity should lead a Christian to further God’s kingdom work.

—-God sought a direct, intimate relationship with Israel, but Israel at Sinai rejected that out of fear, so God instead instituted a system of laws and sacrifices.  Israel under this Old Covenant system would repent and offer sacrifices, then God would forgive them.  Christ died and rose, in part, to appease the demands of the law, which was actually God’s Plan B.  In doing so, Christ brought a different kind of forgiveness-system.  God has forgiven everybody and does not hold people’s offenses against them; they need not repent to be forgiven, for they are already forgiven.  Putman stresses that this does not mean that everyone is saved, for people still need to accept and live in light of God’s forgiveness.  While Putman believes that Jesus’ death is what initiated God’s proactive, unconditional forgiveness, he also thinks that Jesus demonstrated it during his ministry on earth, with the tax-collectors and sinners and the woman of John 8 who was caught in adultery.

—-Christ actually lives inside of the believer.  Believers can arrive at the point where they think God’s thoughts, and God thinks and feels through them.  This is not unbelievable, for humans were made in God’s image.  Putman even speculates that I Corinthians 5:4-5, where Paul seems to imply that his spirit was present with the Corinthian church, could mean that Paul, in some sense, was omniscient, like God.

—-For Putman, embracing these truths makes the difference in one’s spiritual life.  Christians who see themselves as sinners rather than righteous focus on beating themselves up rather than on what is positive.

You can read the book if you are interested in Putman’s Scriptural argumentation for these positions.

A lot of “But what about?”s entered my mind as I read this book.  While Putman addressed Romans 7 in arguing that believers need not struggle against the flesh, since their sinful flesh is dead and God has made them internally and practically righteous, he did not interact with I Corinthians 9:27, where Paul affirms that he disciplines his body and makes it his slave.  Putman states that each believer can have all of the spiritual gifts, but Paul seems to imply in I Corinthians 12:29 that believers do not have all of the spiritual gifts: not everyone is a healer, for example.  If Jesus gave unconditional forgiveness, why did he insist that God would not forgive those who did not forgive others?  Putman believes in forgiveness but not imputational righteousness, but does not Paul promote imputational righteousness in his interpretation of Genesis 15:6?  (Putman briefly attempts to address this.)  I wondered why Jesus would have to die to appease God’s Plan B (law).  Putman tells a story in which God healed everyone in a tribal audience except someone with extreme palsy; extreme palsy should not be a challenge for God, though, right?  And, sometimes, I felt as if I were reading an infomercial for Putman’s ministry.

I am skeptical about some of Putman’s points, though I believe that at least some of them, on some level, have Scriptural support.  My sinful flesh feels like a reality within me, even though Paul pronounces the sinful flesh of believers to be dead.  Like Putman, I find conventional evangelical attempts to reconcile that to be rather unconvincing.  While I do not dismiss the occurrence of miracles, I am skeptical that believers can perform them regularly; Putman himself states that the miracles that he has experienced are not everyday occurrences.

I am still giving this book five stars because it is a compelling read.  Putman asks many of the same questions that I have had about evangelical conceptions of the Gospel.  He highlights aspects of Scripture that arguably are neglected, de-emphasized, or explained away in evangelical circles.  He writes in an empathetic manner, as he understands why many Christians struggle to believe that they are truly dead to sin or can do miracles.  His section about how many people seek approval and validation from the world resonated with me, and his picture of how Christians can handle being cut off in traffic (or other trials) sounded constructive.  The book also had effective anecdotes: the one about Einstein’s struggle with quantum theory comes to mind, as was Putman’s honest acknowledgment that Einstein was not a traditional theist.

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

Church Write-Up: Is the Law a Transcript of God's Character?

For church this morning, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Word of Faith” church.

I will start with the “Word of Faith” church, since my focus in this post will be on the other service and the class.  We had a guest speaker at the “Word of Faith” church, and he was talking about how God loves variety.  God made us all different and unique and wants us to serve him, in our uniqueness, in the body of Christ, the church.  I’ll leave that there, without comment.

Now for the other service and the class.  Allow me to give some background information.  Most nights, when I am trying to fall asleep, I do the “Church of James Pate’s Brain,” in which I preach sermons in my head.  I pretend that people are listening to them on the radio, watching them on television, listening to them on the Internet, or hearing them in a congregation.  Anyway, I got onto the topic of God’s law.  I recalled that, when I was attending Seventh-Day Adventist churches and reading Seventh-Day Adventist literature, I encountered the idea that the law of God is a transcript of God’s character.  I was reflecting on whether that was true.

I was going through the Ten Commandments.  I wondered how many of the Ten Commandments apply to God.  Does the First Commandment against having other gods apply to God?  Maybe.  God does not worship anyone other than God-self.  This, as an Intervarsity sponsor explained to me years ago, is not because God is vain but because God has a healthy self-appreciation of who God is.  Does God obey the Second Commandment against graven images?  I cannot envision God being tempted to worship a graven image, either a lesser deity the graven image supposedly depicts, or even a visual representation of God: God knows who God is, so God would not be tempted to worship what is less.  Would God keep the Third Commandment against taking God’s name in vain?  Well, God does not do anything flippantly, and, when God swears by Godself, God keeps God’s oath (Genesis 22:16; Hebrews 6:13).  Does God observe the Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath?  God did rest on the seventh day after creation.  Yet, in John 5:17, Jesus defends his act of healing on the Sabbath by saying that his Father works and he works.

Does God obey the Fifth Commandment to honor one’s parents?  God the Father does not have parents.  God the Son has God the Father, and God the Son honors and obeys God the Father.  Does God observe the Sixth Commandment against murder?  Well, God does kill people in the Hebrew Bible.  Judah’s son Er comes to mind (Genesis 38:7).  But one can then say that God justly killing a person is not the same as murder, the same way that the Torah is not inconsistent when it prohibits homicide while mandating the death penalty for certain crimes: in this view, God’s acts of killing are justice, not murder.  Another approach would be to say that God was simply accommodating a violent culture when God killed people, and that is not truly who God is.  Matthew Fleischer expressed this idea in his book, The Old Testament Case for Non-Violence (see here for my review).  Then there is Exodus 21:14, which refers to an act of unintentional homicide by one human being against another as an act of God.  Does God observe the Seventh Commandment, against adultery?  God is married to Israel, and God is faithful to her, in the sense of being committed to her.  But can God commit adultery?  Does God obey the Eighth Commandment, against stealing?  God owns everything, so God cannot technically steal from anyone; the Eighth Commandment seems to be inapplicable to God.  Does God adhere to the Ninth Commandment, against bearing false witness?  Titus 1:2 affirms that God cannot lie.  Does God obey the Tenth Commandment, against coveting?  Again, God owns everything, so God cannot really covet.  But God does the opposite of coveting by being generous.

Going through these just now, I can see, better than I did Saturday night, that the law of God is, in a sense, a transcript of God’s character.  Some commandments apply to God more than others.  The ones that do not directly apply to God may still reflect a divine attribute, such as concern for others’ well-being.  Then there are the laws in the Torah about compassion and charity for the poor, and those reflect the divine attribute of generosity.

Something that went through my mind Saturday night was that God is preoccupied with more than “Thou shalt not kill.”  “Thou shalt not kill” and some of the other commandments came into being in response to sin, which was falling short of or contradicting God’s character.  God’s character is concern for others and generosity; murder came along and contradicted that.  Is “Thou shalt not kill” a transcript of God’s character?  Well, love is a transcript of God’s character, and murder came along as an act that ran contrary to that; God’s character includes but is greater than “Thou shalt not kill.”

Some other topics went through my mind Saturday night: Could God be compassionate before there was suffering?  Well, God is outside of time, or God could foresee suffering, so perhaps God was compassionate in that way.  Here, I am writing myself into a pit.

Back to the services.  In the children’s service, the children’s pastor was saying that God does not love out of obedience to a law or a desire to avoid sin, for God has that covered.  God does not have to worry about sinning, for God will not sin.  Rather, God acts in reference to what is loving.  And that is how we should be.  The pastor in his sermon made a similar point when he preached about I Corinthians 8, which was about how the professing “spiritual” people who knew that the idols were nothing should avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols out of concern for Christians who had recently come out of an idolatrous lifestyle.

At the patristics class, we were continuing through John 5.  The teacher asked if Jesus deliberately went out of his way to violate the Sabbath.  Someone in the class said that love for neighbor supersedes the Sabbath, and someone else even went so far as to say that love of neighbor has replaced the Sabbath command.  The teacher cautioned people to be careful with this insight—-not to lightly violate God’s rules!

I grew up as a Seventh-Day Sabbatarian, and I learned a different perspective on the Sabbath.  According to this perspective, the Sabbath was God’s gift to humanity, a command for humans to rest from their toil.  Slave and free got a day off, freedom from their labor.  The Pharisees, however, made it about do’s and don’ts and, in the Gospels, wrongfully prioritized the Sabbath over human healing.  Samuele Bacchiocchi actually argued that Jesus deliberately did his miracles of healing on the Sabbath, not to break the Sabbath, but rather to honor the Sabbath: the Sabbath was a day of freedom and liberation, and Jesus was honoring that aspect of the Sabbath by setting people free from their diseases.

This perspective makes some sense to me.  Something that it arguably neglects, however, is that the Sabbath in the Old Testament was a command, not just a gift.  One can refuse a gift or decide not to use it, but the Israelites had to keep the Sabbath, otherwise they were be put to death (Numbers 15:32ff.).  Rest needed to be enforced, otherwise people might not take advantage of it and the point of the Sabbath would be lost.  The Pharisees saw the Sabbath as a command.  The problem was that their application of the command, at least in the Gospels, stood in the way of other values, such as the love that should well up inside of a person when he or she sees that somebody else is healed.

I guess that what I can say is this: the Sabbath was part of a transcript of God’s character, in that it reflected God’s concern for people’s well-being.  Yet, the Sabbath was applied in a manner that was inconsistent with God’s character, by people who understood that the Sabbath was a command, not a suggestion.

I will stop here.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Book Write-Up: Biblical Leadership

Benjamin K. Forrest and Chet Roden, ed.  Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader.  Kregel Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader has thirty-three chapters, plus an Introduction and an Epilogue.  It goes through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to discern what the Bible teaches about leadership.  It does not have a separate chapter on each book of the Bible, for it clusters some books together into single chapters.  It largely discusses leadership within the church, but sometimes it discusses other forms of leadership that people may exercise within their circles of influence.  Not surprisingly, the contributors to the book come from a conservative Christian academic perspective.  There were big names who contributed, such as Walter Kaiser, Jr., Tremper Longman III, Edwin M. Yamauchi, and others.  I know two of the contributors to this volume, in that I went to graduate school with them.

I am giving this book four stars out of five.  For a while, I was thinking of giving it three stars, but the New Testament section was especially excellent.  The Old Testament section was all right, but, overall, it was rather Sunday school-ish:  The footnotes engaged with scholarship, but several of the chapters brought up points that may strike one as obvious: that leaders should be servants, should be considerate towards others, should be willing to share the spotlight, and should care more about what God thinks than fearing human opinion.  These are valuable points, and perhaps many would benefit from reading them.  For that matter, maybe I need to be reminded of them.  Indeed, the Old Testament section could be edifying, since it attempts to draw moral lessons from the Bible.  Still, I prefer books in which I learn something.  Plus, while most of the book derived lessons from the biblical text, some in the book used the text as a launchpad to support popular leadership strategies.

The Old Testament section did have its moments.  Tremper Longman’s chapter on the Book of Eccleasiastes presented a helpful model of the book, in which a father is relaying the teaching of Qoheleth to his son, agreeing with some aspects of Qoheleth’s teaching but not others.  This is a helpful model because my impression is that liberal scholarship often presents some editor redacting Qoheleth to make him look more pious, and Longman’s model acknowledged redaction but also a coherency to the final form of the book.  Yamauchi’s consideration of the story of Nehemiah in light of Megabazos’ revolt was also interesting.

In some cases, some elaboration would have been nice.  For example, the essay on Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi said that Malachi’s audience misunderstood God’s word in that they thought that, well, the glowing prophesies of Haggai, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah would actually be fulfilled in their time.  For example, Haggai predicted wealth for post-exilic Israel after the Temple was rebuilt, that did not happen, and the Jews Malachi addressed were disappointed.  What exactly did they misunderstand, though?  I recognize that the author of the chapter wants to treat both Haggai and Malachi as infallible prophets, but perhaps he should have come up with models, at least in the footnotes, as to how both prophets could be correct.  There are models one can propose, such as that Malachi’s audience was hindering the fulfillment of God’s promise through sin and disrespect for God, or that the wealth would come in the future.

Now let me sing the praises of the New Testament section.  Like the Old Testament section, the New Testament section explored biblical terms that relate to leadership.  Unlike the Old Testament chapter, the New Testament chapter discussed the difficulty of defining ancient words, let alone applying them to modern questions; maybe the author was making the issue more difficult than it had to be, but it was refreshing to see some struggle with the book’s overall project.  The author also wryly remarked that the synoptic Gospels say little about leadership: they talk about discipleship to Jesus, and one of the few passages that is about leadership is the one in which James and John wrongfully request to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand!

The chapter on John’s Gospel attempted to argue that John was written before 70 C.E., whereas most scholars date it much later.

Joseph Hellerman’s chapters were especially good, even though I had some reservations about them.  One chapter argued that Paul was actually serving his fellow Christians in Acts 16 when he refused to parade his citizenship to avoid a beating.  The chapter seemed to be suggesting that perhaps pastors can follow this example by giving up their parking spaces or pay.  In my opinion, that is not necessary or even beneficial: pastors need parking spaces because they have a job at the church, so their presence there is important, and, regarding pay, Paul said that a laborer is worthy of his hire (I Timothy 5:17-18; cp. I Corinthians 9:9).  Hellerman’s other chapter was beautiful in that it highlighted that Paul worked with others and knew and cared about the people in his congregations.  This is important, but the chapter seemed to be suggesting that all Christians should be extroverts, without seeking to understand or propose remedies for those who may struggle to reach out to others.

The chapter on the pastorals was good in that it defined the attributes that Paul thought leaders of the church should have, while contrasting those attributes with those of the false teachers whom Paul was criticizing.

Amy Peeler’s chapter on Hebrews, James, and Jude presents leaders as coaches.  The author of Hebrews, for instance, does not discipline his immature audience but gets into deeper material, in hope that his audience will catch up.  Peeler supports church discipline, as does the Bible, but she believes that there are times when God alone knows enough to discipline someone.

Meanwhile, Peter H. Davids, in his chapter on I-II Peter, promoted submission to church authorities, while appealing to monasticism.  Such a concept can be abused and is not absolute, as Davids acknowledges.  Still, within reason, there may be something valuable to it.

The book had more highs and “mehs” than highs and lows.  It was ultimately worth the read.

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

Church Write-Up: Kingdom, Love, Obedience

For church last Sunday, I went to the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Word of Faith” church.  I cannot do justice to the services, since so much was said in them.  But here are some items:

A.  One of the biblical texts that was read at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was Mark 1:14-20.  Jesus is in Galilee proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand, and he encourages people to repent and believe the Gospel.  Simon, Andrew, James, and John leave their fishing businesses to follow Jesus.

The youth pastor was talking about all the bad news in the world, especially on the news and in the newspapers.  But Jesus was preaching good news.  And what was that good news?  I was wondering what the youth pastor would answer.  The Gospel within Christianity is often defined as Christ’s death and resurrection, but I doubt that Christ was proclaiming that at that stage.  The youth pastor cited Revelation 21:4, which predicts a time when God will wipe tears from people’s eyes and there will be no more pain.  Jesus was bringing this, the youth pastor said, and people were so excited about this that they left their business to follow Jesus.

The pastor then spoke, and he noted that there still is a lot of pain in the world.  People get sick.  People die.  While the sacraments are efficacious, we believe in them by faith, and the Eucharist is a mere shadow of the great eschatological feast.  In what sense did Jesus bring the Kingdom?  The pastor said that the Kingdom of God is Jesus himself.  And Jesus transforms how we look at our trials.  We can look at the mistakes that we have made and learn from them to forgive others and share with other people God’s grace.  We can see our trials as opportunities to receive Jesus’ comfort.

I wondered as I listened to this: “But didn’t people have those things before Jesus came to earth?  God forgave.  God was people’s shepherd (Psalm 23).”

The part about forgiveness stands out to me.  Not long ago, I had an experience in which I needed forgiveness, and I needed to give forgiveness.  Actually, I needed forgiveness far more, since I was a bigger heel than the other person.

B.  In the patristics class, one of the excerpts that we read was a sermon in which Augustine said that we love God by loving our neighbor, who is right in front of us.  Another way that the teacher phrased this issue was that we prepare to love God by loving our neighbor.  Someone in the class referred to Matthew 25: we love Christ when we give to those in need.  The teacher said that we do not earn salvation by loving our neighbor, but, after we are saved, we need to live a certain way, and that way includes love for neighbor.

This is a hard teaching, at least for me.  It is easy to love a God whom I cannot see.  Expressing love to people can be a lot more difficult.  I think of my bitter memories of certain people in my past.  Love them?  Seriously?

I do not entirely understand the part about loving neighbor preparing one to love God.  One text that was cited was Matthew 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Is the point that we can appreciate God more when we love, as God loved?

C.  Doing justice to the “Word of Faith” sermon is especially difficult, since the pastor throws a lot at us.

The pastor said that we love others when we grasp God’s love for us.  There may be Scriptural support there.  He cited I John 4:19, which affirms that we love because God first loved us.  He also referred to John 13:34, in which Jesus tells his disciples to love one another, as he has loved them.
The pastor said that God is not the sort of being who actually feels better when he is worshiped.  It is not as if God gains anything by our worship.  God is the sort of God who would give other people credit, yet would want to make sure that this does not kill them (by going to their heads).  That last part may be how he reconciles in his mind what he said there with what he said in another sermon of his that I heard: that God seeks God’s glory, not our glory.  Actually, in the New Testament, both are part of the equation.  In any case, when the pastor talked about God giving others credit, I thought of a passage in Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew: Jesus healed people then commended their faith.

The pastor also said that disobedience to God disorients us from God’s plan for us.  The pastor gave an analogy: we are driving a van.  God wants us to go to lovely Portland.  But we are tempted to get sidetracked.  And there are demons sitting in the back of the van, talking to us.  Jesus is still there, sitting in the middle, but he cannot get a word in edgewise.

Certain commands in the Bible are a stumblingblock to me, as I have shared here before.  Rebuking my neighbor.  Going to be reconciled with my offended neighbor.  Concretely showing love to my neighbor (and how can I do this, since I have so many neighbors?).

The pastor made another point near the beginning.  He said that there is no perfect church, but Jesus is perfect and will cause things to turn out well.  Maybe that can be a good perspective: it can influence us to stop expecting churches to be perfect.  But there are times when things do not turn out well and it may be time to leave.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence

Matthew Curtis Fleischer.  The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence.  Oklahoma City: Epic Octavius the Triumphant, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Matthew Curtis Fleischer is an attorney.  In The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, Fleischer tackles the issue of divinely-commanded violence in the Old Testament, from his Christian perspective.  He focuses on the Israelite Conquest of Canaan, but he also explores other issues, such as Abraham’s binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 and the death penalties in the Torah.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Chapter 11, “Incremental Character Revelation,” tied the book together very effectively.  I will extol that chapter later in this review, but I first want to explain why I was surprised that the chapter tied the book together.  Throughout the book, Fleischer was unclear about where exactly he wanted to go.  Did God actually command violence in the Old Testament, as a way to accommodate Godself to and to glorify Godself to a culture that valued military might?  Was the Conquest a righteous act of divine justice against the sinful Canaanites?  Was the Conquest (and other morally-challenging aspects of the Torah, such as slavery) at least a step up from the violence of the time, a way to humanize barbaric institutions?  Were the depictions of God as violent a result of ancient Hebrew misunderstandings of God?  Then there are prominent voices in archeology, who cast doubt on the extent of the Conquest, or even question or challenge its historicity.  Fleischer is open to all of these options, perhaps because his argument is that God looks good, whichever of these scenarios one accepts.

B.  There were times when I thought to myself “Now wait a minute” when I was reading the book.  On page 20, Fleischer says that the Old Testament “never displayed those who registered the most kills as the nation’s greatest heroes.”  Really?  The number of Philistines whom David killed gets mentioned, and the references to the exploits of David’s mighty men comes across as rather laudatory in II Samuel 23.  Fleischer refers to an argument that Jericho was a military city that lacked civilians.  What about Rahab and her family?  Fleischer argues at one point that the Conquest was a one-time event and that God did not sanction later Israelite violence, specifically imperialistic acts of warfare.  Really?  II Samuel 8:6, after referring to David placing garrisons in Syria, affirms that God preserved David wherever he went.  Perhaps a case can be made that several of those Israelite wars were defensive on Israel’s part, and Fleischer does seem to be open to such an idea at one point in the book.  He also states, however, that Israelite kings may have seen their acts of war as divinely-sanctioned, even if they were not.  Again, Fleischer seems open to a variety of options that make God look good.  On the one hand, that can come across as artificial: God will look good, whatever route one wants to go.  On the other hand, the book does depict God as righteous, so some Christians may see reading the book as a worshipful experience, as they read Fleischer’s picture of God reaching down to where people are and attempting to lead them towards some level of righteousness.

C.  Fleischer argues that the Torah was morally a step up from other ancient Near Eastern nations.  On some level, he presents a rather convincing case, as he refers to scholarship that suggests that ancient Israel was comparatively more egalitarian.  He also makes a decent point that the Torah is more egalitarian than the Code of Hammurapi, which often values the higher classes over the lower classes.  At the same time, Fleischer depicts the ancient Near Eastern cultures as if they are almost devoid of morality.  He argues that the Torah regards the humanity of slaves, in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  But the Middle Assyrian Palace Decrees punish a woman whose slave dies from her beating, and the Code of Hammurapi affirms that a runaway slave cannot be returned to an abusive master (see pages 97, 203-204 of Martha Roth’s Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor).  Meanwhile, there are passages in the Torah that devalue the slave.  Exodus 21:20-21 states that, if a master beats his slave and the slave dies immediately, the master will be punished, but the master will not be punished if the slave survives a day or two, for the slave is the master’s property.  In Exodus 21:28-32, an owner of an ox is executed if his ox gores to death a man or a woman (and the ox had a reputation for goring), but the owner merely pays a fine to the slave’s master if the ox gores a slave.  Regarding gender, the Ancient Near East was rather progressive on women inheriting property, whereas Number 27 only permits daughters to inherit if the father has no sons (see Jacob Milgrom’s Excursus 63, “The Inheritance Rights of Daughters” in his JPS Commentary on Numbers).

Fleischer can take these issues into consideration, while still making a similar point to what he does make in the book.  That would have made for a more rounded discussion.  There are Torah passages that clearly humanize slaves, particularly Deuteronomic passages: Fleischer could say that we see within the Torah an evolution over the issue of slavery, or a dialogue, much like what Fleischer observes in the Bible on the issue of divinely-sanctioned violence.  On women’s inheritance, Fleischer could argue that Israel’s inheritance laws were suitable for her tribal system, which sought to keep land in the family and the tribe (which is why Milgrom says Israel’s inheritance laws were different from other ancient Near Eastern cultures).  God is accommodating Godself to people’s cultural context.

D.  An issue on which Fleischer is consistent (well, mostly) is that he believes that Jesus, the full revelation of God, demonstrates that God supports non-violence.  Fleischer effectively demonstrates that Jesus taught non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount, promoted love for enemies (which is the opposite of killing them), and himself refused to retaliate against his enemies, even when he could.  For Fleischer, that outweighs the few alleged counter-examples that people like to cite.  Fleischer does not address certain apparent counter-examples, such as Jesus’ belief that God punished people with a Flood in Matthew 24:37-38 and Luke 17:26-27.  Then there is the Book of Revelation, but Fleischer refers readers to another book that addresses that topic.

I say that Fleischer is mostly consistent, not entirely consistent, in his discussion of non-violence in the New Testament because he wants to portray God as non-violent, yet at one point he says that God is qualified to execute violence, whereas human beings are not.  In addition, Fleischer seems to embrace a pacifist approach: nations do not matter because Christ established a transnational church, and nations should not wage war against other nations; Fleischer dismisses the concept of a just war.  Yet, on page 42, Fleischer appears to embrace Luther’s two-kingdoms approach when he states: “…we are to focus on loving, forgiving, returning good for evil, and living at peace with everyone and leave vengeance, justice, and judgement to God, for he will use government for such things, just like he did throughout the OT.”  Would that include the use of war or the death penalty, which Fleischer criticizes?  Fleischer’s stance could have been clarified more.  Personally, I do not think that the Old Testament’s support for war or the death penalty means that Christians have to accept (many, or most) U.S. wars as right, or embrace the death penalty with its unjust application.  Fleischer does well when he argues that even certain Old Testament passages that sanction war approach war differently than many have done.

E.  Now let me extol Chapter 11, “Incremental Character Revelation.”  Had I not read this chapter, I would have given the book four stars—-short of five stars.  The book is not “meh” enough to get a three.  Fleischer quotes different thinkers on the issue of violence in the Bible, such as Brian McLaren, Greg Boyd, John Howard Yoder, and Paul Copan.  It is well-written, in terms of prose.  Chapter 11 is what compels me to give the book five stars.

There were a variety of things that I liked about Chapter 11.  First, there was its tone of humility.  Fleischer acknowledged that we may agree with him, disagree with him, or fall somewhere in between these extremes.  He is presenting his thoughts, acknowledges that he is a work in progress, and allows people the space to draw their own conclusions.  Second, this chapter raised interesting arguments about developments within the Old Testament and between the Old Testament and the New.  The Old Testament attributes disease to God, for example, whereas the New Testament attributes it to Satan.  Fleischer believes that there is a purpose to this: God did not want the Old Testament Israelites to believe in dualism, as they were surrounded by polytheism, so he moved them towards (or let them believe in) a monotheism that believed that God was the cause of all things.  That is an intriguing proposal.  Third, Fleischer addressed diversity within the Old Testament: II Kings 9-10 seems to support Jehu’s acts of violence against Ahab’s house and Baalism, for instance, whereas Hosea 1:4 appears rather critical of it.

Chapter 11 was not entirely neat, and it did not answer every question, but it was a thoughtful, honest discussion on how to approach Scripture, with its different pictures of God.  I guess it resonated with me because I am one who would like to see God as loving and righteous, as that feeds my soul more than criticizing God.  I believe that there are many places in the Bible in which God is depicted as such.  Yet, there are passages in the Bible that disturb me, and some Christian apologetic answers strike me as too neat.  Fleischer presents some of those answers, yet he also gives readers the space to wrestle and to accept alternative paradigms.

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Write-Up: Unimaginable, by Jeremiah J. Johnston

Jeremiah J. Johnston.  Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Jeremiah J. Johnston is a New Testament scholar and a Christian apologist.  In Unimaginable, Johnston essentially argues that Christianity is better than a lot of the other belief systems out there.  It was better when it began, and it presented a loving God, who was in contrast to the amoral gods of Greco-Roman society.  It has long upheld the dignity of human beings against racism, economic inequality, and immoral callousness; many of the renowned figures of the Enlightenment cannot say the same.  Moreover, Christian theism provides a solid basis for morality, something that atheistic views do not do.  Johnston not only promotes Christianity, but he criticizes prominent atheistic and skeptical figures, often highlighting their sexual promiscuity, concluding that their skepticism of Christianity was a means to justify their lifestyles.

In terms of positives, the book is interesting.  Johnston near the beginning of the book refers to research that suggests that civilization was built around religion rather than vice versa, and that monotheism preceded polytheism.  This discussion somewhat contrasted with the usual tone of the book, which was that Christianity is right and moral and other worldviews are grossly deficient, in that it held that a belief in God is a primal aspect of humanity.  Johnston’s references to Bertrand Russell’s spiritual searching, and to Richard Dawkins’ candid admission that he would not be too happy to see Christianity go, highlighted the complexity of these thinkers.

Some discussions in the book were actually nuanced.  The discussion about whether Hitler was a Christian did not cavalierly lump Hitler into the atheist camp but thoughtfully engaged what Hitler believed about religion and sought to explain his pro-Christian rhetoric.  The discussion on Darwin was all right, for it highlighted stages in his thought about religion, while taking care not to demonize the theory of evolution.

The references to primary sources make this book a keeper.  What immediately comes to mind are the Greco-Roman sources what expressly dismiss the concept of bodily resurrection.

Also noteworthy are the endnotes.  Johnston refers to scholarly sources for those who wish to inquire further.  His book is well-researched.  For instance, he engages Candida Moss’ book, The Myth of Persecution, while mentioning scholarly resources that are critical of it.

In terms of negatives, the book somewhat downplays, and sometimes ignores, the pro-slavery and sexist and patriarchal sentiments that have existed within historic Christianity.  Johnston does well to demonstrate the pro-woman aspects of the Bible, but biblical interpretation played a significant role in Christian sexism, as well as Christian pro-slavery sentiments.

While there were occasions in which the book highlighted the complexity of those whom it criticizes, there were plenty of occasions when it did not.  For example, the book cavalierly declares Tolstoy an atheist seeking to justify his sexual promiscuity, but Tolstoy was also one who took the Gospels seriously, to the point of being a pacifist.  The book presented many prominent skeptics and atheists as morally-deficient human beings, but it may have been more thoughtful had it also engaged the immorality and hypocrisy among Christians.  That would have added a tone of humility to the book.

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

Church Write-Up: Is Christianity Necessary?

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen church.”

A lot of points were brought up.  One point with which I struggle is the Christian notion that Christians are people who have been made new, whereas non-Christians are severely deficient morally and spiritually.

The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that newness is not merely a repair of the old but is actual newness.

The teacher at the class on patristic interpretations said that, for the church fathers, one is either indwelt by the Spirit of God, or one has an evil spirit.  He did not cite biblical passages, but I think of Ephesians 2:2, which states that the prince of the power of the air (presumably the devil) works in the children of disobedience.  Some of the patristic readings that we looked at treated baptism as something that spiritually cures a person, healing his or her inner spiritual maladies.

The pastor at the “Pen church” did not get into such topics, so much.  He did, however, present adherence to Christianity as necessary for rebounding from the bullying that we experience at the hands of life.  He referred to Hebrews 12:2, in which the author exhorts his audience to look at Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, who endured the cross, despised the shame, and sat down at God’s right hand.  The story of Esther also came into his sermon, as he said that, had Haman killed the Jewish people, there would have been no Christian church.  Some may be happy at the absence of the Christian church, he said, but, without the Christian church, would there be hospitals and orphanages?  His implied answer was “no.”

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I have a hard time believing that I am somehow better than non-believers.  Non-believers have their flaws, but they have their assets as human beings, too.  Moreover, I, too, am deeply flawed.  Suppose that a Christian then says that I am not a true believer, and that is why I have flaws.  He or she is entitled to his or her opinion, but I have known believers, and they, too, have their flaws.  They can get impatient.  They are not universally accepting of people.  They are derisive.  They do not necessarily help those who need help.  I am not eager to say that they are not true Christians, for I hope that God is there for them, as I would hope that God is there for me, with all of my flaws.

B.  I struggle to believe in change.  I am the way that I am and have been.  Others are the way that they are and have been.  I know unbelievers, and I cannot envision them changing their minds.  Some were Christians for a time, but they went back to who they previously were, which does not mean that they reverted to being horrible people, just that they once more became people who were adverse to or skeptical of Christianity.  I also look at myself and see some of the same hang-ups that I have had for years.  When those hang-ups do not manifest themselves, it is because I fight them, hopefully with God’s help.  I still feel as if God is working in the midst of flawed me, rather than curing flawed me.  He is more like a dam, holding in waters, than one removing the waters.

(UPDATE: I acknowledge that there are many atheists or non-believers who become Christians and stay Christians.  Maybe I haven’t been reading their stories enough!)

C.  This is a tangentially related issue, but something was brought up at the patristics class that reminded me of things that came to my mind earlier that week.  The teacher told us the story of Augustine’s conversion.  Augustine’s mother, of course, prayed for Augustine to become a Christian: I thought of something that was said to her by a wise Christian, that she should spend less time talking to Augustine about God, and more time talking to God about Augustine.  That is relevant to the topic of this post, but the teacher did not mention that anecdote.  He did talk about how Augustine was impressed by the Christian father Ambrose, and Ambrose suggested that Augustine read the Book of Isaiah.  Augustine tried and did not understand it: he did not know what to make of it.  Augustine then had to learn how to interpret the Bible as a Christian, for it to come alive to him.  I have been reading some patristic interpretations of John 2, in which Jesus turned water into wine (the class will get into those), and Augustine likened coming to understand the Scriptures according to their Christological and spiritual sense to water changing to wine.

I have been on a Daily Bible Reading plan.  I will finish it.  But I do not always get a lot out of it.  What do these battles and kings’ worshiping practices have to do with me?  I do not feel utterly baffled when I read the Bible, as Augustine was when he read Isaiah.  I, however, would read Isaiah differently from how he did so when he thought that he understood it: I would read it in light of the history of Israel in the eighth-sixth (maybe even fifth) centuries B.C.E.  That does not exactly give me a spiritual high.

D.  Can people rebound from the bullying of life without looking to Jesus as the author and finisher of their faith, or looking at the example of Jesus as a faithful sufferer?  Can they rely on some inner strength, or other coping mechanisms (and I mean healthy ones, not drugs or drinking or other addictions)?  Perhaps.  At the same time, I have my doubts that a naturalistic universe can give them a solid hope.  I know non-Christians who still have spiritual beliefs, such as a belief in karma, or reincarnation.  That gives them hope that things will turn out better, at some point.

E.  I tend to agree with the pastor of the “Pen church” that a lot of hospitals and orphanages would not exist without Christianity.  Non-Christians can have a sense of compassion and social justice, but, in many cases, Christianity has provided that “umph” that motivates people to do something.

I’ll close comments because I am not interested in my spirituality being questioned.  This post is rather perfunctory, anyway, since I try to write about the church services that I attend each week.  I was not even in the mood to write it.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Book Write-Up: Vindicating the Vixens

Sandra Glahn, ed.  Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible.  Kregel Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about women in the Bible who have been marginalized or even vilified in conservative Christian culture.  The authors themselves are conservative Christians, in that they have a strong view of the inspiration of Scripture and the historicity of the stories in the Bible.  They have different levels of scholarly credentials, with some contributors having Ph.D.s, and some having masters’ degrees.

In this review, I will comment briefly on each essay, to provide you with the flavor of the book.

“Preface,” by Sandra Glahn, Ph.D.

What stood out to me is Glahn’s reference to the argument that Scripture marginalizes Deborah because Hebrews 11:32 mentions Barak but not Deborah.  Glahn disagrees, but she does not detail why.  A later essay in the book actually uses Hebrews 11:32 to undercut a popular conservative Christian talking-point.

“Introduction: The Hermeneutics of ‘Her,'” by Henry Rouse, Th.M.

This essay covers methodological issues.

“Chapter 1: Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute,” by Carolyn Custis James, M.A.

This essay defends Tamar, affirming that she faithfully performed her duty to her late husband.  It effectively discussed the motivations of the characters in Genesis 38.  For example, it talked about the economic motivations that Ornan had for depriving Tamar of his seed.

“Chapter 2: Rahab: What We Talk about When We Talk about Rahab,” by Eva Bleeker, M.A.

This essay explores the possibility that the Israelite spies sought to sleep with Rahab the prostitute when they stayed with her.  That was not its only point, but it was one of the issues that it explored.

“Chapter 3: Ruth: The So-Called Scandal,” by Marnie Legaspi, Th.M.

This essay attempts to refute the idea that Ruth was sexually propositioning Boaz while he was drunk.

“Chapter 4: Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?”, by Sarah Bowler, Th.M.

This essay argues that Bathsheba was a victim.  Some of its arguments are speculative and not very convincing.  For example, why wouldn’t the prophet Nathan talk to Bathsheba had she done something wrong?  He talked to David, who clearly had done something wrong.  Still, the essay does well to highlight that there is no evidence in the Bible that Bathsheba sought to seduce David, and her argument about the location of purificatory baths is plausible.  Bowler also powerfully argued against the tendency of some conservative Christians to treat statutory rape as consensual sex, for which both victimizer and victim are responsible.

“Chapter 5: The Virgin Mary: Reclaiming Our Respect,” by Timothy Ralston, Ph.D.

Among other things, this essay addressed the question of how Mary could seemingly doubt Jesus’ mission (Mark 3:21, 32), while having learned from an angel that Jesus was the Messiah.  Ralston speculates that Mary had nationalistic Messianic expectations.  This essay is also useful in describing the development and history of concepts within Mariology.

“Chapter 6: Eve: The Mother of All Seducers?”, by Glenn Kreider, Ph.D.

This essay plausibly argues that Adam was physically with Eve at the temptation (Genesis 3:6), yet it criticizes the conservative Christian talking-point that Adam should have exercised moral leadership over Eve.  The essay was somewhat thin in addressing God’s criticism of Adam for listening to the voice of his wife (Genesis 3:17).

“Chapter 7: Sarah: Taking Things into Her Own Hands or Seeking to Love?”, by Eugene Merrill, Ph.D.

This essay is informative in referring to how ancient Near Eastern culture could form the backdrop for some of the customs in the Abraham and Sarah story, while acknowledging that some of the customs are attested later than the time when Abraham and Sarah allegedly lived.  This essay gives Sarah the benefit of a doubt in terms of her interactions with Hagar and Ishmael, whereas the following essay is more supportive of Hagar and Ishmael.

“Chapter 8: Hagar: God Names Adam, Hagar Names God,” by Tony Maalhouf, Ph.D.

This essay is critical of the saddening tendency of some conservative Christians to blame Hagar for the Middle Eastern conflict, which is based on the assumption that Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabs.  Maalhouf also offers an alternative interpretation of Genesis 16:12 to the one that asserts that Ishmael was violent.

“Chapter 9: Deborah: Only When a Good Man Is Hard to Find?”, by Ron Pierce, Ph.D.

This essay argues against a popular Christian conservative claim that God only accepted Deborah’s leadership because good men were not stepping forward to lead.  As Pierce argues, a good man did step forward, Barak, yet God still supported Deborah’s leadership.  The essay offered an intriguing explanation for how the city of Abel Beth Maacah may relate to the story of Deborah, as the term “mother of Israel” appears in both Judges 5:7 and II Samuel 20:19 (where Abel Beth Maacah appears).  Pierce tends to regard the poetry and prose in the Deborah story as consistent with each other, whereas more liberal scholars have treated them as independent.  Treating them as consistent does not always work: Pierce, for example, interprets Judges 5:27 as Sisera’s attempt to rape Jael, which is an understandable interpretation, although it is not salient in the prose (where Jael kills Sisera when he is asleep, not when he is trying to rape her).  Pierce highlights that rape is a theme in the Judges story, however, particularly in what Sisera’s mother says in Judges 5.

“Chapter 10: Huldah: Malfunction with the Wardrobe-Keeper’s Wife,” by Christa L. McKirland, Th.M.

This chapter is interesting because it interacts with how Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout history have addressed the prophetess Huldah.  Unfortunately, McKirland laments, they have often asked why God did not consult Jeremiah or Zechariah, as if Huldah was God’s Plan B.  McKirland critiques that assumption.

“Chapter 11: Vashti: Dishonored for Having Honor,” by Sharifa Stevens, Th.M.

This chapter is interesting because it refers to the history of interpretation of Vashti, as well as what Herodotus says about Xerxes’ wife (who has a different name in Herodotus’ story).  What they say is negative.  Unfortunately, Stevens does not really account for why Herodotus is so negative about her.  Stevens discusses how God replaced a strong woman with another strong woman, namely, Esther.  She also tells a compelling personal story about rejection, and how she struggled to move on from that.

“Chapter 12: The ‘Woman at the Well’: Was the Samaritan Woman Really an Adulteress?”, by Lynn Cohick, Ph.D.

Cohick seeks to refute the assumption that the woman at the well (John 3) was a loose woman.

“Chapter 13: Mary Magdalene: Repainting her Portrait of Misconceptions,” by Karla Zazueta, M.A.

Zazueta argues against the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  The essay mentioned that the Talmud presents the area of Magdala as a morally-depraved area, but it does not do anything with that reference.  The essay also explores what Mary’s possession by seven demons might have meant.

“Chapter 14: Junia/Joanna: Herald of the Good News,” by Amy Peeler, Ph.D.

Romans 16:7 mentions Junia, and there have been many interpreters who argue that the passage means that the woman Junia was an apostle.  Peeler agrees with this interpretation, while denying that it is relevant to debates on women’s ordination.  Peeler offers some arguments against the scholarly grammatical arguments of Michael Burer and Dan Wallace that Junia was not an apostle.  Peeler discusses the history of interpretation about Junia, particularly among church fathers.  Peeler speculates about the horrors that Junia may have experienced in prison, based on what women in that historical context endured there.  That presented Junia as courageous in her Christian convictions.  The essay also discussed what her apostleship may have meant: Paul in I Corinthians 15:7 mentions apostles who saw the risen Christ, and they appear to be distinct from the Twelve (see v 5).  Peeler speculates that Junia may have been Johanna (Luke 24:10), changing her name as other Jews Latinized their names for the benefit of their Roman neighbors.  This was the richest essay in the book.

The book is interesting because it offers alternative interpretations and fresh insights.  Some interpretations were more convincing than others, but all were worth reading.

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Movie Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): The Last Jedi

I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi yesterday.  To be honest, I do not have much to say about it.  If there was a point that stood out to me, it would be, to draw from the Gospel of John, that the Force “bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8 KJV).  Of course, that John passage is about the Holy Spirit, not the Force, but the Star Wars movie seemed to be making a similar point about the Force.

In one scene, Luke Skywalker is teaching Rey about the Force.  Rey thinks that the Force is about moving objects with one’s mind, but Luke responds that the Force is not about that at all.  It is the balance that emanates from nature and binds it together.  And it is there, even if the Jedi cease to exist.  That, Luke said, is why it is arrogant for the Jedi to assume that they are so necessary, as if they have a monopoly on the Force.  That was an insightful scene, eclipsed by a lot of Luke’s self-pitying sentiments.

In another scene, Luke sees the spirit of Yoda.  Luke is thinking of burning down a Jedi Temple, which contains Jedi sacred books.  But Luke does not really mean it.  Yoda, however, spares him the trouble and destroys the Temple himself, as he calls down lightning.  Luke is shocked, and Yoda states that the books have a lot of wisdom, but page-turners they are not!  There have been Christians in history who have seen the Bible that way: it has wisdom, but the Spirit takes priority.  Indeed, God is not dependent on the Bible and exists and works in God’s own right.  Still, should not religion have some discipline and structure, which the Bible and institutions provide, rather than being utterly free-flowing?

At the end of the movie, there are children who are slaves on a Vegas-sort of planet.  We meet them earlier in the movie.  Luke has already died, and the children are telling each other the story of Luke Skywalker.  Their master angrily barges into the room and tells them to get to work, and a boy draws the broom towards his hand with the power of the Force.  He looks into the heavens, as dramatic Star Wars music plays, and the movie goes to the closing credits.  The Force continues and works, even if there are hardly any Jedi anymore.  That reminds me of I Kings 19:18.  The prophet Elijah believes that he is the one one left standing for Yahweh, but God tells him: “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (KJV).

Monday, January 8, 2018

Church Write-Up: Rationalizing; How Foreign?; a Different Justice; Jacob; God Fighting Battles; Planned Job

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen church.”

Here are some items:

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was talking about rationalizing away the darkness.  He told a story about when he grew up in Wisconsin, where the sunset was at 9:30 at night, and he would be reading in bed.  He did not want to get up to turn on the light, so he tried to convince himself while the sun was setting that there was just enough sunlight for him to read.  He told another story about when he was in the fourth grade, and his dad told him before he went out to play with his friends to head on home when he saw headlights.  His response to that was to go where there were no roads, so he would see no headlights and thus could keep on playing with his friends.  The pastor likened that to how we try to rationalize our darkness: how we may attempt to interpret the Bible to justify what we are doing, rather than trying to live according to its standard.

I won’t comment much here.  This is not a very comfortable topic for me.  When it comes to such things as forgiving others and loving my neighbor, I do try to bring the Bible down a few notches.

B.  The teacher at the Sunday school class about patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John was contrasting ancient patristic approaches to the Bible to modern-day Enlightenment historical-critical approaches.  He seemed to be assuming that his audience adheres to the latter, whereas the former would be something that is foreign to them.  I was wondering to what extent that would be the case.  On the one hand, within evangelicalism, at least, I have heard Old Testament or New Testament stories being treated as an allegory for the spiritual life, or Old Testament figures presented as types of Christ.  That is similar to patristic exegesis.  On the other hand, I could sense within the audience a recognition of the importance of interpreting biblical passages in light of their context, and I would not be surprised if they conclude that the fathers, at times, went too far and imported extraneous material into their interpretation of the biblical text.  It will be interesting to see how they respond.

C.  The teacher shared an interpretation that Gregory of Nyssa made of Matthew 5:6, in which Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (which has the same Greek word as justice).  What is righteousness, or justice?  Gregory engaged the philosophical answer that justice was giving to people according to their worth.  Gregory said that Christians hunger for a higher kind of justice: one in which God gives to people, apart from their merit.  Ultimately, since Christ is righteousness (I Corinthians 1:30), Christ is the one after whom his followers hunger and thirst.

D.  At the “Pen church,” the pastor began a series on being resilient.  He told the story of Jacob: Jacob was continually scheming and fighting to get his own way, all the way back to his birth.  But he came to the point where he surrendered to God and decided to let God fight his battles.  I thought back to a Tim Keller sermon that I heard about Jacob: Keller said that the point of Jacob’s wrestling with God is that God is the one with whom Jacob was actually wrestling all his life.

E.  Do I have any experience of God fighting my battles?  Well, I can say that there were times when I expected the worst, and the worst did not come.  Life does not work that way all of the time for everyone.  I doubt that I am especially favored by God, while they are not.  I have uphill battles that they may lack.  It’s just life, I guess.

F.  The pastor told a story about when he was in college, and he did not have a car.  He filled out tons of resumes to get a job, and he reluctantly took a job at a Chinese restaurant.  He was only there for three months, but, during that time, he led a fellow employee to Christ.  That affirmed to him that God was with him wherever he ends up.  But he also felt that God had him there for a purpose: so that the employee would know of God’s love and enter into a relationship with Christ.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book Write-Up: Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Hebrews, James)

Ronald K. Rittgers, ed.  Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews, James.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

The Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews, James presents the thoughts of Western Christian thinkers during the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries on the epistles of Hebrews and James.  The book includes the classic Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon.  But it also quotes other Reformation voices, as well, such as Anabaptists and Anglicans.  And it also includes Catholic voices, such as that of Cardinal Cejetan, who questioned Martin Luther at the Diet of Augsburg.

Like other books in the series, along with the series on the church fathers, this book proceeds through the biblical books.  It quotes a passage, summarizes the gist of what the featured thinkers said, then presents their thoughts.  At the end of the book is a timeline and a glossary of Christian thinkers (and also some Jewish thinkers) quoted or mentioned in the book.

Here are some observations and thoughts:

A.  The book was repetitive and predictable, in areas.  Many of the Christian thinkers back then used the same arguments that Christian thinkers now use: to argue that Paul and James do not contradict each other on justification, or to claim that the Hebrews passages that seem to imply that one can lose salvation over a willful sin (or lose one’s salvation, period) do not really mean that.  A point that recurred in the comments on Hebrews 6:6 (which discusses people who crucify Jesus afresh) is that the Catholic mass is wrong because it claims to sacrifice Christ over and over again, which is contrary to Hebrews 6:6.

That said, some of these discussions were effective because they looked closely at the biblical texts.  Some Reformers argued that Hebrews does not mean that committing a sin can forfeit a person’s salvation, for there are passages in Hebrews about Christ’s mercy towards people in their weakness.  Some Reformers pointed to examples in the Epistle of James that highlighted God’s agency in choosing and regenerating people, which is contrary to salvation by works.

B.  One point that recurred in the comments on Hebrews 6:6 and 10:26 is that Christians do not have to be rebaptized, since rebaptism assumes that Christ can be put to death all over again.  This point was somewhat unclear to me, as it did not exactly address the theme of apostasy in those biblical passages.  A footnote explaining their position further would have been helpful.

C.  The book was edifying, even if it was repetitious, as the thinkers in the book highlighted God’s love.  Some comments on James seemed rather perfectionistic, in that they criticized having bad feelings (i.e., grumbling against believers, bitterness), but they may be reflecting the view of James, in those respects.

D.  An issue that was discussed among these Christian thinkers was the authorship of Hebrews and James.  On Hebrews, some defended Pauline authorship, whereas some denied it, arguing that Hebrews 2:3 indicates that the author of Hebrews was one who heard from the apostles, not an apostle himself.  On James, some held that the author was James the brother of Jesus, and some denied that altogether.  One view was that the author was a pupil of Paul (based on the view that James 4:5 reflects Galatians 5:17, on the spirit lusting against the flesh), or one who compiled various Christian and Jewish writings together into an epistle.  Those who denied the apostolic authorship of Hebrews and James tended to be critical of those epistles, even if they found them edifying, in certain respects.

E.  Those who were critical of Hebrews and James were sensitive to nuances in those books and how they may contrast with themes in other New Testament books; they acknowledged some diversity among New Testament writings, in short.  Some of the critics tended to prioritize Paul and the Gospel of John as the authoritative accounts about the Gospel of salvation, making me wonder what exactly they did with the synoptic Gospels.  I highly doubt that they rejected them, but they seemed to marginalize them, a bit.

F.  The book featured debates among Reformers, about such issues as whether Paul contradicts Hebrews and James, and the question of whether Christ is actually present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or cannot be present in it because he is in heaven.

G.  The book presented occasions in which thinkers either contradicted themselves or were ambivalent.  Luther questioned apostolic authorship of Hebrews, yet in some places he asserted it.  On James, Luther questioned that James the brother of Jesus wrote it, yet he also stated that it does not matter, since even that James is not authoritative if he contradicts the Gospel.  Luther expressed some ambivalence in his interpretation of James 5:14-16, which discusses the church elders anointing a sick person for healing.  Luther, like others, maintained that such a practice was no longer present in the Christian church, for God does not heal like that anymore; there is a place for a Christian bearing with sickness, Luther said.  On the other hand, Luther stated that perhaps God would heal like that again, if people had faith.

H.  The book raised historical-sociological considerations that can account for the thinkers’ struggle with certain passages in James.  For example, James is critical of the rich and the church showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor.  Some Reformers tried to defend James’ position, while still maintaining the importance of the lower classes respecting the upper classes, since doing otherwise would lead to social chaos.

I.  The glossary of names in the back was quite a read in itself.  It featured women Reformers who championed a greater role for women in society and the church, as well as exegetes who were considered Judaizers because they preferred a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible to Christian allegorical or Christological interpretations.

J.  The Hebrews section had a lot of Johanne Oecolampadius, just to let you know.  He was not too edgy, but he was thoughtful.

K.  One of my favorite thinkers in the book was William Jones, who was an Anglican preacher.  Jones had a concise way of articulating issues.  And, although I was leery of Jones’ attitude about preachers being authoritative in their sermons, those thoughts were profound in that they highlighted the transformative power of sermons, and how one can be receptive in listening to them.

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Church Write-Up: New Years Eve 2017

I am feeling under the weather today, so my Church Write-Up will be brief.  I went to an evangelical church that I will now call the “Mall church,” since it is located at a mall.  I also went to what I call the “Word of Faith” church.

A.  At the “Mall church,” the pastor asked the people there to break up into small groups and pray for each other.  I prayed with two elderly gentlemen.  We did not pray for each other, but we took turns praying.  One elderly gentleman asked God for a good new year for people, as he acknowledged problems in the world.  The other elderly gentleman talked about God’s holy church.  I was scared to join a prayer group with people I did not know, but I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other people’s faith.

B.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor’s daughter spoke.  Basing her sermon on Ephesians 3:16-18, she said that God wants to do three things this year: strengthen us, live with us permanently, and fill us with who God is.  When we truly grasp how valued we are by God, we will love others.
I liked the sermon.  I still struggle to love others, though.

C.  The pastor at the “Mall church” made points that did not exactly resonate with me.  He said that we should get out of our own ship and get on the Jesus ship, following Jesus rather than our own desires.  He also said that, when we love God, we will love others.  He seemed to imply that the horizontal relationships can only work if the vertical relationship does.

Obedience is a difficult subject for me.  The reason is that I cannot have perfect, righteous thoughts, feelings, and actions on a 24-7 basis.  While I could understand what the pastor said about working for a charity or non-profit, I somewhat question the idea of giving up our own desires to follow Jesus.  The pastor said that, if we try to negotiate with God, we are following ourselves, not Jesus.  But cannot God draw our attention to a specific flaw in our lives, rather than dumping all of our character flaws on us at once?  If I have a desire to work on a specific character flaw, can that not be the work of the Spirit of God?  Can following Jesus coincide with our specific desires, in short?  On the other hand, I do not want to go to the extreme of saying that I can determine my own morality.

On loving vertically and horizontally, people can love horizontally without loving vertically, I think.  Can that be sustained?  In certain instances, perhaps.  Parental love can be a strong thing.  A Bible study leader I knew, addressing Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26 that his disciples must hate their family, said that, unless Christ is preeminent in our lives, we will not truly love our family, since we will try to cut ourselves a better deal.  I do not go that far, but I acknowledge the value of having principles and turning to God for the strength to fulfill them.

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