Saturday, March 31, 2018

Church Write-Up: What Law Did They Think Jesus Broke?

I went to the Missouri Synod church’s Good Friday service.  There was no homily, but the pastor, select people, and the congregation were reading through the passion story in the Gospel of John, singing songs at intervals.

I usually write about the sermon, but, today, I will address a passage that stood out to me.  In John 19:7, the Jewish leaders say to Pilate: “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God” (KJV).

Questions were in my mind.  What did the Jewish leaders mean by “Son of God”?  Did they mean that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, since the Davidic king was a son of God (II Samuel 7:13-16; Psalm 89:26-28)?  Much of John 19 relates to the claim that Jesus is a king.  But would claiming to be the Messiah merit the death penalty under the Torah?  The Roman authorities would certainly be concerned about such a claim, from a political standpoint, but does it violate the Torah?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is accused by his opponents of claiming to be equal to God, or even God (John 5:17-18; 10:30-39).  Could that be deemed a violation of the Torah? 

G.R. Beasley-Murray, in his Word Biblical Commentary on the Gospel of John, navigates through these issues.  He claims that the Jewish leaders were sticking with their charge that Jesus was a political insurrectionist, but that they were adding an additional charge: that Jesus violated the Jewish law by being a blasphemer.  According to Beasley-Murray, John may be echoing Mark 14:61-64, in which Jesus confesses to be the Messiah, while also saying that he will be on the right hand of Power, perhaps implying (in certain Jewish leaders’ eyes) a parity with God.  Beasley-Murray also refers to John 5:17-18 and 10:30-39.  As far as charges go, Beasley-Murray states that the Jewish leaders thought that Jesus violated the Torah by being a false prophet, which merited the death penalty (Deuteronomy 13:1-6), as Jesus seemed to claim parity with God and healed on the Sabbath.  Beasley-Murray also refers to Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a, in which Yeshu is hanged for sorcery and enticing Israel towards apostasy.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Church Write-Up: Maundy Thursday Road Trip

I went to the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Maundy Thursday service.

The pastor opened his sermon with an anecdote.  He said that, when his children were growing up, he, his wife, and his children lived in Colorado.  The maternal grandparents of the children lived in Austin, Texas, while the paternal grandparents lived in Wisconsin.  The pastor, his wife, and kids would drive over sixteen hours to see them, straight through.  The kids would be loaded into the van at night, settling into their nests, and the family would be off!

The pastor talked about the traditional places where they would stop to eat.  They would go to a McDonalds that had a playground, where the kids could run around.  They would also go to a Shoney’s.  This church is in Oregon, so the pastor explained to us what Shoney’s was, likening it to Red Robin and Shari’s.

The pastor spiritually allegorized his family’s tradition.  First, in the same way that his family made those restaurants their own—-part of their traveling experience—-so likewise did Jesus make the Passover his own.  The Passover was originally about Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and the Passover meal served to prepare Israel for its journey ahead, which would include its encounter with God at Mount Sinai.  Jesus applied the Passover to his death, which would deliver people from bondage to sin.  Moreover, as Israel encountered God at Sinai, so would people see the heart of God on the hill where Jesus would die, Golgotha.

Second, the family’s meals at those stops refreshed them for the journey.  Jesus ate his meal with his disciples to prepare himself, and perhaps them, for the difficult journey ahead.  In addition, our journey as Christians is to love one another (John 13:34-35), and to love our neighbors.  Many find that tiring, however.  We tend to love those we like and to withhold love from those we dislike.  Some of us may profess a love for humanity, yet we despise people.  But love entails a giving of oneself to others.  How do we do this, when we by nature are selfish?  The pastor said that we feed on Christ, particularly in communion.

The pastor’s sermon brought to my mind some of my own road trips.  On the issue of love, I am not that good at reaching out to others, so love sermons are somewhat of a turn-off to me.  Still, the pastor raises a good point: what is our journey as Christians about?  Well, it is for us to become like Christ, to see people and situations as Christ does, and a significant component of that is love.  On us being inherently selfish, are Christians still inherently selfish, or have they been supernaturally transformed into unselfish people?  An answer to that, I suppose, is that their sinful flesh remains, yet the Holy Spirit is also within them, transforming them.

I’ll leave the comments open in case someone wants to add something constructive.  Snarky comments, or “Why don’t you quote the Bible more?” comments, will not be published.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Book Write-Up: A Chance at Forever, by Melissa Jagears

Melissa Jagears.  A Chance at Forever.  Bethany House, 2018.  See here to buy the book.

A Chance at Forever is the third book in Melissa Jagear’s “Teaville Moral Society” series.  The series is about a moral society in Teaville, Kansas.  The society attempts to help the community.  This third book is set in the early twentieth century.

The book has familiar characters from the first two books of the series.  Nicholas Lowe, the wealthy philanthropist, is back, along with his wife Lydia.  Both are continuing their efforts to help prostitutes find a new and better life.  I have not read the second book of the series, but I can see from the description that it focused on David Kingsman and Evelyn Wisely.  They have cameos in the third book.  My impression in reading the third book is that it contained other characters whose stories were told in the second one (i.e., Caroline, Franklin, etc.).  While that led to some confusion on my part (which is my fault, for not having read the second book), the third book was still enjoyable.

One of the principal characters of the third book is Mercy McLain.  She has a deformed arm, so she depends on her brother, Timothy, and his wife, Patricia.  Timothy and Patricia run an orphanage house, under the authority of Nicholas Lowe and a board.  Timothy and Patricia have their flaws: Timothy secretly goes to the red-light district to drink and to sleep with prostitutes, and Patricia sleeps all day.  But, of course, they are on their best behavior when Nicholas Lowe is around!

Aaron Firebrook applies to teach at the orphanage, and he receives work as its gardener.  Mercy has very unpleasant memories about Aaron because he taunted and bullied her, and others children, when they were younger.  Aaron was coping at the time with abuse that he experienced.  After that time, Aaron became a Christian under the influence of a mild-mannered pastor, and he is now seeking to apologize and make restitution towards those he hurt.  One of his victims suggested that he become a teacher to protect children from bullies, and that is why he applied to teach at the orphanage.  A prominent aspect of this book is Aaron’s efforts at repentance and his attempts to address the negative consequences of his past misdeeds, including Mercy’s struggles to forgive and to trust him.  Add to this the consideration that Aaron is attracted to Mercy, and long has been.

Other events occur in this book, as well.  There is a child at the orphanage, Jimmy, who is a troublemaker, and Aaron tries to mentor him, as a former troublemaker himself.  Aaron is seeking to adopt a little boy, the son of one of the people he tormented in his youth.  The portly flour-mill owner, Henri Beauchamp, is romantically pursuing a servant at the orphanage, Caroline O’Conner, and he brings her an infant from her prostitute sister, Moira.  The orphanage is planning to conduct an auction so that a gifted little boy and his brother can make better lives for themselves, and a wealthy donor is upset when she learns that former women of ill repute work for the orphanage.

There was a lot going on in this book, but that made the book interesting rather than confusing, as the characters coped with continual challenges.  One can identify with the characters, or at least empathize with them, on some level: Aaron’s sorrow over his past sins and his efforts, sometimes unsuccessful, to change; Timothy’s unhappiness in his marriage; Patricia’s coping with her husband because at least their current job gives them a comfortable life; Mercy’s feelings of helplessness.  One character, who will be nameless in this review, looked like he would be a bad character, which was difficult for me, since he was sweet and lovable; but he turned out to be a good character.  The book got heavily into people’s conflicting thoughts and feelings, such that they seemed real.

My favorite part of the book was when Aaron and Mercy are discussing Ephesians 4:22-24, which is about putting off the old self with its deceitful practices and putting on the new self, as one is renewed.  Aaron has recently had a relapse of anger, and he is disappointed at his lack of success at putting off the old self.  Mercy tells him that the Christian life is about God creating the new self in him, as he renews his mind.  This was a little surprising, since Mercy, although she could be heroic, did not seem to be that religious earlier in the book.  Still, her advice was edifying.

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Church Write-Up: Off (or On) Track; Last Day of Patristics Class; a Present Love

Here is my write-up about my church experience last Sunday.

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church told a funny opening anecdote.  It was a story that a funeral director told him when the two were riding together on the way to a funeral.  In the story, the funeral director forgot the way to the graveyard, so he was looking desperately for a familiar road.  Meanwhile, all these cars were behind him, following him, as they, too, were on their way to the funeral.  The funeral director took a winding path, and he finally found the graveyard.  The wife of the deceased came to the funeral director crying.  It turned out that the funeral director drove past her late husband’s elementary school, his high school, and the place where the husband proposed to the wife.  She thanked the funeral director for this.  The funeral director was baffled, but he replied, “Just part of the service, maam.”  The funeral director thought he was on the wrong path, but he was on a good path.  The pastor tied this to Palm Sunday: many Jews were expecting Jesus to defeat the Romans after entering Jerusalem, but Jesus had a different plan, and, even though his plan was not their plan, his plan was still good.

B.  Last Sunday was the last session of the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s class on patristic interpretations of John.  Some noteworthy items:

The teacher gave us a character study of Jerome.  He said that there was an Old Latin text of the Bible, which was of the LXX, but Jerome’s influential Latin Vulgate for the Old Testament translated the Hebrew.  The teacher also stated that Jerome had an irascible personality: he was argumentative.  But Jerome had a lot of interaction with three women, who were widows and chaste.  These women had a monastery in Palestine, close to where he was, and Jerome respected them.

Someone asked the teacher if any church father commented on the age of our resurrected bodies’ appearance: will we look like children, or young adults, or middle aged, or elderly?  The teacher replied that he recalled some church fathers who hinted that we will appear to people as they best know us.  That reminded me of a Battlestar Galactica episode that I recently watched: President Roslin saw her deceased mother alive in the afterlife, and the mother looked elderly.

The teacher was making a point that Jesus, the God-man, died.  It was not just his human nature that died, but the divine nature did, too.  The teacher said that, according to Acts, God raised Jesus from the dead; Jesus did not raise himself.  At the same time, the teacher seemed to be saying that the Trinitarian God raised Jesus.  Someone asked about John 10:18, in which Jesus affirmed that he himself had the power to lay down his life and take it up again, implying that Jesus resurrected himself.  I do not recall the teacher’s answer.

The teacher talked about how the empty tomb is not enough to prove Jesus’ resurrection.  Suppose that the teacher was wealthy, died, and was buried in a sepulchre, and the sepulchre was empty after three days.  People would not conclude that he had been raised from the dead.  Other things are important, too, when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, such as the testimony of the apostles.  Someone in the class remarked that a friend told him that the plagues and miracles of the Exodus occurred also outside of the Exodus, and that dead people are resuscitated even today.  I thought of stories about other people in history crossing bodies of water when they were low.  But what makes these things miracles in the Bible, according to the student, is God’s intent in using them and God’s foretelling of them, and also the lesson that God is not limited. Through Jesus’ resurrection, for example, God defeated death.

The teacher also discussed the timeline from Jesus’ burial to his resurrection.  Jesus was buried, and the women haphazardly prepared the body for burial.  They did not have much time because the Sabbath was very soon, and this Sabbath was both a weekly Sabbath and also the high Sabbath, the Passover.  The rested on the Sabbath, and, that night, after the Sabbath was over, they bought spices and fragrances for the body.  Early on the first day of the week, they went to the tomb to complete their preparation of the body.  This model made sense to me, and I say this as one who grew up in a religious tradition that said that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday and rose on Saturday rather than being crucified on Good Friday and being raised on Sunday morning.  Why would the women go to the tomb early Sunday morning, if they could have finished their anointing on Friday, after the completion of the Thursday Passover Sabbath (according to the Wednesday-Saturday model)?  Friday would be a Day of Preparation for the weekly Sabbath, but could they not finish their anointing early Friday morning and then have the rest of the day to prepare for the weekly Sabbath?

C.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor preached about John 11-12.  John 11 includes the story about Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus.  Lazarus is called the one Jesus loves (John 11:3).  Jesus’ love for Lazarus is present, not just past, and the pastor said that this is how God’s love for us is.  John 12 is about the woman, Mary, who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair using expensive perfume.  The pastor noted that the woman was not afraid to embarrass herself in showing her enthusiastic love for Jesus, because Jesus loved her.  She went all out for Jesus.  And, unlike other disciples, she took seriously his claim that he would die, so she anointed his body for burial.  The pastor said that death is about the saints living in a new heavens and the new earth, and not losing anything but gaining more than anything they may have lost.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Write-Up: Christianity at the Crossroads, by Michael J. Kruger

Michael J. Kruger.  Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church.  IVP Academic, 2017, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael J. Kruger has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, and he teaches New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, which is in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He is also the President there.

As the title indicates, this book is about Christianity in the second century C.E.  Kruger engages such topics as who was attracted to Christianity, the views of Christians that were held by the larger non-Christian society, the church’s ecclesiological organization, diversity and unity within second century Christianity, the importance of texts to second century Christians, and the emergence of a New Testament canon during the second century.

What marks this book is its judicious engagement of scholarship.  Kruger often identifies where there is scholarly doubt about certain narratives, where scholarship has changed, and his own views on the issues.  Kruger’s conclusions tend to accord with a Reformed Protestant view.  He argues that churches were initially shepherded by elders, and that the leadership of bishops, let alone an overarching bishop (i.e., pope), was a later development; Catholics, by contrast, would trace the papacy back to Peter.  In a passing comment on page 104, Kruger states that “the particular way that connection [with Christ] was achieved [at the Eucharist] was a continuing matter of debate” in the second century; this statement would contrast with Catholics and other believers in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, who would see the real presence as the original Christian position and the view that the bread and wine are mere symbols as a much later development.

Kruger also challenges claims from more “liberal” (my word) scholars, such as Walter Bauer, Bart Ehrman, and Helmut Koester.  Kruger contends that the Christianity of the second century church fathers, which won out, was the mainstream, majority Christianity, with a connection to the apostles; other Christian sects, by contrast, were comparatively marginal or were heretical deviations.  Kruger holds that there was a New Testament canon during the second century C.E., while acknowledging that some books were still in dispute; he argues against scholars who think that the canon came later, or that the second century church lacked a canon because it valued oral tradition over written texts.

To determine whether Kruger characterizes the scholarly positions accurately, one would have to read them, and Kruger provides secondary references.  Overall, however, in arguing for his own positions, Kruger does so very effectively, as he looks closely at primary sources.  One argument that was impressive was when he contradicted the view that Marcion’s version of the New Testament came first and that the “orthodox” version was a supplemental response to Marcion; essentially, Kruger pointed to scholarship that indicated that Marcion was harmonizing the New Testament Gospels (or borrowing others’ harmonizations), indicating that the New Testament Gospels were already widely respected by Christians in Marcion’s day.

Compared with his discussion of other issues, Kruger’s treatment of the Eucharist was rather disappointing.  He appeared to be implying that Justin Martyr held a memorialist view of the Eucharist, whereas Ignatius (and perhaps Irenaeus) saw the bread and wine as Christ’s literal body.  (I am inferring this from his references in a footnote, on page 104.)  His footnote did not cite Justin’s “First Apology,” chapter 66, in which Justin seems to affirm that the bread and the wine are Jesus’ flesh and blood.

I am somewhat ambivalent about Kruger’s argument that the second century church fathers had a connection with the apostles.  On the one hand, the “orthodox” positions of the church fathers do appear to be more consistent with the New Testament than are the Christianities of the Marcionites and the Gnostics; the New Testament does not seem to believe that there was a pure, anti-matter God who was above a sinister sub-deity, the God of the Old Testament.  Kruger may also be correct that the “Gnostic” Christians were imitating the “orthodox” Christians by claiming that their teachings went back to the apostles.  On the other hand, my impression is that the New Testament is too diverse for one to claim that it accords with the second century “rule of faith.”  The synoptic Gospels may not depict Jesus as pre-existent, as the “rule of faith” does; Paul may not have had a concept of a virgin birth, as the “rule of faith” has.  To his credit, Kruger actually does mention and express doubt about the argument that Mark’s Gospel may be adoptionist.  My suspicion is, though, that the line from first century Christianity to the second century “rule of faith” was messier than Kruger might think.

Other critiques that I have: Kruger was a little uncritical in his acceptance of Papias, as there are scholars who have questioned Papias’ reliability.  Moreover, while Kruger did well to demonstrate that a number of New Testament books were deemed to be inspired—-even Scriptural—-in the second century, his explanation of Clement’s quotation of extracanonical Christian works was somewhat of a stretch.  It reminded me of conservative Christians who try to argue that Jude did not consider the I Enoch to be inspired Scripture when he quoted it.

One may get the impression from my review that this book is like the numerous classical Christian apologetics books that are out there.  While Christian apologists may find this book to be useful, it is more advanced and scholarly than popular apologetics books, and it also does not recycle the same old hackneyed arguments.  Overall, it is a robust scholarly engagement with other scholars, even as it tells the stories of second century Christians.  The book also has a humble and modest tone, in that Kruger distances himself from an apologetic agenda: he states, for example, that orthodox Christianity being the mainstream Christianity during the second century does not, by itself, mean that it was true (even though he believes that it was true).

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

Friday, March 23, 2018

Church Write-Up: Seeking Eternity Through Legacy

At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Lenten service this week, the pastor opened by mentioning that time is relative.  2002 seems like a long time ago, but, for him, it could have been last week.  In 2002, Rick Warren’s bestselling book, the Purpose Driven Life, came out.  For some reason, the pastor seemed to believe that Warren held to the Westminster Confession and believed that everything that occurs was ordained by God for a purpose, and we should just buckle under and accept what comes our way; the pastor said that Lutherans do not quite see things that way.  (Rick Warren is a Southern Baptist, and, from what I perused online, there is diversity among Southern Baptists about predestination.)  Still, the pastor said that the success of the book demonstrates that people are looking for their lives to have purpose and meaning.

The pastor talked about how life is a vapor.  We all have something in common: that we will die (assuming Jesus does not return before that).  But so many of us try to find value in the life that we have, and even to establish a legacy that will last after we die.  We try to establish our presence behind the curtain.  But even the famous come and go.

The pastor referred to a poster that his father had hanging in his den.  His father loved to collect posters, and the pastor related that his father would probably have loved the Internet had it come out when he was younger.  It came out when he was old, however, and he was baffled and confused by it.  Anyway, one of his posters had a quote from a missionary, which said that everything we do for Christ lasts forever.  The pastor said that such a mindset, when taken in a certain direction, can become a burden, as we try to establish a legacy for Christ.  But the pastor thought that the focus on Christ was correct.

The pastor proceeded to share the Gospel of Jesus dying for our sins and giving righteousness and eternal life to those who believe.  How can we be assured that we will have eternal life?  The pastor said that we hold on to God, but also the Holy Spirit holds on to us, sealing us for our eternal inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

I’ll stop here.  I know this is a summary, but it is all I feel like writing right now.  It is mainly for my records, anyway.  It leaves me a legacy of the service, to which I can return, whenever I wish.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Write-Up: Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, with Katie Casselberry.  Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence.  Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert teach economics at Covenant College and are involved in the Chalmers Center there.  Katie Casselberry was also instrumental in the development of this book.

This book is a sequel to another book that Corbett and Fikkert wrote, entitled When Helping Hurts.  According to Corbett and Fikkert, some churches got the wrong idea from When Helping Hurts, concluding that they should not give to the poor who come asking them for help.  Actually, Corbett and Fikkert say, they are advocating that churches provide even more help than financial assistance: that people in churches develop relationships with low-income people, work with them to improve their situation, and even offer financial assistance, if that is determined to be wise.  Helping Without Hurting refers to When Helping Hurts, while going into more detail about how to assist the low-income.

This book does come across as patronizing and as assuming that poverty is a result of character flaws rather than something that happens to a person.  Yet, to its credit, it does make a conscious effort to avoid and to counter that kind of attitude.  It acknowledges that poverty can be due to a number of factors, some beyond the control of the low-income person.  It presents racism as a real problem that holds people back.  It denies that it is offering a one-size-fits-all approach, recognizing that each individual situation is different.  It encourages churches to work with the low-income rather than telling the low-income what to do.

A number of times, I wondered how feasible its approaches are.  Reading this book, one may get the impression that churches have lots of money, such that they are able to contribute to low-income people’s bank account, or to pay half of their electric bill.  One may also get the impression that churches have an abundance of experienced people who are able to teach vocational skills, or that people in churches have the time to work with low-income people.  The book would have been better had it included more stories of churches actually doing these things, or perhaps offered guidance on how, say, to establish a job-training program.  To its credit, the book had a number of anecdotes and case-studies, as well as recommended resources that can hopefully assist the low-income.  Still, something seemed to be missing.

Greater sensitivity to current economic problems may also have enhanced the book.  As the book acknowledges, some areas lack economic development.  There are also the factors of stagnant wages, the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and robots replacing workers.  At the same time, this book does well to argue that the church should try to muster whatever resources it has (i.e., people with contacts in the business community) to work with the low-income and hopefully improve their situation.  What we need in this society are people who care and who try to help more, not less, and this book does well to promote that.

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

Monday, March 19, 2018

Church Write-Up: Odds and Ends, 3/18/18

For church on Sunday, I went to the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its class on patristic interpretations of John’s Gospel, and the “Word of Faith” church.

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church focused on two passages.  The first was Luke 24:13-32, which was about the two men on the road to Emmaus, who were accompanied by the risen Christ, whom they did not recognize.  They shared with this stranger that they hoped Jesus would have been the one who would deliver Israel, but their hopes were dashed by Jesus’ crucifixion.  The pastor talked about examples of our hopes being dashed, whether by the loss of a job, or health problems.  The pastor also shared that political scientists and historians agree that people rise up against their oppressors when there is some glimmer of hope that things can be different, and better; otherwise, they will endure the oppression.

The other passage was John 11, the story of Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus.  Lazarus’ sister Martha said that, had Jesus been there, Lazarus would not have died.  Jesus affirmed that he was the resurrection and the life, and she then placed her faith in him as the Christ.  According to the pastor, Martha, like the two men on the road to Emmaus, initially had her own desires about how God should act, but Martha moved away from that by putting her focus on and her faith in Jesus.

B.  As usual, the class on patristic interpretations of John’s Gospel got into a variety of issues.  A sample:

John Chrysostom criticized the excess that occurred at funerals, as people hired mourners and clothed the wealthy dead in luxury.  Chrysostom expressed his criticism to what was the wealthiest church in the Roman empire at the time, the one at Constantinople.  Chrysostom noted that Jesus rose naked, as he left his clothes behind at the resurrection.  Rather than being clothed with ornate clothing, why not be clothed with mercy?  Someone in the class mentioned how the Egyptians gave the dead supplies, thinking the dead would use them in the afterlife.  Chrysostom, however, was departing from that sentiment by affirming that you can’t take your wealth with you after death, so why not give it to the poor?  The teacher stated that Greco-Roman society rested on people exalting themselves and stepping on each other to do so.  Christianity promoted a different ethic, one that was concerned for the disenfranchised and came to provide a social safety net; when the Roman empire fell, Christianity had established itself in society to such an extent that it could take over the society.  I thought about John McGuckin’s The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years: he noted that Greco-Roman society had some concept of philanthropy, but he also noted prominent elements of it that discouraged helping the poor.

In John 20:1-9, Peter and John go to Jesus’ tomb to check it out.  John outruns Peter, perhaps because John was younger.  John sees the tomb but does not go in, whereas Peter actually enters it.  Gregory the Great likened John to the Jews: John did not go into the tomb, and the Jews largely refused to believe in Jesus.  Peter represented the Gentiles, who existed prior to the Jews (as Peter was older than John): the Gentiles believed in Jesus, as Peter entered the tomb.  The teacher then talked about how Gregory, like many Christians, was perplexed that most Jews, who had God’s Scriptures and were in covenant with God, did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah.  The teacher than discussed Romans 9-11, in which Paul engages this question.  The teacher interpreted Romans 11 to mean that God hardened the Jews’ hearts against believing in Christ because, had most Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah in the first century, Christianity would have remained a Jewish movement, and it would have maintained that Gentiles needed to become Jews (through circumcision) to become Christians.  God wanted the Christian movement to go another direction: to include Gentiles as Gentiles, and to go beyond being solely a Jewish movement.  This interpretation interested me because it was a sociological interpretation of Romans 11.

In John 20:15, the risen Jesus, appearing as a gardener, attempts to comfort Mary Magdalene, who is weeping because Jesus’ body is missing.  Cyril of Alexandria treated Mary Magdalene, the first woman to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, as a new Eve: in comforting Mary, Jesus was ending the curse that women would have pain in childbirth (Genesis 3:16).  The teacher wondered what Cyril meant by this, since, of course, women since Mary Magdalene have continued to have pain in childbirth.  I did not say this in class, but I wondered if I Timothy 2:15 could be relevant: it affirms that women would be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety (to draw from the KJV’s language).

C.  The “Word of Faith” church went through John 7-9.  The pastor said that Jesus was the real deal because he was not trying to exalt himself but rather to get people in touch with the Father: he was speaking the Father’s words, encouraging people, even if they disliked him, to listen to his words and to let them work on them.  At the same time, the pastor noted, Jesus pointed to himself as the source of springs of life bubbling out of believers: he invited the thirsty to come to him.

In discussing John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, the pastor said that this occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles, a time when people committed adultery inside of their booths.  To trap Jesus, his opponents caught a woman doing this and brought her to Jesus.  If Jesus agreed to stone her, he would appear cruel; if he decided not to stone her, he would appear to contradict the Law of Moses, even though the stoning of adulterers was not a common practice of Jews at the time.  Jesus, according to the pastor, said that anyone who has not committed adultery during the Feast is free to cast the first stone.  Nobody cast a stone.  I had not heard this particular interpretation; I wonder if the pastor got it from a commentary.  John 8:1-11 is a floating pericope and appears in Luke’s Gospel in some manuscripts, so one can raise the question of whether it should be situated within the Feast of Tabernacles, which is the setting of John 7-8.

In discussing John 9, the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man, the pastor said that the disciples demonstrated their own spiritual blindness when they asked who sinned, the blind man or his parents, that he was born blind.  The pastor said that many Christians seek to blame people for their suffering in hopes to feel better about themselves: if God is punishing someone with suffering for something bad that he or she did, their logic runs, then God will spare them from suffering because they do not do that.  They can end up being self-righteous and self-congratulatory if they do not suffer!  The pastor interpreted Jesus’ response in v 3 to mean that, rather than finding some way to blame a person for suffering, we should ask God if there is any way that we can manifest God’s glory and goodness to that person who suffers.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Write-Up: A Contrarian's Guide to Knowing God

Larry Osborne.  A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God: Spirituality for the Rest of Us.  Multnomah, 2018.  See here to buy the book.

Larry Osborne pastors the North Coast Church, which is located in Vista, California.  This book is an updated version of a book that was released in 2007.

The book challenges a variety of cliches and attitudes that have been prominent within evangelical Christianity.  Is faith believing something without any doubt?  Are Christians supposed to put God first?  Are Christians supposed to be zealous, as if there is no room at all for low-key Christians?  Are all Christians called to be serious students who love to journal about their spiritual lives?  Should Christians take risks, allowing God to demonstrate God-self by coming through for them? Osborne covers other topics, as well.

Essentially, Osborne challenges a one-sized-fits-all Christianity, one that assumes that all Christians should be the same and stresses rules for the sake of rules rather than the use of spiritual practices as tools for spiritual development.  While Osborne believes in diversity within the body of Christ, he does affirm that there are certain things that all Christians should do.  All Christians should forgive.  All Christians should place others ahead of themselves.  All Christians should obey God, both the teachings of Scripture, and God’s calling on their lives.  All Christians should be honest in their dealings.  Osborne also believes that Christians should be in small groups, and, while he is critical of how accountability is practiced in evangelicalism, he holds that Christians’ lives should be an open book before others.

In a number of cases, Osborne offers alternative explanations of biblical passages that Christians have cited in support of the attitudes that he criticizes.  In some cases, he does not.  For instance, although he attempts to explain some passages in which Jesus criticizes doubt (i.e., Matthew 11:21; Mark 11:23), he does not really account for the part of those passages about not doubting.

Osborne does well to criticize a number of Christian cliches, or at least to ask what exactly they mean.  What does it mean to put God first?  That we read the Bible on our night-stand rather than another book?  At the same time, I would say that some of what Osborne advocates is itself nebulous.  What does it mean to place another person ahead of oneself?  Granted, there are many times for this, for the purpose of love and of peace.  But can people never have what they want?  Can egoism be taken out of the picture altogether?  Should people give everything to others?  In addition, what Osborne says is not binding on every Christian, some Christians may treat as biblical commands or biblical exhortations (i.e., evangelism, reading Scripture).  Osborne is somewhat nebulous about what Christian obedience looks like; still, there are occasions when he offers a constructive, and Scriptural, way to look at the Christian life.  For instance, rather than putting God “first,” he asks, why not do all that we do for the glory of God?

There were plenty of occasions when I said “Preach it” in reading this book.  I myself have wondered why all Christians are exhorted from the pulpit to be zealous leaders.  Some things, I did not like as much, such as Osborne’s statement that God will take away whatever light we have if we disregard the light we have been given.  How would that help anybody, exactly?  And there were cases in which Osborne, in my mind, successfully challenged a prevailing Christian paradigm (more unofficial than official doctrine) and suggested a viable, biblical alternative.  The stories and illustrations also assisted this book effectively.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Blogging for Books.  My review is honest.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Church Write-Up: Works, and Galatians

I went to the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s weekly Lenten service.

The pastor opened with an anecdote about his father.  His father worked for a Kleenex company as a supervisor.  The father would leave at 5:00 AM, before the pastor got up to go to school.  The father would come home later in the day, eat dinner, and take a nap before going to bed.  The pastor said that he thought his father was a spy, since he did not see him that much.  One day, though, the pastor woke up, preparing to go to school, and his father was there!  The pastor wondered why his father was not going to work, and it turned out that the father was retiring.  The pastor wondered what his dad would do without work, since the father only missed two days in his decades of working for that company.  The father went on to have a happy retirement, however, and he shared with his son that the Kleenex company was good for making a living, but it was not his life.

The pastor went on to read Galatians 2:15-20:
15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles,
16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
17 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.
18 For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.
19 For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.
20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (KJV)
The pastor’s father recognized that life was not about his job.  Many of us define people in reference to their occupations, and we often define their and our success according to such factors as salary.  Similarly, the pastor said, there were Galatian Judaizers who defined their spiritual worth according to their observance of the law, when they were sinners just like those on whom they looked down.  There are many Christians who do the same, asserting that they are better than others.  The pastor said that, in God’s eyes, we all fall short.  We will fall when we try to jump over the Grand Canyon on our own, whether we miss the other side by a little, or a lot.  Because we fall short, we, like the Publican in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:10-14, should ask God to be merciful to us sinners, and God is abundant in mercy.

The pastor shared another anecdote.  He talked about when his second daughter was seeing the man who would become her husband, and this man was asking for the pastor’s permission to date the pastor’s daughter.  The pastor replied that other men she dated wanted to be part of her life.  This man, however, wanted her to be a part of his life.  I was not entirely clear about which was better, but the pastor obviously preferred the latter.  But the pastor’s point was that we should want Jesus to be part of our lives, more often than when we attend church.

I think that it is important for me to remember that I fall short.  Hopefully, that can at least be a seed for me to show mercy to others.  Often, it seems that I can recognize my own imperfections and still dislike certain people, or struggle to forgive certain people.  Still, I need some repertoire to help me to be more merciful than I am, and maybe remembering that I fall short can form part of that repertoire.  And yet, Paul does not end with us falling short: he talks about living unto God, Christ living inside of him, faith, and Christ’s love in giving himself for him.

Something that I have wondered about the Judaizers: certainly they recognized that they needed Christ to be forgiven, right?  They were Christians, after all.  Yet, Paul sometimes seems to imply that their attempts to observe the law neglected Christ’s act of salvation (i.e., Galatians 2:21).  But were they trying to earn their salvation by their own good works, or were they simply observing the law as a way to live a righteous life?  Maybe they believed in both: they felt they needed forgiveness to receive a clean slate, but from that point on they needed to earn their righteousness through obedience towards the law.  Paul says in Galatians 3:3 that they began their spiritual lives in the Spirit but attempted to continue it in the flesh: their focus went from what God was doing to what they could do.  Moreover, the Judaizers may have looked down on Gentile Christians who were not observing the rituals that they were.  Paul felt a need to emphasize that what was important was the Christians’ common faith in Christ.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Christopher A. Hall.  Living Wisely with the Church Fathers.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Christopher A. Hall has a doctorate from Drew University, directs the Renovare Institute of Christian Spiritual Formation, and is associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.  He has written other books on patristics, including Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers.

This book is Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, and it pertains to patristic ethical teachings.  In this review, I will identify something in each chapter that stood out to me.  My comments will not be comprehensive, but hopefully they will give you a taste of what the book is like.

“Introduction: Living Wisely with the Church Fathers”

Hall compares Aristotle’s view on ethical development to that of the church fathers.   Aristotle stressed mentorship and developing moral habits but lacked a concept of divine grace in helping a person become ethical.  The church fathers, however, believed in divine grace.  At the same time, as this part of the book and the last chapter demonstrate, they also maintained that ethical development and advancement entailed a virtually athletic commitment to spiritual disciplines.

“‘They Looked like Flaming Angels’: Martyrdom”

Hall asks his Christian readers what they would do if they were pressured to sacrifice to the emperor.  He offers some taste as to what life was like back then: for a number of people, eating that sacrificial meat was the best meal they had.  Hall also focuses on Origen’s comments on martyrdom: on why there are Christians who apostasize, and the attitudes Christians can assume to face martyrdom bravely.

“‘A Solid Drop of Gold’: Wealth and Poverty”

Hall describes John Chrysostom’s vivid, almost empathetic homily about the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-25).

“‘The Misery of These Evils’: War and Military Service”

Hall argues that, overall, Christianity opposed Christian participation in warfare, until the time of Constantine.

“‘The Closest of Relationships’: Sex and the Dynamics of Desire”

Hall discusses apatheia (cleansing from destructive passions) and Christian celibacy.  He appeals to Seinfeld as an example of characters with negative apathy, but he mistakenly calls George’s fiance “Linda” when her name was “Susan.”  Hall also made a poignant remark when he said that certain challenging biblical exhortations and commands “should not die the death of a thousand qualifications” (page 130).

“‘One Hope, One Desire, One Way of Life’: Life as Male and Female, and the Goodness and Beauty of Marriage”

Hall talks about the patriarchal attitudes of church fathers but also exceptions to the rule, such as Paula, who studied with Jerome.  Hall also describes John Chrysostom’s shift in attitude towards marriage: he went from being cranky and negative about it, to extolling it as a beautiful institution.

“‘From the Cradle to the Grave’: Life and Death”

This was the best chapter, in my opinion, in that it was informative and balanced in discussing patristic stances towards abortion.  Hall describes the practice of abortion in the Greco-Roman world and Christian opposition to it.  He acknowledges, however, that there was some difference of opinion among Christians about it: some, such as Augustine, regarded abortion of an unformed fetus as wrong, but not as murder, whereas other Christians disagreed.  Hall also shares how Christians tried to save babies abandoned by Roman families, and Hall states that Hermas (of the Shepherd of Hermas) was one such baby.

“‘Let the Races Begin’: Entertainment”

This chapter was about the negative patristic stances towards the theater (which had nudity) and the coliseum (which had violence).  Jerome also felt a bit guilty about reading Cicero rather than Scripture and deeming Scripture to be stylistically inferior.  Hall thoughtfully discusses the positives and negatives of entertainment today, suggesting questions that Christians can ask in deciding how to engage it.

“‘Learning to Live a Good Life with God’: The Well-Ordered Heart”

I enjoyed the stories about people, specifically academics, who struggled with Christianity, yet found in a church father something that challenged and resonated with them.

This is a rich book.  Hall describes what living in the times of the fathers was like, as he compares and contrasts patristic teaching with that of the fathers’ Greco-Roman environment.  He goes into depth on specific patristic teachings.  The book also presents compelling passages from church fathers, passages that advocate a certain spiritual attitude.  Hall does not seem to advocate slavish imitation of the church fathers, but he presents their views as they are, while offering suggestions about how these views can instruct Christians today.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Write-Up: A Light on a Hill, by Connilyn Cossette

Connilyn Cossette.  A Light on a Hill.  Bethany House, 2018.  See here to buy the book.

A Light on a Hill is the first book of Connilyn Cossette’s “Cities of Refuge” series.  The Israelite cities of refuge are discussed in Numbers 35.  Essentially, they are cities to which a person who commits manslaughter flees, to be protected from death at the hands of the victim’s avenging relatives.  Priests also live in cities of refuge.  A Light on a Hill takes place seven years after Cossette’s book, Wings of the Wind, which was the third book of Cossette’s “Out of Egypt” series.

Moshe has died, and his successor, Yehoshua, has led the Israelites to conquer many, but not all, of the cities of Canaan.  Moriyah is a daughter of an Egyptian who joined the Israelites, and, at the beginning of the book, she is a captive in Jericho.  She is being prepared to become a Temple prostitute and is tattooed with images of Canaanite deities.  She manages to escape and returns to the Israelites.  Ashamed of her tattoos, she continually wears a veil among the Israelites.

At a festival, she meets a man named Darek, and they develop a chemistry.  She thinks that he is the man to whom his father is engaging her, but it turns out that she is engaged to his cold older brother, Raviv.  Raviv has two twin sons, and they are bullying Moriyah’s young friend, Eitan.  Moriyah threatens the twins as she is preparing soup for the family.  A poisonous plant gets inside of the soup, and the twins die.  Moriyah looks like a murderer, so she undertakes a journey to a city of refuge to escape being killed by Raviv and to await a trial.  She is joined by her family’s servant, the loyal Yuval, and, eventually, the conflicted Darek shows up and accompanies her on her journey.  They have adventures, and Darek and Moriyah both confront their inner demons.

My response to Wings of the Wind was rather “meh”: it seemed to regurgitate the standard Christian apologetics about the Israelite conquest, and the depiction of the Canaanites was flat.  A Light on a Hill, by contrast, was really good.  Many of the characters struggled with ambivalence or painful pasts and presents; some learned profound spiritual lessons, and some did not.  Among the lessons that Moriyah learned was the importance of loving her enemies, how to hear the voice of God, and how she was wrong to judge her fellow Israelites as harshly as she did.

There were characters whom I especially liked, and scenes that I enjoyed.  One character was Ora, a blind woman whom Moriyah helped.  Ora was a quiet, peaceful, and wise presence in Moriyah’s life.  There was a Midianite woman who was asking spiritual questions.  In terms of scenes, Yuval and Darek learning to like each other after their initial suspicion stood out to me, as did the tense scene in which Moriyah was pretending to be a Canaanite priestess, as a Canaanite king questioned her to see if she was telling the truth.

Cossette also incorporates scholarship into her story, such as the historical recognition that Egypt controlled many cities of Canaan in the fifteenth century B.C.E.

There were some quibbles that I had: how could Yuval be released from slavery in the seventh year, when Yuval was not a Hebrew, and Hebrew slaves were the slaves who were released at that time (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12)?  He is depicted as somewhat of a convert, so that may be the reason.

The romantic dialogue could get cheesy, and Eitan was a bit annoying, but this was an enjoyable book, in that it had comfortable characters.

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

Church Write-Up: The Way, and the Timeless Afterlife

It is late right now, so my Church Write-Up will be terse.

A.  At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, the main Scriptural text was John 14:6: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (KJV).  The youth pastor brought up a box of uncooked macaroni and cheese.  He bit into a raw noodle, then he took a bite of raw noodles with the cheese dust on it.  It did not taste good!  The youth pastor asked the child what they could do to make the macaroni and cheese taste better.  There were instructions on the box about how to prepare and cook it, the youth pastor observed.  But wouldn’t it be good if an adult fixed the macaroni and cheese for the kid?  And that is what Jesus did for us: he kept the law and died for our sins that we might have eternal life.  Jesus did not just show us the way: he is the way.

B.  In the sermon, the pastor talked about human attempts to search for God, on their own terms.  He likened that to the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, as people wrongly sought to build a tower that would reach the heavens.  John 14 itself has a similar theme: Jesus’ disciple Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, indicating, to the pastor, that Philip wanted God to show up on Philip’s own terms.  Thomas wanted to know the way to where Jesus was going.  Jesus said, though, that he was the way.  The pastor said that many of us are on a spiritual search: we look for some way for our lives to matter, or to convince ourselves that our lives matter; we seek answers for why we suffer; and want to fill the God-sized hole in our hearts and find rest.  We can become so preoccupied trying to carve our own way to God, that we neglect what God has already done in Christ.  God has met us in Christ, understands and is with us in our suffering, and gives us hope and spiritual riches.

C.  As is usually the case, the Sunday school class on patristic interpretations of John got into a variety of issues.  There is Augustine’s proposal that the three resurrections Jesus performed symbolize the spiritual resurrection of those who sin in their heart, those who sin outwardly, and those who habitually sin.  There was John Chrysostom’s status as bishop at Constantinople, the capital of the Roman empire, and one of the wealthiest churches.  Senators attended it.  But Chrysostom took the bold step of giving a lot of the church’s wealth to the poor—-to make a soup kitchen, among other things.  That provoked ire on the part of his congregation.

The teacher got into the state of the dead.  The way he told it, believers, at death, go to a state of timelessness.  From other people’s perspective, their bodies are in the ground.  From the departed believers’ perspective, they are immediately at the bodily resurrection, with their body and soul united.  It was difficult to comprehend this.  A student was challenging the teacher, saying that the souls of believers go to heaven and wait until the final resurrection before their souls and bodies are reunited.  The teacher did not seem to believe in soul sleep (i.e., the dead are unconscious until the resurrection).  Like this student, I have my share of “But what about?”s to what the teacher was saying.  Still, the teacher was making an interesting point: if heaven is a realm of timelessness, then what does it mean for the dead to go to a timeless realm, a realm outside of our linear time in which the general resurrection is an event in the future?

D.  I went to the “Word of Faith” church, and the pastor’s daughter was preaching.  She recently came back from Columbia, and she shared how the people there were hungry for the Gospel, despite the language barrier and her cheesy skits (her words).  She believed the Holy Spirit was at work.  She talked about going out to pray out loud for someone’s healing, in that person’s presence: she was hesitant, but she said God told her that he would uphold his own honor.  She believes that person will be healed.  Another event that she considered to be a God-moment was when she saw a blind person in a fast-food restaurant: she asked God for a sign, and God said that the sign was that the person was blind and needed her help.  She said that many of us seek signs, even when it comes to areas where God’s will has been laid out: that we should do our devotions, or tithe.  Another point that she made was that we look to teachers to feed us, when we should remember that God feeds: her text for this was John 6, in which many Jews claimed that Moses gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, whereas Jesus said that God gave the manna.

I am not endorsing all of this.  I am just relaying it.

Time for bed.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Church Write-Up: Control, and Why Does God Care What We Do?

I attended last Wednesday’s Lenten service at the local Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

The pastor’s main text was James 4:13-15:

13 Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:
14 Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.
15 For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.  (KJV)

The pastor talked about how tied we are to our calendars, and how we try to be in control through the management of our time.  Wanting to be in control—-equal to God—-was the sin in the Garden of Eden.  The pastor encouraged us to let go and let God, and that we can trust Christ because his nail-marked hands demonstrate his love for us.

Of course, I will continue to schedule.  The pastor will probably continue to schedule.  His point probably was not that we should not schedule, but that we should reflect.  Here we are, trying to be in control, and our lives are a vapor.  They go by so fast.  Plus, we are vulnerable as we go through life.  We should reflect on God, who is truly in control.

The pastor also told a story about when he was in high school, and a classmate and he were discussing religion.  The classmate asked, “Why does God care how we live, anyway?  How does it affect him?”  The pastor regarded that question as immature, and he thought that the classmate wanted to live his own life as he wished, without answering to God.  I think it is a question worth exploring.  Here God is, great and powerful.  Why does God care what we do?  A lot of answers can be proposed.  God loves righteousness and hates wickedness and its effects, and God, as one who loves God’s creatures, desires that they live in shalom with each other rather than harming one another.  God created us to be God’s image-bearers, exercising wise dominion over creation.  God desires that we rest in God as the ultimate, rather than ourselves, as God is greater, and we can do better when we worship what is beyond ourselves.  There may be other answers out there.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Write-Up: Mere Science and Christian Faith

Greg Cootsona.  Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults.  IVP Books, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Greg Cotsoona has been a pastor and is currently an academic.  He has a Ph.D. from Graduate Theological Union and teaches religious studies and humanities at Chico State University.  He also leads Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries (STEAM) at Fuller Theological Seminary and is affiliated with Biologos.

Emerging adults range from ages 18 to 30.  A number of them are alienated from the church, and Cootsona believes that a significant factor behind this is the widespread belief that science and religion are at odds.  Many emerging adults are saturated with science and technology.  A number of them go into scientific fields, and many have grown up with advanced and advancing technology.

Cootsona seeks to demonstrate, largely for the benefit of emerging adults, that science and evangelical Christianity need not be at odds.  At the same time, he aims to explain to emerging adults how Christianity should respond to scientific developments, some of which present profound ethical challenges.  Among the topics that Cootsona discusses are: the Big Bang and Fine-Tuning; the question of whether the soul exists or if the brain is what generates the mind; the historicity of Genesis 1-3; Intelligent Design; the advantages and disadvantages of increasing technology (i.e., virtual communities and smart-phones); transhumanism; the possible genetic basis of homosexual orientation; and climate change.

Using surveys, case studies, and quotations of emerging adults, Cootsona attempts to profile where many emerging adults are on the questions of science and religion.  They are in different places, but, overall, Cootsona believes that they are at least open to the idea that science and religion can co-exist peacefully, or at least that they have the potential to be open.  He notes that even many emerging adult atheists are less belligerent towards religion than their atheistic forebears.  Cootsona offers suggestions about what churches can do to mentor and assist emerging adults who have questions about how science and religion can relate.

The book is not a comprehensive survey of the issues surrounding the relationship between science and religion.  After reading the mind-body chapter, I thought to myself, “Is that it?”, then proceeded to the next chapter.  Still, Cootsona conveys literacy about these issues, and he refers briefly to different views, without thoroughly fleshing them out.  He does so in a lucid, understandable manner, while leaving readers with the impression that there is more.  Moreover, even the terse sections address profound issues: the chapter on the mind-body problem, for instance, referred to the view that the human brain is actually oriented towards religion.

On some issues, Cootsona appears rather liberal; on some issues; he is rather conservative; on some, he is undecided.  He believes that climate change is human-caused and advocates creation care.  He is skeptical of arguments for Intelligent Design.  He tends to be skeptical that there is a “gay gene” and disputes that genetics determines what is moral and immoral.  He seems to accept evolution but is not fully satisfied, from a theological perspective, with certain Christian attempts to regard Adam and Eve as something other than two historical people.

While the book is not comprehensive and does not offer definitive answers on every question, it is a decent introduction to the issues surrounding the relationship between science and religion.  Those who want to learn more can read the books that Cootsona recommends and describes at the end, and even books cited in his endnotes.  The book also is readable and conveys a friendly tone, making it an enjoyable read.

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

Church Write-Up: Yielding, Christology, Faith, Nicodemus

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

Here is my description of each, based on what stands out in my mind right now.  Occasionally, I will include personal commentary and reflection.

A.  The church has been using road and street signs to convey themes of Lent.  It used the “Stop” sign a week or so ago in discussing repentance.  This Sunday, it used a “Yield” sign.  The pastor was complaining about his struggles with traffic, and how drivers, including himself, are not too interested in yielding to other drivers when they are on the road.  The pastor referred to Philippians 2:3, which states, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves” (KJV).  The pastor criticized Facebook memes and posts that denigrate other people, for political reasons or to lambaste other people’s parenting.  The pastor inquired if we are treating others as equal to ourselves when we do that, let alone as better than ourselves.

Yielding to others is a basic Christian principle, one that was in the forefront of my mind when I first became a Christian, but one of which I frequently lose sight.  I think that it is a valuable principle, albeit one that can be misused.  I recall Steven Covey’s principle, “Think Win-Win,” which is about both parties arriving at a solution that is beneficial and satisfactory to both of them, as opposed to one party voluntarily losing and allowing the other to win.  “Think Win-Win” sounds reasonable to me.  Moreover, if I am competing with somebody for a job, as will probably often be the case in this day and age, of course I will take the job if it is offered to me, rather than selflessly giving it up for the benefit of another competitor.  I will need the money, like anyone else.  Still, at times, there is a place for stepping aside for the benefit of others.  While this can take the form of being a passive doormat, it can also be an exemplification of inner strength: a person is strong enough not to get his or her own way, for the person receives strength and identity, not from consistently winning, but from Christ’s love.

B.  The Sunday School class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John got into a variety of issues, but I will highlight two.

First, once again, there is the issue of Jesus’ divine and human nature.  In John 11, Jesus weeps and his soul is troubled after his friend Lazarus has died.  Church fathers had issues with this, for did not Jesus have a divine nature, and is not the divine nature free of troubles and passions?  Augustine essentially said that Jesus was able to control when he was sad and wept, as opposed to being dominated by his passions.  Augustine also said that Jesus could control when he was sleepy and hungry.  I thought of the City of God, in which Augustine stated that, prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve had sex, but Adam was able to control when he had sexual desire, as opposed to being a slave to concupiscence, which he was after the Fall.

Someone in the class said that such a view depicted Jesus’ human nature as if it is an automaton, as Jesus chooses to turn the “sad” lever when he decides to become sad.  He expressed doubt that this would be consistent with Jesus being truly human.  We, after all, do not decide when we become sad, or hungry, or sleepy: these things happen to us.  (This is not an absolute statement: if we fast, we will become hungry; if we deprive ourselves of sleep; we will become sleepy.  But these things inevitably happen to us at some point, apart from our choice.)

Some of the Fathers, incidentally, seemed to depict Jesus’ flesh as rather vulnerable, and yet Jesus’ divine nature was able to discipline it.

Second, the teacher was discussing the patronage system in the ancient Roman empire.  People had patrons, and people had clients.  Even a slave could have clients: a slave could do a favor for someone, and that other person would be in the slave’s debt.  The teacher said that the favor bestowed by the patron was called grace, whereas the reception of the favor, and the accompanying loyalty, allegiance, and obligation to the patron, was called faith.  The teacher suggested that this was the way to understand Paul’s view of grace and faith: faith is not mere intellectual assent to Christianity but is allegiance, loyalty, and faithfulness to Christ.

Someone in the class raised a question.  He said that he has struggled with Jesus’ statements in the synoptic Gospels that people’s faith has made them well.  Was not Jesus’ power what made them well, as opposed to their faith?  The teacher tried to tie this with the patron-client relationship: Jesus as patron was doing favors for people, and people, in allegiance to Jesus, received them.  There may be something to this.  I had long assumed that the faith that Jesus praises in the synoptic Gospels is belief that Jesus, or God through Jesus, would or could perform a miracle or an act of healing.  I do not see where allegiance or loyalty would fit into that, though, perhaps, another definition of faith would: trust in God.  But could allegiance or loyalty fit into the equation, somehow: people, by accepting Jesus’ miracle, were not simply being healed, but they were declaring their allegiance towards the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing, which included healing?

C.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor contrasted Nicodemus in John 3 with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

The pastor had an interesting interpretation of John 3, which I will neither endorse nor criticize, only present.  According to the pastor, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and the occurrence of the meeting by night indicated that Nicodemus had a sinister political purpose, as “night” usually accompanies something bad in the Gospel of John (i.e., John 9:4; 11:10; 13:30; 21:3).  Nicodemus, speaking for the Sanhedrin, wanted to bring Jesus under the Sanhedrin’s control; the Sanhedrin did not care for John the Baptist, who was acting outside of its control.  Nicodemus was a rabbi, and he knew that Jesus was a rabbi.  Nicodemus wanted to speak to Jesus, rabbi to rabbi.

But Jesus would have nothing of it.  Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again.  When Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:5 that he must be born of water and of Spirit, he was essentially telling Nicodemus to go to the Jordan river, be baptized by John the Baptist (whom Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin scorned), and repent.  And, according to the pastor, Nicodemus was familiar, on some level, with what Jesus was talking about: Nicodemus was aware of such passages as Ezekiel 36:25-27, which includes the eschatological promises that God will sprinkle clean water on the Israelites and put God’s Spirit within them.  But Nicodemus was not willing to play ball: he liked his power and thought he was righteous already.  He was resistant to Jesus’ Kingdom and what God wanted to do with him and with Israel.

Jesus had two responses to Nicodemus.  First, to Nicodemus’ desire to speak with Jesus rabbi to rabbi, Jesus retorted that the two of them were on different planes: Jesus’ plane was spiritual, whereas Nicodemus’ plane was limited.  They could not speak to each other rabbi to rabbi, as if they were on the same plane.  Second, in John 3:14, Jesus referred to the story of the uplifted bronze serpent in Numbers 21.  The Israelites are complaining, so God sends poisonous serpents to bite them.  Moses creates a bronze serpent, and the Israelites are to look to that and be healed.  Jesus compared himself to that bronze serpent.

The pastor said that complaining and grumbling bring curses upon us.  According to the pastor, Nicodemus was doing so by resisting God’s Kingdom through Jesus, and what God wanted to do in his life.  But Jesus was offering a solution: look to Jesus and be healed.

In terms of the contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, the pastor suggested that there was a difference in Jesus’ approach to the two.  Nicodemus wanted to negotiate with Jesus and bring Jesus down to his level, and Jesus said no.  But Jesus was willing to meet the Samaritan woman, who was sinful and knew she was sinful, where she was.  Nicodemus, at least in John 3, was self-righteous, whereas the Samaritan woman knew she was a sinner.  (By the way, the book, Vindicating the Vixens, contains an essay that disputes the idea that the Samaritan woman was promiscuous.)

I’ll stop here.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Book Write-Up: Bible Matters, by Tim Chester

Tim Chester.  Bible Matters: Making Sense of Scripture.  IVP Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Tim Chester pastors Grace Church in Boroughville, North Yorkshire and teaches at Acts 29 Oak Hill Academy.  This book presents to Christians reasons that they should read the Bible, as well as offers occasional guidance on how to read it in a spiritually-constructive manner.

Here are some thoughts about the book:

A.  Chester believes in the plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible.  That, for him, appears to be the only way for the Bible to be reliable and authoritative.  He seems open, though, to the possibility that Genesis 1 is not to be interpreted literally.  And, like a number of evangelicals, he does not believe in the divine dictation of all of Scripture.  God dictated to Moses, but “at other times the human authors wrote down their own thoughts and drew on their own existing knowledge,” yet “God so worked in them that their thoughts were God’s thoughts” (page 23).  Chester refers to Luke and Paul as examples of this: Luke researched sources and Paul wrote letters, and neither was waiting for the Holy Spirit to move them.  Still, in some way, as they performed their human activities, they wrote under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Does this model of inspiration work?  Chester looks to the Scriptures themselves to define how Scripture is inspired.  For him, Scripture demonstrates that God not only spoke the Scriptures, but that God still speaks through the Scriptures.  Indeed, the Scriptures themselves seem to have a high view of how the biblical writings were inspired, stressing the divine side of the equation.  This appears to be so, even if analysis of those Scriptures (i.e., looking at the ideologies and writing styles within the Bible) can call into question that view of inspiration.  A question would be whether Paul and Luke believed that they were writing actual Scripture: perhaps they themselves stressed the divine side of inspiration, but they wrote their writings as humans and did not consider them Scripture, even though Paul thought that he was bringing the Word of God (the Gospel), and Luke was attempting to write an orderly narrative about Jesus.

B.  There were times when Chester was rather dismissive of other perspectives.  He said that people who harp on biblical contradictions usually cannot name too many of them, and they are rebellious against God, anyway.  Well, in this age in the Internet, all one has to do is google “biblical contradictions” and see examples of possible contradictions!  Chester was dismissive of scientific and archaeological challenges to the Bible: scientists can be flawed and biased, and archaeology interprets artifacts that do not speak.  Maybe there is a valid point somewhere in there, yet should not their case be heard, rather than dismissed?  Chester offers a fairly decent case that Jesus in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 believes in the Palestinian canon, which excludes the apocrypha, then he casually explains away Jude 1:14-15’s quotation of I Enoch 1:9.  Chester says that Jude is not quoting Enoch as authoritative Scripture but is simply quoting a source, as Paul quotes the Stoics in Acts 17:28.  That does not work, though, because Jude treats those words of Enoch as an actual prophecy.

C.  Chester attempts to offer some basis for belief in Christianity.  On the one hand, he employs a form of classical apologetics: he states that the apostles were eyewitnesses and would have prevented any errors about Jesus from entering the Bible.  It is like the apostles were the Snopes of the ancient world.  There may be something to this, yet it is too neat, perhaps too neat than what the reality was.  On the other hand, Chester states that those who have the Holy Spirit are enlightened, and they will see Christ in the Scriptures.  If that is the case, why are there believers who struggle to derive edification from the Bible, as he himself acknowledges?

D.  That said, Chester does engage good questions.  For instance, he tackles the question of how he can believe in Christianity, without having studied every alternative religion.  His response is that he did not have to date every woman before he concluded that he loved the woman who became his wife.

E.  Chester echoes Tim Keller in saying that, if God were real, then God would contradict us, as other beings do.  This makes sense, yet it is a difficult saying to accept.  Granted, our moral sense may be flawed, as we look back in history and see flaws in previous generations’ perspectives.  Still, should we shut off our moral sense in evaluating if a statement in the Bible is good or bad?  Does not the Bible in places appeal to people’s reason or moral sense, implying that they are, in some measure, reliable?

F.  The book would have been better had it had more examples.  Examples of what?  Well, Chester talked about how Scripture challenges, then comforts, believers.  More anecdotes about how it does so may have illustrated what Chester meant.  These anecdotes would have been especially effective had Chester shown how seemingly barren passages of Scripture could edify Christians, or even how offensive passages could instruct them.

G.  The book was effective in making some of the points that it did make.  Chester argues that reading Scripture is about encountering God, not so much arriving at novel insights.  Chester employed analogies in making this point.  Chester said that he is interested in why verses say what they say and why they are present in a given biblical passage; that resonates with me, from a scholarly perspective, and Chester himself performed a close reading of biblical passages in this book, drawing interesting conclusions.  Chester effectively demonstrated how Scripture itself stresses continually the power of God’s speech.  Chester also includes insights from Zwingli and Puritans on how to prepare spiritually to read Scripture.  Overall, Chester does paint a compelling picture of how a person of God can cherish and value Scripture.

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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Church Write-Up: Abiding (John 15:1-17)

I went to the midweek Lent service at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church.  Last week’s service was cancelled due to snow and ice.  The pastor this Wednesday preached about John 15:5-8.  John 15:1-17 states the following (in the KJV):
John 15:1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.
11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.
12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.
16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
17 These things I command you, that ye love one another.
Here are some thoughts, some based on the sermon, some not:

A.  V. 2 says that the Father takes away the branches that are in Jesus yet bear no fruit.  Does that mean that a Christian, one who is in Jesus, can lose his or her salvation if he or she is not producing the fruits of a righteous spiritual and moral character?

Those who believe that Christians cannot lose their salvation have ways to explain this passage.  A Reformed view is that the fruitless branches are only superficially, loosely, or apparently attached to the vine (representing Jesus), not fully or genuinely attached to it.  Andrew Naselli, who is Reformed, appears to go this route in his book, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful.  John MacArthur in his commentary goes a similar route when he states: “The picture is of the vinedresser (i.e., the Father) getting rid of dead wood so that the living, fruit bearing branches may be sharply distinguished. This is a picture of apostate Christians who never genuinely believed and will be taken away in judgment (v. 6; Matt. 7:16; Eph. 2:10); the transforming life of Christ has never pulsated within them (8:31, 32; cf. Matt. 13:18–23; 24:12; Heb. 3:14–19; 6:4–8; 10:27–31; 1 John 2:19; 2 John 9).”

Christians who believe that Christians can lose their salvation can then retort, “But does not the passage say that these fruitless branches are in Christ?  How can they be in Christ, if they were not are genuine Christians?”  That is a good question, and yet, in my opinion, the Reformed argument does have some merits.  John 15:5 appears to say that abiding in the vine leads to the production of fruit; John 15:6 affirms that a branch that abides not in Christ is cast forth as a withered branch and is thrown into the fire.  A fruitless branch is a branch that does not abide in Christ, in short.  One could then ask: Can a branch be in Christ, while not abiding in Christ?  Is abiding a deeper connection with Christ than merely being in Christ?

B.  Another “once-saved-always-saved” interpretation of John 15:2 is that it means that God lifts up the fruitless branches, washes them, exposes them to the sunlight, and enables them to bear more fruit.  See here and here for articles that argue along these lines.  This is an appealing view, in that it affirms that God does not give up on people. It reminds me of Luke 13:6-9.  In that passage, the master of the vineyard observes that a fig tree has not produced fruit for three years and tells the dresser to cut it down, but the dresser offers to dig around it and give it dung to fertilize it.  If it still has not produced fruit, the master can cut the tree down.  But Jesus bends over backward to bring fruit from the fruitless tree.

Some, including the articles to which I link, argue that it was the practice in first century Palestine to try to improve fruitless branches rather than discarding them.  Bruce Wilkinson, in his book, Secrets of the Vine, refers to a conversation that he had with a modern-day vineyard owner:

“New branches have a natural tendency to trail down and grow along the ground,” he explained.  “But they don’t bear fruit down there.  When branches grow along the ground, the leaves get coated in dust.  When it rains, they get muddied and mildewed.  The branch becomes sick and useless.”

“What do you do?” I asked.  “Cut it off and throw it away?”

“Oh no!” he exclaimed.  “The branch is much too valuable for that.  We go through the vineyard with a bucket of water looking for those branches.  We lift them up and wash them off.”  He demonstrated for me with dark, callused hands.  “Then we wrap them around the trellis or tie them up.  Pretty soon they’re thriving.”

As he talked I could picture Jesus’ own hand motions when he taught in the vineyard that night…When the branches fall into the dirt, God doesn’t throw them away or abandon them.  He lifts them up, cleans them off, and helps them flourish again.
By contrast, Craig Keener, in the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, asserts that the practice in first century vineyards was that farmers “removed unfruitful branches entirely” (page 293).  Keener states: “Those tending vines (and some kinds of trees) would cut away useless branches lest they wastefully sap the strength of the plant; in the long run, this diverted more strength into the branches that would genuinely bear fruit.”

C.  The pastor was making a similar point to what Keener makes, only the pastor seemed to be interpreting the fruitless branches as the sinful aspects of individual believers: God, through God’s refinement of believers, clears away what is fruitless (i.e., sins, character defects) from them.  V. 2 does appear to be making a similar point when it affirms that God prunes fruitful branches that they might produce more fruit.  But the branches themselves seem to represent people who are somehow connected to the vine, not characteristics of those people.  When God takes away the fruitless branch, in short, God is taking away a person, not a characteristic (i.e., sin) of that person.

That said, when the pastor talked about how the fruitless branches sap the strength of other plants, I wondered if John 15:2 related, in some way, to church discipline.  An unrepentant person in church can conceivably hinder the spiritual growth of other believers: Paul states in I Corinthians 5:6 that a little leaven leavens the whole lump.  Romans 16:17 states: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (KJV).  In a sense, people in a church need to be on the same page, at least on some level, to edify one another spiritually.

John Gill believes that there is a multifaceted meaning to John 15:2:
taketh away; removes them from that sort of being which they had in Christ. By some means or another he discovers them to the saints to be what they are; sometimes he suffers persecution to arise because of the word, and these men are quickly offended, and depart of their own accord; or they fall into erroneous principles, and set up for themselves, and separate from the churches of Christ; or they become guilty of scandalous enormities, and so are removed from their fellowship by excommunication; or if neither of these should be the case, but these tares should grow together with the wheat till the harvest, the angels will be sent forth, who will gather out of the kingdom of God all that offend and do iniquity, and cast them into a furnace of fire, as branches withered, and fit to be burnt.
Gill alludes there to a variety of biblical passages: Matthew 13:21//Mark 4:17; I John 2:19; Matthew 18:17; I Corinthians 5; Matthew 13:30.  His point is that God takes away fruitless branches from the church, in the present and also in the eschaton.

That does not mean that believers are to lack compassion for the unrepentant people in church.  I Corinthians 5:6 affirms that the fornicator is delivered unto Satan in hopes that he might be saved at the Day of the Lord.  Matthew 18:15-17 outlines a process of giving the sinning brother opportunities to repent, and, if all of that fails, he is to be treated as an outsider.  Galatians 6:1 talks about meekly restoring those who are caught in a fault, while taking care that one is not tempted.  The pastor talked about telling people God’s law in a loving manner, while remembering one’s own faults.

Questions occur in my mind: Is not the church supposed to be a hospital for sinners?  Do not Christians develop better character when they learn patience with those who are unrepentant, or who are not on the same page as them?  Perhaps.  But it is understandable that some churches have concluded that disruption can pose a problem to the health of a church and should be addressed.

D.  What does abiding in Christ mean?  Naselli in No Quick Fix seemed to argue that abiding in Christ is keeping Christ’s commands, and God abiding in believers occurs when God’s word abides in them (through Scripture memorization?).  Naselli is arguing against a Christian view that abiding in Christ is passively letting go and letting God, waiting for Christ to produce fruit in a believer’s life.

Naselli’s teaching, as I understand it, is difficult for me.  Is abiding in Christ loving other Christians, which, in John 15:12, 17, is a commandment from Jesus?  Am I cut off from the tree when I do not do that?  I have difficulties loving people, so I hope that my salvation does not depend on that.  The idea, however, that I can bear spiritual fruit, including the fruit of love, by looking to Jesus in faith at least offers me hope.  Jesus himself is the vine, according to John 15:1-17, and Jesus is the source of fruitfulness.

The way that the pastor discussed this topic, Jesus is about love, and that means that we should be about love, as we are connected with Jesus and brought together through what Jesus did.  There are conditional sayings in John 15:1-17—-the statement in v. 14 that we are Christ’s friends if we do what he commands.  But, at the same time, John 15:1-17 emphasizes Christ’s proactive love towards the disciples.  I think also of I John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us” (NIV).

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