Monday, April 30, 2018

Roger Olson: Was James Cone a Prophet?

Church Write-Up: Spring Prayer Retreat 2018

I will write my Church Write-Up about the Sunday services this coming Wednesday.  In this post, I will write about a prayer retreat that I attended last Saturday morning.  It was at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church that I have been attending.  Here are some select items.

A.  We were discussing how prayer changes us, the people who pray.  If we find ourselves feeling cold towards God, we should pray, as Martin Luther said.  Someone said that praying with a person creates a bond.  The pastor said that lifting up people one dislikes towards the throne of grace softens one’s attitude towards them.  Someone else stated that praying for others makes us less self-centered: we can pray even for people we do not know, on the Max.  A lady was sharing her story about how she lost a child to a disease, and prayer got her through the aftermath of that.  She found that she was anxious, desperately trying to prevent anything bad from ever happening again.  But she decided to trust God, and she thanked God for the time that she got to spend with her daughter.  She had apprehensions about her elderly father, due to his declining health, but she is thankful that he is still able to visit churches and to preach.

B.  The pastor expressed disagreement with a particular interpretation of the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge in Luke 18:2-8.  Often, he said, pastors assert that the meaning of this parable is that we need to keep praying to wear God down, so that God will finally respond.  The pastor said that he thinks the widow knew that the judge would eventually respond, and that encouraged her persistence.  That is how it is with us and God: we can trust God’s faithfulness, and that encourages us to persist in prayer.  One person talked about how he tried to wear God down, but he eventually arrived at a point of dependence and surrender.

C.  We read Psalm 34:1-9.  The superscription sets that Psalm during the events of I Samuel 21:10-15.  David is on the run from King Saul and flees to Philistine territory.  David, of course, had a bad reputation among the Philistines, since he has slain ten-thousands of them.  David pretends to be a madman before the Philistine king, who consequently decides not to take David seriously as any sort of threat.  The pastor likened this to Obi-Wan saying to the Stormtroopers in Star Wars, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”  Psalm 34:1-9, in light of the superscription, is David’s expression of relief that God delivered him from peril, that the Philistine king bought his act.  Psalm 34:9 exhorts people to taste and see that the LORD is good, and the pastor said that a lesson he gets out of this is that God puts answers to our prayers in the tangible world: it is not just a head thing.  God tangibly delivered David, and God reaches out to us through baptism, the Eucharist, and the aspects of creation that remind us of God’s goodness.  Later on, the pastor said that God can use things to reach people that were originally designed for other purposes.  The woman who had lost a child talked about a church sign she saw that really ministered to her and gave her hope, saying “Your answer is in here.”  The pastor said that sign may have been put up by a snarky pastor, but God used it to minister to her.

D.  The pastor was interpreting Matthew 21:21, which states that faith can move mountains, and John 15:7, where Jesus promises that God will grant any request made in Jesus’ name.  The pastor was contending against name-it-claim-it folks.  He expanded upon his treatment of John 15:7 in his sermon on Sunday morning, so I will address that in my post on Wednesday.  On Matthew 21:21, he said that the fruitless fig tree represents the Jerusalem Temple system, and the mountain that would be moved and cast into the sea would be the Temple Mount: the Temple would end, and what Jesus offers in relationship with God would replace that.  Derek Leman has a similar, yet different, interpretation, which preserves what makes sense in the pastor’s interpretation, while redressing the parts that (in my opinion) do not fit the text as well.

E.  One point that was made was that our relationship with God does not rest on formal prayer, for we are continually connected with God in spirit.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we lack the words to pray (Romans 8:26).  The pastor shared that he missed a prayer before bedtime when he was a child, but he concluded that he was still connected with God, and God was bigger than he thought.

F.  The lady who had lost a child was talking about ways to pray God’s word: to absorb God’s word and to pray in response to it.  She gave us a sheet with Scriptures about God’s Word.  Someone remarked that the first passage on the list, II Timothy 3:16-17, primarily depicts Scripture as informative: it imparts useful information, which could even guide non-believers.  The Scriptures after that on the list, however, go a step further, depicting the Scripture as spiritually powerful and transformative.

G.  Prayer stations were set up throughout the church, according to the ACTS acronym: there was an Adoration station, a Confession station, a Thanksgiving station, and a Supplication station.  People could go to a station, pick up a sheet with Scriptural passages, and pray about those passages until a bell rung, after which (if they chose) they would go to another station.  In this item, I will share what passages stood out to me.

Before we started the stations, we practiced praying over the Scriptures with Psalm 91, which was about God’s protection of people.  Somewhere in my mind, I wondered if God truly protected the righteous or the faithful: if it really was the case that others would die of a plague, whereas the righteous and faithful would not.  There are stories of that sort of thing, but there are also stories of godly people suffering peril.  The question is legitimate, but, in that setting, I decided to put aside debating and “but what about”s and just to absorb the Psalm.  I felt safe and secure as I did so.

The verse that stood out to me at the Adoration station was Psalm 139:9-10: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (KJV).  I thought about the story of when George H.W. Bush was a soldier in World War II and was stranded at sea, and his faith got him through that.  The part about God being available for guidance, wherever we may be, also stood out to me.

At the Confession station, the verse that was salient to me was Psalm 51:6.  Whatever translation we were given says: “Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.”  Looking at my BibleWorks, I can see that there are other ways to understand and to translate that verse.  The way that the sheet rendered it, however, made me think about how God created us in the beginning with some innate sense of right and wrong.

At the Thanksgiving station, the passage that stood out to me was Psalm 105:16-22.  God sent famine to Egypt, but God providentially sent down Joseph, whom the Egyptians shackled and imprisoned.  But the Word of God that Joseph proclaimed was fulfilled, and Joseph was released and exalted, to instruct princes and elders in wisdom.  Some of this can be disturbing: God caused a famine?  But, in a sense, it is edifying: God worked to teach people wisdom.

At the Supplication station, the sheet had a list of topics, and Scriptures we could look up if we were struggling with those topics.  The topic I chose related to conflict in relationships.  The Scriptures talked about God being our Father when we are alone and the importance of forgiveness, putting aside resentment, and love.  Usually, I am defensive when it comes to my willingness or ability (or lack thereof) to forgive or to love.  That time, though, I just absorbed the passage, and they made more sense to me.

H.  Near the beginning, the pastor said that we may pray for a person’s healing and be disappointed when that person dies, but the person is in heaven: the person is happier where he or she is, than if he or she were still alive on earth.  I was a little ambivalent about that.  See Steve Hays’ post here, especially the third item.  Also, I wondered if we should see any health related concern on earth as tragic, if a person’s death leads that person to go to heaven.  Jesus on earth certainly cared about people’s experiences on earth, for Jesus healed, and even resurrected, people.  At the same time, I think of people I know who have died, some even dying early deaths.  I was looking up a pastor from my childhood, and I remembered that his wife had a beautiful singing voice.  I learned that she died in 1999, at the age of 50.  How tragic.  But the Christian hope is that death is not her end: that she will live on.

I will leave the comments on, in case anyone wants to add anything.  I do not particularly want to read snarky atheist comments, though.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Write-Up: Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus

Lois Tverberg.  Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective Can Transform Your Understanding.  Baker, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Lois Tverberg has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and has been a college professor.  She has also studied biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek in Israel.

I initially thought that Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus would be about Jesus’ method of interpreting Scripture.  The book talks some about that.  Mainly, however, the book is about how Western presuppositions hinder Western Christians’ understanding and appreciation of the Bible.  As Tverberg states, many non-Westerners can identify with the world depicted in the Bible because it is like their world; what they have a hard time accepting is the Western culture that many Western missionaries promote.

What are some differences between Western culture and the culture of the Bible, according to Tverberg?  A lot of her focus in the book is on how Western individualism contrasts with the communalism that is displayed in the Bible.  Within the Bible, people emphasis family (recall all the “begats”) and tribe.  Jesus is not merely people’s personal Savior but is the redeemer of the world, the bringer of a new Kingdom.

Tverberg discusses other differences, as well.  Many Westerners like logic and reason, the sort that is displayed by the Apostle Paul.  The Hebrew language, however, is more illustrative and graphic.  Another difference that Tverberg notes is that there are Western Christian books about how the “Daniel diet” can make one thin, whereas the Daniel story itself says that it made Daniel and his friends fat (Daniel 1:15)!  Those are indeed different cultural presuppositions.

The book has plenty of interesting discussions.  For instance, Tverberg talks about how biblical forgiveness does not necessarily mean literal forgetting but is refusing to seek revenge; that may comfort those who have problems forgetting offenses against them.  She discusses how new kings would forgive transgressions, and argued that this is what Jesus was doing as Israel’s Messiah.  She argued that certain discussions of Scripture in the New Testament reflect the Jewish Scriptural lectionary.  She contrasts the Torah’s laws against murder with how other ancient Near Eastern cultures handled it.  And there are more rich discussions (i.e., creation in Genesis 1, the significance of the third day in Jesus’ resurrection and the Hebrew Bible, imputed righteousness in Judaism, etc.).

What is most impressive about this book is its engagement with scholarship.  Tverberg makes a special effort to draw from scholars.  In discussing the contrast between the Torah’s laws on murder and ancient Near Eastern policies, for example, she refers to a landmark article by Moshe Greenberg (“Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law”).  Nahum Sarna, Michael Fishbane, James Kugel, E.P. Sanders, and Sandra Richter also appear in the book, among others.  Tverberg does prefer certain scholars: she does not appear to care for the Jesus Seminar, and she seems to like the Jerusalem school, which holds that Jesus knew Hebrew.  She does not really sift through contrasting scholarly arguments, but she lets readers know that they are out there, as well as supports her own positions.  Her discussion of ancient Jewish education in the Torah perhaps could have been strengthened by quotations of what Josephus said about the subject (Ag. Ap. 1.60; 2.178, 204; Ant. 4.211); as the discussion stands, she relies on what rabbinic literature says children learned at certain ages, when some scholars argue that this is an idealized, not a realistic, picture.  Still, Tverberg is well-read, as her footnotes about the Hebrew language demonstrate, and she displays a firm grasp of Jewish history.  In addition, her illustrations demonstrate her effectiveness as a teacher.

I was not sure that I would enjoy the book before reading it.  After reading it, I would go so far as to say that the book could even be useful in college courses about the Bible.  I am open to reading other books that Tverberg has written.

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

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Church Write-Up: Acts 8:26-40; I John 4:1-11; John 15

I went to the Wednesday Bible Study at the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.  This post will convey some points that I heard.

A.  One of our texts was Acts 8:26-40, in which the deacon Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch.  The pastor set up some context by discussing the ordination of the deacons in Acts 6.  He said that the name Philip is Greek, but Philip may still be Jewish, since Jewish men could have Greek names.  If Philip was Gentile, then that was an example of the Gospel going beyond its Jewish roots unto the Gentiles, as Jesus forecast in Acts 1:8.  The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch is a definite example of that, as Ethiopia was deemed to be at the ends of the earth (according to Strabo).  This discussion stood out to me, because I have read about the debates over the identity of the Hellenists in Acts 6.  Many maintain that the Hellenists were Hellenistic Jews and that the Gospel officially started going to the Gentiles in Acts 10, not before.  Kirsopp Lake, by contrast, argued that the Hellenists were Greeks, and that one cannot neatly assert that Acts 10 marks the church’s outreach to Gentiles.  After all, the church was reaching out to Gentiles before then, with the Ethiopian eunuch.  The pastor seemed to prefer Lake’s view.

B.  The pastor gave us background about Ethiopian eunuchs.  In Meroe, a kingdom in Ethiopia, kings were considered to be too holy to be administrators, so the Queen-Mother, called the Candace, administered the realm.  Eunuchs served the Queen-Mother and guarded the harem, and they were made eunuchs so that they would not sleep with the women.  The eunuchs were probably mocked by their subordinates, and, under Deuteronomy 23:1, they were excluded from the assembly of the LORD; the pastor said that they were limited to the Court of the Gentiles, but may even have been excluded from there, on account of their condition.  The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is reading Isaiah 53, which asks who will declare the Suffering Servant’s generation after his life was taken from the earth.  The pastor speculated that the eunuch may have identified with the Suffering Servant, who was rejected and without offspring.

C.  Another text that we read was I John 4:1-11.  The pastor talked about the docetists and the Gnostics: people who denied that Jesus came in the flesh, died for people’s sins, and rose bodily and physically.  Because of their contempt for the material, they were very licentious in their lifestyles.  They were people who deliberately rejected Christ and were part of the “world” that John criticizes.  Persecution of the church was taking place, and John was seeking to reassure the believers that Christ was greater than the world.  John also talks about how confessing Christ—-and knowing and being known by Christ in intimate relationship—-leads to love for God and neighbor.  When the church helps people, it is testifying to the world about who Christ is.

D.  I asked a question.  In I John 4:3, the author tells the community that it knows the Antichrist would come.  The author states, though, that the Antichrist is in the world already, as manifest in those denying that Jesus Christ came in the flesh.  I wondered if the future Antichrist, likewise, would deny that Jesus came in the flesh, or if the spirit of Antichrist can manifest itself in different ways.  The pastor responded that amillennialists (which LCMS Lutherans generally are) think we have been in the end-times since Christ’s ascension, but that the similarity between the Antichrist spirit of I John 4 and the Beast of Revelation 13 is that both deny who Christ is.  The Antichrist will claim to be Christ himself, putting himself above Christ and saying that Jesus is insufficient to be Savior.

E.  We also read John 15, in which Jesus affirms that he is the vine and the disciples are the branches.  Jesus prunes what is spiritually unproductive in us through his word, his teaching.  There is also the significant factor of intimacy, as Jesus is intimate with the Father and believers.  The fruit of all this is prayer, love for God and one another, and obedience to Christ, all of which glorify the Father.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Church Write-Up: 4/21/2018

Last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, one of its Sunday school classes, and the “Word of Faith” church.

A.  I have been attending the Wednesday adult Bible study at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, in which we go through the coming Sunday’s Scripture readings.  As we read the Scripture readings last Sunday, what the pastor said last Wednesday made more sense to me.  The pastor said that the priests and Sadducees opposed Peter and John’s preaching because Peter and John proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead, and the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection.  Sure enough, Acts 4:1-2 says that the priests, captain of the Temple, and Sadducees were “grieved that [Peter and John] taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (KJV).  I John 3:16 states: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (KJV).  The pastor said that we lay down our lives for the brethren when we give our possessions and our words to people in the body of Christ.  Sure enough, the following verse talks about giving to one’s brother in need when one has the world’s goods.  The pastor differentiated between intellectually knowing and knowing intimately, and he stated that Jesus knows his sheep intimately.  Sure enough, John 10:15 affirms that Jesus knows the Father and the Father knows Jesus, and this probably does not mean that each is aware of who the other is, but that they intimately know each other.

B.  A theme running across the services was God’s love.  The Missouri Synod pastor told the story of how he feared being forgotten by his parents when he was a child, and, similarly, we wonder if anyone cares about us.  He said that God cares for us, even when we are unlovable.  The children’s part of the service contrasted a bad shepherd, who does not care about the sheep, with a good shepherd, who tenderly cares for the sheep and fights to protect them when they are in danger.  The Sunday School class watched another Rob Bell video.  This one was criticizing bullhorn street evangelists, who pass out tracts and preach hellfire and damnation on the street.  The message that came out, on the video and in discussion, was that we should love others, whether they accept our message or not, for God loves everybody, including the bullhorn evangelists.  The “Word of Faith” service was continuing through Ephesians.  The pastor set up a visual aid, in which God declares a Christian to be “Son,” principalities call the Christian “dumb,” and Jesus is covered up in the process.  According to the pastor, the principalities are indeed strongholds: they encourage oppression, berate people, try to convince people that personal rights are absolute (i.e., in the case of abortion), accuse people when they make mistakes, or encourage unforgiveness.  Jesus is covered up through this.  When a Christian accepts his identity as a child of God, Jesus is revealed.  The pastor said that we can gain a fuller comprehension of God’s love with other believers, for Ephesians 3:18 talks about comprehending with all the saints the height and depth of God’s love.

C.  There were interesting side-issues.  The “Word of Faith” pastor said that faith can affect the chemicals and molecules in our body and lead to healing, and even have an affect on such things as seeds, helping them to be productive.  I do not know if this is true.  I doubt that faith always leads to healing, but I do agree that having a positive attitude can be healthy, whereas bitterness, stress, and loneliness can lead to poorer physical health.

What particularly interests me about the Sunday School class is when people talk about their denomination: what they like, what they dislike, and why they stick with it.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Write-Up: Come, Let Us Eat Together

George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez.  Come, Let Us Eat Together: Sacraments and Christian Unity.  IVP Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

The basis for this book is lectures that were delivered at the 2017 Wheaton Theology Conference, by theologians with Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox backgrounds and affiliations.

The sacraments divide a lot of Christians.  There are Christians who believe that the “real presence” of Christ is in the Eucharist, as the bread and the wine in some manner become the body and blood of Christ.  There are other Christians who do not believe in the real presence, seeing the bread and the wine as symbolic, and the Lord’s supper primarily as a memorial service.  Some Christians believe that communion should be open, offered to everyone; other Christians hold to closed communion.  There are Christians who accept the baptism of infants, while other Christians deem such a baptism to be invalid, upholding the baptism of believers alone as legitimate.

A key question that looms in this book is, with all of these divisions, how can the church be one body?  Some contributors, particularly some of the Catholic ones, are rather pessimistic.  They believe that Catholics must not share a communion service with Protestants who reject the concept of the “real presence,” for both have radically different understandings of communion.  Other contributors look for an element in their own tradition, past or present, that may permit them to build bridges with Christians who have different views.  For instance, an Eastern Orthodox contributor proposes that perhaps understanding all of the mechanics of communion is not necessary for the communion to be efficacious to a believer.  A Baptist states that earlier Baptists had a stronger sacramentalism than the symbolic, memorialist view of the Eucharist that Baptists later embraced, a sacramentalism that believes that God is present in the sacrament and that the sacrament conveys divine help.

In the process, this book discusses the importance of communion, as well as other topics.  One essay focuses on the importance of loving the body of Christ (the church) when taking communion.  Another, drawing from John Chrysostom and John Wesley, wrestles with the tension between taking communion in a state of spirituality, and taking it out of a need for Christ due to one’s inherent unworthiness.  Another contribution mentions the scholarly debate about whether the risen Christ’s breaking of bread in Luke 24:30 pertains to the Eucharist; more than one contributor highlights the importance of the preaching of the Word preceding communion, as occurs in Luke 24, where Jesus opens the two men’s minds to the Scriptures, before breaking bread with them.  There was a chapter about how the Lutheran emphasis on grace influenced Christian art in Italy, including the art of Catholics.

The book also had anecdotes, which personalized it, and yet the anecdotes served to raise profound questions.  For instance, there was the story of one contributor, who had an idea to serve oreos and apple juice to other young Christians for communion, and the Catholic woman who later became his wife questioned that practice.

One has reason to be pessimistic that the differences within Christendom can be overcome or resolved, yet this book does well to ask if there are bridges that can be built.  The book is also edifying and informative.

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

Friday, April 20, 2018

Church Write-Up: The "Other Sheep" (John 10:16)

At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Bible study this week, the pastor was talking about John 10, in which Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.  In v 16, Jesus states:

“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (KJV).

Who are the “other sheep”?

I first encountered this verse when I was thumbing through the TV Guide back when I was a child.  There was an advertisement for the Book of Mormon, and it was saying that the “other sheep” were the followers of Jesus in the Americas around the first century C.E.

A friend of mine said that the “other sheep” were people in other religions.  This was his personal solution to the theological problem of non-Christians going to hell: that there were people in other religions who heard Christ’s voice, even if they may not have known explicitly about Christ.

At some point, my conclusion was that the “other sheep” would be the Gentiles, who would be included into the church alongside Jewish Christians.  In the Word Biblical Commentary, George Beasley-Murray argues that such an interpretation coincides with themes in the Gospel of John:

“If salvation is ‘of the Jews’ (4:22), it must first come to the Jews, and then proceed from them to the nations (significantly it was in that context that Jesus was described by Samaritans as the Savior of the world, 4:42). So here, in the context of Jesus as the Shepherd of God’s flock and in conjunction with his intention to lay down his life for the sheep, we learn that he has sheep of other folds than Israel’s. The death of the Shepherd embraces all people (cf. 11:50–52, also 3:16; 6:51; 12:20, 24, 31–32)…The mission to the nations is that of Jesus, continuing his mission to Israel’s fold. As he was sent by the Father on mission to Israel, so he will conduct his mission to the nations through his disciples (so 20:21; the thought is embodied in Matt 28:18–20, ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations … See, I am with you always …’; similarly in terms of action, in the longer ending of Mark at 16:20).”

At Bible study, the pastor shared two other interpretations.

One view states that Jesus is speaking about believers outside of Jerusalem, which may be where Jesus is when he speaks John 10:16.  He may mean believers in Galilee, for example.  My problem with this view is that John 10:16 states that the sheep WILL hear Jesus’ voice.  The believers in Galilee already heard it.

Another view is that John is countering isolationism within the church at Ephesus, where he pastors.  There may have been division among Jewish and Gentile Christians, in which case John is encouraging unity; this interpretation would coincide with the idea that Jesus is speaking about the inclusion of Gentiles into the church in John 10:16.  Alternatively, the Ephesian church may have wanted nothing to do with other churches.  The pastor said that the Missouri Synod Lutheran church rejects such isolationism, in that it recognizes the baptisms of other Christians: in short, a person who wants to join LCMS and was baptized already as, say, a Methodist does not need to be rebaptized.

There are limits to this policy, however.  On its web site, the LCMS states that it does not recognize the baptisms of people in non-Trinitarian churches; there, it was talking about the former Worldwide Church of God, but what it said would presumably include Jehovah’s Witnesses, or oneness Pentecostals.  A person wanting to join LCMS, after having been baptized in those churches, would need to be rebaptized.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

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

R.A. Denny.  Seekers (Mud, Rocks, and Trees, Book 2).  Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Seekers is the second book of R.A. Denny’s “Mud, Rocks, and Trees” series.  Zoltov is the evil ruler of Tzoladia, and the heroic refugees of the first book are continuing their quest to that region.

Seekers was interesting particularly because of its religious element.  I critiqued the first book of the series by saying that I did not recall it clarifying what was at stake in terms of the characters’ religious beliefs.  The second book explored that territory a lot more.  The heroic characters explicitly rely on the high God Adon.  A new syncretist cult is set up in a region, as it merges deities and promotes human sacrifice.  The old pagan cult is somewhat romanticized in this book, while still rejected.  While the new pagan cult is depicted as horrible, the book still provides a rationale for its positions.

There were compelling aspects of the story.  The lormonkeys were continually looming in the background, adding a sense of tension.  The end of the story, “Welcome to Tzoladia,” was dramatic.  Characters also surprised other characters, who stereotyped them in reference to their specie or group.  There were some elements of the story that I did not understand: the people who were hibernating, and the people who wanted to kill the people who were hibernating.  The lack of understanding may be due to my inattentiveness, but perhaps some recap would have made that aspect of the story clearer.

The pictures of the main protagonists at the beginning of the book were definitely helpful, as they laid out the type of species they are and assisted me in having a mental picture of them as I read.  The pictures provided a comfortable lead into the story.

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Write-Up: Eternity with God, by Erwin L. Lutzer

Erwin L. Lutzer.  How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God.  Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Erwin Lutzer has long been the senior pastor at Moody Church in Chicago.  In How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God, Lutzer tackles the issue of assurance of salvation: How can a Christian know for sure that he or she is saved and will not go to hell after death?

Lutzer refers to New Testament passages, such as Matthew 7:21-22, which seem to indicate that there are people who think they are saved but actually are not.  What, then, is the requirement for salvation?  Drawing from Pauline and Johannine writings, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:10-14, Lutzer argues that one must trust in the imputed righteousness of Christ to be saved.  One accepts Christ’s sacrifice for sins on one’s behalf, which brings divine forgiveness of sin (past, present, and future), and one accepts God’s free gift of imputed righteousness: God treats the sinful believer as if he or she lived the spiritual quality of life that Jesus lived.  This differs from trusting in one’s good works, which fall short in the face of God’s holiness.  Lutzer sounds like a Calvinist in that he argues that the Holy Spirit needs to awaken and spiritually resurrect a person for that person to have saving faith.  Lutzer also addresses the issue of assurance and what to do with doubt.  He is critical of looking primarily at one’s good works for assurance, yet he believes that a holy life should play some role in encouraging a person that he or she has been saved.  Lutzer has a poignant chapter on doubt, as he discusses how a person can doubt his or her salvation yet have saving faith, and posits that doubt can play a constructive role in a Christian’s life.  Throughout the book, Lutzer argues that trust in Christ is what saves, not rituals such as baptism, and he maintains that the salvation of the believer is eternally secure: it cannot be lost.  In the final chapter, Lutzer lucidly responds to objections to such positions, as he offers alternative interpretations of Bible passages that have been cited in favor of contrary views.

The book is not incredibly deep, and Christians who have been around the block may not find much that is new in what Lutzer has to say.  For me personally, the chapter on doubt provided helpful insights, even though Lutzer seems to vacillate between saying that believers can look at the quality of their spiritual lives as the fruit of salvation and a ground of assurance, and saying that this is not a helpful or biblical way to seek assurance.  Lutzer writes in a friendly, inviting tone, as is often the case, and he tells stories of people with struggles and problems, whom he has tried to help.  He also offers compelling historical anecdotes.  All of this adds a tone of compassion to the book, which lightens it somewhat, since it does contain the disturbing message that non-Christians will suffer torment in hell for all eternity.  Lutzer also did well to encourage Christians to let the Holy Spirit work in others rather than trying to force them to believe.

There were things that Lutzer said that initially sounded convincing, but were not as much so after some thought.  For instance, Lutzer addresses the question of whether Ted Turner is saved even though he is no longer a Christian.  Can a person apostasize and still be saved, since eternal security holds that a Christian cannot lose his or her salvation?  Lutzer’s conclusion is that Ted Turner may not have had saving faith at the outset but may have trusted his works and misunderstood the Gospel.  Maybe there is something to that, but there are plenty of people who did believe the right things (or say that they did) yet apostasized from the faith.  That needs to be considered.

In terms of biblical exegesis, Lutzer was a mix of rather convincing, not overly convincing, intriguing, and mildly disappointing.

On where he is rather convincing, Lutzer points out that Hebrews 10:10, 14 states that Christ has perfected the sanctified for all time in arguing for eternal security.  Lutzer notes Paul’s strong contrast between receiving salvation by faith in God’s grace and trusting in good works.  He interprets Jesus’ statement about being born of water and spirit (John 3:5), not in reference to water baptism, but in reference to Ezekiel 35:25-26, in which God promises to sprinkle clean water on the Israelites to cleanse them of their impurities and to give them a new heart and spirit.  There, Lutzer argues, the water is spiritual, not physical.

On where he is not overly convincing, Lutzer states that the unprofitable servant of Luke 19:22-24 is still saved, yet does not reign with Christ, even though the unprofitable servant in a similar parable is cast into outer darkness and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30); the servant there does not appear to be saved.  In trying to explain Hebrews 6, which some interpret to mean that Christians can lose their salvation, Lutzer vacillates between saying that the apostates were unbelievers, and saying that they merely lost temporal blessings but not their salvation.  Lutzer does gymnastics to explain away I Peter 3:21’s statement that baptism saves.

On where he was intriguing, Lutzer interprets passages about the Son of Man denying or being ashamed of people, not in reference to the straying Christians losing their salvation, but in reference to them losing a heavenly reward.  Lutzer makes a fairly decent case that Revelation 3:5 does not mean that God will blot some Christians out of the Book of Life.  In arguing against the idea that Acts 2:38 presents baptism as a prerequisite for salvation, Lutzer argues that the baptism in that verse is parenthetical: its verb is singular, whereas the verbs about repentance and receiving forgiveness of sins are in the plural.  This is an intriguing suggestion, but the reason that the verb is singular is that Peter there is telling “each” (singular) to be baptized.

On where he was disappointing, there were so many passages that could be addressed.  Lutzer seemed to be saying that a Christian could murder someone, die, then go to heaven.  How would he address I John 3:15, which affirms that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him?

Something that I found ironic: In Christ Among the Gods, Lutzer argues against Christian inclusivism by saying that God does not necessarily act according to our standards of fairness.  God permits inequalities in terms of people’s access to the truth.  For Lutzer, those who lack access to the Gospel may still be going to hell.  In Eternity with God, however, he seems to suggest that the Gospel is more inclusive than other religions: Lutzer inquires why God would only allow the religious into heaven.  For Lutzer, God would not, and the Gospel provides salvation to the struggling and the grossest sinner.  In both cases, Lutzer is saying that explicit belief in Christ is essential for salvation; it is just that, in the latter, Lutzer seems to be implying that the Gospel is about God making salvation easier for people.

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Church Write-Up: Belonging, Biblical Criticism

Here are some items for my Church Write-Up on last Sunday.  I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, one of its Sunday school classes, and the “Word of Faith” church.

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church told a story about when he was a junior college student, and he believed that he was being asked to help coach the high school speech and debate team.  He concluded that he did not particularly want to relive high school, so he told the teacher that he was not interested.  The teacher replied that she is glad that he let her know, but she was not going to ask him to be coach in the first place.  He felt rejected, as if he were unwanted and did not belong.  The pastor speculated that perhaps this was what Adam and Eve felt after they ate the forbidden fruit and were naked: alone and rejected.  But God has sought to restore the relationship through Christ and lavishes love and forgiveness on us: it is not just a layer of icing on the cake, but dumping the whole batch of icing onto the cake.  Rejecting God’s love and choosing to be alone (apart from God) is mortal sin.

At the Sunday school, a similar point was made.  A lady who teaches school was saying that she tries to remind her students and peers that it is not all about one person, that there is a bigger picture.  The teacher of the class then inquired if people who try to make everything about themselves are not getting the affirmation that they need.

At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor was talking about Ephesians and the Christian’s identity in Christ.  God says Christ is Savior and healer, and that means we are saved and healed.  The Christian church is based on this, as no one person is deemed to be superior to another.  Christians encourage each other about their identity in Christ.  And two Christians with little in common in terms of background actually have more in common than they do with those who share the same background: their identity is rooted in Christ.  It is nice when things can work out that way.

B.  There were comments that were made about the history and origins of biblical books.  The “Word of Faith” pastor was saying that Luke-Acts was written to assist Paul’s lawyer in Paul’s defense before Rome.  Its point was that Christianity was not a suspicious new cult but was a religion with a history, rooted in Judaism.  This is actually a common viewpoint.  N.T. Wright mentioned it in his biography of Paul.  A host on a TBN program referred to that view.

The teacher of the Sunday school class said that the story of Job was around for centuries as a wisdom tale, before it became canonized.  It became canonized during the Babylonian exile, when the Jews experienced suffering and sought to account for it.  There may be something to that, on some level.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary article dates the Book of Job to the sixth century B.C.E. on the basis of linguistic evidence, while acknowledging that the story may have existed before that.  Ezekiel 14:14, 20, presumably written in the sixth century B.C.E., mentions the character of Job, perhaps indicating that he had become renowned.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Book Write-Up: God's Mediators, by Andrew S. Malone

Andrew S. Malone.  God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood.  Intervarsity Press, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Andrew S. Malone teaches biblical studies at Ridley College, which is in Melbourne, Australia.  This book, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood, explores the concept of priesthood in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Malone’s treatment of the concept of priesthood in the Hebrew Bible is flatter than his interaction with the concept in the New Testament.  Malone ignores or downplays diversity within the Hebrew Bible, as he maintains a Christian interpretation of it.  Some examples:

—–Malone neglects what many scholars regard as a distinction between the views of P and Deuteronomy on the priesthood, with the former privileging Aaronides and the latter affirming that all Levites can serve as priests.

—-Malone, to his credit, does attempt to support his view that the Hebrew Bible envisions a union of the monarchy and the priesthood into a single office, with interesting arguments.  In doing so, he implies that the Hebrew Bible foreshadows Jesus, the priest-king.  In adhering to this thesis, however, Malone appears to minimize the biblical passages that sharply distinguish between the two offices.  Malone downplays King Uzziah’s illegitimate attempt to usurp a priestly function in II Chronicles 26.  In addition, Jeremiah 13:19-21 seems to treat the restored Davidic monarchy in the eschaton as distinct from the restored Levitical priesthood.  Malone largely treats that passage as an indication that there is hope for the priesthood, notwithstanding its spiritual failures, and Malone probably believes that this hope was fulfilled in Jesus.  Malone neglects the part of the passage about the Davidic monarchy and the priesthood being distinct.

—-Malone argues that Isaiah 66:21 depicts Gentiles serving as priests of Israel in the eschaton.  He believes that this relates to the inclusion of Gentiles into the church in the New Testament.  But what about Ezekiel 40-48, which depicts a restricted priesthood (the Zadokites) in the eschaton?

—-Malone contends that Israel was a priestly nation (Exodus 19:6) in that Israel was to teach the nations about God.  A la I Peter 2:9, Malone maintains that this mantle has fallen to the church, which includes Jews and Gentiles.  Malone attempts to argue that Exodus 19:6 means what he suggests, but there really is not much (if anything) in Exodus that explicitly suggests that Israel’s role as a priestly nation relates to some mission on her part to teach the nations about God.  It could simply relate to Israel’s role as a nation that worships God, an argument that Malone mentions.  Malone is much stricter when deciding whether or not to apply the concept of priesthood to other biblical themes, than he is when he considers Israel’s mission to the nations to be priestly.

In his treatment of the New Testament, Malone is more sensitive to biblical diversity, and he is slow to apply the concept of priesthood where he does not believe it is explicit.  Malone argues against the idea that Jesus performed a priestly function in his earthly ministry, according to the Gospels.  He does not believe that I Peter depicts Jesus as a priest, but rather as the sacrifice offered by the priestly church.  He does not see much of a concept of priesthood, in reference to Jesus or the church, in the Pauline writings.  And he argues that Jesus is the high priest in Hebrews, but that the church does not perform a priestly function in that particular writing.  A lot of Malone’s comments on the New Testament seemed to splash cold water on intriguing ideas, by showing that they do not work.  Still, he is to be commended for his judicious scholarship, in these discussions.

Malone’s treatment of the Hebrew Bible had some bright spots, as his treatment of the New Testament had some dim spots.  His discussion of the Hebrew Bible argued that passages about communicable holiness are not about that at all.  Malone offers a definition of holiness—-as closeness in proximity with God—-that makes sense.  Malone also wrestles with the question of whether Adam and Eve were priests in Eden, and he does not accept a view simply because it is appealing.  In terms of the New Testament, Malone stated that Christians are closer to God than the priests and Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, but he should have explained the nature of that closeness: what Christians have that people in the Hebrew Bible lacked.  Can Christians pray?  So could people in the Hebrew Bible.

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Winner Is: The Truth

Claus-Peter Ganssauge.  Winner Is: The Truth, Novel about Science, Faith and Love.  2015.  See here to buy the book.

This book is a translation of the German book, Illusionen—-Visionen, Roman vom Zweifel, von der Liebe und der Hoffnung.  Its author, Claus-Peter Ganssauge, has worked in various businesses and has written three other books.  The author grew up in Nazi Germany and confesses that he admired Hitler when he was a child, but he says that he was shocked to learn the truth, and since then he has “mistrusted all ideologies and religions.”

The story is set in a small town near a jungle in Brazil.  Jack’s father is a renowned Ethnologist.  While his father exposed him to religion, specifically the religion of one of the tribes, he never taught Jack about Christianity.  Jack goes to a priest to learn more about Christianity, but Jack also seems to gain knowledge on his own.  Essentially, Jack argues against much of what the priest is saying.  Meanwhile, the priest has an attractive housekeeper, Angela, and she and Jack have sex.  Jack appears to inspire some sort of Reformation, a version of Christianity that values the humanitarian teachings of Jesus and recognizes the wisdom of the Bible while dispensing with traditional theism and Christian doctrine.

Overall, the nature of the dialogue between the priest and Jack is that the priest spouts a bunch of dogmatic platitudes, and Jack dismisses them as lacking proof.  The priest was sincere, but the dialogue would have been more interesting had the priest been a philosophically-trained Jesuit.  The priest attempted to present some rudimentary form of apologetics, but most of the time he spouted platitudes and castigated Jack as a blasphemer.  It is also unrealistic that the usual village-atheist arguments, which have been around for a long time, would spark some massive Reformation.  As for the sex scenes, there was not a whole lot of romance leading up to them.  I thought of the scene in Family Guy in which a cave-man goes up to a cave-woman and propositions her with “You, me, sex.”

The book also read rather awkwardly.  The author confesses that he used translation software, but he also says that someone edited the book.  The book reads, though, as if it had been put into an old version of Google Translate.  And there were times when the translation seemed to be making the opposite point to what the author probably intended.

There were parts of the book that resonated with me.  I have been watching the National Geographic series, “One Strange Rock,” and it talks about the violent, cataclysmic origin of the earth and the moon.  I wonder why God would create this way, and Jack apparently had a similar question.  There was also a spiritual insight about something mysterious being behind the cosmos.  Jack also raised an interesting question about the nature of the Bible, for the priest was claiming that the Bible was inspired by God, on the one hand, while maintaining that biblical authors relied on oral tradition, on the other hand.  How the two fit together is a profound question.  The book also contrasts (correctly or incorrectly) Paul’s depiction of the Holy Spirit with the traditional doctrine of the Trinity.  Some of Jack’s objections were rather silly, though, as when he wondered how prayer could travel through the galaxies to reach God.

I appreciate the author’s task of honestly sharing his thoughts, even if the book did not particularly dazzle me.

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

Church Write-Up: "Remain" or "Receive" in Acts 3:21?

At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Bible study, the pastor compared different translations and interpretations of Acts 3:21.  According to the pastor, Reformed theology teaches that Jesus’ human nature sits at God’s right hand, while Jesus’ spiritual nature permeates the universe.  Lutherans and Catholics, by contrast, hold that Jesus’ human nature is where his divine nature is, and that would include the Eucharist, in which the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ.

The pastor stated that these standpoints influence how each side understands Acts 3:21.  The Reformed side interprets the verse as the NIV renders it: “He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”  Similarly, the NRSV affirms that Jesus “must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”  The idea is that the risen Christ stays in heaven until the second coming.  This would preclude his human nature (his flesh and blood) from being in the Eucharist, since it must stay in heaven until the time of eschatological restoration.

Lutherans and Catholics, however, understand the verse in line with what the KJV has: “Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.”  The Catholic New American Bible translates the verse along such lines.  The idea is that heaven accepted Jesus when Jesus ascended to it.  That does not mean that Jesus had to stay in heaven until the second coming and could not be present, in his human nature, in the elements of the Eucharist.  The pastor affirmed that “received” is the best translation here of the Greek word dechomai.

I have not done an exhaustive study of this topic, but here are some thoughts:

A.  It is interesting that a Catholic Bible renders the verse more in line with what the pastor defined as the Reformed understanding.  The New Jerusalem Bible states: “whom heaven must keep till the universal restoration comes which God proclaimed, speaking through his holy prophets.”  Heaven must keep.  That sounds like Jesus stays in heaven until the second coming.

B.  Just looking at the occurrences of dechomai in Luke-Acts, it does look as if the pastor is right: the word in Luke-Acts relates to receiving, not remaining.  You can take a look at the passages and judge for yourself.

C.  Where the pastor’s interpretation of Acts 3:21 does not make much sense to me is in the occurrence of “until” (achri).  Jesus ascended to heaven until the second coming?  How can that be?  He ascended once.  Remaining in heaven until the second coming makes more sense.

D.  Can we have the best of both worlds: Jesus’ main residence as a glorified human being is heaven, but Jesus can still come down in the Eucharist?  Come to think of it, when Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus, did he not technically (and temporarily) leave the right hand of God in heaven?

E.  I recall reading a sermon by Luther over a decade ago in which Luther affirmed that the risen Christ fills all things.  Luther may have been preaching about Ephesians 1:23, which refers to the church as Christ’s “body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (KJV).  Reformed people would probably say that it is Christ’s spiritual or divine nature, not his human nature, that fills all.  Would Lutherans and Catholics suggest that his human nature, too, fills all?

I will leave the comments on in case someone wants to provide correction or information.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book Write-Up: Judah's Scepter and the Sacred Stone

D.A. Brittain.  Judah’s Scepter and the Sacred Stone.  First Edition Design Publishing, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Judah’s Scepter and the Sacred Stone is a novelization of an Anglo-Israelite view promulgated by J.H. Allen, and later popularized by Herbert W. Armstrong.  This view is that, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 587 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah took Teia, the daughter of King Zedekiah of Judah, to Ireland, where she married Eochaid, an Irish prince.  Eochaid himself was descended from the Israelites: from Zarah the son of Judah and the tribe of Dan.  Teia and Eochaid became the basis for the Irish, the Scottish, and the English monarchies.  As a descendant of David, Teia continued the Davidic reign, thereby fulfilling God’s promise that the Davidic dynasty would be perpetual.  Accompanying Jeremiah and Teia was the stone on which the patriarch Jacob slept on the night that he had a vision (see Genesis 28:18), the stone that provided the Israelites with water in the wilderness after the Exodus.  This stone would play a significant role in British coronation ceremonies.

This is just a summary of the view, not an endorsement of it.  There are arguments that can be made against it.  To quote Malcolm Nicholson’s informative and thorough blog post, “The Case Against British Israelism”:

“British-Israelites have butchered the Irish legends. Tea was the daughter of Lughaidh, son of Ith, not Zedekiah, son of Josiah. Her mother-in-law was the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Tea married Erimon in Spain, not Ireland and he was a descendant of Magog, son of Japheth, not Judah’s son Zarah. This is supposed to have taken place around 1300 BC, not after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC.”

That said, while D.A. Brittain appears to be a believer in the Anglo-Israelite scenario regarding Teia, she still acknowledges in an Afterword that the evidence is not air-tight.

Brittain’s book begins and ends with the coronation of Prince Charles in England.  In the middle of the book is the story of Teia.  Babylon is destroying Jerusalem, and Judahites are pressuring each other to flee to Egypt, against Jeremiah’s advice.  Jeremiah goes there with Teia, and not all of the Judahites successfully maintain their commitment to the God of Israel amidst Egyptian paganism.  Teia eventually meets Eochaid and the two form a strong connection.  Jeremiah informs Eochaid of Eochaid’s Israelite heritage, of which Eochaid has a vague knowledge.  Eochaid is a worshiper of the pagan god Baal, however, and the Druids are a powerful force in his country.  Jeremiah encourages him to forsake paganism for the worship of the God of Israel.

As far as stories go, this one was all right.  It is not “meh” enough to get three stars, but it was not dazzling enough to receive five stars.  The book is not incredibly deep, but it had a comfortable feel to it. It somewhat had a dramatic “Ten Commandments” (the Cecil B. Demille version of the 1950’s) feel to it.

Although the author draws a lot from Anglo-Israelite literature, some of what she says about the Druids may be based on ancient sources, as Julius Caesar claimed (correctly or incorrectly) in De bello gallico. 6.13–18 that they performed human sacrifice.  

Brittain depicted religious tension in the book, as different religious beliefs dialogued and even clashed, and she appears to have tried to do so in an empathetic manner.  That made the book interesting.  

At the end of the book, characters set in the modern day allege that Christ will return in 2033, a Jubilee year, after the blood moons.  Brittain may believe this, but, through her characters, she acknowledges that the evidence (if one can call it that) is not totally iron-clad.  Brittain also refers to rabbinic eschatological references, which may be worth checking out (at least for educational or intellectual purposes, to see what others believed).

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Church Write-Up: Confession, Real, Unique, Chosen

Here is my Church Write-Up on last Sunday.

A.  At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, one of the texts was I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (KJV).  The youth pastor illustrated this by drawing a picture of a man, but the hands did not look that good.  The youth pastor feigned satisfaction with the hands and was about to put the picture to the side.  But one of the kids erased those hands and drew better hands—-hands that actually had fingers.  The youth pastor said that we may find ourselves committing a sin and thinking that it is no big deal, or forgetting about it, but that is not the way to deal with the problem.  We should confess our sins to God, and the blood of Christ is what brings us forgiveness.

B. The text also included I John 1:1-3: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (KJV).

The pastor opened by sharing a personal anecdote.  He said that he has long felt as if he has started life late.  He is usually the last person to get a joke.  And his mother called him their “gullible one” when he was growing up.  Indeed, he believed in Bigfoot, and he could have sworn that he saw a UFO.  Nowadays, he is more skeptical and cynical, more so than his parents would want him to be if they were alive today.  But that is with good reason, as many wonder if they can trust what they read, since things can be photo-shopped nowadays.

The pastor then discusses I John.  There were people in that day who questioned that Jesus died and rose from the dead.  There were Docetists who maintained that a divine being could not die and so Jesus only seemed to be human and to die.  As evidence, the pastor said, they noted that the risen Jesus could appear and vanish in thin air (Luke 24:31; John 20:19).  Humans do not do that, so Jesus must have been other than human, some argued.  The pastor talked more about Docetism in his weekly Bible study last week.  On Sunday, however, he addressed more the implications of the emphasis on Jesus’ physicality, both before and after his death, in the Gospels and in I John.  One implication is that Jesus really did shed his blood, and that blood really does cleanse us of sins: when we wake up in the middle of the night thinking about our past mistakes, we can go back to sleep with the assurance that Jesus’ blood was shed to bring us forgiveness.  Another implication is that Jesus really did defeat death: Jesus went through it and came out on the other side, with his physical body risen and changed.  The risen Jesus was not simply a ghost or a phantom, but he rose as a human being, defeating death.

The pastor talked about the physical and the real in Christianity.  People are baptized in physical water.  According to Lutherans, the bread and the wine of communion contain the real presence of Jesus.  The pastor went on to say that Easter makes all the difference.  Another of the texts was Acts 4:34-35: “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (KJV).  The early Christians’ confidence in Jesus’ resurrection led them to insure that no one went unloved in that church, that all of the early Christians had their needs met.

C.  A couple of Sunday school classes started at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  The one that I sat in on showed a brief Rob Bell video.  Rob Bell argued that, in terms of religious beliefs, the ancient Christians overlapped significantly with the religions and the culture around them.  The early Christians believed that Jesus ascended to heaven and was a mediator between God and humans; Mithraists thought that about Mithra.  The early Christians thought Jesus was born of the virgin; that was claimed about Attis.  Julius Caesar was believed to have ascended to heaven.  Caesar Augustus was acclaimed as a savior.  People would greet each other on the street saying Caesar is Lord.  The Caesar’s decrees would be called euaggelion, or good news, the Greek word for Gospel.  And, when regions accepted Caesar as Lord and Savior, they became an ekklesia, the word that the Christians used for the church.

But there was a difference between the ancient Christians and the Romans.  The Romans sought to create peace through military force, whereas the Christians renounced force and served others, especially the disadvantaged.  We were asked what difference our Christian beliefs make in our lives: do we point fingers and try to make people believe and behave as we want, or do we love people and try to listen and to understand?  The overarching question was: If people judged Christianity by looking at you personally, what would they conclude?  (And more than one person replied, “I’m in the wrong class here!”) A lot of the discussion got into the good old days, as older people reminisced about how people used to be more of a community and to help each other; the teacher replied, though, that we cannot go back to that time, for we are where we are now.  People find that they are too busy to show hospitality, or they are afraid to invite people to their homes on the spur of the moment, since the house may be messy.  People shared about their heroes in the faith.  The teacher talked about how his father, who was powerful in his line of work, still wept in humility when he was asked to served as an usher at his church.  The teacher also shared about how he got to witness to a lady at work a long time ago: the lady concluded by watching him that the world would not end without hope.

After the class, people still shared.  One elderly lady said that she was talking to an atheist who asked how she knows God exists, since she cannot see God.  She replied that she does not see air, but she knows that she needs it.

D.  I then went to the “Word of Faith” church, and the pastor’s daughter was preaching.  The church will be going through Ephesians, and the pastor on video referred to scholarly disputes that Paul wrote Ephesians; the pastor said that he himself believed that Paul wrote it, and that it was Paul’s enthusiastic magnum opus.

The pastor’s daughter preached about Ephesians 1:1-6.  She talked about how Jesus gave us access to God.  She said that Jesus chose us.  What about the unchosen?  She said that the text was talking about the chosen: we do not talk about the shoes or the TVs we did not buy, but the ones that we did.  I was unclear if she believed in Calvinist predestination, though, since she seemed to be saying that Christians should share with everyone that God has chosen them.  She also talked about adoption, another theme in the text: in the Roman world, people adopted to benefit themselves.  God, however, adopted us when we had nothing to offer him.

I will stop here.  I am sure some of these items can be critiqued.  I decided to focus more on summary in this post.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Write-Up: Paul, a Biography, by N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright.  Paul: A Biography.  HarperOne, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

N.T. Wright is a renowned New Testament scholar and a former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England.

As the title indicates, this book is a biography of the Apostle Paul.  Wright goes through the events narrated in the Book of Acts, including in intervals his comments about Paul’s epistles.  Overall, Wright treats the Book of Acts as historical, while arguing that Paul wrote the Book of Colossians, whose Pauline authorship is doubted by many scholars.  Wright expresses more skepticism about Paul’s authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (I-II Timothy, Titus), mentioning possible tensions that would need to be resolved to accept their authenticity.  The book is eloquent and reflective, looking at Paul’s theology and also at Paul the man.  The final chapter especially fleshes out what Wright believes Paul was like: a person of high energy and strong opinions.

The book includes a lot of the usual N.T. Wright arguments, about how justification is more about the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles into the Christian community than personal forgiveness (though the latter is still relevant), how Paul was proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and how the Olivet Discourse is not about the end of the world.  Wright also addresses the question of why Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early Christian community, arguing that, for some Jews, people like Stephen were undermining the Temple by predicting its destruction and by claiming that God’s presence was in Jesus.  The book also contained thoughts that were previously unknown to me, such as Wright’s argument that Paul’s address in Acts 17 was Paul speaking while on trial, not Paul engaging in an academic discussion.  Moreover, Wright provided historical background that made the past come alive, as when he said that prisoners needed family and friends to bring them food if they were to eat at all, and when he discussed the likelihood of whether high officials on a ship would listen to Paul.

This book was a little more informal than Wright’s academic works, but it was an engaging and informative read.

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

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Church Write-Up: First Time at This Church's Bible Study

I went to the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Bible study on I John.  The pastor gave a presentation, and it was impressive.  He made literary references—-one to Jonathan Livingston’s Sea Gull, and another to Les Miserables.  He talked about history: for instance, he said that Domitian and Diocletian were the Roman emperors who proactively tried to stamp Christianity out, whereas other emperors did not do so to that extent; he stated that some North African governors may have attempted to do so.  One could probably ask “But what about?”s here, but his grasp of historical nuance was impressive.  He performed form criticism: he noted that I John, like Hebrews, lacks a salutation and is like a homily and was intended to be read aloud, as a homily; a letter may have accompanied it.  He also drew parallels between ancient heresies and modern religious beliefs: he compared Christian Science to docetism.  See here for a post about that.

There were things that he said about which I had questions, though I did not ask them in class.  He said that the historical-critical method is still taught at Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, but not so much at Harvard, Yale, and Duke.  The latter embrace a narrative-historical approach to reading the Bible, one that takes the Bible as more of a unity.  I was at Harvard Divinity School about eighteen years ago, and granted, some of the professors focused significantly on the history of interpretation, but I would not say that the historical-critical method was absent there.  How much that has changed, I do not know.  While I agree with the pastor that source criticism can be a bit of a dead end—-since there is so much difference of opinion about what the sources are and when to date them—-I don’t think that it can be easily chucked, since there are places where the Bible does not read smoothly, and source criticism is a way to account for that.

The pastor said that the Gospels were attributed to the people who bear their names ten years after they were written, as they were circulated to churches.  I wonder if that is true.  My understanding is that Irenaeus was the first to explicitly identify the Gospels with the people who bear their names.  Before that, Justin Martyr referred to the Gospels as the Memoirs of the Apostles, and that can fit Matthew, John, and Mark (who supposedly conveys Peter’s testimony), albeit not Luke so much (unless one wants to say that Luke conveys apostolic testimony that he gathered in his research).  Justin Martyr and Irenaeus lived in the second century, more than ten years after the Gospels were written.  Of course, they did not necessarily make up the tradition, and they could have been drawing from an earlier tradition, but can we know how early that tradition was?  Regarding manuscripts, Gospel manuscripts bearing the names, as far as I know, are more than ten years from the time that the Gospels were written (see what Bart Ehrman says here).  Perhaps the pastor had in mind Papias’ remarks on some of the Gospels, as Papias claimed to receive his information from elders he thought had a connection with the apostles.

The pastor said that Islam is similar to docetism in that it said that Jesus did not technically die on the cross.  The pastor said the rationale for this belief is that God cannot die.  I am sure that he knows, though, that Muslims do not believe that Jesus is God; he may have been saying that the docetists did not think that God could die.  But I have a question: if the Muslims do not think that Jesus is God, why do they care if he died or not?  This article addresses that question.

Now for what the pastor presented about I John.  The pastor said that John wrote I John in Ephesus to the churches in Asia Minor, after 81 C.E.  John was combating docetism, which held that Jesus only appeared to be human, but actually was not.  Drawing from his own experience, John affirmed that he saw and touched Jesus, meaning Jesus was not a phantom.  Whereas John drew from his own eyewitness testimony, the docetists were attempting to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy and thus rejected the notion that the divine could become flesh, suffer, and die.  In II John, John discouraged Christians from welcoming docetists, in a time when hospitality was prized.  Because the fellowship of the church is founded on Jesus Christ becoming a human and suffering a dying for people’s sins, the docetists, by denying that, were excluding themselves from the Christian community.  They were committing a mortal sin in their refusal to accept Jesus as the means of atonement, whereas believers received forgiveness through the blood of Christ on account of their belief in Jesus.

The pastor did not explicitly talk about John’s emphasis on love for the brethren in I John.  Some commentators have argued that the docetists were not showing love for the Christian community in that they were excluding themselves from it, and that resembles the pastor’s point: that the Christian community was not really excluding them, but they were excluding themselves.  Those commentators’ argument rubs me the wrong way: if the docetists do not believe the way John’s church does, why is it unloving for them simply to leave?

I’ll probably be going to this study in the future.  I liked the format, and, like I said, the presentation was impressive.

I’ll leave the comments on, in case anyone wants to chime in.  Don’t insult me, though.  Also, it may take me some time to get to the comments.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Lord Is Good, by Christopher R.J. Holmes

Christopher R.J. Holmes.  The Lord Is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter.  IVP Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Christopher Holmes is an Anglican priest and teaches systematic theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.  In The Lord Is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter, Holmes explores themes in the biblical Psalms, primarily through the lens of Thomas Aquinas.  While Aquinas and Thomism are paramount in this book, Holmes occasionally engages other conversation partners, such as Augustine, John Calvin, and Karl Barth.

Among the themes that Holmes explores are:

—-that God’s attributes, including God’s goodness, are not accidental to God but are part of God’s essence, apart even from any actions that God might perform; this is God’s simplicity;

—-that human goodness is imperfect and derivative from God’s goodness;

—-the divinization of human beings, as they share more of God’s goodness and immortality, while remaining distinct from God in certain respects (i.e., they do not become part of the Trinity);

—-God’s plan to fill all beings and things in the eschaton, and how the eschaton will be a time when humans will lack self-consciousness;

—-how God’s statutes remind humans of their creaturehood and help convert them towards righteousness; how this functions for David (who had the ceremonial law) differs in some respects from how it works for Christians (who have only the moral law), but there are also similarities between the two; Christ is still necessary for salvation and righteousness, however;

—-the difference between knowing and seeing, seeing by faith, and how the beatific vision will be expanded in the eschaton;

—–that God only recognizes what is like Godself, namely, what is good; still, God acknowledges when people call out to God for instruction;

—-how evil, in a sense, is non-existent, as it is parasitic of the good and less real.

Some of these themes are repeated in the course of the book, and people who are well-read in theology may feel that these themes are rather simple.  There are times when the book appears simple, but there are also times when it is quite deep.  I cannot say that I completely understood Holmes’ critique of Barth, but it is there for my perusal.  The book is eloquent, yet it has a down-to-earth quality, as Holmes occasionally brings himself into the picture.  Reading the book can be an act of worship, as it can encourage and enhance Christians’ appreciation of God’s goodness and the beings and things that reflect and point to that.  Moreover, with all the books out there that tear apart Thomism in favor of Barthian Christocentrism, it is refreshing to read a book that appreciates Thomism, while still acknowledging the importance of Jesus Christ.

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

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Book Write-Up: Messiah in the Passover

Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, ed.  Messiah in the Passover.  Kregel, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Messiah in the Passover contains contributions by people who are associated with Chosen People Ministries, a group of Jewish Christians who seek to evangelize to the Jewish people.  A number of the contributors have Messianic Jewish backgrounds: they are Jews who believe in Jesus, while continuing to practice Jewish customs.  Many of them have advanced degrees from evangelical or conservative Christian institutions of higher learning, such as Dallas Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Moody, and others.

This book discusses the Passover in the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels of Luke and John, and some of the Pauline (and, for liberal scholars, Deutero-Pauline) writings.  It also covers the treatment of the Passover within church history, which includes the Quartodeciman controversy over whether to observe the Passover or Easter Sunday, the phenomena of Jewish Christianity and Christian anti-Judaism, and Christian accusations that Jews murdered children in their Passover ritual.  There is a chapter about the Passover in rabbinic literature, and one on the Afikoman, which, in seders, has long been a matzo that is broken, hidden (half of it is), found by a child, and eaten at the end of the seder.  Then there are specific chapters that are devoted to the contention that the Passover alludes to Christian themes, particularly Christ’s work of atonement and redemption, and two of those chapters are sermons.  The following section includes a sample Messianic haggadah, suggestions on how to explain the Passover to children and to involve them in the celebration, and recipes for the Passover.  The book also contains a glossary, maps of the Exodus and Jesus’ final days, a list of the Jewish months and the months to which they correspond, and other helpful features.

The book has its advantages.  The authors take seriously scholarly concerns.  They are sensitive not to assume that Jesus’ last supper was a seder, for they recognize that the seder contains a number of rabbinic aspects.  Many argue that the last supper was a rudimentary form of the seder, appealing to overlaps between the Gospels’ depictions of the last supper and seders, and statements in writings by Philo and Josephus about Passover meals.  The chapters about the atonement realize that the Hebrew Bible never explicitly states that the Passover sacrifice atones for sin, though one of the chapters strenuously labors to connect the Passover sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible with atonement for sin.

Although the book’s approach to the Bible is largely harmonizing, as when it addresses apparent contradictions in the Passover rituals and the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, it does well to reject certain proposals, and also to highlight the apparent tensions.  One apparent tension that was new to me was that between Deuteronomy 16:3, which seems to command the Israelites to eat the Passover sacrifice with unleavened bread for seven days, and Exodus 12:10 and Deuteronomy 16:4, which command that none of the Passover sacrifice remain the morning after the Passover evening.

Another interesting argument made by more than one author is that the Christian Melito of Sardis in the second century C.E. referred to the Afikoman, and one even contends that rabbinic statements about it (e.g., that it is an after-dinner meal, which is forbidden) are a response to Christianity.

Brian Crawford’s engagement with Colossians 2:16 intrigued me, as one with a seventh-day Sabbatarian background.  Many Christians interpret Colossians 2:16-17 to mean that Christians need not observe the Sabbath and Jewish holy days, since they have been fulfilled in Christ.  Some Sabbatarians counter that the Sabbath has not been completely fulfilled, as it has a future eschatological fulfillment, and thus it is still obligatory for Christians to observe.  Crawford argues that the Passover will have a future fulfillment, yet he also holds that Gentiles are not required to observe the Jewish festivals.

The personal anecdotes from people about growing up in Messianic Jewish households added a tone of nostalgia.

In terms of possible weaknesses, the book was rather repetitive, in that there were cases in which the same ground was covered over and over.  Moreover, one essay suggested that Messianic Jews invite non-Christian Jews to their Messianic seders, without much recognition that many Jews might deem such seders to be illegitimate, or see them as proselytizing tools.  Another essay was a little more sensitive to this issue, as it suggested that Messianic Jews ask Jewish children’s parents before inviting them to a Messianic seder.  More than one author said that the stripes in the matzo can remind one of Jesus’ stripes, but were stripes characteristic of ancient matzah, or mainly modern mass-produced Manischewitz ones?

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

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Book Write-Up: Destitutio Quod Remissio, by Brett Armstrong

Brett Armstrong.  Destitutio Quod Remissio.  Westbow, 2015,  See here to purchase the book.

Destitutio Quod Remissio is set during the reign of Diocletian during the third century C.E.  Marcus was an imperial Senator.  He was discontent with paganism and was spiritually exploring, perusing his copies of the letters of Paul.  Then, he met Benjamin, an architect.  Benjamin was working for Marcus on a project at Marcus’ home, and Benjamin, a Christian, shared the Gospel with Marcus.  Marcus became a Christian, and that precipitated unfortunate events in Marcus’ life.  Marcus’ home is burned, and his wife is killed (or so he thinks).  Marcus proceeds to investigate the plot against him, while protecting his fellow Christians from Diocletian’s persecution.  Marcus struggles with his desire for revenge.

There are many positives to this book.  Brett Armstrong’s opening narration is beautiful and vivid, as it expresses Marcus’ memories of his wife and touches on his discontentment with paganism.  The spiritual lessons of the book are worth reading, particularly the lessons about planting a seed before unbelievers and hoping that God will water that seed in their hearts, and of refraining from revenge as a testimony before others of God’s love.  The book also did well to include details about the social and political situation of the Roman empire at the time: the problems that the Roman empire faced, internally and externally, and the different classes.

In terms of critiques, the book would have been better had it gone into more detail on certain topics.  The motivation behind the plot against Marcus was somewhat nebulous.  Granted, the motivation was gaining political power, but how exactly was Marcus’ Christianity standing in the way of that?  Then there is Cassandra’s nature and motivation: she recoiled from barbaric Roman games, yet she beat her servant; and why did she participate in the plot?  While Armstrong did well to highlight that the Christians were scapegoats, he could have gone into more detail about the Roman empire’s problems with Christians, such as their refusal to honor the Roman gods.  There is also Marcus’ spiritual journey: what was Marcus seeking, and what did Benjamin say that influenced Marcus to become a Christian?

My method in reading this book was to read one page of my mobi book each day, then to go through the book to see how things fit together.  I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part.

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

Monday, April 2, 2018

Church Write-Up: Easter 2018

For Easter Sunday, I attended the “Word of Faith” church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  What I’ll do in this church write-up is to highlight similarities and differences between the sermons, then mention any loose ends that I want to mention.

A.  Both sermons said that God can bring new life out of our disappointments and fears—-whether that be loss of a job, loss of a marriage, loss of a loved one, or a fearsome medical diagnosis.

B.  Both sermons were critical of naturalistic atheism.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church stated that, if God and the resurrection do not exist, then there is no ultimate justice: the strong can prey on the weak, without consequence.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church expressed dismay at snarky atheistic memes on Facebook, which highlight that Easter this year is on April Fools’ Day and depict Christians as fools.  He stated that, as far as they are concerned, this life is all that there is.

C.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, not surprisingly, affirmed the doctrine of penal substitution: that Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for our sin.  He said that this is what Jesus finished on the cross (John 19:30), since without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22).  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church, by contrast, seemed to be questioning penal substitution, or at least a caricature of it.  He said that many Christians believe that God needed to beat Jesus up to get his anger at us for our sins out of his system.  His model of the atonement, however, is that Jesus in himself brings together heaven and earth and absorbed all things, including our sins and death; Jesus then spit death out and defeated it.

D.  In this item, I will technically compare the Good Friday service at the Missouri Synod church with the “Word of Faith” sermon.  At the Good Friday service, we sang the hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This.”  This hymn has a line that says, “When I was sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown…”  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” service said that God is not actually mad at people but loves people: God is upset at how sin is leading to death and exile from God in people’s lives.  At the same time, the pastor acknowledged the reality of hell: those who do not want to be healed of their idols and to be in relationship with God will get their wish, namely, eternal separation from God.

E.  Both sermons engaged the story in Luke 24 about the two men unwittingly walking with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  The Missouri Synod pastor highlighted this as an example of disappointment, as people feel that their hopes have been dashed and something good has come to an end.  The “Word of Faith” pastor drew a variety of lessons from this story, as it was his primary text.  First, he said that the two men hoped Jesus would deliver Israel from the Romans and set up a political kingdom, whereas Jesus wanted to deliver them from the idols in their heart, which lead to stress and death.  Second, the pastor said that the men did not recognize Jesus because Jesus looked so ordinary (whereas the risen Jesus in the non-canonical Gospel of Peter stands taller than the angels), and Jesus works inside of us, dismantling our idols, in ordinary ways.  Third, the pastor said that the men recognized Jesus when Jesus blessed the meal because Jesus said “Father,” and no one said “Father” quite like Jesus; Jesus’ ministry was about directing attention to the Father.

F.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that Easter is about an ending—-it is finished—-but also a new beginning.  The church has been using road signs to illustrate spiritual truths, and one of the road signs it showed today was “Construction ahead.”  Similarly, the pastor at the “Word of Faith” church talked about God working on us, and he acknowledged that we are quite a project to work on!  (I could identify with that, as I felt especially misanthropic this week.)

Now for some loose ends:

A.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church seemed to express belief in soul sleep: that dead people are unconscious until the time of their resurrection.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church defined sin, not so much as breaking rules, but as giving our allegiance (faith) to someone or something other than God; whatever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23).  We should focus on the latter, he said, rather than stressing out trying to uproot our sins, since, when we find one sin, we see another.

C.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that he likes seeing flowers at funerals, since that reminds him that God is a God of beauty and of life, even when there is death.

I’ll stop here.  This is more summary than evaluation or analysis.  I’ll leave the comments open in case anyone wants to add anything constructive, or to refine what I said.  I’d rather not read comments like “You should stop going to that heretical ‘Word of Faith’ church!”  I like going there.  Also, I don’t particularly want to get into a debate over what I said in the (B.) of the comparison and contrast section: I acknowledge that atheists can find morality and meaning in life, and also that there are non-Christian conceptions of the afterlife.

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