Monday, January 27, 2020

Book Write-Up: But What About God’s Wrath?

Kevin Kinghorn and Stephen Travis. But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Kevin Klinghorn teaches religion and philosophy at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Stephen Travis is a lecturer in New Testament. Both have doctorates from renowned British universities, Klinghorn from Oxford, and Travis from Cambridge.

This book seeks to explain God’s wrath, a prominent theme throughout Scripture. Does God’s wrath contradict God’s love?

Klinghorn and Travis argue in the negative. Essentially, they treat God’s wrath as an expression of God’s love. Not only is God vindicating the victims of unrighteousness, but God is also providing moral education and correction to the unrighteous themselves. God is shaking them out of their complacency.

At first sight, this may look problematic. Often in Scripture, God’s wrath entails killing the unrighteous. How can God’s wrath morally educate them, when they will not be around to improve or benefit from the education? Klinghorn and Travis seem to be sensitive to this question, and their answer appears to be that God may provide people with post-mortem opportunities for salvation; those killed by God’s wrath in this life, in short, will carry the lessons from that experience into the next life, and that will hopefully make them open to God and God’s ways. That seems to be the key to unlocking much of their discussion. Oddly enough, they only make that point once in the book, and in a paragraph.

The book is very theological and philosophical. It addresses such questions, for instance, as whether wrath is an essential or a secondary attribute of God. Scripture is still present in the book, but biblical exegesis is not its focus. Occasionally, though, the authors cite a Scripture that seems to coincide with their point—-that God’s wrath is corrective rather than merely punitive.

The book makes points that resonate with me. Christians who have problems with the evangelical exclusivist idea that people need to say the sinner’s prayer in this life or God will burn them in hell forever and ever, yet who still want to believe in the atonement and the necessity of faith in salvation, may find respite in this book. The book maintains that the people who go to hell are those who decidedly and definitively reject God, and God alone decides when one reaches that point.

I also appreciated the book’s critique of the popular evangelical maxim that “God is love, BUT God is also just, and holy,” as if the attributes contradict each other.

Their discussion of divine attributes also is thought-provoking: what attribute is inherently a part of God, and what flows out of God’s interaction with the world?

In terms of questions, I have a slight problem with their idea that the members of the Trinity are dependent on each other. God is dependent on somebody else? And, although there are passages of Scripture that seem to depict God’s wrath as rehabilitative, that is not always the case. Some people die as a result of God’s wrath, and the notion that they will have a post-mortem opportunity to repent is not explicit in Scripture; people in Old Testament times probably lacked such an advanced notion of the afterlife, for that matter. Perhaps God’s wrath is still educational, however, in that it instructs the descendants of the person punished, or the survivors of God’s wrath.

The book would have been better had it interacted more with Scripture, but, overall, it does present a reasonable picture of God.

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

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Church Write-Up: Jonah 4

Here are some items from this morning’s church activities, and also from last Wednesday’s Bible study. The focus was on Jonah 4.

A. God’s desire is to show people mercy. God looks for opportunities to do so, even going so far as to negotiate with Abraham over the fate of Sodom (Genesis 18). God does not demonstrate mercy to Nineveh because they repented, nor does God save people because they believe in Jesus; God’s heart is to show people mercy. God has set the table, and yet it is still up to people whether or not they will partake. God loved Nineveh because he created it, cared for it, and nourished it (Jonah 4:10). Yet, the Ninevites did not know their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11), which means that they lacked wisdom and did not know God.

B. Jonah was upset with God because God showed mercy to Nineveh. God was extending to Nineveh the covenant blessing of mercy that belonged to Israel, according to God’s proclamation of his name in Exodus 34:6-7. Jonah also may have felt that God was placing his covenant people Israel at risk, since Nineveh was brutal; decades thereafter, the Assyrians would actually destroy Northern Israel. Jonah quotes to God only the merciful parts of God’s name in Exodus 34:6-7, while omitting the part about God’s law and justice; Jonah did so in criticizing God for letting off the Ninevites. While the pastor believes that God’s innate, preferred action is mercy, whereas God’s judgment is something that God does reluctantly, the pastor’s point here may have been that Jonah’s conception of God was incomplete. God is merciful, but God also cares about oppression and executes justice.

C. God provided a gourd for Jonah to deliver him from his evil, according to Jonah 4:6. The pastor interpreted that to mean that God was trying to make Jonah more compassionate and forgiving towards the Ninevites, when Jonah’s attitude was anger and unforgiveness; God did so by making Jonah comfortable as God shielded him from the harsh, scorching, desiccating wind. Jonah had built himself a booth, the same word that is used for the Feast of Booths. The Feast of Booths was a time for the Israelites to lay aside their usual pursuits, to remember God’s provision when they were in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:43), and to reflect on the word of God (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). Jonah in his booth, however, was not interested in hearing God’s voice but rather in airing to God his (Jonah’s) angry sentiments. God caused the gourd to die to teach Jonah a lesson. As Jesus does in many situations in the Gospels when people ask him a question, God asks Jonah a question, for that can give Jonah an opportunity to talk and to reveal what was in his heart. The Book of Jonah does not tell us Jonah’s ultimate decision, whether he held on to his bitterness or chose to forgive. Maybe he decided to forgive on the long road from Nineveh to Northern Galilee. Or perhaps he held on to his bitterness and vanished in the dust, bereft of God’s grace. If the latter is the case, that is one more way that Jesus was greater than Jonah: Jesus forgave (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:32).

D. The youth pastor had a skit in which Jonah attributed his unwillingness to forgive the Ninevites to his lack of belief that God had forgiven him. Jonah felt like a screw-up, in short. In class, however, we got a slightly different story. Jonah experienced God’s forgiveness and deliverance from peril and even sang a beautiful song about it (Jonah 2), yet that did not make Jonah more merciful towards the Ninevites. Jonah also was angry with God. By itself, that is not sinful, for children often are angry with their parents because they do not recognize their parents’ wisdom; similarly, we do not see God’s big picture. But anger with God can become sinful, perhaps when one persists in it.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Book Write-Up: The Martin Luther King Story, by James D. Bales

James D. Bales. The Martin Luther King Story: A Study in Apostasy, Agitation, and Anarchy. Christian Crusade, 1967. See here to purchase the book.

James D. Bales was a Church of Christ minister and a teacher at Harding College. He had a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of education from the University of California, Berkeley. Bales’s Martin Luther King Story is very anti-MLK. This book was published by Billy James Hargis’s Christian Crusade, which, along with the John Birch Society, was an influential right-wing group, particularly in the 1960’s.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

A. In certain respects, this book differs from a number of anti-MLK tracts I have come across. Bales never mentions that MLK’s real first name was “Michael,” nor does Bales refer to MLK’s sexual indiscretions. Like most anti-MLK tracts, however, Bales does argue that MLK associates with Communists, both in America and abroad. He talks about the Highlander Folk School, which MLK attended, and which critics accused of being a Communist front that trained people to become effective agitators. Bales discusses the people with Communist records who served on MLK’s staff. And he documents King’s public association with Communist dictators and support for anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist movements, which, for Bales, are essentially Communist. Bales also makes a big deal about MLK’s praise for Socialist Norman Thomas.

B. The topic of race does not occur often in this book. Bales occasionally mentions African-Americans who were critical of MLK. Some saw him as an agitator and a troublemaker, some were concerned about his association with Communists, and there were African-American soldiers who thought that MLK was wrong to oppose the Vietnam War and to express sympathy towards the Viet Cong. The morality or immorality of racial segregation, however, is not really touched on in this book. At the same time, Bales does seem to speak disparagingly of the government telling restaurants whom to serve.

C. What is Bales’s focus? First of all, Bales argues that MLK is wrong to practice civil disobedience, for anarchy will result if people only observe the laws that they like. When MLK and his followers are arrested in big cities for their acts of civil disobedience, they are diverting the police from catching more serious criminals, resulting in higher crime rates. While MLK likens his own acts of civil disobedience to the civil disobedience that occurs in the Bible (Shadrach, Meschak, and Abednego), Bales contends that the Bible does not endorse MLK’s brand of civil disobedience. Shadrach, Meshak, and Abednego disobeyed the law when it required them to worship another god, but the laws that MLK disobeys do not do that. Second, MLK is an inconsistent pacifist. He professes non-violence, yet he wants the federal government to send troops to the south to enforce racial integration. MLK also has stated that America was right to fight Hitler in World War II, even as he criticizes the U.S.’s resistance against Communism, which itself is brutal and imperialistic. Third, MLK spreads agitation wherever he goes, agitation that accompanies violence. That is why people, including some African-Americans, plead with King not to come to their cities. Fourth, Bales labels MLK an apostate. MLK has been influenced by the social Gospel, which blames people’s sins on societal problems rather than accepting the orthodox Christian position that people are inherently sinful and need Christ to transform them. MLK also does not believe in the virgin birth and thus rejects Christ’s divinity. Fifth, as was said in (A.), MLK associates with Communists at home and abroad and voices support for Communist movements. Bales maintains that MLK is inconsistent in his international stances: he wants the U.S. to take steps against apartheid in South Africa but not against Communist dictatorships and expansionism. Sixth, MLK, perhaps naively or unknowingly, expresses views that Communist publications and leaders themselves espouse as well as follows the Communist line. Like the Communists, he lambastes the Vietnam War as an act of American imperialism. Like the Communists, he opposes federal attempts to investigate and expose Communist subversion, such as HUAC. And the Communists themselves have revealed their intent to exploit American race divisions and have bragged about their influence in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Seventh, MLK is wrong in his critiques of capitalism. MLK claims that capitalism values things more than people, when socialism and communism themselves value things, even as the American system of capitalism respects individual rights and produces widespread and abundant prosperity, both in America and in countries that its influence reaches.

D. A significant part of the book is Bales’s defense of the Vietnam War, for MLK took a vocal and prominent stance against it. For Bales, the U.S. has been a humanitarian presence in Vietnam, and it goes out of its way to avoid bombing civilians. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong terrorize Vietnamese inhabitants, resulting in numerous deaths and refugees. As far as Bales is concerned, the U.S. is right to be in Vietnam, for its presence there can hinder Communist expansionism and resist Communist brutality, and its presence also honors the U.S.’s SEATO agreement. While MLK questions the necessity of the U.S.’s presence in Vietnam, Communists in the U.S. and elsewhere (i.e., the U.S.S.R.) actively root for America’s defeat or withdrawal there, for they see Vietnam as important in terms of their imperialist ambitions. Bales also disputes MLK’s account of the history of the conflict, as Bales argues against the idea that the U.S. violated the Geneva agreement; what actually happened, according to Bales, was that Ho Chi Minh tried to impose a Communist dictatorship on the entire country. Bales contends that the Vietnamese Buddhists whom MLK claims are victimized by the South Vietnamese government are neither as innocent nor as apolitical as MLK implies. Bales also argues that the U.S. should be even more aggressive in Vietnam: it should bomb key locations, after informing civilians so they can leave the area. For Bales, hawkishness will lead to peace, whereas tepidity will only prolong the conflict.

E. This book is very well-documented. Bales spends a lot of space quoting other sources, including Communist ones. Bales makes similar arguments to those of John Bircher Alan Stang in his 1965 anti-civil rights book, It’s Very Simple, yet Bales goes more deeply into certain topics, such as possible indications that the bombing of Carl and Anne Braden’s house was an inside job. Bales at least tries to give the impression that he is being fair to MLK, for he quotes MLK’s critiques of Communism and praises MLK’s call on the U.S.S.R. to end the death penalty. Some of Bales’s evidence may amount to hearsay: he refers to a source who claimed that the founder of Highlander privately acknowledged to him his belief in Communism. Often, though, Bales makes arguments that deserve consideration. And yet, there is another side to the narrative that Bales tells. Regarding the Vietnam War, Nick Turse argues in Kill Anything that Moves that the U.S. frequently and willfully killed civilians in Vietnam. While Bales acts as if all resistors against imperialist and colonialist regimes in Africa and Asia were Communists, David Talbot contends in The Devil’s Chessboard that not every leader the U.S. accused of being a Communist was in fact that, for some were nationalists who wanted to avoid the Cold War conflict. Bales repeatedly accuses MLK of being a liar, when it is more likely that MLK was mistaken in certain comments or simply had a different viewpoint from that of Bales. Criticizing HUAC is not lying! Bales failed to interact with the question of whether there are actual societal ills that MLK was protesting. And, often, Bales seemed to act as if simply linking MLK with Communist or Socialist positions was, by itself, an argument against MLK. It’s like, “the Communists say this, and King says that, too, so that makes King wrong!” When Bales made arguments, he usually did so well, but he was annoying when he conveyed a tone of “How dare anyone believe that!” (not exact quote). How dare anyone see the U.S. as anything other than a beneficent force in the earth! How dare anyone oppose the fine hardworking men at HUAC!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Church Write-Up: Jonah’s Message

Here are some items from this morning’s church activities.

A. The pastor revisited the scholarly debate about whether the Ninevites truly and sincerely repented at the preaching of Jonah. Those who say “no” point out that the Ninevites continued to oppress other nations. The pastor said that this scholarly debate is similar to how a lot of people act: they presume to judge other people’s repentance, when the point is that God is gracious.

B. But does not Jesus tell his disciples in John 20:23 that whatsoever sins they retain are retained? Does that not imply that Christians can decide not to forgive certain people, and God will not forgive those people? The pastor said that Matthew 18 can illustrate Jesus’s statement there. When people in church are confronted with their sins and repent, their sins are forgiven—-within the church and by God. If they do not repent, however, then they are to be treated by the church as tax collectors and infidels. But how did Jesus treat tax collectors and infidels? He continued to invite them to repent and to be reconciled with God, receiving God’s grace.

C. Last Sunday, the pastor likened Jonah’s experience to baptism, which is about the burial of the sinful self and the resurrection of a new creature in Christ. The pastor last Sunday referred to ways in which Jonah changed: Jonah became less self-centered and became concerned for the well-being of people on the ship, so he offered to be thrown overboard as that would calm the storm. Today, the pastor talked about how Jonah died and rose again, spiritually speaking, in his experience of God’s grace: he personally experienced God forgiving him, rescuing him from drowning, saving him from the belly of the great fish, and giving him a second chance. God’s grace, similarly, is integral to the Christian’s spiritual death and resurrection. Of course, the lesson did not entirely “take” for Jonah, since God later had to correct Jonah’s disdain for God’s sparing of the Ninevites. Jonah’s death and resurrection was a process.

D. Jonah 3:3 calls Nineveh a great city to God. That part about Nineveh being a city to God is obscured in most English translations. The pastor interpreted that statement to mean that Nineveh belonged to God and God cared for it, since it, too, was part of God’s creation.

E. Nineveh’s message to Nineveh is that, in forty days, Nineveh shall be destroyed. No indication is there, at least explicitly, that God is extending to the Ninevites the option to repent. But could Jonah’s message have included more than we are told? From the response of the Ninevites in chapter 3, we see that there were things that the Ninevites knew after hearing Jonah’s message. They knew that the message was from God, and that this God was upset at them for their violent ways.

F. The class discussed what makes a sermon good or bad; Jonah’s sermon was brief, yet the Holy Spirit still used it to work repentance in the Ninevites. People offered a variety of indications of a good sermon: it is concise, it makes a point, it contains personal stories that people can relate to, and it is tied to a specific biblical text. One lady referred to a sermon an elderly preacher in Illinois gave shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing: he said that things would get worse before Christ returns. She has remembered that sermon whenever there is a tragedy—-a bombing, or a mass shooting. She also said that she does not like preachers who act as if they are auditioning for Saturday Night Live. Someone in my group said that he liked Billy Graham because he spoke with clarity and authority. We also talked about Luther’s sermons. Luther’s sermons were long, and these were the days when there were no pews, so people listened to them while standing. His sermons had a lot of rabbit trails, but there was something in them for everyone—-from the theologian to the milk-maid. To these marks of a good sermon, I would add that the sermons I remember helped me to learn more about the Bible or to understand it in a constructive and edifying way.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Church Write-Up: Jonah and the Ninevites

Here are some items from today’s adult Bible study. We talked about Jonah.

A. The pastor addressed the topic of mission. Mission is both centripetal and centrifugal. Centripetal mission is when people see God’s ways in the Christian community and become attracted to them. Centrifugal mission is the church going out to the world to preach God’s word. The pastor went through the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate that God loves the nations and wants to be their God. I have been thinking about this topic in my own daily quiet time. Frequently in the Old Testament, God acts so that the nations may know that God is the LORD. Is God’s motivation missionary here? Well, not always, it seems, for there are cases in which people discover that God is the LORD, right before they die from God’s punishment. Not much time for repentance, is there? Plus, I have often suspected that the idea that God is a missionary is projecting evangelical emphases onto the Hebrew Bible. And yet, why else would God be concerned about what the nations thought about him? If it is not so he can be their God, what is the point? But, at least in the Old Testament, God has limited success in bringing the nations to the worship of him. You have Rahab and Naaman, but not too many.

B. Why were the Ninevites receptive to Jonah’s message? First, Assyria was experiencing political turmoil. Kings ruled briefly, for ten years or so. Usurpers were on the scene. The military was growing more powerful than the king, with civil war as the result. The Ninevites may have identified with Jonah’s dismal message because those were dismal times. Second, wandering prophets were widespread in those days, and their words were respected. Third, Jonah was barfed out of a fish, and that may have impressed the Ninevites, whose patron goddess was a fish.

C. There is debate about whether the Ninevites’ repentance was authentic. Tim Keller states that it was based on fear, not a love for righteousness, and he notes that they refer to God by the general term “Elohim” rather than his personal covenant name, “Yahweh.” They lack a personal relationship with God. The pastor expressed reservations about this argument, for the Bible frequently alternates between Elohim and Yahweh, as if the two are interchangeable. I wondered to myself if Keller dismisses their repentance as inauthentic because it was not lasting: the Ninevites relapsed back to their old ways and were destroyed a hundred years later. For Calvinists, however, authentic repentance will be lasting. Perhaps, but it was Nineveh as a collective who relapsed. The individuals who repented at the preaching of Jonah may have persevered in their repentance.

D. There was some discussion about whether Jonah actually died in the belly of the great fish, meaning that God literally raised Jonah from the dead. The pastor treated Jonah’s death and resurrection as metaphorical, yet he could understand the argument that Jonah literally died. Jonah speaks about going to Sheol and the bars overtaking him; at the same time, someone pointed out that Jonah seems to present God as rescuing him when he was about to die, implying he did not actually die. The pastor said that Jonah could be describing salvation from near death, or salvation from actual death; the language is ambiguous. Jesus called himself, though, greater than Jonah, so there is some differentiation between his death and resurrection and that of Jonah.

E. Jonah is called the some of Amittai at the beginning of the book, which may be ironic: Amittai means faithfulness, and Jonah was far from faithful, for he fled from the mission that God had for him. Later in the book, when Jonah is recommissioned, he is not called the son of Amittai.

F. Someone asked where Christians should start in preaching the Gospel to people who know nothing about God, who lack a foundation. The pastor replied that people’s beginning is where they are. What is working for them in their lives? What is not working for them? What are they experiencing? Is there a way that the Gospel can connect with their lives and their crises, offering them hope?

Monday, January 13, 2020

Book Write-Up: It's Very Simple, by Alan Stang

Alan Stang. It’s Very Simple: The True Story of Civil Rights. Western Islands, 1965. See here to purchase the book.

Alan Stang wrote for the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. It’s Very Simple, published in 1965, is a criticism of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.

Some items:

A. Stang quotes American Communist documents that indicate a desire for black self-determination, which is similar to the self-determination of other colonized people in the world. Self-determination essentially means, in this context, that African-Americans are to be their own nation, which is to be located in the urban areas where they dwell. That sounds like separatism. Stang engages the question of how one can reconcile this vision with the Civil Right’s Movement’s aspiration for racial integration. What he seems to suggest is that the Communists hope that black national consciousness will develop as a result of the African-American push for integration. But there are other competing visions, as well. Stang quotes passages in which Communists desire a focus on class rather than race, and he interprets Martin Luther King, Jr.’s newfound focus on class issues in light of that; this appears to contradict black separatism. Stang also highlights Black Muslims’ mockery of integration, and he treats the Black Muslims, too, as part of a Communist conspiracy. If there is a conspiracy, it is obviously not monolithic.

B. Stang argues that Communists and Communist sympathizers have prominent positions in the American Civil Rights Movement. He bases their identify as Communists, in part, on FBI research and testimony that ex-Communists have made to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Participation in numerous Communist fronts, like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, is also a strike against them. Stang is also concerned about Black Muslims’ rapprochement with Communism, as Malcolm X meets with leftists in Cairo, seeks to build bridges with Red China, and expresses hope that the Communist-dominated UN will intervene in American racial conflicts and stop white racist oppression.

C. As they have done in other nations they have sought to take over, Stang argues, Communists instigate violence. They provoke riots, and Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence, is in coalition with people in the Civil Rights Movement who advocate violence and unlawful disruption. Stang speculates, though, that the Communists are not just agitating for violence on the African-American side, but also on the white conservative side, as well, as that brings more sympathy to the Civil Rights Movement. Stang cites an example of how Communists infiltrated a right-wing movement in Russia prior to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and he thinks that Communists, likewise, may have instigated the bombing of African-American churches in the South, as well as police brutality. Stang is slightly inconsistent about the Communists’ M.O., though. On the one hand, he seems to argue that Communists have no problem with violence, for they have shown themselves to be a brutal people. On the other hand, in arguing that the bombing of Carl and Anne Braden’s house (or, more accurately, the house in which they moved an African-American family) may have been by Communists rather than white racists, he notes that no one was killed by the bombing as a possible indication that it was staged. Stang’s argument is slightly difficult to accept. Why would Martin Luther King want to bomb his own home? Stang never explicitly says that he would, but he eventually does seem to treat King as an active, high-ranking member of the Communist conspiracy (after initially equivocating about how in-the-know King is), and, if Communists are in the business of bombing houses, what other conclusions could one reach?

D. Stang is critical of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, seeing that as oppressive federal overreach and as suppressive of individual rights to private property and even free speech (since, according to Stang, a provision against agitating for racial hatred could be applied to crack down on people who write letters to the editor against racial integration). Stang also is critical of the Great Society, as he argues that Communists run divisions of it and encourage agitation (i.e., rent strikes) and African-American militancy. What does Stang think should be done about race relations in the United States? He believes the solution is capitalism, which has made even the poor in America richer than most people throughout the world, and which rewards the industrious, regardless of race.

E. Stang talks about the alliance between the Nation of Islam and George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party. He refers to this within the context of talking about Communist infiltration of right-wing movements. One area in which the two are united is in their opposition to Jews, but Stang wonders if they may find common ground on other areas as well. Stang quotes Rockwell’s publication, which acknowledges that blacks have received a raw deal and endorses foreign aid. That surprised me, since Rockwell speaks against foreign aid in some of his writings.

F. An interesting feature of Stang’s book is when he quotes mainstream American media and academic assessment of Castro and the Communists in China. Essentially, they initially held that Castro and the Chinese Communists were different from the Soviet Communists in their ideology and approach, and Stang’s argument is that they turned out to be incorrect in their assessment. Maybe he is right, but the different flavors and nuances of Communism intrigued me. Another interesting discussion in this book was the history of the Nation of Islam.

This book is not always an easy read, especially when Stang alternates between events in the U.S. and acts of Communist instigation and revolution in other countries. It is well-documented, though. As far as Stang’s argument goes, I cannot blow off the Civil Rights Movement as a Communist front, especially when it was standing against real acts of oppression and humiliation of people on account of their race, as well as broader issues such as poverty. Stang’s confidence in capitalism as a solution is not totally unfounded, but his argument could have been stronger had he fleshed out how to bring free markets to the inner-city and if he argued that racial segregation laws in the South were themselves statist and suppressive of individual rights.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Church Write-Up: Jonah, Part 2

Here are some items from church this morning. We are going through Jonah.

A. The pastor compared the story of Jonah to baptism. Baptism is about the drowning of the old, sinful self and the emergence of a new self. Jonah, at the beginning of the story, was sinful and selfish. He flees from God, which is arrogant on his part. When a storm hits the ship he is on, he turns inward and falls asleep at the bottom of the boat, wanting to escape other people. But Jonah changes in the course of the book. He becomes concerned about his shipmates and even sacrifices himself for them. He tells them that throwing him overboard can calm the storm and save their lives. This was a risk on his part. Jonah probably did not know how to swim, since most Israelites did not live near the sea. Jonah, consequently, realized that he may die, even though he hoped God would rescue him. And, after the fish vomits him out, Jonah resolves to obey what God has called him to do.

B. A few of us were talking this morning about what creature swallowed Jonah. Was it a whale? A fish? The pastor said that he thinks God specifically created that great fish for Jonah. Someone else said that, if it was not a whale, what could it have been? Personally, I doubt that the author of Jonah distinguished between a whale and a fish; we know that whales are mammals and are not fish, but, as far as they were concerned, whales looked like fish and thus could be classified as fish. Similarly, Leviticus 11:19 lists bats among the birds because, like birds, bats have wings and fly; we know, though, that bats are not birds.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Church Write-Up: Jonah, Part 1

Here are some items from last Sunday’s church activities. The pastor started a series on the Book of Jonah. Both the service and the Sunday school class are about that throughout January.

A. The youth pastor talked about how, even when we try to flee from God and disobey him, God does not forsake us. God is always there, trying to bring us back.

B. The topic of God’s omnipresence came up in the service and the Sunday school class. Jonah 1:3 states that Jonah fled from the presence of the LORD. Presumably, that meant that Jonah fled from Jerusalem, where God was believed to reside. Yet, Jonah still has a sense that God is omnipresent, for Jonah testifies to the sailors that God created the sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9); God, even far from Jerusalem, could therefore cause the storm that is afflicting Jonah and his crew. The pastor attributed this inconsistency within Jonah to Jonah being simultaneously a saint and a sinner: he believed he was fleeing from God, yet he also realized that he could never do so. Someone in the class suggested that perhaps Jonah did not believe he was fleeing from God, but Jonah hoped that God would forget about him or pick someone else for the mission.

C. Related to (B.), the pastor said that, in the Hebrew mindset, the city and the sea were not places to find God. Cities, in the Book of Genesis, were founded by the wicked Cain and Nimrod; the Israelites were closer to God in the wilderness, before they settled. The sea was a symbol of chaos and there were not many Hebrew seafarers because nobody knew what could happen out there. Yet, in the Book of Jonah, God is found in a city and at sea.

D. Jonah took a ship to Tarshish, and the pastor went through three options about the identity of Tarshish. First, it could be Spain. Spain had a Phoenician/Carthaginian colony with a name that was similar to Tarshish. According to Plato, at the pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar, a sign states that there is nothing more beyond. Jonah, in this scenario, sought to flee to the edge of the world. Second, it could be Sardinia, which is off the coast of Africa. People bought tin there to make bronze, and, in Egyptian, Sardinia sounds like Tarshish. Third, it could be Tarsus, in Turkey, from which St. Paul originated. Tarshish in Genesis 10:4 and I Chronicles 1:7 appears to be juxtaposed with Greece (Javan) and Crete (the Kittim), and Tarsus is on the way to Greece. The Egyptians traded a lot with Tarsus because it was rich in ore. The pastor thought Tarsus was the most likely candidate, but he likes the interpretation that it is Spain because it resonates with his own past experience of fleeing as far away as he could to escape God’s calling on his life.

E. The pastor drew parallels between the story in Jonah and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. In both, a man flees faraway, and someone is unwilling to accept another person’s repentance. Both also end with an open question: we are not told how Jonah responds to God’s point about God’s concern for the people of Nineveh, nor are we told how the older brother responds to his father’s point about the lost son being found.

F. The pastor also drew parallels between the story of Jonah and the story in Mark 4 and Matthew 8 about Jesus being asleep in the boat. Jonah slept in the boat during a storm, as did Jesus, and both are asked why they are sleeping. Both woke up and offered a solution (calming the storm) in which they submitted to God and identified God. In Jonah, the God of Israel is shown to be God; in Mark and Matthew, Jesus shows he is God.

G. The cuneiform for “Nineveh” has a house with a fish inside it, so some have suggested that the patron goddess of Nineveh was a fish.

H. Nineveh in the Book of Jonah is said to be a three days’ journey in breadth, but archaeologists say that Nineveh was not that big. The pastor said that it may have been that big if one counts the surrounding suburbs.

I. Jesus in Matthew 12:39-40 likens Jonah being in the belly of the fish with Jesus being three days and three nights in the tomb. The pastor interpreted this in light of the new life that Romans 6 associates with Jesus’s death and resurrection, a new life that entails God forgiving people of their sins. Indeed, that is what happens in the Book of Jonah: the Ninevites are forgiven by God and given a chance to start anew.

J. We had brief discussions at our tables. Apparently, this is a new thing we will be doing. It is not my cup of tea, but people made good points. Someone at our table, a pastor, discussed forgiveness. He said that he doubts that Jonah had to become friends with the Ninevites after their repentance, since his wounds may have been deep. Still, the possibility for friendship is there, as the Ninevites followed God and went a new path.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Book Write-Up: Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

This book includes contributions from biblical scholars about New Testament textual criticism. They criticize Christian apologists for making outdated arguments, yet they also briefly critique Bart Ehrman’s skepticism about the accuracy of New Testament manuscripts. This book also covers such topics as how texts were copied in antiquity, who the ancient New Testament scribes likely were, and why ancient Christians felt free to quote different versions of the Bible (Old and New Testaments).

Overall, the book seems to accept the conclusions of classic Christian apologetic arguments, even though it disagrees with how they got to those conclusions and advises caution. The conclusion that it accepts is that the New Testament manuscripts are likely true to the original and that the plethora of manuscripts allows scholars to draw reliable conclusions as to what the original said. Where classic apologetic arguments run off the rails is when they compare New Testament manuscripts with other ancient manuscripts, as when they allege that there are more New Testament manuscripts and that the New Testament manuscripts are closer in date to the originals than non-Christian manuscripts are to their originals. According to this book, their criterion for counting manuscripts is not always consistent, and they rely on outdated evidence, since more and more non-Christian manuscripts have been found, some of them early. Because the book largely agrees with the conclusions of apologists, much of its critique of them comes across as quibbling about minor details; still, it is never wrong to tell people to get their facts straight.

The critique of Bart Ehrman is brief and occasionally unfair, yet makes an effective point. The effective point is that Ehrman never considers the manuscripts as a whole. A manuscript that has a reading that seems to go against Christian orthodoxy may have a reading elsewhere that is consistent with or reinforces Christian orthodoxy. Consequently, Ehrman jumps to conclusions if he argues that, say, there were adoptionist manuscripts that troubled proto-orthodox Christians. Where the discussion about Ehrman falls short is that it is very brief: it often simply refers readers to other books conservatives have written against Ehrman. Moreover, one of the essays says that Ehrman fails to deal with which readings are earlier and later, when Ehrman in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture does precisely that, using the same methods of text criticism that conservative text critics use.

The book is especially informative on the side-issues it covers, which I mention above: how texts were copied in antiquity, who the ancient New Testament scribes likely were, and why ancient Christians felt free to quote different versions of the Bible (Old and New Testaments). The contribution about the last topic is especially judicious, as it looks at the techniques in the New Testament and early church fathers.

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

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