Freedom reflections

“Freedom” is an English word which suggests a value held by most Americans—arguably, an innate value.  What, though, is the referent of “freedom”?  It depends on the context.  Are we talking about Scots in the feudal period (see my essay with a Braveheart connection here), 19th-century Africans-become-Americans on the move, Jews or Christians in the 1st-century Roman Empire, or “free speech” in the 21st century?¹

I presume that all thoughtful people, regardless of how (or if) they feel patriotic, or how they support (or do not support) military action, can agree on a few things—for instance, that the loss of human life is to be avoided when possible, and that all human enslavement in recent history is abhorrent.  I certainly consider freedom from such enslavement a worthy human cause.  I would like to spend a few clarifying minutes here, though—sharing an illuminating, distinguishing feature of “freedom” in the New Covenant writings.  There can yet be appropriate lessons for Christians to draw out on the occasion of a national holiday.  I hope this post turns out to impress readers as just such a lesson, refining and deepening our thinking.

We should be aware, first off, that concepts and practicalities around freedom and slavery have changed through the ages.  What felt like freedom to an ancient, freed Hebrew who had lived in Egypt would surely still feel like bondage to me, a person of some privilege.  We know more of the life of a bondservant in New Testament times, but assumptions must still be made.  One conclusion we might draw is that, whatever Paul thought about about Roman-era slavery, he didn’t consider it inherently evil, or he wouldn’t have sent the “slave” Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wouldn’t have told “slaves” to obey their masters.  The point here is that one must learn something of the reality of the situation—the context of the “freedom”—before he can make apt assessments.  Moreover, the human enslavement that occurs today is of a different stripe from that of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in western Africa (and they’ve all been awful, on the whole).

The first three “freedom” definitions given in one e-source all focus attention on liberty from something—from restraint, from despotic government, or from enslavement.  Those definitions and references do summon images and historical education for many of us.  But these are not necessarily directly related to “freedom” in the NT writings.

In 2015, Dr. Larry Hurtado, an influential, reputable scholar retired from the University of Edinburgh, wrote a paper entitled “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament.”  Hurtado first treated NT references to freedom in the historical context of Roman slavery, which again deserves consideration in its historical context.  He proceeds to emphasize that, in the NT, freedom is “for a certain direction in life” (Hurtado p. 1) and is to be seen in (positive) connection to other people.  This freedom for something is to be seen in contrast to mere freedom from something—even something as dehumanizingly evil as the kind of slavery we typically think of.  On the contrary, the secular view of freedom in the Roman world—and, we daresay, throughout the West today—is often seen to be “at the expense of others, their labor and service enabling one to enjoy a freedom from labor and service.” (p. 25)  This assertion at first sounds overdone, but I consider it justifiable.  In other words, the freedom I enjoy as a U.S. citizen does not on the surface seem to be at the expense of others, yet when it is analyzed, a good part of it turns up wanting.  Hurtado’s point seems valid.

I don’t share all of Hurtado’s perspectives or concerns, and I wouldn’t claim any more than 10% of his intellectual capacity and insight, but I surely do appreciate the whole of his “Concluding Reflections,” which I reproduce below, with bold emphases of my own.  Again, the stress is not on what one is free for, but on what she is freed to do.

Anyone may find Hurtado’s paper freely available in its entirety here.

– B. Casey, 5/20/18 – 6/30/18

Those who require an explicit scriptural text to authorize any thought or action will find the absence of NT statements on political liberation either frustrating or a (dubious) justification for conservatism.  Those whose vision of liberation is essentially a hastily baptized version of Greek traditions of autarchy will find the NT vision of freedom incomprehensible and repugnant.  I suggest, however, that both responses reflect shallow thinking.  In any case, neither represents an adequate engagement with the NT.

As we have noted earlier, the NT does not teach about political liberation, largely because the sorts of actions open today (especially political organization) were not available or even conceived then.  But the strong affirmation and enhancement of personal moral agency in the NT are most compatible with social and political environments that make ample room for freedom of conscience and action.  The agapē urged in the NT requires a real measure of personal freedom in order to be exercised authentically.  It is not possible to render the love advocated in the NT under compulsion and coercion.  So, e.g., freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom from intimidation and oppressive social relationships are essential for the cultivation of opportunities for true faith and loving freedom to be exercised.

The eschatological vision that fuels NT teaching on freedom and other matters has been effectively lost in most versions of Christianity, along with the concomitant radical view of evil, with unfortunate results.  Conservative Christianity has tended to identify too readily the Kingdom of God with this or that political regime (from Constantine onward), whereas liberal Christianity has tended to under-estimate the depth of evil and in its own ways has tended to assume that radical change for the better can be achieved by well-intentioned people.  But the eschatological outlook of the NT reflects a profound, if jarring, view of the human predicament, which, in view of daily news reports, at least seems more realistic.  Moreover, that same eschatological hope also requires a stubborn refusal to confuse any human regime with God’s Kingdom, which should allow scope for critique of all regimes, even those established in the name of freedom.

The NT emphasis on freedom for the love of others may be instructive as well.  There are plenty of indications that modern liberal democracies are good at promoting individualism, and a culture of self-attainment.  But these societies are not very successful in promoting a productive and free social cohesion, and common values, or in getting individuals to use their wealth and other advantages for the good of other people.  Perhaps, then, the remarkable version of freedom in the NT is worth a second look.  One implication of the NT treatment of freedom is that a “free” society cannot be measured simply in the degree of autocracy exercised by individuals.  In today’s political climate, choice is a major commodity offered by politicians to a public coached to prize enjoyment of maximum personal opportunities.  But the NT idea of freedom rejects acquisitive choice in favour of serious and productive inter-personal involvement.  This dynamic freedom involves a greater realization of one’s own moral agency and an enlargement of one’s vision to take in others.  The expression of this sort of freedom promotes inter-personal relationships that nurture and enhance others, freely loving others in the power of God’s freely given redemptive love.

– from Dr. Larry Hurtado, “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament” (2010)


For the benefit of both sets of readers, this is also posted on my Kingdom blog.

For more (roughly) seasonal reading:

Nations—a probing of the ideas and concepts in the word(s)

The Babylon Bee can step on toes—and be rather probing with its stingers.  Enjoy this year-old satire on one of the U.S.’s special days:

Former enlisted man now a CO  (about what happened to change a “soldier’s” philosophy and allegiance)


¹ I don’t list here the countless Christian songs that rhyme with “set free.”  Some of them might have something theologically sound in the background, but others seem rather glib and gratuitous, with no particular reference.

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(Hucka)been there, done that

Crossposted from my other blog, a bit of a diatribe on something from the typical “conservative Christian” world:  https://subjectsofthekingdomblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/10/huckabeen-there-done-that/

Here are a few excerpts:

“God’s love for the U.S.” is an idea concocted out of thick air—thick with people who not only believe, but also blithely promulgate, the idea that God especially guides the United States.  These people are almost as common as, and even more deluded than, those who think they can play the guitar.

. . .

God is not about geopolitical entities.

. . .

I would assert that God did specially orchestrate some events for the ancient Jews for centuries, but the scenario then changed.  

Xposted: Kingdom glances (3) — allegiance

Faithfulness/allegiance to the kingship of Jesus will ultimately be significant to everyone.  This final installment in a short series on my other blog speaks in some detail about some key language of Christian “faith”—which, as it turns out, is often the language of allegiance.

Among other challenges, Matthew Batesʼs Salvation by Allegiance Alone aims to move us toward a fuller, more apt understanding of pistis (“faith” in English Bibles).  Please click below (to my other blog) to read more on faith as allegiance to Jesus as King:

https://subjectsofthekingdomblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/kingdom-glances-3/

Apologies to readers who receive posts by e-mail for this blog.  I clicked prematurely yesterday.  If you have already read the linked post above, know that nothing has changed there other than a correction of a typo. 

Al’s advice

Scrolling way, way down in a poorly formatted e-newspaper, I found a gem.  Get out your jeweler’s light, and trace the all the facets of this, appreciating its shining beauty and value.


Christian friend,

So easy to take a scripture not meant for us and claim it, as if God meant it for everyone everywhere at all times.

For example:

 “Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”” Joshua 3:5 NIV

Does God do amazing things?

Of course.

But is that what this passage is saying to everyone?

No.  It’s a promise to the Jewish people as they entered the Promised Land.

Ripping it out of context and applying it to yourself today is not only poor language/exegetical skills, it could lead to frustration and loss of faith.  Many days are ordinary, with the Lord at work, subtly, behind the scenes.

I used this example because have never heard someone claim it.

But what if the passage is famous?

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV

Is this as general a promise as we’ve made it out to be?  Is it true of God and us all the time (think of all the judgment & discipline passages)?  What do Jeremiah 29, and the passages around it, indicate?  Are there other similar promises?

It may indeed be a general promise, but have we done our “due diligence”?

Let us use scripture carefully, brother & sisters.

Be blessed.

– Al Schirmacher


Soon, and for the first time ever, I might be able to say that I visited a church building solely because of a statement (oral or written) by a single preacher, pastor, or other church leader!  – Brian

Three theological tidbits

One  I’ve come up short in terms of knowledge so often that it’s hardly worth mentioning.  It’s happened again, in the last couple of weeks, with respect to a theological teaching known as PSA.  Here, PSA is neither an oncologist’s measurement nor a mediaperson’s “public service announcement.”  Theologically, apparently PSA is Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  I didn’t even know anything had been labeled as such, and I’ve never before considered PSA’s pros and cons.  Essentially, I think most people who would call themselves Christians assume some degree of PSA, whereas discriminating, studied theologians have nuanced it and decided on at least a partial yea or nay.

I have only barely started thinking about this, and even a cursory search and scan immediately sends me spiraling suspiciously down a staircase of suppositions.  In other words, I get dizzy with the labels and can’t find my way to the elevator.

Did you know that the root word “atone” is not found in the entire New Testament in the RSV or NASB or NJB translations?  It does appears 4x in the NT in the NRSV, and there are dozens of instances in some English Bibles in the Old Testament (but only 4x in the OT in the Roman-Catholic NJB).  The words “propitiation” and “expiation” come into play here, too . . . but the exegete’s questions must be focused on original-language words such as “ἱλάσκομαι” | hilaskomai and what they mean in context in such passages as Hebrews 2:17.  How intriguing that the only other place hilaskomai is used is in Luke 18:13, and the aorist middle/passive form is not translated “atone” there in any of my English Bibles.  Related, cognate words such as ἱλαστήριον | hilasterion ought also to be considered (and this word is also rendered with multiple English words), but cognates won’t all necessarily refer to the same theological notion.  The questions keep coming. . . .  In pursuits like this one, we deal in concepts, not merely words, and we cannot blindly focus only on the concepts present in the receptor language (in my case, English).  Still, the absence and presence of “atone” or “atoning” in certain English Bibles intrigues me, perhaps betraying theological alignments or biases.  Another interesting “find” is that atonement appears ten times in three apocryphal books (Sirach and 2nd and 4th Maccabees) literature.  Could it be that the literature from inter-testamental period, as appropriated after Christ, influenced a new-covenant theology of atonement?  I really have to stop here for now.

Eventually, I ought to ponder and study more about atonement and PSA.  This notion is potentially highly significant, and its long legs extend into such areas as soteriology, eschatology, and congregational worship.  Theological matters do have ways of extending themselves.  They also have ways of making some of us yawn, recoil, or shrivel.  A friend once relayed to me the following quotes or near-quotes:

“Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.” – Vance Havner, an influential Southern Baptist evangelist

I was wandering around lost in a dark forest with only one little candle to light my way when a theologian came along and blew out my candle.  – French Renaissance essayist Francois Rabelais

I can laugh at those, but, in my mind, theology has a forbidding presence—one that I’m only sporadically interested in acknowledging.

Two  In the current Lexham Press catalog, I found a few titles I was interested in:

  1. Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Larry Hurtado’s forthcoming work on the worship of Christ in the early church)
  2. The Universal Story (Dru Johnson’s treatment of Genesis 1-11)
  3. The Bible Unfiltered (Michael Heiser’s angle on the supernatural worldview inherent in scripture)

So many titles, however, seem like mere theological meanderings:

  • The Apostles’ Creed:  A Guide to the Ancient Catechism 
  • 1) Christian Essentials and 2) Theological Institutes (two different titles, surely with two different lists/presentations)
  • Studies in Historical & Systematic Theology (series)
  • Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (most of it is, I’d say!)
  • The Theological Correspondence of John Frame
  • No Quick Fix (an exposé of Keswickian “higher life” theology)
  • An Exegetical Theology of 1-3 John

Even the last one’s blurb shows the book to be more connected to “systematic theology” than to 1-2-3 John.  When I do take time for theology, it’s with trepidation.  In a recent “church” visit, I was unwittingly put on notice that I could never belong there, because anyone who does not support X theological construct is clearly viewed as heretical.

Three  I do appreciate the following wise words on the theological bent, so I’ll leave you with them for today.  Don’t miss the final clause about the likely mingling of motivations.

Theology is a bit like a spider’s web, in the sense that cutting a single strand of a theological framework can drastically alter the shape of the whole.

A good theologian understands the web from many angles. They can identify the fundamental tenets of an intricate system. They can foresee the potential effects of disregarding those tenets in advance. They can perceive when an apparently obscure issue is being used as a proxy for the underlying disagreement — and when it is not actually an obscure issue at all. They can spot patterns, echoes, allusions, and possibilities.

This obviously requires clarity of thought — but it also demands empathy and a wide-ranging understanding of context, since personal motivations are so often mingled with doctrinal ones.

– Academic scholar Maddy Ward

Past blasts #4: AVB’s “U Can’t Go 2 Church”

A few people in my past were big fans of the A Cappella organization.  At one point, it was just two guys on tour with pre-recorded tracks, but it was more often several guys.  Later, additional groups were spawned, including women and children.  AVB, the A Cappella Vocal Band, made forays into rappish tunes and used more vocal percussion effects.  I was never too big a fan myself, but I find myself going back to the past once in a while now.

Here is a YouTube link to an AVB song I happened to pull out yesterday.  Jedd and I listened while on an adventure and hour-long errand.  The message is simple but simply provocative for all of us—even those of us who’ve heard throughout our lives that we should call “Bible things by Bible names.”  I was happy this morning to be able to remember the words to the chorus.  I left the last line open for Jedd to fill in, and fill it in he did, with a smile.  I think this song’s punch drove home something he’s known for a few years already.

U Can’t Go 2 Church

You can’t go to church as some people say —
The common terminology we use everyday —
You can go to a building—that is something you can do—
But you can’t go to church
‘Cause the church is you

While I’m heading into the past with music from the 80s and 90s . . . a song that still gets to me, as sung by the parent group A Cappella, is “Fly Away,” in which I am reminded that “we will fly away when He hears His Father say, ‘Jesus, go and get your bride, today is your wedding day.'”

Cross-posted: on human machinations

This post is from one of my other blogs, Subjects of the Kingdom:

Human machinations

That post deals relatively briefly with human ways and means, over against what I see as more lasting concerns of those interested in God’s reign.  The jumping-off point is 1Kings chapters 1 and 2, and I quote from Will Campbell, too.


Find more from Will Campbell here:  MLK, Jr. Day: A Tribute to Will Campbell

MLK, Jr. Day: A Tribute to Will Campbell

This blogpost was conceived a week or two ago and has been created and produced entirely on this day, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you are short on time, perhaps you can at least mine a few nuggets from the quotes below.

Serendipitously, today, my son and I listened to an old cassette tape while driving in a truck of about the same age.  The recorded music was from Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and the lead song was what I’d call a differently patriotic one:  “America, Spread Your Golden Wings.”[1]  Sometime before the song’s final chorus, three significant America quotes of American history are included as an interlude:

  1. The moon landing
  2. JFK’s “Ask not …”
  3. The quintessential Martin Luther King “ have a dream …” quote

I myself have never had much interest in Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, I have been conditioned to be biased against just about anyone in the limelight.  That aside, I must admit that the lyrics and music of the above-mentioned song, along with the interweaving of these often-heard, spoken moments in American history, combined to inspire even me.  King’s words are without doubt memorable, influential, and inspirational.  To date, his now-50-year-old attempts to influence this country toward breaking down racial walls has not had enough impact.  The Civil Rights causes that King so ardently championed have been left with unfinished work.  Another voice along these same lines was that of Will D. Campbell.

Image result for will campbell
Will D. Campbell (1924-2013)

In my reading on topics related to the two kingdoms, political and eternal, I have hung on an item in my possession (thanks to noted author Lee Camp)—a compilation of selected Campbell writings, edited by Richard Goode.  I had not heard of Campbell before 2016, and perhaps you haven’t, either.  Allow me to introduce you to him.

Will Campbell was a preacher in Louisiana for two years before taking a “religious life” post at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956.  He was forced to leave that position because of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement.  He later served as a race relations consultant for the National Council of Churches in New York, and he is said to have worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Following are excerpts from blurbs found on the back cover of the book:

Campbell still has much to teach us all.  Quirky and courageous, Christian and contrarian, his life of love and labor on behalf of civil rights—and plain civility to those in need—deserves a wider hearing…

In this remarkable collection, Will Campbell unmasks the powers-that-be, envisions on alternative order, and calls Christians to radical practices of resistance and reconciliation.  The witness and these pages will call forth many adjectives:  “Unrealistic!”  “Outrageous!” “Scandalous!”  . . .  Most often, however, another word is best:  Gospel.  Unsettling and essential reading for contemporary Christians.

If I myself had said the above, I would hope that most of my readers would respect the opinions somewhat.  The fact that the blurb writers hail from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Duke Divinity School, respectively, will give the comments added weight.

Particularly appropriate on this day, the following words would perhaps encapsulate Campbell’s indictment of Christian whites in the South:

The pattern we have seen develop in the Civil Rights struggle has been somewhat as follows:  Negroes have grown tired of unfreedom.  They have done something about it.  In not one case has the leadership in the significant developments been furnished by whites.  In Montgomery, Birmingham, Philadelphia, always it has been Negroes who have initiated the action.  That, in the Christian understanding, is not as it should have been (bear another’s burdens)….  Neither individual man nor society has been redeemed to the point where we are our brother’s keeper or advocate very much of the time.  (177)

It seems to me that the voice of Will Campbell is one that should be heard not only on this particular day but also, more generally and broadly, by all Christians in our age.  Editor-compiler Goode comments, “Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming and smashing the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude.”  (back cover)   “Professing disciples,” says Campbell, “must live an irrepressible conflict against the principalities and powers …  that divide and dehumanize.” (vii)  “Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, . . . Campbell counsels, ‘”Be reconciled!'” (back cover)   I don’t trust that “social” problems can really be solved in this life, but in their spiritual aspects, such problems as racism will be eased, in small corners, by individuals acting like Jesus rather than through political solutions.

Campbell was at times what might today be called an “advocate for the African-American,” yet his notion of reconciliation was so radical that he even went so far, on a humanitarian basis, to champion whites who perpetrated deeply violent, terroristic acts on blacks.  He advocated, for instance, for one KKK member and for a law enforcement officer who was wrongly acquitted of a crime against blacks in the Deep South.  After certain civil rights were legally obtained for black Americans, Campbell “came to believe that American society was substituting rednecks as the new, preferred ‘least of these’ group.  Campbell cast his lot with them, seeking to illustrate reconciliation with these ostracized sisters and brothers.” (31)  I wonder what Campbell would perceive of the last decade or so.  I suspect it would not be one group that would receive his attention.

Truly, at least based on my cursory reading of Campbell in the last year, he would have been an advocate for any [insert group name here] Lives Matter movement, including the All Lives Matter one.  Each life is important, he would say, and all may be reconciled in Christ.  Yet he was tough on the Christian establishment.  For instance, he referred to Nashville, near which he lived in later life, as a very religious city.  “Seven hundred and eighty church houses.  But religion is a dangerous thing.”  (77)  “Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.”  (back cover)

In my view, Campbell correctly calls out the religious establishment, endowing its collective identity with a tongue-in-cheek label, the “Steeples.”  He sometimes worked under a Steeple himself, but rarely did he appear to be most effective there.  Insofar as Goode has accurately represented Campbell (and I have every reason to believe the depiction is on the money), I would affiliate with his characterization of Campbell here:

He opposes the presumption that the only way the church can effectively suppress racism is either to align itself with humanitarian agencies and more stringently apply the wisdom of social science, or to acquire political power and more rigorously enforce U.S. constitutional law.  Both approaches, he says, are pagan insofar as they trust politics and or social science rather than the gospel.  (89)

The next quotation does not necessarily support MLK Jr day, but it serves to set up the succeeding one.

I agree that the Christian faith can be changed at many points that would make it more to my liking, more easily acceptable, more in keeping with my culture and my way of life; but the question we must always ask is “Is it Christian when we have finished with it?”  (93)

It is in that vein of deep challenge to the church Steeples (establishment groups) that Campbell pins white racist churchmen’s ears to the wall—those who in certain Deep South white churches of the 50s and beyond are blind to their racism.  The problem is not with those who would say, “We don’t care what God thinks, we want segregation and will have it forever.”  In that event, there would be some hope.  Instead, what Campbell suggests racist Christians actually said was, “We want segregation because it is God’s will.”  His stinging rejoinder:  “to deny God in the name of God is heresy.”  (93)

My growing affinity for Campbell has to do with his iconoclasm and his transparent honesty, no matter what.  He is rough around the edges and offensive at points, but I love when he says things like this (from a 1987 address titled “Values and Hazards of Theological Preaching”):

I don’t like the word ministry.  It is arrogant, presumptuous, condescending, maybe even imperialistic.  I don’t have a ministry.  I have a life.  (123)

In the course of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, Campbell had queried whether we (meaning Christians in general) assume the kingdom of God would be pretty much like the kingdom of Caesar.  (xi)  Philosophical challenges to the Religious Right and fundamentalist-Christian America do tend to draw me in, so I am all ears when Campbell calls out Christians for mixing God and political goals.  In a late chapter in the book, editor Goode aptly called 1968 “a pivotal year in US political history.”  That year, which was of course the year of King’s assassination, Campbell and the editor of the journal Katallagete dedicated an issue to assessing the faith many Christians place in the democratic process.  Although it would have been appropriate for me to review and or analyze that essay on this day, I will have to defer that until another time.  I will be intently interested in what this courageous man said 40 years ago about the failings of the political system in attaining to the brotherhood of man.

For more on Will Campbell, you might begin at his the Wikipedia page here.  Another interesting read would be found in the transcript of an “oral history” interview here.


[1] On both the first and tenth anniversaries of 9/11, in Kansas and western New York, respectively, I redeployed that very song in music ceremonies.

Of 1.6-liter engines, V10 4WDs, theology, and biblical studies

A great start to the morning includes another statement of reliance on what is written.  The following Q&A led an interview found here:
Interviewer: What led you into biblical studies, and in particular, Pauline studies, in the first place?
Seyoon Kim:  When I embarked on my post-graduate theological studies, I was aspiring to become a systematic theologian. During the first year of preparatory reading for it, I realized that to become a good systematician, I had to be well grounded on biblical foundation.  So I decided to do my doctoral work in biblical studies, and chose Pauline studies, thinking that it would prepare me the best for my eventual systematic theological work (but I have not been able to “advance” to it!)

Oddly enough, my first introduction to “biblical studies” was a negative one.  (When a school or institute is called the “School of Biblical Studies,” abbreviatory jokes can be made.)  Yet I know of no more apt moniker, and biblical studies as an academic field must continue to enjoy a respected place.¹  I started to say that it should have a berth “quite distinct from” theology and ministry, but I actually don’t believe that.  My wish might be better stated like this:  biblical studies² should be recognized as a foundational discipline for faith-related academic inquiry, constituting the stage on which theology, church history, ministry, and religious philosophy play out.

Dr. Kim appears to have used the word “advance” with a wink.  I would grant that theological thought is “advanced,” in that it makes judgments and synthesizes.  Here, I think of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which for me was Knowledge – Comprehension – Application – Analysis – Synthesis – Evaluation.  (See current info here and here.)  I  think I learned and comprehended that model fairly well as a young college student, and I have applied at least the lower end of it throughout life.  In other words, I don’t know that I have analyzed, synthesized, evaluated all that much.  At any rate, I would grant that those who think more philosophically and theologically often have advanced minds.  My brain is a 4-cylinder, 1.6L Ford Escort, whereas theirs are V10 fuel-injected V10s Ford F250s with 4WD.  (Or maybe Ford Excursions with bells and whistles inside?)

I’m content to drive along trustworthy, relatively flat paths with my little engine.  I think those big ol’ vehicles can get themselves into deep mud and crevasses as they attempt to climb hills and traverse rugged terrain while watching movies with their on-board Wifi.  The windows can get all covered up with mud, and the drivers have a hard time seeing the path, though.  So keep me in the text along with Dr. Kim, and save me from “advanced” theological machinations unless they are inextricably tied to the texts.  Theological pursuits may be rewarding, but most of our minds (certainly not mine) can’t handle them very often, and I think we’re all probably safer on level ground.


¹ It is difficult to respect the theology department of a supposedly Christian institution of higher learning when it offers courses in church history and philosophy but not a single course in New Testament Greek.

² Within “biblical studies” we might include (but not be limited to) manuscript investigation, rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, text criticism, studies in Hebrew prophetic genres and Hebrew poetry, studies in the literary nature of the gospels, Pauline studies, and, of course, studies of ancient scripture languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Faith qua allegiance (part 2)

For me, allegiance is a central Christian concept, and it has been throughout my adult life.  In this first post on the word-concept allegiance, I traveled through a bit of personal historyreferring to the relationship of allegiance to human government, songs by Ray Boltz and Rich Mullins, and the influence of Lee Camp.  In the last two years—and especially in the last few months—the place of allegiance has been bolstered considerably in this believer’s thinking.  Allegiance has been inextricably connected to faith itself.

Life can bring great serendipities, synergies, and dovetailings.¹  I note the following that have come in the same phase of my life:

  • a heightened awareness of theological positioning around the word “faith” (and also sovereignty and free will), due in part to a men’s discussion group
  • persistent thoughts about allegiance to God’s Kingdom in a group study of Matthew
  • our home group’s study of Galatians
  • an academic blog’s feature of Dr. Matthew Bates’s 3rd book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Amazon catalog reference here).

Product DetailsWhile I have been mentally and hermeneutically challenged in all of the above, the connections are nevertheless satisfying.  Prior to applying this to my present study of Galatians, I’d like to highlight key portions of the lengthy interview with Matthew Bates (see here for part 1).  Here are the lead paragraphs:

Not since the Reformation has there been a challenge to the five solas as persistent and potentially persuasive as Matthew W. Bates’ third book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).  This book has generated a groundswell of controversy that continues to build as more theologians, pastors, and laypeople are exposed to Bates’ nuanced proposal.

Bates’ thesis, at once radical and obvious, is this:  in the New Testament writings, the Greek word pistis, or “faith,” is better translated as “allegiance.”  He does not intend for every instance of pistis in our Bibles to be retranslated, but for him, there are specific contexts, especially in Paul and the Gospels, in which the only reasonable rendering is “allegiance,” as in the kind of fidelity or loyalty that one would give to a king.

Note that Bates is especially focused on the gospels and Pauline letters, and also note that allegiance is connected to divine sovereignty, something to which most Christians would give assent, to one level or another.  Next, here is a crystallization of what I take as the crux of the issue, from part 2 of the interview:

Interviewer:  Of the Reformation solas, only yours seems completely dependent upon human agency.  All the rest are due to God’s agency, whether that be scriptura, gratia, doxa, fides (as a gift from God, Eph 2:8), or Christos. How would you respond to the criticism that your sixth sola fails to meet the standard of the others due to misplaced agency?

Matthew Bates:  First, I am not arguing for a sixth sola, but primarily seeking to advocate for a truer understanding of sola fide (by faith alone).  My exploration seeks to uphold the solas while seeking greater precision with respect to their true biblical boundaries.  I do conclude that sola gratia (by grace alone) and soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone) need to be nuanced in particular ways in order to stay faithful to the biblical vision.  This is because grace and boasting have both been misunderstood with regard to works (of Law).  As far as I am aware, I am not seeking to add distinctive shades of meaning with regard to Christ alone or Scripture alone.

Second, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone I never state that pistis is solely dependent on human agency rather than God’s agency.  In fact, quite the opposite:

Grace in the sense of God’s prior activity precedes ‘faith,’ for God first had to bring about the good news before it could be proclaimed and before allegiance to Jesus as Lord could be confessed (Rom. 10:9–14).  Moreover, God is the creator, and every good gift comes from God (James 1:17), so we must affirm God as the ultimate source of ‘faith’ and all else. (p. 105)

What is being claimed is that faith, enabled by grace, is the only contribution that we make to our salvation. (p. 122)

So I do assert that in some sense the ability to render allegiance to Jesus the king is either due to God’s agency, or is at least a gift bequeathed to our libertarian agency in the wake of the Christ-event.  Yet since Scripture puts far more emphasis on our agency with regard to pistis than God’s agency, throughout the book I frequently speak about our own human agency in giving pistis to Jesus the king (emphasis mine  -bc).  In so doing I am trying to give the same weight of emphasis that we find in Scripture.  Yet I deliberately leave the nature of God’s agency with respect to our own underdetermined.

This matter of agency is key for systematic theologians whose formulaic approaches almost make it a spiritual crime to acknowledge a human response to God—or, dare I suggest it, a human initiative in some sense.  Yes, “while we were yet sinners,” God took action.  But that notion does not negate the fact that we now owe God allegiance.  If allegiance is something God enables, fine, but as far as I know, I choose to give it, and I am glad to give it, in my human weakness, when I am at my best.

Matthew W. BatesWith respect to the word “gospel” (ευαγγέλιον | euangélion), Bates makes the statement, “We can’t make decisions about what ‘good news’ means on the basis of our feelings about what sort of ‘news’ would be better for us.”  Bates then points as an example to a popular author who “is allowing systematic concerns about what would be better for us to override first-century meanings.”  Taking what I believe would be classified a synchronic (within a time period) linguistic approach, Bates says, “The meaning of first-century words must be determined by first-century usages.”  He would say the same about the word “faith” (pistis | πίστις ).  In other words, it doesn’t really matter what what a 21st-century regurgitation of a Lutheran “faith alone” theology conveys to the modern Protestant ear.  Recovering as much of a first-century sense of “faith” (pistis) as possible is key to understanding what Paul and others meant when they wrote of “faith.”

Whatever one makes of Bates’s book,² there can be no doubt that coming to grips with a fuller range of meaning of “pistis” is key to a more adequate understanding of New Covenant “faith.”  And so, when I come to Galatians and struggle hermeneutically with whether in 2:16 or “pistis” means faith (RSV, ESV, NIV, etc.) or faithfulness (NET Bible and some more recent commentators), I now have another viable option:  allegiance or loyalty.

I might now paraphrastically expand some Galatians phrases to include the allegiance idea.  Consider a few more traditional English renderings, followed by the “new possibility” in each case.

2:16

ESV:  we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, …

NET:  we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, …

New possibility:  we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by Christ’s allegiance, and not by works of the law, . . .

2:20

New possibility:  I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by loyal trust in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

3:2

ESV:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, . . .

New possibility:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would later justify the Gentiles by their faith-filled allegiance to Him, . . .

3:22

ESV:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

New possibility:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise that emanates from Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance might be given to those who also believe loyally.

3:26

CSB:  for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility:  for through faithful allegiance you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility (expanded):  for through faithful allegiance —first, that of Jesus, and now, your own—you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

Whether this season is more filled with Santa and snowmen or shepherds and angels for you, consider allegiance to the King.  Perhaps the thoughtless use of phrases such as “newborn king” or “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” bothers you a little, as it bothers me.  Still, I affirm that Jesus did become Lord and Christ.  He became King.  And having faith in Jesus implies allegiance to Him as King.


¹ One such dovetailing was when we first engaged in the serious study of Paul’s letter to Philemon—a letter written to a “house church”—with a home fellowship that met in our living and dining room.  What serendipity, right?  (Or providence, if you prefer.)  I’ve written about that more than once.  Try these two:

Community in Philemon
A mini-odyssey with small groups (3 of 6)

² I myself pored over the serial blogposts and am about to order the book but but have not read it yet.

Allegiance: Boltz, Camp, & Mullins (part 1 of 2)

I think it was during my late teen years that the notion of the Christian believer’s foremost allegiance began to stick with me.  More than once during those years, I read every word of my grandfather’s paper on the Christian and government.¹  In the sub-context of stating a Christ-based unwillingness to serve in the military (but also revealing a broader philosophical stance which I also affirm), Granddaddy wrote, “I will try to be submissive insofar as this submission does not compromise my basic allegiance to Christ.”  Such thinking has been a part of my theological chassis for some time.  Many welders have strengthened the undercarriage, so the allegiance frame is pretty unlikely to break at this point.

Some years later, when I heard Ray Boltz’s² rather unique song “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb,” it added a “contemporary Christian” bit of support to my thinking.  A Christian should have one primary allegiance, I knew, and that allegiance should obviously not be to the flag of a country, but Boltz had stated it well in the positive:  Jesus the Lamb was the One to Whom loyalty is due.  I wonder now whether Boltz was responding creatively (either consciously or subconsciously), knowing something was amiss in the popularity of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” which was then more than ten years old and had become the anthem of the U.S. military, beginning in the Gulf War era.

Image result for rich mullins songs album

Also sometime during the 1990s, I had come to the songs of the late Rich Mullins.  Just a couple of days ago, I happened to put one of Mullins’s CDs in my player, as I seem to every couple of months.  The song “If I Stand” has often moved me, through years, filling up my eyes, and it did so again.  It is not the word “allegiance” first that struck me, but a synonym:

There’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment.

Nationalistic patriotism in most people (not all, I understand) has most often struck me as mere sentiment.  One or two good friends have challenged my concept of patriotism, and I do acknowledge that it can be a neutral or even good thing even in the believer’s life.  Still, Mullins’s sentence has stuck with me through the years.  Whatever the inner sentiment of a national patriot, surely loyalty must outlast and outshine the sentiment.  And it is the same for a believer:  it’s not that there is no sentiment; it’s that allegiance to the King must be real and transcendent.

In the song “If I Stand,” Mullins and co-writer Cudworth continued,

The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things.

In internalizing these thoughts sporadically for more than two decades, my own allegiance has been both (a) shown to be the weak thing that it is and (b) impelled forward.  Five songs later on the disc, Mullins offered “My One Thing,” showing once again that he desired to embody a surpassing allegiance:

You’re my one thing!
Save me from those things that might distract me.
Please take them away and purify my heart.
I don’t want to lose the eternal for the things that are passing,
‘Cause what will I have when the world is gone,
If it isn’t for the love that goes on and on with my one thing!

In 2015, I was introduced by Richard Hughes to the writing of Lee CamImage result for lee camp mere discipleshipp.  First poring over Camp’s Mere Discipleship, I was impressed by his depth and his on-target courage to speak into the fray of modern Christendom, not to mention his skill with written expression.  In the course of this book, Camp depicted worship as allegiance, and I have yet to dive into that connection, but something compels to do so.  Allegiance is a rather massive, compelling ideal.

In part two, I will mention a (relatively) new book by Matthew Bates—Salvation by Allegiance Alone.  I’ll also say some things related to faith and allegiance in Paul’s (old) letter to the Galatians.  Allegiance is a concept with substantial, longstanding history.


¹ Andy T. Ritchie, Jr.’s paper is in the public domain and is reproduced in my book Subjects of the Kingdom. 

² Only in writing this post have I learned that Boltz’s allegiance to his own desires later eclipsed his allegiance to Christ and to his wife.

What? The Qur’an is like the Bible?

A new book aims to introduce the Qur’an from a historical-critical perspective.  I doubt anyone would argue with the first part—the principle of considering a book within a historical frame—but “critical” can set some folks off.  It might help to get over an initial barrier if we thought not about being critical but more along the lines of employing critique

In the publisher’s catalog listing for the new book I noticed a few chapter titles in particular:

4 Literary coherence and secondary revision:  The very idea of examining literary coherence is potentially bothersome to those who discount the human element in their sacred texts—and the suggestion of revision or even developmental phases in the production of said texts, potentially offensive.

6 Intertextuality:  The intertextuality notion deals with the relationship between/among different texts (potentially including non-sacred and chronologically distant ones), as well as others written for altogether different purposes.  Intertextual relationships include both direct and indirect quotations, references, and less explicit “echoes.”

Part Three:  The idea of a “diachronic survey” indicates that it examines through time, taking development into consideration, as opposed to gauging things based on a “snapshot” at one point in time.  I note sub-references to both the “Meccan surahs” and the “Medinan surahs.”  I would have to look up what a surah is, but I have a passing acquaintance with the idea that Muhummad’s ideologies shifted from his early years in Mecca to his later ones in Medina.  See the last part of this post for one key change.

The quotation below is from Larry Hurtado, whose blog was the source for my information.  This is worth sharing on its own merits—for the sake of Christians who care, or at least say they care, about the biblical text.

“No doubt, the book will receive objections from Muslims who imagine the Qur’an to be a miracle, not a historical phenomenon, just as fundamentalist Christians demur from a critical approach to biblical texts.  But, as Sinai notes, an awareness of the historically-conditioned nature of a sacred text doesn’t mean that it’s no longer sacred or meaningful for faith.”  – Dr. Larry Hurtado, https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/a-historical-critical-introduction-to-the-quran/

Postlude:  I once heard of a book titled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.  I paid little attention at the time, thinking it was little more than a curiosity being shared by a skeptical Episcopalian.  Regardless of certain theologically and socially liberal agendas that the book’s author would appear to support, I focus now on the relationship suggested by the title.  I was not a Fundamentalist even then, and I surely am not now, so it’s not as though I feel the title threatens to wrest something away from me.  The idea of freeing the Bible from certain agendas resonates even more these days than it did a couple decades ago.  I wish this or that fundamentalist view of scripture were seen as a particular type of conservative stance, and not the only viable type.

It would be a good thing if Christian and Muslim adherents alike came to consider the human elements in the production of sacred texts.

Image result for quran bible