Spot-on advice

Recently published interpretive advice from Dr. Suzanne Nicholson is golden.  I can’t resist extracting bits and phrases for those who may not click the link below.

“Words have different meanings in different contexts”

“looking at the text closely and seeing what is really there”

“not to read 2,000 years of Christian theology into the passage”

“How does the structure highlight the meaning?”

“how does a single passage reinforce the themes of the book?”

“don’t jump straight to application”

The entire post is brief.  Go ahead and read the whole thing.  It will take all of one minute.

Suzanne Nicholson (Malone University) on “What Makes a Good Biblical Scholar or Theologian?”
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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

Commentaries can contribute contextually

Some years ago, over a period of time, I learned to look askance at commentaries.  That was after my college years—which had involved a rather limited use of them.  The commentaries I used as textbooks in Bible classes were not particularly slanted, but they were too shallow and too brief.  For one thing, they didn’t expend much effort “getting into the cracks” of the text, as one respected scripture scholar has put it.  I grew increasingly involved in Bible study as an adult and rarely spent time in commentaries, choosing rather to learn Greek vocabulary and use other methods (sometimes good, sometimes not as good).  Although I retained—and packed and moved and re-shelved—certain commentaries many times, I eventually divested myself of some of them.  No more Matthew Henry or Adam Clarke for me!  (Books by narrow-minded commentators with less thoroughgoing capabilities were also jettisoned.)

While I have tended generally to avoid commentaries (in favor of lexicons and direct work in the text itself), I acknowledge that there are some really worthwhile commentaries.¹  The Logos/Faithlife company, in the course of advertising for its products (which it does with vigor and annoying regularity), recently shared this post that discusses the use of commentaries.  The current Logos software can access millions of indexed commentary entries on Greek and Hebrew words and phrases, all linked to specific scripture texts.  That is an impressive capability!  And the blog author’s point is well taken:  commentaries, as compared to lexicons, aim to analyze meaning of a word or phrase in biblical context.  Contextual considerations do appear in lexicons, but not as explicitly, or at least not in the same way.

Since I am currently wrestling with Galatians 2-4 (viz. word-concepts of faith, hearing, and justification; the Law, works, promise, etc.), an example in this Logos post about justification/righteousness caught my eye:

The other main disagreement concerns the question whether in the phrase dikaiosune theou in 1:17; 3:21, 22 (Cf. 10:3) theou is to be understood as a subjective genitive or as a genitive of origin, or—to put it differently—whether dikaiosune refers to an activity of God or to a status of man resulting from God’s action, righteousness as a gift from God.

[I have transliterated the Greek above for the sake of the majority of readers.  -bc]

The question of which type of genitive is not merely a grammarian’s diversion but is quite key in coming to understand the passages.  Is the genitive form of the word “God” (theou, often simply a possessive form) better understood as primarily indicative of God’s prior action or of human standing that results from the action?  A third option could be to read this as “God’s righteousness,” i.e., a righteousness that is in a sense owned by God.  A fourth possibility (that has to my knowledge not been suggested by scholars) is taking the genitive form as objective—for instance, “the righteousness shown toward God.”

A second commentary quoted in the Logos post makes reference to similar verbal constructions in Romans (similar to “righteousness of God,” that is)—namely, power of God and gospel of God.  Comparing what Paul is saying about power and gospel could be an important consideration in interpreting “dikaiosune theou” (righteousness of’ God) in Romans 1:17—but perhaps not in Galatians 2 and 3, where the other phrases do not appear.


¹ Some of the better ones I’ve used were written by Abraham Malherbe, Raymond Brown, and Ben Witherington.

Galatians frustrations

In leading a small group through a Galatians study, I am encountering frustrations.  I can categorize these as relating either to (1) my own inadequacies or (2) Paul’s expressions that are difficult to translate.  Comparatively, I had little frustration with 1:1-2:14.  The problems come with the substance introduced in 2:15 and beyond.

Two text scholars I consulted differed over whether to consider 2:15-21 a rhetorical propositio or a partitio.  It’s not that the label matters, but if I can determine this passage’s function and purpose within the whole letter, I will interpret better.  At this point in my study, I think the passage is less transitional and more stage-setting.  Both the propositio and the partitio traditionally involve backward-looking aspects, and those may be present in 2:15-21, but I find this section heavily weighted toward what is to come in the following discourse.  Whatever Paul is saying here will be elucidated in chapters 3 and 4, or at least I hope so.

 

The main issue for the last couple of weeks has been interpreting an expression with a notoriously problematic Greek construction:¹  The meaning of this phrase, consisting of the last few words of both 3:2 and 3:5, is something like “by faith’s hearing” or “by the proclamation of faith(fulness).”  The deeper one goes in trying to interpret Galatians on the whole, the large this phrase looms.

The noted Greek grammarian C.F.D. Moule once suggested that ex akoes pisteos equals hearing and believing, i.e., a sort of hearing that leads to belief.  Arguably, that interpretation places more emphasis on the faith/believing, and I think there is some grammatical precedent for that “take.”  Major translations may generally be placed in one of the following categories with respect to how they handle this phrase:

  • Emphasis on hearing (e.g., “the hearing of faith” or “hearing with faith” in the RSV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, KJV, ASV, and others)
  • Emphasis on believing (e.g., “believing what you heard,” as in NIV, NET, NRSV, CSB, ISV, CEB, and others)

Other, more obscure translations may be better than some of those mentioned above.  Was Paul connecting the Spirit of God to the Galatians’ hearing (or heard material) that leads to belief, or to their believing that comes from hearing, or to some other variation?  In an attempt to understand this matter, I have jumped through a few hoops and ended up on my face.  Additional research might involve careful consideration—in all levels of Galatians context—viz. the words for believing/faith and for hearing the message.  Comparisons with similarly themed passages in Romans might eventually be in order, too.

An additional, embedded difficulty in translation involves whether to translate pistis (found 22 times in Galatians, with a 77% concentration in this section) as “faith” or “faithfulness.”  At stake are entire denominations’ theologies (which I care little about)—and a better connection with faith, Christ’s death and related acts, and Paul’s thoughts on salvation and justification (all of which I do care about) At this point, the only thing I’m comfortable in saying in this arena is that Paul affirms both Christ’s faithfulness and the importance of a human faith response.  The human element is clearly a factor in Galatians 2:15-17.  Two overlapping centric textual structures are possible here, with each centering on human faith/belief (with a different preposition) “in” Jesus Christ.  Try both of these on for size:

Structure 1 (encompassing 2:15 through 2:17a)

A  We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles;

B  nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law

C  but through faith in Jesus Christ

C’  even we have believed in Christ Jesus

B’  so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since (that) by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.  But if, while  seeking to be justified in Christ,

A’  we ourselves have also been found sinners, . . .

Above, the A and A’ phrases are verbally related, as are B and B’.  The C and C’ texts form a central emphasis; an added spotlight shines on the mirroring of “Jesus Christ to “Christ Jesus” in the succeeding phrase.

Structure 2 (more compact—2:16 alone—original word order shown below)

Knowing that a man is not justified

by/out of works of [L]aw

but through faith(fulness) in/of Jesus Christ

and we in Christ Jesus have  believed

that we should be justified out of faith[fulness] in/of Christ

and not by/out of works of [L]aw

since no flesh will be justified by works of [L]aw

For my exegetical money, the second structure is more convincing, and it’s even more so in the Greek.  See color codes below.

There are a few inconsistencies above, such as the aqua-colored repetitions and the asymmetry of the “that” clauses.  The negative (not) particles’ correspondence is also intriguing but not necessarily material here.  The centered emphasis on faith(fulness) is key.  If in the C and C’ phrases one takes pistis to refer to the faithfulness of Christ (as opposed to faith in Christ)—and I lean that direction myself—we still have a structure in which those phrases flank the clause “we have believed in Christ Jesus,” which refers to human faith.

Permutations and translations aside, the verbal relationships abound.  Whether intentional or subconscious or both, it seems obvious that Paul was stressing some things here!  At some point, I will have to leave my frustrations with 2:15-3:6 and move on, apprehensively, into all the argument-proving substance of chapters 3 and 4.


¹ The phrase is constructed with a preposition and two successive nouns in the genitive case (ἐξ ἀκοῆς πίστεως | ex akoes pisteos).  The genitive case is the most potentially varied of the Greek cases.

A Bible reader’s observations

Or, The Voice is Like the 1984 NIV on Steroids

Despite the NIV’s generally smooth flow and its broad acceptance, at some point I began to learn that it was not always consistent or trustworthy.  (No translation is.)  

I have on several occasions noticed that points made by well-meaning people during Bible classes were tied to particular NIV wordings.  In other words, if another version had been used, the argument would crumble.  Sometimes the points seemed reasonable, but the “Bible” wordings on which they were based turned out to be phantoms.  This is the case with Philemon verse 6.  First, I should acknowledge that the newest edition of the NIV (2011) has recognized the problem and revised the wording, resulting in a fine translation:

I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

But here is the older (1984) NIV:

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

The two are really different!  Let me flesh out one component.

It’s not that that the 1984 NIV contains bad ideas.  Regardless of the arguably odd cause and effect (a full understanding that results from evangelistic “witnessing”), the main ideas seem good.  The problem may first be spotlighted by considering English Christianese:  sometime in the latter part of the 20th century, the phrase “sharing your faith,” referring specifically to evangelistic speech, took on a life of its own, being used in countless sermons, teen devotionals, and Bible classes.  That type of activity, however, is not a subject of this letter to PhilemonMoreover, thorough study of the letter reveals a relational emphasis suggested by the Greek koinonia idea(s)—and this partnership is to be distinguished from “faith-sharing” speech.  Admittedly, seeing the depth of this verbal emphasis requires more sustained study, but on the negative side, it may readily be seen by an attentive reader that “evangelism” per se not is in view here.  Considering what Paul was communicating to Philemon, it appears clear that “partnership with us in the faith may be effective …” is a better English translation for our day than “be active in sharing your faith.”

Translation might be thought of as an arrow with heads on both ends.  The left arrowhead points to the original, but there is another arrowhead on the other end, pointing to the target language.  In translation, there should be valid motion from one language to another.  The antecedent points to the receptor language, and the translation must also in a sense point back to the original.  Said another way:  a translator might understand the Greek very well, but if that understanding doesn’t come through in English, the translation is lacking.

You know what?  I’ve now found a version that’s worse than the older NIV.  Much worse.  It’s like the NIV on steroids.  I had high hopes for The Voice, based on its solid, well-considered prefatory material and its broad-based committee, including not only biblical scholarship but also poets, musicians, and writers with expertise in English communication.  In the case of Philemon 6, though, this relatively new version is, sadly, marooned on a sand bar, having missed the boat:

Thank You, Father, for Philemon.  I pray that as he goes and tells his story of faith, he would tell everyone so that they will know for certain all the good that comes to those who put their trust in the Anointed One.

No.  Just no.  That is not what the text is about there.  Several ideas intrude into this verbiage—most notably the emphasis on “telling the story”—with the result that it is more of an obfuscation than a commuicative paraphrase.  It’s as though no one bothered to study Philemon.  “Well, you know, it’s so short.  Let’s just crank that page out in an hour.”  But what a shame.  Philemon is a gem among the NT letters, and it deserves deep attention, too.  (Here is a post about this verse from 8 years ago.  It fairly briefly explains the issue.)

A couple more bits on The Voice . . . while I’m immediately partial to its “theater script” format for dialogue sections, another formatting aspect—rampant italics—leaves it wanting.  All translations explain things to one degree or another, and The Voice didn’t really need to be over-zealously ethical in this respect.  It’s overkill to delineate every explanatory word or phrase.  Further, when italics are so frequently interspersed, the experience of reading is halting and unsatisfying.

Xposted from Kingdom blog

Image result for writingOne of the great things about blogging (and other self-directed forms of writing) is that the writer gets to write when the inspiration comes.  There are no deadlines per se, and no financially based pressure, so one writes as he wills.  This kind of subjectivity can degenerate into self-pleasing or merely entertaining outbursts, and I have been guilty of that from time to time.  Most of the time, I try to allow various nudges, external stimuli, and compelling pursuits to guide what I write about.  With almost anything I write, I intend (1) to be genuine, dealing with what seems important; (2) to be responsive to nudges that might be God speaking to my spirit; and (3) to attempt to speak a helpful word to others.

My other blog, Subjects of the Kingdom, has been in existence for year and a half, and it has not been very active in terms of feedback.  That saddens me on a personal level, because it shows a lack of interest in my book.  (If 50 or 100 people suddenly signed up for feeds from that blog, I might stop cross-posting as much on this blog.)

Far more important than a readership’s response, though, is a possible broader lack of interest in the topics presented.  On the one hand, one analysis would suggest that I just stop writing about the Kingdom of God, because people either seem to be apathetic about it, or they already think they have it figured out.  On the other hand, I am perpetually impelled by the Kingdom.  Conceptually, God’s Reign touches everything.  Lately, there have been at least as many stimuli to process and write about Kingdom topics as to write on topics for this blog.  So, for whatever it’s worth, another book is in the early stages.  The working title is Two Kingdoms—Essays, Examinations, and Notes.  It will be well into 2018 before a draft is complete, but I hope to have the book out next summer.

For now, here are links to two recent posts from the Subjects of the Kingdom blog.  (Some of this material may make its way into the new book, so reading it now is like a sneak peek.)

Subtextual “empire” in Paul?

– a brief review of a scholarly inquiry into “hidden subtext” about the Roman Empire in Pauline literature

Unseen yet apparent: insights into the Lord’s model prayer

– a more devotionally oriented piece on the “unseen” element in the context and text of the “Lord’s Prayer”

Marketing the Bible:  affiliative groups and special-purpose editions

I think it had been more than 15 years since I perused a CBD (Christian book Distributors) catalog, and the number of pages devoted to Bibles has probably doubled since that time.  Among the new offerings are study Bibles published with notes by famous folks.  In addition to the emphases of such recognized, popular teachers as John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, and David Jeremiah, there are study Bibles focused on Jewish history, cultural groups, and reader age group, e.g., children, tweens, and teens.  I didn’t notice an age-group Bible for senior citizens, but that is surely on the way if not already available.

A new, supposedly chronological¹ Bible “weaves Old and New Testaments together into one continuous story,” so The Story Bible is no longer the only one that purports to be an epic, across-the-board telling.

There is a Jesus Bible.  Hmm … in a bedrock sense, every Bible that includes NT documents is a Jesus Bible, but I would hasten to suggest that it is not sound practice to read Old Testament texts with only New Testament eyes.  If there were a pervasive-theme Bible that I might buy, it would be a kingdom Bible or a discipleship Bible.  I saw nothing of the former and only a couple of the latter in the CBD catalog.

I was especially struck by the proliferation of Bibles for affiliative groups and/or designed for special purposes.  I can certainly understand economy, pew, and evangelism- or outreach-purposed Bibles.  Special-edition gift Bibles, sure.  But I’m not so sure about the Guys’ Life, Girls’ Life, Everyman’s, and She Reads Truth editions.  Maybe these have pages filled with essays and stories about guys, girls, men, and women, and stories are fine.  Some trouble could come when attempting to interpret ancient texts in terms of contemporary women’s issues, for example.

There are recovery and “new hope” Bibles that I imagine include devotional meditations and pull-outs for recovery and addiction groups.  There are multiple editions for artists and creative people, with extra space for calligraphy and artistic doodling and journaling.  There is even a children’s Hands-On NLT with things-to-do projects—and an NKJV Airship Bible that blasts off to “discover the wonders of God’s world.”  I don’t know for sure, but perhaps these are designed with Sunday School teachers or home school groups in mind.  Some editions are particularly suspect, such as (1) the Children’s Fire Bible (in ESV and NKJV versions) for teaching children about “the work and person of the Holy Spirit in their life” [sic] and (2) The Passion translation, which seems to select certain documents and passages that the editor-compilers found related to human passion and “God’s fiery love speaking” to my heart.

The Gaither Homecoming Bible will surely have quite a few takers in its niche market.  There is an NIV Hope for the Highway Bible that apparently presupposes (1) that only motorcyclists do highways, and (2) that motorcyclists only do highways, neither of which is true in my own life.  I think the most provocative (take that however you wish) new Bible offerings are the “heroes,” first-responder, and multiple military Bibles—in some cases delineating each of the four major branches of U.S. military service.  Maybe the Navy edition has blue-green highlights over all the passages that deal with water or boats.  Does the Air Force edition have cloudburst markings in the margins alongside the sky and heaven passages, with an inspirational eschatological piece about going off into the “wild, blue yonder”?  Surely fighting men are not encouraged, through margin notes beside Old Testament battle stories, to bomb the bad guys.  I can only hope the “Marine’s Hymn” is nowhere included in a military Bible.  (See here for a diatribe on that song [which is in no real sense a hymn].)

Marketing interests are alive and well within the Bible publishing world.  While there could be genuine a pastoral concern for affiliative groups, leading to a sense of ministry to their needs, the possibility that scripture could be appropriated, based on market- and profit-driven thinking, into specialized messages for specialized groups scares me more than it sparks me.

As for me and my house, we have divested ourselves of a few print editions in the last couple of years.  We no longer have an NLT or a Good News Bible, for instance.  We do retain about 25 Bibles, including most of the established, recognized English versions.  Most of them stay on this shelf and are referenced periodically, but each of us keeps two or three Bibles close by in other spots.  We own two or three copies of (at least portions of) the RSV, the NRSV, the NIV, the NASB, and the Phillips paraphrase.  I feel no need for affiliation Bibles for brass players or motorcycle owners or audiophiles or bibliophiles.  (Oh, okay, I might be interested in a Bible for budding linguists or introverts or poets-at-heart, but these would be little more than curiosities.)  Our only recent purchases have been the CEB (Common English Bible) and a relatively new paraphrase, The Voice.  I look forward to using these new ones now and then.  Maybe they will turn out to have served a “special purpose” in my life.


¹ A 1999 publication, The Narrated Bible in Chronological Order (NIV) by F. LaGard  Smith, did not so integrate the OT and the NT.

(Im)maturity

Maturity involves a developed sense of thought, discernment, and the capacity for appropriate response in various situations.  I suppose, then, that immaturity would involve a lack of discernment.  An immature person would be prone to respond inappropriately, without a developed sense of what is acceptable.

A business might reach a mature stage.

A person might mature in his/her ability to communicate or paint or write music.

We might observe that there are immature ears of corn, immature savings bonds, immature singing voices, and immature people and behaviors.

How should one begin a meditational post about the last kind of immaturity?

tantrum child: Little girl with her arms crossed and angry expression Out of the gate, I want to acknowledge the immaturity in me,¹ and I do so in all sincerity, but a full disclosure would also confess that this piece started out, a couple of months ago, as a less-than-mature, silent tantrum thrown over other people’s immaturities.  Below are some behaviors that strike me as immature.  Some of these are recent, and some are long past.  Some just might be mine, or potentially mine, and some might have been observed in others.

  • A young musician takes every opportunity to show off skills and knowledge (say, on the piano or trumpet or saxophone).
  • A Little League baseball mom with some knowledge and skills tries to push her way into the coaches’ ring.  When her conceited efforts are not appreciated, she begins a campaign to show the assistant coaches she is better than they are.  (And actually, she is.)  Once, when her child is held at third base, she erupts in the full colors of immaturity by yelling, loudly enough that both sides of the bleachers can hear, “I don’t care what he says!  You’re my kid!  You run when I tell you to run!!”
  • An office worker asserts thoroughly detailed knowledge while manifesting little appreciation for relationship, let alone insight or discernment in particulars.
  • A Bible student inserts corrections, responsible questions, and textual insights, regardless of the group’s interest level or capacity for understanding.
  • A coworker reacts outwardly to mistakes in punctuation² and regional symptoms of poor grammar.
  • An employee takes liberties when the boss is on vacation.
  • A parent who’s having a bad day places too many restrictions on a child just because the parent is mad or worried.

No one is completely mature.  We all have more or less serious immaturities that come out from time to time.  Some of these behaviors are seen in less-than-emotionally responsible, less-than-considerate, and less-than-grown-up people, while others are more run-of-the-mill.  Surely there are countless marks of immaturity.  Yes, I’ve pointed the finger at others and have been rather irritated over a couple of the above.  But again, I’m also aware of some of my own immaturities.  We are all carriers of the immaturity disease.

And then there’s spiritual immaturity.

When I drafted this in early July, I knew I wanted to end it with a spiritual emphasis, but I’ve never become settled on a conclusion.  It’s not that I don’t have something to ask or something to say (although I often do).  It’s not that it’s an awkward segue (although it is).  I think it’s that I feel increasingly spiritually immature myself.  I don’t handle some things with as much discernment or mature Christian response as I once did, and this is of much greater concern to me than the behaviors listed above.  Regression here is worse than ironic; it might be putting Grace to the test.

So, what to say about spiritual maturation . . . I could spout some verbiage about the illusory doctrine of “total sanctification,” as though I were experiencing it.  I could manufacture some exhortation about “iron sharpening iron” or “letting go and letting God.”  Those might amount to little more than a diversion of attention.  

I could cherry-pick any of several mentions of maturity from New Testament passages, but that might prove to be immature in itself.  Few of the scriptual mentions seem related to what I have shared above, anyway.  Philippians 3:15 has something specific at its root.  Hebrews 5:14 might be close, but I’m not sure.  Any of these, including the one I am deciding to leave in below, is purloined from its literary context—a times a spiritually criminal act.  I will not be satisfied, no matter what I say, how I feel, or however I close this little essay.  I am in need of refinement and growth and more maturity—likely more than you are.  Perhaps unwiselyI suppose I will opt to finish this with James 1:4, in isolation from its context (although perhaps some readers will read/ponder the context):

Let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

I don’t currently have any illusions of enduring very well, but my weak self hopes to attain to the growth—the maturation—that can come later from having endured.


¹ Some of the following parts of my past and present might at any moment lead to manifestations of immaturity:

  • deep losses of human trust
  • general irritation and anger at things both big and small
  • vocational injustices and misfortunes
  • various insecurities
  • an ebbing/flowing faith in God (now in an ebb phase), and a sense of not feeling cared for by the Almighty

² “Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking,” said Lynne Truss famously in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  In that same book, she also wrote, “The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”  Truss is essentially right, but I’m also thankful for grammar that gives us a shot at aptly interpreting most Greek passages that didn’t have any punctuation to begin with.

The resolve not to think about theology (if that’s even possible)

Theology is of some interest to me, but I get lost in it.

Varying theological codifications have appeared through the centuries.  There are the ancient councils and creeds.  There are the confessions and catechisms, and these things extend through several major denominations.

 

 

 

 

 

Systematic theologicians (!) almost seem to use sleight-of-hand techniques, and the rest of us need to learn escape artistry to free ourselves from the boxes they put on the spiritual stage.  Last week, the Logos Academic Blog published this post:

https://academic.logos.com/twins-not-rivals-regeneration-and-effective-calling-in-the-ordo-salutis/

I tried to read that material.  I really did.  The writing is good, and the academic treatment is good.  I found myself seriously questioning the value of it all, though.  Calling, one of the two major topics treated, is a word-concept that has roots in scripture (although it takes on a life of its own with some theologicians).  Regeneration, not so much.  For the theologically stout of heart, a sequel LAB blog link about the relationship of “calling” and “regeneration” is here.

All this material is about the theology of the “salvation” process.  None of the objects of analysis are observable from a human vantage point, yet humans are still trying to codify an order—the ordo salutis, or sequence of salvation.  In some cases, they are even trying to codify the codifications!  Now, I do not point the finger at the high-end “Reformed” theologians any more than at the low-church folks who claim they’ve pinpointed things.  (Baptists, Church of Christ folks, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics are similar in this respect, at least.)  The exact point at which God decides I’m in?  The order of “events” in the spiritual realm (as though they were events per se)?  Centuries-removed human beings have attempted to codify the “order of salvation.”  In scripture, I find scant the suggestion of a rigid, global ordo salutis—and somewhat less substantial than the presentation of God as three.

Fretting over the identification, connections, and conceptual relationships of ideas such as “regeneration” and “effectual calling” seems wasteful to me.  I try not to ascend into the lofty language and forged formulas of theology, but I do get drawn in at times.  More than the material itself, the mind-boggling part is that anyone would doggedly pursue the relationships between various positions and stances.  This is metameta-material, two generations removed from what I need to be dealing with.  I might honestly ponder God’s will, i.e., what I think God wants me to do in a given situation, but when I philosophize about “calling” and try to force scripture verses into a theological stance, I risk drawing inappropriate lines and reaching points of view that cannot stand up to scrutiny based only on scripture texts.  If I go a step further and try to make sense of the implications of the difference between my philosophies and someone else’s—when I become enmeshed in thinking about the relationship of one theological system to another—I am yet more removed from anything I ought to be sinking my teeth into.  I may admire the sheer intellect of a systematic theologician, but my health is better when I keep my diet free of such processed, artificial foods.  Here, I started to edit, or at least apologize for, mixing magic and nutrition metaphors, but maybe it’s OK to leave it as is:  the mixing reflects the confusion that can result from theologic.

For better or worse, because there were a couple of old Mad magazines at my grandmother’s house when I was a boy, I have the image of Alfred E. Neumann here burned into my memory .  What the reincarnated Neumann might say in theological circles, I don’t know, but I say to the theological rustlers and wranglers, “Why worry about this?  Why not just listen to what Paul tells Philemon or the Thessalonians?  Why not just sit in rapt attention before Matthew’s portrait of Jesus?  Why worry about superimposed theological constructs when I have my hands full with trying to understand and act on a single insight from Jesus’ life from John’s gospel or Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians?  It’s not only a “flip” why worry? that should be in the picture here; it’s also the presumption that can be apparent when anyone claims to know the mind of God to the point that he can lock down spiritual-sphere “events,” perfectly in order, when scripture hasn’t done so.

A couple of my new acquaintances seem wrapped up in theology.  They are men of faith, and I do not doubt their devotion.  I am however troubled that their responses to just about any honest question or observation seem to come from orthodoxy rather than the scriptural material at hand.  A few months ago, one of them sent me a paper he wrote about “calling.”  I’m persuaded that he sincerely wants to be God’s person, and that he emphasizes things he honestly believes are important.  Twice in the paper, he reminds the reader that we should all “get our theology from scripture.”  Yet what he comes out with is anything but textually based.  Rather, it is based on a non-contextual view of cherry-picked scripture verses.  The irresponsible use of scripture pretty much always ends up like this.

So I resolve to keep myself from thinking about theology too much.

Yet there are the questions that keep coming up.  What does Paul mean by pistis (most often “faith”) in Galatians 2:16?  Is that the same thing he meant in 1:23?  What if pistis doesn’t mean belief or trust?  What if it means faithfulness or loyalty or allegiance?  (All of these are legitimate possibilities.)  If I am to communicate with my neighbors, I need to have some acquaintance with the implications and ramifications of concerns such as this.

I probably can’t keep aloof from theology after all.  So much for the Neumann influence in my life.

B. Casey, 8/4/17-8/21/17

This tired horse prefers not to be connected to a cart at all

When any believer says something that manifests a low or diminishing interest in that which is written, it concerns me on some level, and it might mean the cart has displaced the horse in some sense.

Image result for cart before the horse image

Things get hazy without something relatively objective to rely on.  I don’t mean to downplay the aspect of faith that’s unseen.  I do mean to emphasize the ancient scriptural texts over philosophical amalgamations we call “theology.”  There will be a little more pertaining to the theological “cart” in the next post, but for now, let’s concentrate on the trustworthy steed of scripture.

Why might the horse get pushed to the back or even left out in the cold?  Why might one denigrate or even disrespect scriptural text?  It could be because of negative experiences with the misuse of scripture.  That sort of thing could easily lead one to avoid attention to the Bible.  On the flip side, some types of positive relational or conceptual experiences, however much they lack direct ties to scripture, can further distance people from what is written.  “The love and encouragement I feel in my life is not because of Bible study.  It’s because of the people and the Holy Spirit in my life” some might say, as they turn down an opportunity for Bible study.  It’s not only touchy-feely folks who avoid good Bible study, though.  A whole range of good people often turn up disenchanted.

It is primarily to those who want to move away from scripture (having been near it previously, in some measure) that I submit these thoughts.  Any one of us, though, can come to distrust the use of the Bible because of misguided understanding or mistaken application.  Or maybe we are simply tired.

First:  In a way, I am one of you.  I too find that so much churchy use of scripture results in little more than piles of verses, with little coherence, and even less valid applicability to the life of a disciple.  It is often easy to find counter-examples to isolated scripture verses offered as “proofs,” and yet it is tiring to be faced with such situations repeatedly.  Unfortunately, some public teachers and theologians tend (consciously or subconsciously) to use scripture in order to serve prefabricated, prejudicial constructs and agendas.  It can be disconcerting and discouraging to be trapped within the irresponsible use of scripture.  The whole enterprise can bring on personal fatigue.  A few examples of my non-contextual experiences may be found here and here and also here, in a sarcastic video I once made in a fit of spiritual perturbation.

I’ve had better experiences with the Bible than most, I suppose.  I grew up in a Bible-teaching church, and I learned the 10 plagues and the judges and the apostles and the books of the Bible in order.  I attended a good Christian camp that encouraged memorization, and I learned portions of Acts 2, 1 Peter 2, and Romans 8, among many others.  When I was 19, I got a wide-margin, leather-bound Bible that has oodles of cross-references and ample space to write more.  A college teacher lit a fire in me with his relatively shallow but impressive memorized knowledge of verses that appeared to be related to one another.  I’m grateful for all of that, but I don’t mourn the loss of the cross-reference habit.  I haven’t penned in very many of those in more than a decade.  So many of the ones I once wrote turned out to be wispy or even bogus “proofs.”  Actually, I must say that some of my best teaching and self-directed learning have come more recently—primarily from outside churches per se.  I should still memorize more (not a catechism, or a list of verses about a topic, but scripture).

Second:  there is a better way.  At every reasonable opportunity I have, I encourage focusing on the uninterrupted message of scripture, in its context.  The disillusionment with Bible study comes when it is done badly, and that is all too often.  But Bible study, I submit from personal experience, can be revealing, rewarding, enriching, energizing, and amazingly applicable.  In order to “hear” God through the authors of scripture, the micro-context (e.g., a paragraph) should be noted first, and the mid-level and book-level contexts are also crucial.  By “book-level” I mean each unique document titled as one “book” in the Bible, not the whole collection.  The Bible is more aptly described as a library, not a single book, anyway.

Awareness of each biblical book’s unique setting is important as a foundation for better Bible reading and study.  It is good to recognize, for example, that Matthew and Moses speak into vastly different scenarios although they treat some of the same topics.  Philippians records Paul’s message to one group of people at a particular time, whereas Galatians is an entirely different letter, to different people, about different matters.  For more on the situational nature of (much) scripture, please read this recent post.

The insights I am currently gaining from Galatians are very helpful to me as they shed light on the early period (roughly the 40s) when Christianity was still a new movement.  My senses of (1) Paul and (2) what was going on with the early Phrygian/Galatian believers have grown deeper through focusing on the literary structure of the letter.  Paul’s personal experiences are spotlighted for a purpose, and they may include a couple of veiled references (not just the obvious one) to his eyesight … and I am compelled to mention that my own eyes have filled with tears more than once over this in the last couple of months.

Early Christian believers wrote a lot of authentic texts—more than any other religious group of the time—and I think there is a reason for that.  (See this post from Dr. Larry Hurtado for support.)  The texts have much to teach us, and it is good to be aware of the whole corpus.  But it is always advisable to deal with one scripture author and with one text at a time, not considering them as one whole.  The fundamentalist-y method of taking all the Bible as one large conglomerate mass of stuff, conflating it as though it is all of equal significance, all written about the same situation, and all using language the same way, will send one irrevocably spiraling downward in a maelstrom of deep but thick theological messiness.  First, I think we should take one book at a time, and maybe later, at some point, disciples can compare things here and there, but I’m not sure I’m capable of doing that very well yet.  Most preachers in my experience do a marginal (or worse) job of using multiple texts in their spoken messages.  Only a few seem able to handle the mixing very well.  As for myself, I’d rather learn better how to be responsible with one text at a time.  If we had all been taught this way from the get-go, we could have spent more time being disciples of Jesus, and living life in order to love others as He did.  As a result, we could have spent less time striving to work through all sorts of issues that really weren’t there, at least to the degree they seemed to be.  And some of us would be less tired.

I’m increasingly persuaded that most philosophical, existential, and theological ideas create more disagreements than agreements.  At the very least, disciples should put the scripture horse up in front to lead the theological cart, not reversing the order.  Dealing with one discrete scripture text at a time will offer strengthening of faith based on real evidence, not to mention enhancing insights for the ride along the path.

B. Casey, 7/31/17-8/20/17

Next:  The Resolve Not to Think about Theology