Month: October 2012

asking for trouble

My day typically begins c. 6.45am; 7.00am if I’m feeling lazy. By 7.15am/7.30am the first round of coffee is about to be consumed, and I start my search for mental jolt. (For some reason, for me, coffee fails in the jolting business). This usually means finding a book or article that I know will bug me and put me on the defensive. The sooner I’m kicked into critical thinking mode the better. This morning, the chosen jolt was an article with the prickly title, “Who Is Wrong? A Review of John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth” (R.L. Mayhue in The Master’s Seminary Journal 3.1 [1992]: 73-94).

To clarify the basic tension of the article (for those who are unaware): Gerstner’s book, as the tagline reveals, is a “Critique of Dispensationalism”, and his chosen adverbiage, “Wrongly” indicates where he comes down on that critique.¹ He ain’t in favor of it (at least its particular hermeneutic). The Master’s Seminary Journal is produced and disseminated by none other than The Master’s Seminary (California), and TMS, as their statement of faith indicates (briefly here and especially here), is an advocate of Dispensationalism. Since Mayhue is on staff at TMS, we can safely guess where his “review” of Gerstner’s critique is headed. (The implied either-or of his title and the choice to use TMS’s journal to offer the “review” are telling clues).

Here’s what bugged me about the article, and it’s something Mayhue said quite early in his discussion/monologue. Mayhue states (more or less; more on the less side) one of Gerstner’s key problems with Dispensationalism–i.e. it fails to do proper justice to biblical soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, and the necessary links between them. Mayhue accuses (albeit in subtle ways) Gerstner of allowing his Reformed tradition (i.e. Calvinism, specifically) to govern his interpretation of both the biblical doctrines in view and Dispensationalism. The implication is that Mayhue see such allowance as inappropriate. Then Mayhue asserts:

[Gerstner] seems to debate from the following basic syllogism, though he never states it so succinctly as this:

Premise 1: Calvinism is central to all true theology
Premise 2: Dispensationalism does not embrace Calvinism
Conclusion: Dispensationalism is a ‘spurious’ and ‘dubious’ expression of true theology (p. 2).

Thus, he strongly calls for dispensationalism’s quick surrender.

–Mayhue, “Who Is Wrong?,” 75.

The reason this bugged me has three parts. First, Mayhue (subtly) criticizes Gerstner for allowing his theological tradition (i.e. Calvinism) to dictate his interpretation. On this point, Mayhue (rightly) states: “Presuppositions and assumptions undergird all reasoned thought” (81). However, Mayhue does not acknowledge (or recognize) that Dispensationalism must necessarily be included in that truth. He overlooks the fact that Dispensationalism has its own presuppositions and assumptions and they necessarily govern the interpretative process. In fact, Classical and Modified (or Revised) Dispensationalism² essentially require loyalty to the interpretative system they establish in order to understand properly the theological conclusions they find.

Second, Mayhue’s “review” (=polemic) operates on the basis of the suggested syllogism, which Mayhue acknowledges as never clearly articulated as he gives it. This means Mayhue’s criticisms focus on Mayhue’s interpretation of Gerstner’s logic as though that interpretation is an accurate reflection of what Gerstner clearly argues. (Admittedly I have not read Gerstner’s book, so I do not know for sure how accurate Mayhue’s interpretation is).

Third, Mayhue’s own argument in particular and Dispensationalism in general are not exempt from the charges of the suggested syllogism. To say this differently: the same argument Mayhue uses against Gerstner can be turned around and used against Mayhue. In effect it would go something like this:

Premise 1: Dispensationalism is central to all true interpretation of Bible (i.e. “rightly dividing the word of truth”)³
Premise 2: Non-Dispensationalists do not embrace the hermeneutical system of Dispensationalism
Conclusion: Non-Dispensationalist readings do not represent true interpretations of the Bible; they are all ill-informed, dubious, spurious, liberal, and unorthodox.

The implication of this argument is that if one does not embrace Dispensationalism, then one does not embrace the true meaning of the Bible; and if one does not embrace that true meaning, then one cannot be faithful to its message; and if one is not faithful to its message, then how can that person truly claim to be evangelical? The trouble is that the Dispensational hermeneutic and its particular emphases are what need to be embraced, and they tend to be prioritized over core tenets of historic Christian orthodoxy. In the words of Levar Burton: “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Here is a confession from a former Dispensationalist named, Clarence Bass (in the 1960s):

Even today some of my dearest friends are convinced that I have departed from the evangelical faith. No affirmation of my belief in the cardinal doctrines of faith–the virgin birth, the efficaciousness of Christ’s death, the historicity of the resurrection, the necessity of the new birth, even the fervent expectancy of the person, literal, actual bodily return of the Lord to earth–will convince them, because I have ceased to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’.

–quoted in S.J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze (1992), 92–emphasis original.

¹ Also, for those who don’t know, Gerstner’s title takes a not-so-subtle jab at an earlier work called, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (1896) by C.I. Scofield–the champion of Dispensationalism in the US.
² While I am generally not a fan of Classical and Modified (or Revised) Dispensationalism (and its proponents), I am more appreciative of so-called Progressive Dispensationalism (and its advocates). However, please do not mistake appreciation for acceptance.
³ What Scofield meant by this phrase (taken from 2Tim 2.15) is not what Paul meant by that phrase. In fact, how Scofield uses that passage to construct and justify his Dispensational interpretation reveals his ignorance of Paul’s meaning.

book giveaway

My friend and fellow NT colleague, Matt O’Reilly is offering a free book for all interested parties. Go here to see about the details for entering. The book is called, Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ (2011). The author is Rodney Reeves, who serves as 1) the Dean of Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry and 2) professor of biblical studies at Southwest Baptist University. The winner of the book will be announced on Monday, so head over to Matt’s blog and enter.

disparate observations*

Last week, the story of a Georgia House Representative’s views on creation hit the news. The underlying tone of the article seems to be one of poking fun at people who happen to hold a “young Earth” view of creation, or at least paint all Christians Broun. The structure of the article and the nature of some of the comments bear this out. However, in all the fun-poking, the writer’s eagerness produced a couple of flaws–one less severe than the other.

The minor flaw is the assertion that “Broun advanced his own theory of life on Earth” (emphasis added), one that adheres to a literal reading of the text. Yet a tad later the same writer claims: “Broun is far from the only believer in a literal, or Biblical, creation.” Well, which is it? Is it Broun’s own theory, or one shared by others? You can’t have it both ways. I guess the escape hatch here is Broun’s 9000-year-old suggestion, which is a bit odd.

The bigger flaw, however, is that in attempting to paint Christians with the same brush, the writer fails to recognize the basic problem of appointing someone with extreme anti-Science views to be the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. (I owe this observation to Robert Cargill). Hey Stephanie: If you wanted a real opportunity to criticize, or at least focus on something more controversial, you missed it.

Two days ago, I read an article by W.O. Fitch, entitled, “Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ” (Theology 74.607 [1971]: 18-24). Anyone with a basic knowledge of NT scholarship in general and the Corinthian letters in particular will conclude the article is about the issue of “parties” or “factions” (or “cliques”) in Corinth. In fact, this conclusion would seem to follow from what Fitch argues in the bulk of the article.

However, when we come to the end of the article we discover that dealing with issue of “parties” or “factions” (or “cliques”) in Corinth, and how we might understand them, are not a part of Fitch’s agenda. His final sentence reveals that he has something completely different in mind. Fitch says: “All of this point to the early date for Galatians: and also suggests that Acts, while it is eirenic, is not as tendentious as some current writing assumes” (24).

This morning I started reading B.F. Westcott’s, A General View of the History of the English Bible (1868)–as you do on a Tuesday.  Throughout the first 70 or so pages, I noticed something: there is a striking (and scary) similarity between 1) the opponents of both Wycliffe and Tyndale and 2) the “King James Only” advocates of today.

Particularly, the two groups share the same animosity and  indignation toward their chosen “enemies.” Even the kinds of arguments marshaled (or at least the reasons behind them) have frightening parallels. The only notable difference is that the KJO crowd isn’t burning their “enemies” at the stake–although, I wouldn’t say that option has gone without consideration.

* A couple of these will likely get me into trouble, or at least ruffle some feathers. Sorry.

confusion about “confusion” (2)

In the first part of this discussion, I noted the various ways in which 1Cor 14.33 is interpreted and/or applied. Throughout the discussion, I stressed the point that all of the interpretations and/or applications given rely on a particular definition of “confusion”–i.e. the presence of obscurity or lack of knowledge. In other words, “confusion” relates to one’s cognitive faculties (or some type of breakdown therein).

To show my cards: I think the definition and reliance are incorrect–or at least incomplete. However, this represents only one side of the dilemma, which I will address by recognizing an alternate reading not only for 1Cor 14.33 (one that makes better sense of Paul’s terminology) but also “confusion.” The other side of the dilemma, as I mentioned at the end of the first post, deals with Paul’s specific claim and its meaning in the light of the surrounding context. (We might need a third installment to wrap this up).

For the sake of clarity (and to avoid confusion!), let’s look again at Paul’s statement in 1Cor 14.33: οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης. Initially, we recognized two possible translations of this passage: 1) “God is not a God of confusion”, and 2) “God is not the author of confusion”. If we know anything about Bible translations, it should be obvious that my previous sampling hardly represents all possible renderings. So let’s consider a few more.

A fair number of English translations read: “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (CEB, DARBY, GWHCSB, PHILLIPSLEB, NIV, NIrV, NIVUK, NIV84, NLT, NRSV, TNIV). One translation (overly) sharpens the reading: “because God does not want us to be in disorder but in harmony and peace” (GNT cf WE), while another softens the blow: “God wants everything done peacefully and in order” (CEV). Moreover, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” is the preferred reading in the German (HOF, LUTH, NGU, SCH51, SCH2000) and French (BDS, LSG, NEG79, SG21).

Here we find that by simply translating ἀκαταστασία as “disorder” rather than “confusion”, the passage has a different feel. Instead of dealing with a state of (personal) obfuscation, we see Paul addressing a general state of unrest in the community. In fact, on this reading, the idea of “disorder” sits in better balance with “peace”, for the two are natural antonyms; “confusion” and “peace” do not seem to relate so evenly (or appropriately). This is especially the case if “confusion” is related primarily to cognitive faculties.

So if the terms are so different in meaning, why do some translations have “confusion” for ἀκαταστασία while others have “disorder”? One possible solution is that the translations supporting “confusion” use the term in accordance with its (much) older definition. In Middle English, “confuse” carried the sense of to “rout” or “disrupt” that which was already ordered (or peaceful). Only later did the term become descriptive of mental faculties.

Thus, because of this semantic shift, other translations opted for “disorder” in an effort to retain the meaning of the text. It is therefore possible (and likely) that those who read “confusion” in 1Cor 14.33 as a state of (personal) obfuscation are simply unaware of the older definition. Doesn’t this create confusion in how 1Cor 14.33 is understood? Yep. As Blaise Pascal opined: “Words differently arranged have different meanings, and meanings differently arranged have different effects” (Pensées, 1.23). So what do we do?

First, we need to set aside English (German, and French) translations for the moment and pay exclusive attention to Paul’s terminology. In other words, forget the translations and focus on the Greek. I have already mentioned it in passing, but the word causing the problem is, ἀκαταστασία, which is a rather unique term. It appears roughly 15 times in the whole of ancient Greek literature outside of the Bible and only 5 times in the NT. (Its cognate, ἀκατάστατος doesn’t fare much better: 14 times in Greek literature and 2 in the NT. The verb, ἀκαταστατέω is even worse: 5 in Greek literature and 0 in the NT).

Only in a small number of instances does ἀκαταστασία refer to mental faculties (see Diogenes Laertius, Vit. 7.110; Polybius, Hist. 7.4.6; Epictetus, Disc. 3.19.3). But even then the focus is not on levels or degrees of knowledge; rather, it emphases an instability of mind–caused either by disease, madness, or something evil. And in one case, Claudius Ptolemy uses ἀκαταστασία to describe physical convulsions brought on by madness or (epileptic) seizures (see Tetra. 3.14.170). While there is a slight shift in focus, moving from the mind to the body, the force of the term remains unchanged–i.e. that which was originally stable (or peaceful) has entered into a state of instability or chaos.³

In the majority of cases, ἀκαταστασία describes the state of a body (or group) of people, and that state is one of unrest or instability–caused either by political means or military conflicts (see Dionysius Halicarnassus, Rom.Ant. 6.31 [cf. 6.74]; Polybius, Hist. 1.70.1 [cf. 14.9.6]; Eusebius, H.E. 5.16.18; Basil of Caesarea, Epist. 70). Given the context, this appears to be the way Jesus uses the term in Lk 21.9. For what it’s worth: the state of unrest of instability tends to be generated in response to decisions made by those in power. Based on all of this, and at the risk of exaggeration, we could say ἀκαταστασία refers to a state of socio-political dissension or even anarchy.

Since ἀκαταστασία is the specific term Paul uses in 1Cor 14.33, and given its particular semantic range; two basic questions emerge: 1) is ἀκαταστασία an appropriate description of the situation in chapter 14, which deals with the exercise of “tongues” and “prophecy” in worship, and 2) what is Paul ultimately doing when he declares, οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης? That’s the subject of the final post.

¹ This translation balances the claim by adding, “. . . but a God of peace” (emphasis added). Cf. NGU; NIrV, which (strangely) also breaks up the single claim into two.
² NB: Phillips replaces “peace” with “harmony”, and I think he has good reason for doing so.
³ On another occasion, Claudius Ptolemy employs ἀκαταστασία to describe the torrent of winds that precede a storm (see Claudius Ptolemy, Tetra. 2.13.102).

confusion about “confusion” (1)

Near the end of his letter to the problem-laden Corinthian church, Paul declares: οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης (1Cor 14.33), which some English translations render as: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (ASV, ERVESV, ESVUK, MOUNCENASB, NCV, RSV). The King James tradition intensifies the situation by adding, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (KJV, KJ21, NKJV–emphasis added). The difference is subtle, yet profound.

This passage has been used in various ways, but each use relies on a particular assumption: “confusion” means either the presence of obscurity or a lack of understanding (and the two tend to feed each other). Usually the focus falls on the Bible itself, specifically its reliability or truthfulness. One writer sees not only the existence of multiple translations as the cause for the confusion, but also the presence of (supposed) contradictions throughout the Bible, which create further confusion, as proof that the Bible is man’s idea and not God’s, since God is not a God of confusion.

Similarly, one vlogger reads 1Cor 14.33 as a clear-cut contradiction of Gen 11.1-7. In other words, God is described in 1Cor 14.33 as “not the author of confusion” (clearly relying on the KJV), while in Gen 11.1-7 God is portrayed as the one who confuses (or confounds) the people by jacking with their language.³ Therefore, since “A” and “non-A” cannot be true of the same thing at the same time, we as readers are left confused (or confounded) by how the Bible describes God; and since the Bible creates this confusion and yet God is not the author of confusion, the Bible cannot be of God.

Other times the passage is used in connection with particular theological concepts or doctrines.  For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal to 1Cor 14.33 in their (attempted) refutation of the Trinity. Their argument here is twofold. On the one hand, God (or as they painfully and regrettably insist, “Jehovah”) would not reveal himself to believers in ways beyond their comprehension; and what (according to JWs) is more incomprehensible than a single God being three persons? On the other hand, God would not leave it to scholars/theologians alone as the ones who are able to wrestle with the mysteries of divinity; God has made himself clearly and easily known to all.

This type of argument, however, is not limited to groups like JWs; I have heard it on many occasions from well-meaning and devout church-goers. Specifically, when discussing the (exciting) complexity of biblical interpretation or even differences in theological views, someone will inevitably say to me: “But the Bible says that ‘God is not a God of confusion’; thus, the Bible should be clear, and things should not be this difficult.” While I have no major problems with either the basic principle about God or the stated ideal, I do have concerns with the passage being applied to situations like these.

And finally in some instances, the passage is used to support distinct life applications for believers. Most often the passage is related to personal and/or spiritual struggles within the Christian life. For example, one individual expresses her anxiety cause by the tension between her knowledge that God is not a God of confusion and her inability to escape that which is preventing spiritual peace. Similarly, Joyce Meyer rambles on about “confusion” being the lack of peace we feel in our lives because of the uncertainty in our knowledge of what God is doing or planning to do. (There’s 4 minutes I’ll never get back). And on the somewhat extreme side of things, this site defines “confusion” as not only the work of Satan but also that which hinders us from having (or experiencing) true peace in Christ as defined in the Bible.

What are we to do with this? Doesn’t this multitude of interpretations simply perpetuate the confusion? Yep. So which one of these interpretations/applications of 1Cor 14.33 is correct? In one sense, none of them. I say that because each one operates on an assumed definition of “confusion” and each one seems to ignore the immediate and surrounding context of Paul’s argument. And ignoring the original meaning of the text leads to misinterpretations and misapplications of that text to current situations. Therefore, I think the more appropriate question to ask is: which one reflects Paul’s statement and meaning? To answer this question, we need to consider a few additional details. And that is the substance of the next post.

¹ This translation has apparently been around since 2006. Either I’m way behind in things, or this particular translation did not become very popular.
² This translation emerged in 2011, and looks to be quite useful.
³ Here is a fair response to this apparent contradiction, which is nothing new. However, I think the response overlooks a vital point, one that has to do with the specific (and distinct) terminology used in both passages.