Biblical-theology

a subtle poke(?)

While reading a published PhD dissertation from 1900 (as you do), I saw this in the introduction:

It is the purpose of this book to present a study of Alexander Campbell’s theology by the historical method. He was not a voice crying in the wilderness and having no connection with his age except to receive from its degeneracy an impulse toward reformation. Try as he would, he could not sweep aside all that men had thought during the past eighteen centuries, and lead a religious movement or formulate a system of Christian doctrine as if a true word had not been spoken since the death of the Apostles.¹

I may be wrong (which is always possible), but I think he just took a shot at Joseph Smith with that last sentence. Or maybe even Dispensationalism. Either way: If so… well played, sir.

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¹ W.E. Garrison, The Sources of Alexander Campbell’s Theology (St Louis: Christian Publishing, 1900), 14-15.

jabs with bad analogies

For the past couple of weeks I’ve seen more and more people (or groups) taking pot-shots at Christians, trying to make it look silly or inept. It might be because we’re a few days away from Christmas and that’s what normally happens. But it appears as though, because there is not a huge show-stopping crapumentary on the Discovery Channel or H2 or whatever about Jesus, the attempts have been reduced to quick jabs–or sucker punches, if we’re honest–given for a cheap thrill or an easy laugh.

Earlier this month, Conan O’Brien gave this little quip (about 5:28 in):

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A few days later, I saw these images floating around, the first slightly more subtle than the second:

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(Whether people stole it from Conan and rejigged it or Conan got it from these images is not really my concern. Frankly, I don’t care).

There are two initial problems with these kinds of claims. First, they are not fair to the discourse that needs to happen concerning the refugee crisis. In fact, these types of claims not only politicize the crisis, which is insulting those who truly need refugee, but also reveal that at least one side of the debate is happily wearing its “ideological blinders”.* The other side might be, but they are not as expressive or honest about it.

Second, these sorts of political jabs are uncalled for, primarily because they operate on a faulty premise and a crap analogy. For those who have done their homework, it will be obvious that the image of Mary and Joseph frantically looking for housing in Bethlehem only to be turned away repeatedly until some gruff inn-keeper’s wife Gibbs-slaps him and make him offer the barn; that is nothing but sensationalized tradition. The historical and textual evidence about the birth narrative does not support such view.

Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that Mary and Joseph situation was anything comparable to the refugee crisis. Mary and Joseph were not trying to flee their home country and find safe harbor in another. They were simply traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the purposes of taxation. If we wanted to say anything (admittedly in dramatic terms), we could say they were being “hunted down” in the same way that the IRS wants our money each April. But they were not under threat for their lives because of the ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, etc. To say otherwise betrays a lack of understanding about the data and an inability to make an appropriate analogy.

The refugee crisis is admittedly an awful situation, one that has created a rather heated debate with varying and often conflicting responses. It is a situation that needs to be taken seriously and it is one that deserves conscientious and respectful discussion and action. It is one where all sides of the debate need to come together and shut up and listen openly and fairly. And it is a situation that most certainly deserves more respect than being used as one side of a crappy analogy for the purposes of taking cheap-shots at Christians. Such one-lines are good for a laugh and caricaturing a group of people, but they do nothing for moving the discussion forward. It’s school-yard antics. It’s weak. It’s empty. And it’s hypocritical.

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* Taken from “West Wing”.

the absenteeness is not the point

I was struck by James McGrath’s being struck¹ by Allan Bevere’s treatment on God as absentee landlord. Part of what struck me about the whole thing was that Bevere only mentioned the idea in passing (and really as a follow-up point to his overall case), yet McGrath snatches up that passing comment and makes a rather definitive (albeit brief) statement about it: you’re wrong, Bevere; God is an absentee landlord, and the Jesus says so. And by doing this (i.e. contradicting Bevere’s comment), McGrath, in effect, undermines the overall point that Bevere was trying to make, which was: in spite of our perceptions and experience, God is near, God is listening, and God answers. Absentee landlords don’t do those things.

But the other part of what struck me was McGrath’s support for his counterargument: “that very image of God [as an absentee landlord] appears in one of Jesus’ parables”. Seriously? We’re going to make definitive theological statements from extremely limited data? Aside from Matt 21.33-40–the parable McGrath has in view–we might be able to rope in Matt 25.14-30 and… oh, wait; that’s really all we have. And we’re going to make definitive theological statements because of an interpretative decision about a parable? Especially when the absence of the landlord is not even the primary focus?² C’mon; we have to do better than that. And are we to ignore the fact that the parable describes the landlord as essentially going on vacation and returning; he’s not skipping town and hiding out because he’s a deadbeat, a swindler, anti-social, pick-your-pejorative-description. And are we going to ignore the fact that the same emphasis appears in the only other parable that somewhat suggests an absentee landlord: the dude goes away on a trip, but he comes back. And let’s not overlook the fact that the other parables about a landlord/landowner show him as not absent.³

Sure, McGrath (rightly) points out that “Absentee landlords have been hated by ordinary people down the ages” and admits that he’s been wanting “to do a study of the negative images of God and the kingdom of God in parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels”. But my two basic questions would be:

  1. Are the two parables in question truly presenting God as an absentee landlord–i.e. the kind that are timelessly hated–or are they focusing on something else, thus making the absentee dilemma a moo point?
  2. Similarly, are the other parables truly presenting “negative images of God and the kingdom of God” or are they merely using the dramatic to make a point–you know, like parables do–or are the parables only being perceived as negative because their contents and meaning are misunderstood?

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¹ Apologies for the ads and occasional delays in page-loading. It is a Patheos site.
² Umm, hello: the bit found vv34-39 is far more problematic than a landlord being temporarily absent. In other words, the primary issue in the parable is not the (temporary) absence of the landlord; it’s the evilness and wickedness enacted by the hired workers while the landlord is away on vacation.
³ And please, for the love of bacon, do not come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, this discrepancy in the portrayals of God as landlord raises serious questions and doubts about both the reliability/authenticity of the accounts and the theological message being advocated.” Crap! It’s a parable.

really struggling to see a difference

A friend posted this link, which describes–albeit in brief form–the eschatological views of “Jehovah’s” Witnesses. Apart from item #4, I am at a loss for how these view differ from those found within Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism.

gee, that was subtle

On the heels of their most recent convention, here in ATL, and thus ostensibly (re)energized for mission, the “Jehovah’s” Witnesses were out in full force this past Sunday.[1] By way of example, our little neighborhood, which is held together by a single half-mile-long road, was peppered with six or seven teams of JWs. Exuberant. Excessive. Overkill. Pick your term.

When I saw one team begin to mosey up the front walk, I bolted downstairs to meet them at the door. Not because I was bored, or genuinely excited to see them as I would an old friend, or wanted to hear their version of the gospel. My haste was rooted in the fact that Ashley just fell asleep and she truly needed a nap. A sudden ringing of the doorbell would not help that cause.

So I opened the door and was immediately met with a greeting that suggested the dude went to the Joel Osteen school of public speaking, only with more volume. As politely as I could, I interrupted and told him we just got our daughter down for a nap. He graciously lowered his voice, apologized, and proceeded to hand me two brochures–one on how to improve my health, and the other on a mix of apologetic-type issues. I took the brochures, said thanks, and we parted ways.

Curious, only because I like to see how the JWs approach certain things, I glanced at the table of contents in the apologetic-like brochure. My eyes quickly fell on the article entitled, “Who is the Antichrist?“. This might be either because I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on Dispensationalism (don’t ask why) or because the other topics appeared rather dull. Either way, I knew I had to read the Antichrist bit. So I did. I must say: the contents of the article matched the exuberant, excessive, overkill, and–to add another term–hubris of their swarming our little neighborhood. While I laughed at some of it, there was one thing that caught me off guard.

The first few paragraphs were decent and generally not out of sync with the small handful of biblical texts on the Antichrist. They did well to point out the fact that John speaks of many antichrists in the world, and that an antichrist is one who denies Jesus as God’s Messiah and as having come in the flesh. But then two summary remarks in this first part gave me a good chuckle. In reverse order:

Clearly [in these passages], John understood the antichrist to be all who deliberately spread religious deceptions about Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teachings.

Fair and true enough. And

People or organizations making up the antichrist spread lies, deny that Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and try to distort the relationship between God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who make up the antichrist claim to be Christ or his[2] representatives, but since “they went out from us,” they deviated from true Bible teaching.

The theological and cognitive dissonance in these statements is astounding. And that’s what made me laugh. The very thing that the JWs characterize the antichrist doing is the very thing they themselves do! The christology of JWs, if I can label it that way, is not only extremely low but also out of step with biblical evidence. They deny the true nature of Jesus by making him a lesser god, or at least one like God but not identical with God. Thus, they distort the true relationship shared between Jesus and God. However, both of these are the result of a faulty hermeneutic the JWs use, only they don’t see it as faulty.

As with any sales pitch, there’s a “But wait, there’s more” type claim in the second part of the article. After having explained what the antichrist does, the article proceeds to identify who the antichrist is specifically–or at least the kinds of characteristics that make identification easy. They offer two key markers, again in reverse order:

  1. Antichrists are those who, through countless and needless varied translations of the Bible and the promotion of such translations, routinely “omit God’s personal name, Jehovah, from the text. . . . The result? They identity of the true God becomes even more shrouded in mystery.” While I don’t have the time to go into the specifics, what’s funny about this claim is not just its absurdity (and its reliance on a faulty premise) but the JWs’ failure to recognize the perpetuation of a different error. In other words: the JWs, in criticizing others for omitting God’s personal name, fail to see the fundamental error in their own insistence of including a “name” for God that’s not even a word.
  2. But the leading characteristic of the antichrist? Simple: “the churches [propagating] the doctrine of the Trinity, claiming that the Father and the Son are part of the same entity. The antichrist thus shrouds in mystery the identity of Jehovah God and Jesus Christ.” Once again, the theological and cognitive dissonance is amazing. And sad. But there’s something more, something rather disturbing. The effect of this claim is that every (orthodox) Christian church who affirms the age-old, firmly established doctrine of the Trinity, rooted in a clear and faithful reading of John 1.1-4, are the antichrist. In other words: non-JWs. The further implication is that such is the case because orthodox Christians are like those who, according to John (as cited by the article), “went out from us”–i.e. away from true biblical teaching. The “us” in this case would be the JWs. But historically, theologically, and ecclesiastically speaking, it is the JWs who broke from orthodoxy and formulated their own (distorted) beliefs based on their own (faulty) hermeneutical principles and practices.

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[1] I’m anticipating a similar effect in a month so, since they have yet another convention scheduled for mid-July.
[2] I didn’t mistype. The article deliberately refuses to capitalize the pronouns for Jesus vis-à-vis those used for God, and this is because of their particular (and peculiar) view of Jesus’ identity. Though, strangely and oddly enough, they have no qualms about capitalizing the term “Son” when speaking of Jesus.

from the seedbed

In the mail yesterday, I received a copy of the Seedbed Sower’s Almanac. It’s a creative little booklet, with various bits of pastoral insight and adverts for new resources. It has also contains a few short articles related to Wesleyan theology. One of the bits of insight, by Howard Synder, caught my attention: the “Fourteen Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel”. While I don’t think I am permitted to reproduce the entire contents, I think I’m safe in teasing you with the topic-points that Synder gives. Here they are:

  1. Interpret the gospel primarily through Romans
  2. Focus solely on “personal salvation”
  3. Make heaven the goal
  4. Support the clergy/laity split
  5. Think economics and politics are not directly gospel concerns
  6. De-prioritize community
  7. Neglect the Old Testament
  8. Limit justice to personal righteousness
  9. Neglect intercession
  10. Make believers instead of disciples
  11. Substitute heaven for the kingdom of God
  12. View faith as just a part of life
  13. Disregard Genesis 9
  14. Divorce discipleship from creation care

What he has to say about each one is insightful. I would encourage you to get a copy of it, if you can, so you can see the rest.

birds of a feather

At present I am reading through a commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians (by Mark Howell), sent to me by B&H Publishing for review.¹ In many respects, it’s clearly written, contains minimal footnotes so as not to distract the reader, and it’s not over-burdened with protracted exegetical discussions, thus making it a useful commentary for the majority of pastors and interested church members. However, it must be said, the treatments on the eschatological portions of the two letters quickly reveal that this commentary’s usefulness and appeal will be rather limited. By that I mean: if you’re a Dispensationalist (particularly of the non-Progressive type), then you’ll enjoy this commentary–especially the bits on 1Thess 4.13–5.11 and 2Thess 2.1-12. If, however, you’re outside the Dispy camp (and outside of the US, for that matter), then you’ll either be confused, frustrated, or completely unconvinced. As I’ve read through Howell’s treatment, these outcomes have been my experience. Here’s one example as to why.

In his discussion on 1Thess 4.13-18, Howell adheres to the usual Dispy line concerning the so-called rapture of the church (see 116-24). Specifically, he follows the rapture view as espoused by Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism, which is: Christ returns–but never touches down on the earth (so it’s not the real second coming; that happens later)–raptures the church (i.e. true believers), they all head off to heaven for seven years while all hell breaks loose upon the world and the unlucky sods left behind. However, in his discussion on 2Thess 1.6-12 and 2.1-12, Howell appears to depart from the usual Dispy line when he speaks about those who will both experience/witness the revelation of the “man of lawlessness” and be present at the final (real) coming of Christ (see 198-206 and 216-32). Howell says it will be the church, the believers, the faithful, etc. In some cases, Howell makes certain we see that Paul is saying these things directly and specifically to the Thessalonian believers–i.e. the church. You know, the audience who was earlier promised a rapture at Christ’s (not-really-the-)second coming.

This is odd partly because most Dispys see the description of 2Thess 2.1-12 as that which occurs at the end of the tribulation period (i.e. seven years post-rapture) and thus involving only those not raptured (i.e. not the church), but also because Howell has already said the church will be raptured prior to the tribulation–à la 1Thess 4.13-18. But he’s also suggesting the church will be present on earth post-tribulation. How are we to account for this? Moreover, it should be noted, Howell does revert back to the usual Dispy line by seeing the “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7 as the Holy Spirit (see 228-29), which is occasionally taken as justification for situating the rapture of 1Thess 4.13-18 in 2Thess 2. I’m thinking of David Dean’s argument in particular, who makes a similar claim.² The (apparent) problem remains, however: how can there be believers, faithful followers of Jesus, or a “church” post-rapture when the Holy Spirit is out of the way³–since, theologically speaking, the Spirit is means by which one is sanctified before God–and the (true) church is already in heaven waiting for the seven years of hell-on-earth to end?

Howell appears to account for this by dropping in the random claim: “Since the Holy Spirit is God, His removal from the scene does not indicate His complete absence. Rather, it points to a deliberate lessening of His suppression of evil” (229). From this, I get the impression that Howell is (implicitly) following a line of reasoning similar to what Gleason Archer uses for his “mid-tribulation rapture” reading (as found in Gundry, ed., Three Views on the Rapture [1996], 115-45). Specifically, Archer declares:

It is argued by most advocates of the pre-seventieth-week Rapture theory that the reference in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 to the restraining power of the Holy Spirit as being removed from the world empire of the Beast points to a total removal of the church as well. That is to say, the Holy Spirit resides within the church as the spiritual temple of the Lord (1 Peter 2:5), a status that pertains to each individual believer as well (1 Cor 6:19). If therefore the Holy Spirit is removed from the earthly scene, it necessarily follows that the church will be removed likewise. But a more careful examination of the text and of related passages make it clear that this was not the meaning intended by the biblical author. In the first place, 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 does not say that the Holy Spirit will be removed from the world scene during the seventieth week. What it does say is that His restraining influence will be removed.

–Archer, 126-27

Archer makes sure that this distinction (i.e. removal of restraint and not presence) explains how those “left behind” are able to accept the gospel during the tribulation period (see 127). And it might be this distinction that allows Howell to speak of faithful believers on earth post-rapture but pre-Millennial reign (i.e. the real second coming of Christ). While there are a multitude of issues with Archer’s argument and the possibility of Howell following/relying on it, let me point out the most problematic.

  1. The arguments of Howell and Archer are predicated on the assumption (one that is never proven) that “restrain” is the appropriate translation of the Greek; the failure to acknowledge–let alone interact with–the more likely translation, “prevail” is unfortunate and unfair. (See here for a brief treatment on this issue).
  2. Contrary to both Howell and Archer, it is never (nor can it be) proven that the Holy Spirit is the (so-called) “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7; the claim that it is is nothing but conjecture.
  3. On a careful examination of the text, one thing is abundantly clear: Paul, in 2Thess 2.6-7, never names the Holy Spirit and never says anything about a “restraining influence” (contra Archer)–that is purely an interpretative translational gloss that borders on eisegesis. All Paul says is: καὶ νῦν τὸ κατέχον οἴδατε εἰς τὸ ἀποκαλυφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἑαυτοῦ καιρῷ. τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας· μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται (emphasis added). Even if we accept “restrainer” as the subject, the focus of the final clause is on the removal of him as an entity (or person) and not some abstraction associated with them.
  4. But most glaring, and this applies to both Archer and Howell: from a careful examination of the claims made, it becomes quite clear that the arguments presented are not given in service (let alone obedience) to the text; they are expressions of advocacy for a particular (and rather idiosyncratic) theological position. In other words: they are letting (or allowing) their theology to influence–if not determine–their exegesis. And that’s never a good thing.

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¹ I’ll post the review on this blog, once I finish–hopefully in the next few weeks.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168.670 (2011): 196-216.
³ This is all the more problematic when we take into consideration the notion of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, where the possibility of receiving forgiveness (e.g. salvation) has a definitive end-point–either the person’s life or the end of the age.