I’m a bit behind, but he’s still quite a bit wrong

I’m still not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point during my later College years I became an avid reader. And it was around the same time that I wanted to start my own personal library. My collection at the time boasted of the handful of theology and history textbooks that I decided to keep. Things grew from there at a slow pace, and they were growing alongside my interest in reading.

Fast forward a bit: during my doctoral program (and just before, if I remember correctly), my library began also went digital. I started gathering books that were open to the public (via InternetArchive and GoogleBooks) as well as journal articles–many of which had to be obtained via Seminary/University access. The digital book collection, to date, stands at just over 2000; the digital article collection, to date, stands at just over 5500.¹ All of that to say, I’ve got some reading to do and I’m slowly working through it. And that also means I’m a little behind in my reading, but oh well.

This morning I decided to tackle some of the articles, and one them was by Mark D. Chapman called, “The Shortest Book in the Bible” (ExpT 118.11 [2007]: 546-58). While the article itself was interesting, I could not get past the title. “Why not?” Because it’s simply wrong. “Why is wrong?” Simple: the article dealt with Paul’s letter to Philemon. “Why is that wrong?” A few reasons.

First, the text that Chapman uses for his article is a letter, not a book. Sure, many of us are accustomed (unfortunately) to calling the texts of the Bible “books” regardless of their specific genres. But this custom or tradition–like all customs or traditions held without good cause–needs to be taken out back and buried. A bit harsh, sure. But there it is. So, that being the case, the title of the article should have said, “The Shortest Letter in the Bible.” But even that leads us to the next problem.

Second, Chapman’s focus text (i.e., Philemon) is not the shortest letter. Yes, it is certainly the shortest of Paul’s letters–coming in at 25 verses, 334 words. But just because its the shortest of Paul’s letters, that does not make the shortest. Because, and as much as I love Paul’s writings, there are other writers in the NT; so at best, we could say Philemon is one of the shortest letters. The honor of the shortest letter/text goes to…well, it depends. If we go by verse numbers, then the prize goes to 2 John, which weighs in at 13 verses, with 3 John coming in second place at 15 verses. Or if we go by word count, then the honor goes to 3 John, which finishes at 219 words, with 2 John coming in second at 245 words. Either way, Philemon is only the third shortest letter.

Third, someone might come back at me and say, “Well, Prof Chapman does qualify himself by saying it’s a short letter written to a person.” Okay, fine: that might rule out 2 John, which is ostensibly written to an entire congregation of believers (despite it having a specific addressee [Ὁ πρεσβύτερος ἐκλεκτῇ κυρίᾳ καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις αὐτῆς, οὓς ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ]), but that does not rule out 3 John, which is addressed to an elder named, Gaius (Ὁ πρεσβύτερος Γαΐῳ τῷ ἀγαπητῷ, ὃν ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ). So, no dice. Philemon is still not a contender for the title of the shortest.

Fourth and finally, the title asserts a focus on the “shortest book in the Bible”, but the article never once focuses on the specific text that might fit that precise criteria. Because when one says, “Bible” that brings to mind at the very least the usual 66 texts of the Old and New Testaments–73 if we use the Catholic edition. Chapman’s focus was ultimately a NT text. Moreover, when one says, “book” that brings to mind a (more or less) specific kind of genre. As we’ve seen, Philemon does not fit that genre. And when one says, “shortest” that, as we’ve also seen, allows for a touch of ambiguity–i.e., it could be based on number of verses or words. But even with that ambiguity, there is only one text that better fits the description of “the shortest book in the Bible”, and that is the OT text of Obadiah: one chapter, 21 verses, 440 words.

So again, while Prof Chapman’s article was an interesting read, the title is an unfortunate gaffe.

¹ The real numbers are 2148 books and 5746 articles, but I’m rounding down because of the possibility of duplicates. Hey, I’ve been collecting them since c.2006 (for the books) and c.2004 (for the articles), and I’m still trying to name/label them properly, so it’s possible that I’ve forgotten which one’s I’ve already downloaded and thus have copies.

still missing the point

I recently began reading a book by Alistair Donaldson on the problems with Dispensationalism (see pic). screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-11-20-40I’m about half-way through and it’s been a fair treatment of the subject so far; I’ll have to wait and see if these things hold true till the end. Two things have been encouraging about the book: (1) much of what Donaldson argues is in line with a number of conclusions that I’ve reached on my own on this topic; thus, it’s good to know that I’m in good company in my thinking. And (2) Donaldson clarifies a vital need when talking about Dispensationalism, and that is: most discussions tend to say, “Dispensationalism has come so far from its origins, and a number of scholars–even Dispensational ones–are showing how the classical form is no longer viable or even biblical. So there’s no real need to debate or look at the older forms of Dispensationalism.”

But the problem is, as Donaldson points out, that recognition is almost exclusively a scholarly perspective. In other words: scholars are the ones who have accepted the advances made; the classical (and even modified) form of Dispensationalism still exists and is taught in many churches, and thus still finds is way into popular Christianity. Therefore, while we are safe to exclude treatments of the older version when talking about it at the scholarly level, there is still a need to include them at the popular level. Here is a case in point:

Over at Beliefnet.com (a site that I only know about in a passing way, which is to say: I try to avoid it as much as possible), Lesli White composed an article entitled, “5 Important Facts About Jesus’ Second Coming”. Sounds intriguing, to be sure. The tagline is (an attempt to be) equally captivating: “While we don’t know every detail, The Word promises these five things will happen when Jesus returns again.” Sounds promising. Except for one thing. Some of what she lists is not what “The Word promises…will happen when Jesus returns again”, rather it’s what Dispensationalism (because of its idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic) promises will happen. To be sure, the general points in her list do parallel the teaching of the NT–e.g., Jesus’ coming from heaven, our complete ignorance about the timing, the return will be obvious, and the second will be different from the first. But the parallels stop there. On the surface. Once we start to dig into the specifics of her individual points, we encounter not only a Dispensationally marinated theology but also some basic problems/flaws/inconsistencies.

For example: White’s second point proceeds–without justification, mind you (but that’s the old Dispy’s MO)–with the assumption that “While the two are often confused, the second coming is not the rapture”, and then goes on to explain why the two are meant to be kept separate. Hence, White is advocating a two-stage Second Coming of Christ–one where he sort of comes back, but not really; and a second (/third), where he means it this time. Not only that, but White proceeds on the (equally unproven) assumption that “the church” is a completely separate entity in God’s salvation plan–and by that it is meant, “the church” is neither the Jews nor the Gentiles (i.e., the unbelieving world). By implication from the rest of what she says in this point, this means: at the so-called “rapture”, the church alone is rescued while everyone else is screwed and has to endure 7 years of “wrath” and “great tribulation.” Sorry, but neither of these two teachings is not found in the NT; they are especially not found in (or even supported by) texts like 1 Thess 4.13-18 or (I’m assuming she meant to write) 1 Cor 15.50-54. These ideas, however, are two of the essential pillars for Dispensationalism, so one can easily find them there. And only there.

White’s third point also has some concerns. Two are worth mentioning. First, she is very cautious in how she chooses to word her claims. When talking about the unexpectedness of the event, White focuses her attention on “the return” of Christ. While (seemingly) benign to most everyone else in the church, this phrasing is necessary for the Dispensationalist system of interpretation, which in turn formulates the Dispensationalist’s theology. By focusing on “the return” as an unknown event, White is emphasizing the so-called “rapture” and not Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming. Thus, for the Dispy, at the word level: “return” = “rapture”. And she has to follow this notion, partly because, of the two events (wrongly) assumed to be a part of Christ’s two-stage coming, the so-called “rapture” is the only one that is described as unknown, unannounced, without warning, blah, blah, blah. And the other part is because, if this event (supposedly) precedes Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming, all one needs is simple math to work out when the Second Coming will take place–i.e., 7 years after the so-called rapture–thus making it a known event. That’s the first cocnern in her point. The second one is easier stated: the passage she ropes in to support her case (Matt 24.36) not only says nothing about a so-called rapture–either before it or after it–but also is, as Dispys typically argue, focused on the Second Coming.

And that brings me to the final¹ concern in White’s case. In her fourth point, White is correct in describing the return of Christ as “visible and audible”. This is a breath of fresh air from the otherwise dank claims of older Dispensationalism which tends to advocate a “secret rapture” (cf. this). But the relief stops there, for White immediately launches into a treatment that leaves one rather puzzled. I say that because, in speaking of Christ’s “return” we are left with the impression that White is still referring to the so-called “rapture”–an impression that is encouraged by references to texts like 1 Thess 4.16, a passage that some have rightly defined as “one of the noisiest” in the NT.² But right alongside this are references that Dispys typically use to speak about not the so-called “rapture” but Christ’s final Coming–i.e., Matt 24.26-27, 31, and (from the previous point) 36. This would suggest, at the very least, that White–in her exuberance to make a point–accidentally conflated the two ideas into one. Or it would at least suggest that the (wrongly) assumed two-stage Coming of Christ is not as important or necessary or clear-cut as White so adamantly claimed in an earlier point. Or, at best, it would begin to expose the fact that Dispys have no biblical case for a two-stage Coming of Christ, but that they have to make such a case in order to sustain an idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic–one that created a rather idiosyncratic and flawed theological perspective³–and in making such a case, they simply get things wrong. And they get things wrong, because they’re missing the point: the final Coming of Christ is not about the rapture. Not even close. It’s about so much more.

¹ Well, the “final” one to be noted here.
² S. Wohlberg, End Time Delusions (2004), 22.
³ My problem with Dispensationalism, especially the Classical and Modified/Revised forms of it, is twofold: it surreptitiously (1) questions the  NT writers as inspired advocates of God’s truth, and ultimately (2) downplays the full scope of Christ’s salvific, redemptive, atoning, and fulfilling work.

a curious appeal

At present, we (our church) are doing a sermon series entitled: “Credo: Faith and Identity.” It’s a seven week series that runs through confession of the Apostle’s Creed. (In short: it’s a “what we believe” series). While preparing for the various topics, I refreshed myself on some of the common misconceptions about each point in the Creed, and I did this so that I could help our people become aware of such things. For the one on the Holy Spirit, I naturally defaulted to the views of the “Jehovah’s” Witnesses–since they are a modern group who flat out deny the personhood and (true) deity of the Spirit (see here).

What I found intriguing in their denying explanation is the first entry under their “Misconceptions” section, and entry that deals specifically with the personhood issue. As you can see (if you clicked on the link), the JWs declare: “Misconception: The ‘Holy Ghost,’ or holy spirit, is a person and is part of the Trinity, as stated at 1 John 5:7, 8 in the King James version of the Bible.” There are a handful of problems with this assumed misconception–not least of which are the underlying assumptions about the KJV (and the JWs incessant use of it as a reliable text)–but I’ll leave those alone for now. The thing that struck me was the response or rebuttal the JWs gave to this so-called misconception:

Fact: The King James version of the Bible includes at 1 John 5:7, 8 the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth.” However, researchers have found that those words were not written by the apostle John and so do not belong in the Bible. Professor Bruce M. Metzger wrote: “That these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain.”—A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.

Okay, yes, what is claimed here is indeed factual. And it’s primarily factual because of the inferior (=crappy) manuscript testimony that undergirds the KJV translation. But let’s be fair and honest (and not merely selective with our “facts”): scholars have known this detail for ages. So, nothing new here; move on, please. Moreover, simply referring to this passage and pairing it with some inflated rhetoric does not deal with the assumed misconception in a convincing way. So, you’re going to need something more.

That “something more” would seem to be the JWs peculiar appeal to Metzger as their supporting voice for denying the personhood and deity of the Spirit in particular and the doctrine of the Trinity in general. True, Metzger–in nearly everything he writes on that passage–does say it is not a part of the original (or best/earliest) manuscripts and is most likely a (much) later addition. But again: so what? Scholars have known that for years. Even Erasmus knew about it. But here why I find their appeal peculiar:

There are many other passages in the New Testament which reveal how deeply the Trinitarian pattern was impressed upon the thinking of primitive Christianity. Thus, besides the direct and obvious statements in Matt 28:19 and II Cor 13:14, there are texts as I Cor 6:11, 12:4-[6]; II Cor 1.21-22; Gal 3:11-14; I Thess 5:18-19; I Pet 1:2; and others.[*] (Because the manuscript evidence of I John 5:7-8, King James Version, is insufficient, this text should not be used. There is, however, abundant proof for the doctrine of the Trinity elsewhere in the New Testament.)

That quote (with emphasis added) comes from… You guessed it: Bruce M. Metzger. And the source: a rather polemical article entitled, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ”, found in Theology Today 10.1 (1953): 65-85. It would seem counterproductive (and counter-intuitive) to rope in someone to support your case when that someone utterly contradicts (and rejects) the very case you’re trying to make. Moreover, Metzger was adamantly opposed to the hermeneutical gymnastics that JWs perform in order to justify the claims they often make–and not just about Trinitarian doctrine.

On a slightly different tact, I find it odd that on both their Holy Spirit page (noted above) and their Trinity page (see here), they do not engage with any of the texts that Metzger cites–instead they focus on only a very small handful which they have already deemed questionable. And while they do have these texts in their “translation”, in each case the reference to the Spirit is downplayed–i.e., it’s always lower case (because they think the Holy Spirit is a thing [an impersonal force] and not a person). But that is highly suggestive of the fact that they are allowing an existing theological presupposition to determine the interpretation of the texts that deal with a given topic, and thus interpret those texts a way that favors or supports their existing theological presupposition. That’s eisegesis. And in hermeneutics: eisegesis is bad.

[*] Metzger provides a footnote to JND Kelly’s book, Early Christian Creeds (1950) for the interested reader to find a more extensive list of texts supporting a Trinitarian view.

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.

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

something else

So apparently, this Gap ad was perceived to be racist*–despite efforts to explain the pose:

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Yet, as far as I can tell, this earlier version was not perceived in a similar way:

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But putting that debate aside, I’d like to point out one small(ish) detail that’s getting missed:

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Either Cherokee/Target or Gap has some ‘splainin to do. Who wants to go first?

* And since perception (not truth) is all that really matters these days, it must in fact be racist.

one detail

Just discovered a job that looked rather interesting:

The College of Christian Studies at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor seeks applications for a tenure-track faculty appointment at the rank of Assistant/Associate Professor of Christian Studies beginning August 2016. The College of Christian Studies is committed to preparing men and women for service to the church as well as providing core courses in Bible and theology for all the University’s undergraduate students. UMHB seeks faculty who are active Christians and dedicated teacher-scholars to prepare students for leadership, service, and faith-informed discernment in a global society.

Sounds good. Tell me more about the job.

Faculty Responsibilities: Activities required of all faculty include exemplary teaching, curriculum development and student advising; professional attainment; and service to the department, college, university, and the community. While primarily a teaching institution, UMHB recognizes and rewards research, publication, and other forms of scholarly attainment.

Specific Responsibilities: The successful candidate will have competence in biblical studies and/or theology for teaching in the Core. Teaching responsibilities include online as well as classroom courses. Full-time faculty members typically teach 12-14 hours per semester with three course preparations.

Very nice. All fairly standard. What about the candidate?

Qualifications:  Ph.D. in biblical studies or theology is required. Excellent teaching and communication skills, a dedication to professional attainment, and commitment to quality improvement are essential. Because of the specific mission of the College of Christian Studies, the successful candidate must be a Baptist and must sustain active membership in a local Baptist church.

Ah, crap… That Baptist thing gets me every time. Oh well, the search continues.

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.

* Taken from “West Wing”.