Saturday, August 29, 2009

7 Days

One of these weeks, perhaps starting this very Monday, I'm going to read the entire Irish Times broadsheet every day for 7 days. What I'll do then I'm not sure, but expect some blog posts along those lines. Just a heads up.

Honest Questions - #2

I always like to pay special attention to what the author of a book denotes as his purpose for writing. Writing finds its source in purpose. Nobody writes for no reason. In Peter Enns' case, he states his purpose in the first sentence of the first chapter:

The purpose of this book is to bring an evangelical doctrine of Scripture into conversation with the implications generated by some important themes in modern biblical scholarship - particularly Old Testament scholarship - over the past 150 years.

The most uninteresting purpose behind a book ever? Taken at face value, perhaps, but trust me on this - things do get interesting for those of us who want to know more about the nature of Scripture.

Enns begins by outlining his own convictions vis-a-vis Scripture: It is ultimately from God and it is His gift to the church. (I would add that it is not only a gift to those in the church, but those outside of the church. For instance, how many people have been spiritually awakened by picking up a Bible and reading a passage? Quite a few, I imagine.) In other words, Enns holds what we might regard as a pretty high doctrine of Scripture. However, what this book gets at is the fleshing out of such a doctrine. And more to the point, the fleshing out of such a doctrine in light of new evidence, or old evidence seen in new light. As such, Enns argues that "we must be willing to engage that evidence and adjust our doctrine accordingly". The Catholic Church re-thinking that whole geocentric view of the universe is one precedent for such doctrinal adjustment based on new evidence, so Enns doesn't think he's petitioning for anything new, and he's right. Those presently imprisoned by the Church for holding a less-then-orthodox view of Scripture will be demanding a re-trial, one feels.

The evidence (which as yet is unspecified) is seen as inherently problematic to evangelical doctrine. So what do most evangelicals do? Defend defend defend! Understandable really, given that the natural human response to an attack is some form of defense. This dialectical tension among scholars during the 20th century could be called the "battle for the Bible". In fact, a scholar by the name of Dr Harold Lindsell wrote a book entitled The Battle for the Bible, in which he adamantly defended the inerrancy of Scripture. So much so that if you believed that Peter only denied Jesus 3 times instead of 6, you might be accused of being "soft of Scripture". I know.

Given what Enns affirms at the beginning of the book -- the Bible is a gift from God -- you may think he's fighting on the side of the theological right in the battle for the Bible. In a way he is, but he is not fighting with the usual weapons. In fact he's not really fighting at all. He's listening to the voice of the evidence which has been thrown at evangelicals over the years, and instead of shouting over it, he's allowing it to shape his conviction that the Bible is God's Word. It's a sort of jujitsu maneuver that the apostle Paul would be proud of, where evidence that is seen to be harmful to one's perspective is turned on its head and becomes a tool for solidifying one's perspective. Enns doesn't claim to solve all the problems of course, but rather he intends to fashion a "theological paradigm" where the evidence finds a comfortable home without the need to uproot the foundations of age-old doctrines. Enns attempts to do this by simply "listening to how the Bible itself behaves", and trying, as much as it is possible, to suspend some of the preconceptions that dominate our ideas about Scripture. In fact, one of the central themes of Inspiration and Incarnation is the following:

The problems many of us fell regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible and more to do with our own preconceptions.

When we admit this, we are in a good place to continue delving into Enns' honest questions.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Honest Questions - #1

I've finished reading the controversial book Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns. Over the coming weeks I'll make an attempt at copying and pasting Enns' work onto this blog relaying the core message of this thought-provoking book. Some may have little interest in what Enns has to say, others may be profoundly interested. Whatever the case, I can safely say that you hold to a certain doctrine of Scripture. You may think it inerrant, infallible, unique, revelatory, God-breathed, Spirit-inspired, or just a big collection of books written by a bunch of Jews about their made-up god, perhaps with some historical value, but with little other modern-day usefulness.

I also don't think it's too outlandish to say that our doctrine of Scripture affects what we do with Scripture. First of all, it will determine whether we read it or not. Secondly, should we think of Scripture as something worth reading, our doctrine will affect how we read the various texts, and consequently, how we respond. In other words, this is pretty fundamental stuff that Enns is dealing with. But let the reader be warned: it will almost certainly challenge some of the ideas about Scripture that you have in your head. It will challenge both those who hold to a high opinion of Scripture, and those who hold to a low. That's not to say that Enns is promoting a "happy medium" opinion of Scripture. His purpose, rather, is to spark a conversation where the evangelical doctrine of Scripture is the topic and ancient near-eastern (ANE for short) literature is the aforementioned spark. What happens when the two meet? Does all talk of uniqueness, revelation, and inspiration come crashing down? Are Christians mad to think of the Bible as God's Word? Or have we simply misunderstood what God's Word to us might look like?

Enns notes in his preface that "God honours our honest questions". This recap of Enns's book will deal with some of those honest questions.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An Early Christian Hymn

According to Raymond E. Brown, the first 18 verses of John's Gospel represent an early Christian hymn. Here is that hymn:

First Strophe
In the beginning was the Word;
the Word was in God's presence,
and the Word was God.
He was present with God in the beginning.

Second Strophe
Through him all things came into being,
and apart from him not a thing came to be.
That which had come to be in him was life,
and his life was the light of men.
The light shines on in the darkness,
for the darkness did not overcome it.

Third Strophe
He was in the world,
and the world was made by him;
yet the world did not recognise him.
To his own he came;
yet his own people did not accept him.
But all those who did accept him
he empowered to become God's children.

Fourth Strophe
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
And we have seen his glory,
the glory of an only Son coming from the Father,
filled with enduring love

And of his fullness
we have had a share--
love in place of love.

They don't write them like they used to, eh?

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Future

Conan O'Brien's vision of the future, as disclosed in the 1980's:

"I believe that one day a simple Governor from a small Southern state will rise to the highest office in the land. He will lack political skill, but will lead on the sheer strength of his moral authority."

"I believe that Justice will prevail and, one day, the Berlin Wall will crumble, uniting East and West Berlin forever under Communist rule."

"I believe that one day, a high speed network of interconnected computers will spring up world-wide, so enriching people that they will lose their interest in idle chit chat and pornography."

"And finally, I believe that one day I will have a television show on a major network, seen by millions of people a night, which I will use to re-enact crimes and help catch at-large criminals."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Honest Questions

I've begun reading a book called Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problems of the Old Testament by Peter Enns. It cropped up on a few bibliobloggers' Top 5 books lists, and so I thought it might be worth checking out. Little did I know that this has proved to be quite the controversial work. For instance, this is what the president of Westminster Theological Seminary has to say about Inspiration and Incarnation. It

has caught the attention of the world so that we have scholars that love this book, and scholars who have criticized it very deeply…. We have students who have read it say it has liberated them. We have other students that say it's crushing their faith and removing them from their hope. We have churches that are considering it, and two Presbyteries have said they will not send students to study under Professor Enns here.

In fact, the writing of this book has led to Peter Enns parting ways with his former employers Westminster Theological Seminary, whose chairman saw the book as being incompatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Interesting.

Anyway, here is a quote from the first chapter of the book, which introduces us to Enns' provocative perspective on that other book we call the Word of God:

It is somewhat ironic, it seems to me, that both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worthy of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have. The one accents the human marks and makes them absolute. The other wishes the human marks were not as pronounced as they were. They share a similar opinion that nothing worthy of being called God's word would look so common, so human, so recognisable. But, when God speaks, He speaks in ways we would understand.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An Unexpected Twist

Quick life update:

I'm moving to Dublin in a few weeks. I have a place to live, I don't have a place to go and earn money. This was an unexpected twist in my otherwise banal life. The "plan" was to gain more education in the field of biblical studies, but instead I have decided to postpone any such adventures until a) I have some money under my belt and b) some experience of living away from home and being all independent and what not.

I'll be coming back to Galway every few weeks due to worship team commitments/my mother's Sunday dinners, but for all intents and purposes my life will be packing itself up and moving a couple of hundred kilometers east.

One of my first tasks - find a good church. If anyone has any recommendations I'd be happy to hear them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Changing the Name

As God changed the name of Abram and Jacob, so I shall be changing the name of this blog. Its provisional title shall be Charismata, pronounced ka-RIZ-ma-ta (I think). This is the word the apostle Paul uses when he talks about what we call "spiritual gifts". Why call it such? Here are a few reasons:
  • Biblical blogs with Greek titles sound learned and informed, even if they're not. Since this one is not, I want to create the illusion that it is.
  • I think charismata is a cool sounding word.
  • I think "Christian blogging", for want of a better way of putting it, needs to see itself as what the apostle Paul would call charismata. Inherent in the blogging ethos is an attitude that goes something along the lines of "This is my blog and I have the right to put whatever I want in it". Perhaps Christians need continually to refresh their perspective on blogging, seeing it not as human right but as divine gift. To some the gift of prophecy, to some the gift of teaching, to some the gift of blogging. A Christian-themed blog should be the "stuff of grace", which is what charismata means. Putting this cool sounding Greek word as the title of this blog will be a constant reminder to me that what I have at my fingertips is not a right, but a gift. That's not to suggest that I have a gift for blogging of course, but I think an average of four hits a day speaks for itself.
Anyway, hope you like the new title. If so, or if not, fell free to say as much.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Absence of Expectation

Reading The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns is an experience. It's not something you can do without being affected, emotionally and otherwise. This is a book about human beings, just like you and me, but human beings who have grown up in the midst of an open-air drug market, and whose lives bear the scars of such a cruel and graceless environment; an environment where human desire in its most corrupt form rules the day, and leaves the well-being of others in its wake.

The book is a mixture of narrative and social commentary, with both being equally effective ways of saying what's what in Baltimore. Anyway, here is Simon and Burns's take on teenage pregnancy, where they come to different conclusions than we might expect:

It isn't about sexual permissiveness, or personal morality, or failures in parenting, or lack of family planning. All of these are inherent in the disaster, but the purposefulness with which babies make babies in places like West Baltimore goes far beyond accident and chance, circumstances and misunderstanding. It's about more than the sexual drives of adolescents, too, though that might be hard to believe in a country where sex alone is enough of an argument to make anyone do just about anything.

In Baltimore, a city with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, the epidemic is, at its root, about human expectation, or more precisely, the absence of expectation. On Fayette Street, the babies are born simply because they can be born, because life in this place cannot and will not be lived in the future tense. Given that fact, there is no reason to wait. The babies speak to these child-mothers and child-fathers, justify them, touch their hearts in a way that nothing else in their lives ever will. The government, the schools, the social workers, the public-service announcements wedged in between every black-family-in-the-burbs sitcom -- all wail out the same righteous warning: Wait, don't make the mistake, don't squander every oppportunity in life by having a child too young. But the children of Fayette Street look around them and wonder where an opportunity might actually be found. The platitude is precisely that, and no one is fooled.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Congruence with the Gospels

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. - Galatians 4:4-5

N.T. Wright on Paul's "gospel" and its congruence with the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John:

...once we reinstate the Pauline emphasis, there is far less of a strange break between Paul’s ‘gospel’ and the written ‘gospels’ than there is if we suppose the former to be the announcement of a new, non-historical, way of being religious, or of finding a non-historical salvation, and the latter to represent a failure of nerve, an attempt to ground the supposedly ahistorical gospel in history after all. If we take Paul’s ‘gospel’ to denote the announcement that the true God has acted in fulfilment of his promises, sending the Messiah to die and be raised, and so ushering in the new world order in which the false gods are confronted and confounded and their adherents summoned to a new and liberating allegiance, then we may realise that that description would do fairly well for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well, for all their obvious differences from one another and from Paul. Mark’s Jesus (‘the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel’) is quite at home with Paul (‘when the time had fully come, God sent forth his son…’).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Rare Combination

For those who don't know, I play the guitar. I have been doing so for about 10 years. However, I could play for another 900 years and still be nowhere near as good as one Clive Carroll. The man is simply a master, often making me wonder if we're actually playing the same instrument. And not only is his technique flawless, but his songs are actually nice to listen to as well. A rare combination when it comes to guitarists.

Anyway, here are a few clips of Clive in action. Check them out and make yourself feel wholly inadequate, as a musician and as a person.

Monday, August 10, 2009

He'll Put All To Rights

- They say Aslan is on the move.


- It is he not you that will save Mr Tumnus.


- He'll put all to rights as it says in an old rhyme in these parts:

Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight
At the sound of his roar sorrows will be no more
When he bears his teeth winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane we shall have spring again


- Then he isn't safe?

- Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good.

Memorable quotes from the cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which can be seen in action here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

An Event of Joyous Proclamation

About a month ago I was given the privilege of presiding over Holy Communion in our church, which involved a short address. Here is what I came up with. My aim was to try and take the focus of self and our doing business with God, and place the focus on what God has already done in Christ, with communion being an event of joyous proclamation. Read on to see how it all turned out...

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:23-26)

What are we doing when we have communion? What’s it all about? I’ve often thought of it in individualistic terms. It’s my chance to confirm my status as a Christian, or my chance to sort out that sin problem between me and God, sort of like my own private confession time.

Now there is some truth to this, with Paul exhorting us to examine ourselves lest we approach the Lord’s Supper irreverently and disorderly. However, while such introspection might be an element of communion, or preparation for communion, it is not the substance of communion. It pales in comparison to what communion is truly about - it’s about a community of people proclaiming the death of Jesus.

This is why Paul says in verse 26 of 1 Corinthians 11 that as often as a church eats the bread and drinks the cup, this church is proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes. And so the upshot of communion is not navel-gazing; it’s proclamation; it’s making the death of Jesus known.

Now of course in usual circumstances, making the death of someone known is a negative thing, a somber thing. Death is seen as defeat. It’s as if Paul errs here, and what he really should have said was that we are proclaiming Christ’s resurrection until He returns. Talk of death doesn’t exactly leave us in a celebratory mood in the same way that, say, the resurrection does. But when it comes to the death of Jesus, it should.

Why? Colossians 2 has the answers:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

What are we making known by proclaiming the death of Jesus? Well, what has God done through the cross? He has made us alive, He has forgiven us all our sins, He has broken the curse of the Law, He has disarmed the powers of this world, with the cross being an act of supreme triumph. It’s no wonder that Paul told the church in Corinth that he decided to know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified. What message could be more liberating? What could be better news?

And so while we should approach communion reverently, we should also approach it joyfully, with thanksgiving in our hearts. We eat this bread and drink this cup as a community of people living under the shadow of the cross, where our proclamation is not one of defeat but of victory, and where we stand together not under law but under grace. The death of Jesus is good news, and we are here together to celebrate it. That should look a lot different to me sitting with my eyes closed hoping I haven’t exhausted God’s grace and therefore about to eat and drink judgment upon myself.

And so as we take this bread and drink this cup, we are corporately proclaiming the victory of God over evil and celebrating our being part of His new creation through the cross of Christ. What a wonderful, gracious, exciting reality to make known amongst ourselves through communion, and to the rest of the world through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Theology And The Church

I love theology (which is code for I love sitting on my own reading books and forming thoughts). You don't read Best's International Critical Commentary on Ephesians before bedtime and not have a passion for this kind of stuff. However, the words of Richard Hays go close to the bone of a personality type like mine. For as Hays says of the Apostle Paul,

the constant aim of his theological reflection is to shape the behaviour of his churches. Theology is for Paul never merely a speculative exercise; it is always a tool for constructing community.

Theology and the church are, or at least should be, inseparable. Paul's theological thinking cut to the heart of church life, of human life. It interacted with issues ranging from what happens when we die to sleeping with prostitutes.

As Dr Autry said to me recently, the goal of theology is not to be the guy with the special reading of Second Timothy. The goal is the goal of the New Covenant: to know God, and to be His people. We separate theology from church life at our peril. This I need always to remember.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

It's God's

There are probably as many definitions of the gospel as there are Christians. Each of us has our own unique way of telling the good news that is at the foundation of Christianity. The core elements should all be in place, but they never quite come out the same way from two different sets of lips.

I've heard and read many descriptions of the gospel. I've been in discussion groups where the gospel is the topic for the evening. I've heard people argue that so-and-so isn't the gospel, but that so-and-so is. There is so much squabbling over it's definition that I think we've (or at least I've) lost sight of it's source.

Perhaps we should approach the gospel not primarily with a "what?" question, but first and foremost with a "whose?" question. This isn't to downplay the importance of what is contained in the gospel. But I think in all gospel-speak, we are only on track when we are fully aware of the following: the gospel is God's gospel.

The gospel is told in human words, but it does not find it's source in humanity. It is not humanity's word about God, but God's word concerning Himself (and His righteousness, as seen in Rom. 1:17). The early church was very clear about this, as witnessed in the Book of Acts. In numerous passages Luke writes of "the word of God" spreading and causing change in communities (6:7, 8:14, 11:1, 12:24, 18:11). The apostles knew that it was not their words that were being preached, but God's words.

Paul makes this explicit in his letter to the Galatians. He writes quite emphatically that,

I did not receive it (the gospel) from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Whatever we denote as "the gospel", we ought to be careful yet encouraged that we are claiming to be speaking God's word. Careful because it is our duty to faithfully pass on what has ultimately been passed down from God Himself; encouraged because the power is not in our words, but God's. By the power of God's word the world was made, and He has promised that,

as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isa. 55:10-11).

Whose gospel is it? It's God's.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reading The Bible

When it comes to interpreting the Bible accurately and thus beneficially, there is an unavoidable preliminary interpretive tool we make use of before getting into the nitty gritty of syntax, historical and literary context etc etc. That interpretive tool is the Bible translation that we choose to read.

The fact that we are reading an English translation of an originally Greek text means that the interpretation process has begun before we even begin to read. A (most likely) large group of scholars has decided that this is how the Greek text should be read in English. Of course these groups have different goals in mind: some want to translate the text word for word, some want to aid their readership by expressing what they perceive to be the overall thought of the passage in understandable English. The former group aren't too concerned with what the passage means as much as they are with saying what the biblical writer said. The latter try to tap into the meaning of the text, thus the interpretative process is well under way before you even read one such translation.

But whatever way we look at it, our reading of the New Testament -- a Greek text originally -- is the result of biblical interpretation. We are in one sense at our translation of choice's mercy, which is why it is recommended that we use multiple translations when studying the Bible.

To illustrate this pre-interpretation that we often miss, here is Romans 1:17 as it is written in numerous translations, moving from the formal (literal) to the functional (understandable):

What the Apostle Paul Wrote
dikaiosune gar theou en auto apokaluptetai ek pisteos eis pistin kathos gegraptai o de dikaios ek pisteos zesetai

(The "therein" or "in it" in the following translations refers to the gospel)

King James Bible
For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

American Standard Version
For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith.

Young's Literal Translation
For the righteousness of God in it is revealed from faith to faith, according as it hath been written, 'And the righteous one by faith shall live,'

New American Standard Bible
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH."

English Revised Version
For therein is revealed a righteousness of God by faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith.

English Standard Version
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."

International Standard Version
For in the gospel God's righteousness is being revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, "The righteous will live by faith."

New International Version
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

New Living Translation
This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”

The Message
God's way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: "The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives."

There are numerous issues that could be examined, but one will suffice; perhaps one of the most debated issues in biblical scholarship. What does "righteousness of God" mean?

All of the literal translations translate dikaiosune theou as righteousness of God, but by doing so the meaning remains ambiguous. Is Paul talking about the gospel revealing the righteous character of God? Is he talking about God's own righteousness being made available to us? Is the righteousness of God His commitment to uphold His own glory? Is it God's covenantal faithfulness? What is being revealed in the gospel!?

The International Standard Version says that "God's righteousness" is revealed in the gospel. The righteousness possessed by God is made known through the proclamation of the gospel. In it His righteousness is unveiled. The question then becomes, Why is the revelation of God's righteousness good news? To answer that, "God's righteousness" would need further interpretation.

The NIV says that in the gospel "a righteousness from God" is revealed. There is give and take implied here, with God being the giver of righteousness (what ever that is!) and others being the recipients. Some people get this righteousness from God. The gospel is basically the proclamation that God is handing out righteousness. Though still unclear in meaning, this already sounds like good news.

The New Living Translation nail their colours to the mast. The righteousness of God is "how God makes us right in His sight". In the gospel we hear how we can stand before God and not only be declared right, but made right. Thus the righteousness of God is an act of God, an act of making people right. We could go a step further and say with John Stott that it is "God's righteous way of righteous-ing the unrighteous".

The Message echoes the sentiments of the NLT, translating (or interpreting) dikaiosune theou as "God's way of putting people right".

Of course we're never going to unearth the meaning of "righteousness of God" based on one verse. The boring, tedious point being made here is that in the translation we choose to read, interpretation has already occurred, especially if we use a translation such as the NLT or The Message. There's not much ambiguity (relatively speaking) when we read that "This Good News tells us how God makes us right in His sight". The problem, however, is precisely this: Is that what Paul is talking about? Is that what he means when he writes dikaiosune theou? If it is, then the good people involved in the NLT have done us a massive favour. If it's not, or if they have missed the main force of what Paul intends by these two words, then we're not quite hearing what we should be hearing. To get uber-dramatic, we're not being exposed to what is contained in the gospel, for that is what is at stake in this profound verse.

Do I think that the NLT has gotten it right? Well, that's not the point, but if you want to know just ask. The point is that even reading the Bible is a complicated procedure, so don't bother. Just get N.T. Wright to explain the Christian message to you.

Some Sermons

The following is a link to some sermons given by my former Scripture School teacher, Dr Arden Autry. The title of the sermon series is The Most Dangerous Book in the Bible, and you can listen to Dr Autry speak on the 5th, 12th and 19th of July. Believe me when I say that it is worth it.

The Most Dangerous Book in the Bible