November 30, 2002

Time to wade back in. I hope everyone's Thanksgiving was good. My sister, a professor of education at Auburn U. in Alabama, has been in town, so she and my mother and my recently healthy family have been getting together when we can.

The AAR/SBL conference in Toronto was exhausting fun. My presentation on the doctrine of God between Orthodoxy and early Islam went well, with supportive comments from the audience. Considering there were people there who have forgotten more about John of Damascus or Abucarra or ibn Arabi than I have ever known, that is a blessing.

A highlight was a trip on the subway after the conference, fully laden with my baggage and all the books I bought, to the Royal Ontario Museum to see the ossuary of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The box itself is quite unlike the several other ossuaries in the museum's collection. Others are made of fine stone, decorated with red paint and fine carving of stars and other flourishes. This has rough stone, seams that show, and no decorations whatsoever besides those few Aramaic words. It is not from a rich family, or else it comes from a family that spent its funds elsewhere. The contrast fits a church that went through hard times during these years (Rom. 15:25-27). There is no telling whether this is the James the Just, and there was of course a spirited debate at the conference over it, but I didn't see anything that didn't fit.

Several friends and a couple of strangers came up to compliment my website and this blog. I deeply appreciate their kindness both in reading and in commenting. This is a very difficult time in the semester, so posting is sure to be scattered until mid-December, but your support keeps me coming back.

I departed with a stack of wonderful books. More is the pity that I have to wait so long to read them, and some will simply go unread. There are guides to the Psalter for a book project that lies way in the future, whose shape is just forming in my head. There are books from new and old friends that testify to the beauty of good theology. There are challenges and things for students and even a reference work or two. I wish I could read them as quickly as I can buy them!

Something was new this time: While before I interviewed as a candidate, this year I was interviewing as a member of a search committee. Not only have I been learning what these things are really like, but last weekend I learned what a joy it is to get to know the candidates. In this field there are many wonderful candidates for every job. The dark side of this is the anguish we will soon be feeling as we are forced to choose among them. The bright side is the privilege of meeting a whole list of truly gifted people. God's hand is on their lives, and they range from eager novices to newly experienced teachers to seasoned veterans. All are inspiring and encouraging. There is a lot of teaching to do, and it is a blessing to meet my fellow laborers in the task. Many members of search committees that ultimately turned me down have become fast friends. I never would have guessed that even "rejection" – I hope you can see now how wrong the word is – could be such a windfall.

The best thing about this annual conference in this season of my career is seeing the growing circle of friends whom I can only see here. We now come from all over the world once a year to renew our friendships. When I first started coming to AAR, I knew no one but the tiny handful of fellow students who made the trek with me. Today I still think most of the sessions are as silly and trivial as I thought they were at first, but there are a few worth attending, but now I realize that the real convention isn't happening in the presentations (not even mine), nor even in the book fair, but really just in the convening itself.

Of course Church is like that too; the buildings and props and even the liturgy are just instruments to facilitate the congregation's worship together in spirit and in truth.

Meanwhile, my family was going crazy, shuttling repeatedly between urgent care and the pharmacy as we diagnosed and treated Jeremy's asthma. We think we have it handled, but my wife sure didn't need that on top of all the other challenges of single-parenting four young ones for five days. AAR is the worst week of every year for my family. My wife dreads it and my kids struggle to endure it, and every time I see a young child on the airplane or at the conference it hits me too how much I miss them. All this professional connecting comes at a price, and it is one more blessing on top of all the others to have a family willing to pay it.

I have backed up questions to answer from Camassia and others, and those will be coming along soon. Thanks again for reading and for the gift of your patience. Shabbat shalom.

9:22 AM

November 21, 2002

Sorry I've been so quiet.

Tomorrow I leave for the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature annual convention in Toronto. Back Tuesday. Posting may resume Wednesday, or maybe not until after Thanksgiving. This is an intense time in the semester.

Monday I will present a paper to the Orthodox Studies group entitled "Sharpening the Doctrine of God: Theology between Eastern Orthodoxy and Early Islam." It is about the ways theologians such as John of Damascus and ibn-Arabi sharpened their own traditions' theological insights by responding faithfully to the challenges of rivals. In their first several hundred years together, Islam helped Orthodoxy articulate its theology and practice of icons, and Orthodoxy helped Islam articulate its doctrine of the uncreated Quran. (UPDATE: Here is the link if you're interested [PDF]. I'm only reading the copy in 12-point.)

This rarified historical reflection on patristic interreligious dialogue will be going on against the backdrop of Nigerians and their churches being burned because Muslims are offended at a beauty pageant, a Lebanese missionary woman being murdered for the unconscionable sin of ministering to pregnant women, and assorted other Islamist atrocities against Christians, Jewish children, "infidels," and fellow Muslims.


The question is haunting me of whether, had it been 1938, I would have been preparing a measured scholarly paper on Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas while the glass was shattering.

Our generation was raised to ask ourselves what we would have done had we lived in that era. I have the disquieting feeling that I would have been doing just what I am about to do now: go about the business of my daily life as if the world were not careening toward apocalypse.

Don't get me wrong. My paper matters. It is not especially profound, but it still witnesses to a day when a disciple like John of Damascus, serving the caliph in Muslim territory, could think hard about a new tradition that was bringing disaster upon his people, and find in Islam's challenge new resources to bless his fellow Christians. As Christians join the Chosen as "the Jews of the twenty-first century," we need to learn and teach the habits of hope and perseverance that preserved the Chosen through their Shoah. That discipline, not the passivity of relying on the protections of our generous and mainly honorable hyperpower, will keep us on the way of the cross. And on that way alone lies life for the world.

Yet I still grieve for the brothers and sisters who have just died, and for all those who suffer under this obscene plague of violence in God's name, and I want to do more than just deliver a paper in their memory. A scholarly paper is not yet the habit of hope it needs to be. Theology serves the Church, or it is not truly Christian theology. John of Damascus, "John the Theologian," knew that. I want to be like him when I grow up.

Would you pray that what we theologians and biblical scholars and historians do in Toronto this weekend serves Christ's Church, and all people?

11:59 AM

November 15, 2002

An evangelical college student bravely responds to my earlier post on evangelical theology:

As just another freshman at a Reformed college, I feel a bit odd about addressing this to you, but I have to admit I was a little disturbed by your reading list for aspiring theologians and the comments you later made about it on your blog. If you're teaching someone theology, you really should have a definitive perspective from which to teach. Eclectic readings can prepare one's mind critically, but only once someone has gotten a base in the truth.
The community that confesses Jesus as Lord and savior is the definitive perspective from which I teach its own confession. My own location is a smaller community within that larger community. It identifies itself as "evangelical" for theological, historical, and sociological reasons. I support many of those reasons and I am profoundly happy teaching in, from, and to this smaller group fo communities. However, I refuse to limit my theological authorities to their voices. The eclectic readings on my reading list all center in the wider community that confesses Jesus as Lord and Christ. They share the "base in the truth" that Jesus promises all who hear his word and do what he says. I don't agree with everything every one of them says and does, but then we evangelicals don't agree about everything either, do we?

As an evangelical theologian, you do believe that the revelation of Scripture is both perspicacious and objective, right? We can know it authoritatively to be this and not that.
I agree with you in principle, but think you are putting this too much in the language of secular modernity. Yes, Scripture (not just "the revelation of Scripture," depending on what you mean by that) is perspicacious, meaning that its general message is obvious to informed, careful, honest readers. It is not obvious in every detail, nor is it obvious to every reader. Furthermore, it is not just a mirror on which we project our own subjectivities; its voices are real voices. But that does not mean the Bible is "objective" in the modern sense of being "out there" on its own, somehow above the contingencies of ordinary human language and literary remembrance.

Now I don't want this to turn into a debate over modernist epistemology. So I will just put your point in a different way to see if it calms your worries. As an evangelical theologian, I claim that the apostolic faith of Jesus Christ is authored by God, not merely fabricated by the apostles' wishful thinking, and that its biblical witness is both adequate and fitting for articulating the good news in the faith, order, life and work of our communities.

(Boy, that just trips off the tongue, doesn't it? Yeesh.)

Better yet, let me quote my own book: "For those who like things simple, the Bible is true."

Thus, eclecticism will only lead to confusion if it is made the starting point of one's education.
Yes, but the common witness of Christ's communities of faith is not "eclectic." It is "catholic", that is, it is universal.

Of course, we should read the Catholics, read the Neo-Orthodox, etc. but we have to be able to realize clearly where they are wrong before we can recognize where they are right.
Why would that be?

You seem to be assuming that we already know the answers, so we have nothing to learn from brothers and sisters who disagree with us, except becoming aware of the ways they are right and wrong.

Now that is more or less the attitude I had when I started my theological education. "We have the truth; now let's see how these other people don't." All I can say is that being exposed to these other brothers and sisters has taught me things about the Kingdom I didn't already know and couldn't find elsewhere. Furthermore, it has shown me mistakes in my own earlier thinking. It has confirmed that my little tradition tells the right story, but shown me that we do it less fully than we could, less perfectly than we could, and less exclusively than we like to pretend. It has opened me up to a theological dialogue in which the different members of Jesus' body affirm and encourage each other, discern and correct each other, and work together to tell the story of our one Lord, one faith, and one baptism as one story.

If you are interested in learning more about what I mean by that, I recommend you read this little article in which I describe a little bit of that transformation. It is a few pages I was invited to contribute to Geoffrey Wainwright's magisterial biography, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life.

Of course, some can have true faith – but true faith can exist in varying degrees of purity.
I sure hope so, because my hope is not that my community's faith is relatively more pure than other communities, but that "the righteous shall live through faith" (Rom. 1:17).

I am not a Roman Catholic because the Roman Catholic Church demands that I make theological claims I am not willing to make, and until I do its churches are withholding communion. Likewise with the Eastern Orthodox churches. This is a shame on all of us, but it is not something I can solve all by myself. Nevertheless, until we are reconciled in the fullness of Christ's truth, we still have plenty to offer each other.

Theory necessarily must come before practice, knowledge before devotion.
That's your modernity talking; I don't see it in Jesus' call to follow him and discover his kingdom. By making theory radically before practice, modernity is distorting the very grammar of Christian faith and failing to perceive the profundity of how God has made himself known throughout the history of Israel, Jesus, and Church. Coinherence of theory, practice, knowledge, and devotion runs throughout our tradition: "Believe in order to understand." "The law of prayer is the law of belief." Or, as Augustine says, "Thus He says, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life'; that is, you are to come through me, to arrive at me, and to remain in me" (On Christian Doctrine, 1.XXXIV.38).

I teach theology because it has everything to do with Christian life. It is bound up with every other aspect of our faith in a virtuous circle where everything informs everything else. We learn as we follow, on the way.

The way you slough off the openness debate as insignificant compared to issues of ministry shows you to have a mistaken conception of ministry, in my opinion. It makes all the difference to how we worship and how we live whether God is sovereign or not. Openness theology profoundly misrepresents the God of the Bible, and thus proclaims a deficient Christ. A Christ perhaps more amenable to the autonomy of modern man, but a deficient Christ nonetheless.
Actually, in no way did I dismiss that debate. I said that "the debate over divine openness versus traditional exhausive foreknowledge is important, interesting, and potentially fruitful," but that "it has been turned into an exercise in group identity." Furthermore, as I understand the openness position, the question is not whether God is sovereign, it is how God is sovereign.

While I am not an openness theologian, I am not yet convinced that openness theologians should be excluded from the communities that call themselves "evangelical." Besides, the definition of evangelicalism itself is contested. It is as sociological and cultural and practical as it is formally theological.

You obviously belong to a school which is teaching you to think of evangelicalism as bounded confessionally. That is how Reformed evangelicals often talk. But it is not the only understanding of the term. It is not the popular understanding or ordinary usage of the term. Other schools in the broad evangelical movement, particularly the movements often called "Pietistic", refuse to let themselves be characterized by someone else's vocabulary.

Obviously openness theologians do not accept the classic Reformed confessions on divine foreknowledge. But we knew that already! To frame the issue in terms of evangelical identity rather than truth and falsehood is to turn it into an exercise in group identity. By all means, let us discuss whether openness theologians are right or wrong. But let us not confuse that with the fruitless exercise in determining whether they are "evangelical."

If someone like Athanasius had lived with the mindset you seem to have, then the Church might be quite different today. I can just imagine him saying, "Well, Arianism is wrong and all, but see how they are on fire for God. They may have a tremendously false conception of who God is, but what's that matter as long as they're working hard to win souls? I mean, they confess Christ and all, so they must be my brothers in the faith. I'll just let my misgivings rest in the back of my mind - there's too much practical work to be done."
You are reading a whole lot into my post that simply is not there.

However, your example is still a helpful one. Precisely because Arians did confess Christ and strive for faithfulness, Athanasians refused to give up on them. Frances Young's very accessible introduction into the origin of the creeds puts it well: "Gradually through explanation, development and accommodation, a return to the Nicene formula became feasible and convincing to the majority. The result was the Council of Constantinople in 381, and the acceptance of the creed universally known as Nicene and used in liturgies both Eastern and Western" (47). The Nicenes' patience with the various parties in Arianism was instrumental in showing them that they did not need to object to his language of incarnation, and bringing the camp of so-called "moderate Arians" into the catholic, Trinitarian fold. Their willingness to keep the debate alive helped turn the tide against radical Arianism.

Now I seriously doubt you would take your mindset that far. But from my reading of your blog, you seem to be on the edge here, questioning whether systematics is really worthy of the Church's time.
Far from it. If systematic theology were not for the Church, then why would I teach it, blog about it, and write reading lists to train people in it? I think theology is both indispensable and wonderful.

In my post I held up the many wonderful theologians who have enriched both the life of the Church and my own career. I was merely claiming that the era of comprehensive, multi-volume systematic theologies is basically over, that evangelicals were late in that game anyway, and that the richest forms of evangelical theology are ethical at any rate.

This is why I think evangelicalism is in trouble. Evangelicals just don't know where to draw boundaries.
But that sure doesn't stop us from drawing them anyway, does it?

Like many amorphous movements, evangelicalism is better understood by paying attention to our centers – Reformed orthodoxy, Pietism, and mission – than any supposed boundaries. In fact, it is so difficult to describe boundaries that many students of evangelicalism have basically given up.

Now there are boundaries we need to defend. Baptism draws a boundary line facing into the people of God, and excommunication draws a line facing out. These are the boundaries Jesus gave us to understand and maintain. Confessions, disciplinary procedures, and ethical rules are appropriate insofar as they serve these boundary markers by distinguishing the true good news of Jesus Christ from other, false gospels. But insofar as they only set up further divisions among the baptized and alienate us from each other at our common table, they are not boundaries we are called to draw.

However, some relative boundaries are still helpful. Smaller institutions may have particular missions that call for narrower definitions. At APU, a Wesleyan school, it would be inappropriate for teachers to work at cross purposes, so it is appropriate to require obedience to a rule of faith that distinguishes between disciples no one here doubts to be faithful Christians. Such additional rules are something like the rules of monastic orders. They respect the special ways that some see and live the common faith of all.

Other distinctions distinguish permeable positions without drawing bright-line boundaries or making moral judgments. At APU my position on various theological issues can be labeled, and this generally helps everyone speak more clearly and economically.

Where might openness doctrine fit among these different boundaries?

Some might consider openness doctrine to be (a) a compromise of the gospel itself. If so, then this is a church-dividing issue. We should call it heresy and act accordingly, excommunicating those who hold it.

Some might consider openness doctrine (b) weighty but not ultimately church-dividing, like many evangelicals consider the distinctions between Wesleyans and Calvinists. If so, then some bodies may want to take solemn positions on the issue that are bound up with their institutional identity. That would be a matter for bodies to discern on a case-by-case basis.

Some might consider openness doctrine to be (c) adiaphora, a matter of indifference over which Christians can disagree. If so, then this is an interesting and even enlightening theological discussion, but not a whole lot more, and we should treat it with the lightness and indifference it deserves.

The question of whether openness doctrine is "authentically evangelical" is only edifying if evangelical theology is (a) the only true faith of the one true Church, (b) an institution, or (c) a coherent school of thought. Since evangelicalism is at most (c), I don't see the point of answering that question as if it were otherwise.

Love for others is a worthy goal, but does not exclude our obligation to discern between true and false teaching. This is why I think having confessional standards, like the WCF, is such a great thing, and pretty much our only hope for a successful Christian witness in the future.
You made a subtle but decisive move there. You said that because love for others does not exclude our obligation to discern between true and false teaching, having confessional standards is our only hope for successful (I'll say "faithful") Christian witness. Now I think confessional standards can be very helpful to distinguishing true from false teaching. Every school at which I have taught has had a binding statement of faith, and I have affirmed and supported each enthusiastically. But are confessional standards really the only means of making the distinction? If I gave you an assignment that asked you to counsel a group of disciples in an historically anti-creedal denomination (e.g., Disciples), who for some reason or other were institutionally forbidden to embrace such formal standards, would you really not be able to come up with any alternative strategy for them? Would you really have to tell them to leave their church and become creedalists if they want to remain in the truth?

Confessional standards are never as ultimate as the Bible, but at least they provide something substantiative to have as a secondary commitment. All kinds of heretics can claim belief in Christ and adherence to Scripture.
(As well as adherence to statements of faith originally designed to exclude them or others.)

It may take much work to ferret out where they have left the narrow path. But when someone says that their faith is objective and can be expressed succinctly within a confession, though never made equivalent to the confession, then you can know clearly where they stand. Our confessions provide a base from which we can work, and a source of continuity.
I agree. I'm not anti-creedal. I teach my theology classes through the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, as well as Luther's Shorter Catechism. In fact I taught an entire course once on Christian confessions. You may want to take a look at it before assuming too much about my attitude toward systematic or dogmatic theology.

Having said that, though, I still recognize the many ways creeds have failed the Church, and continue to fail the Church. They often draw lines in the wrong places. We have to be very careful in how we use them.

The Catholic Church was right in a way – tradition is important, but it's got to be the right tradition. I don't seem anything substantiative enough in evangelicalism to make it a tradition.
Then why are you taking issue with whether openness is a matter of evangelical identity?

Actually, by my understanding of tradition (which may be different from yours), evangelicalism is definitely a tradition; or, more accurately, it is a somewhat unstable, historically contingent confluence of several somewhat compatible traditions. And a wonderful one.

Christian faith cannot help but be traditional (2 Thess. 2:15). It's a feature, not a bug!

I hope this doesn't sound confrontational. I speak primarily to hear you respond, to hear you allay my fears. Basically, I'm worried about the state of evangelicalism. I'm worried that in the frenzy of doing, they may not be so clear about the nature of Him whom they're doing it all for. Doctrinal knowledge is no substitute for Christian living, it is true, but neither can Christian living be attained apart from such knowledge. As Francis Schaeffer would say, it is our calling from Christ to manifest both simultaneously. And that is certainly not an easy thing, but if we could only learn to do it, then the Church wouldn't be in such chaos.
I agree, and far from being offended, I'm delighted that you wrote me. You are right to be concerned with so many people (evangelical and not, Christian and not) apathetic over theological matters. Perhaps you would like to join me in making theology a career. Robust theology, including robust evangelical theology, certainly is part of the antidote. I am just not as confident as you are that confessionalism is the antidote. The era of sixteenth and seventeenth century confessionalism is arguably what brought on the era of confessional apathy that followed it. By trying to nail down every detail of Protestant orthodoxy, theology divorced itself from the common life of the Protestant Church and left the door wider open than ever for modern Europe's theological cynicism.

We live in the wake of that disaster, but as modernity crumbles, I am hopeful that the Church can return to its earlier holism of worship, doctrine, and life (that threesome of terms belongs to my mentor, Geoffrey Wainwright).

This is not really a matter of us manifesting all of them simultaneously, as if they were separate things that needed to be kept in tension or in balance. That is a modern misconception. They are all manifestations of one thing: the privilege of our participation in the divine economy of salvation. It is not a matter of one thing coming first, but of all things coming together.

Shabbat shalom.

6:45 AM

Camassia wants to know why Christians aren't supposed to eat blood.

Of course, we are supposed to, but only in Church!

Actually she is referring not to the Lord's Supper, but to regulations put on every other meal by the council of Jerusalem that meets in Acts 15 to determine whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised (that is, obey the Law of Moses). Here are the relevant sections of her post:

I should say, before I go on, that the translation I'm currently reading is the New Living Translation. I was actually hoping to find an NIV but the library didn't have it, so I made do.
NLT is an accurate and very accessible translation, as is NIV, but I prefer RSV for its greater, though sometimes wooden, accuracy. NRSV is good too, especially for those who object to the RSV's archaic sexist language.

Anyway, the NLT is almost like one of those Bibles for Kids, written in very simple modern English with extensive and somewhat condescending annotations. The passage I was wondering about is from Acts 15, where the apostles are trying to figure out how much the converted Gentiles have to follow Jewish law. James finally declares: "And so my judgment is that we should stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, except that we should write to them and tell them to abstain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations."
In this case, the condescension is not just in the annotation (below), but in the text itself. There is a legitimate debate over whether the proscriptions James lists (and which eventually end up in the letter from Jerusalem back to Antioch) are actually laws of Moses intended to apply to believers of all nations. The text literally says "Moses from ancient generations in every city has preachers of him in the synagogues, being read every sabbath" (Acts 15:21). It does not say that the laws of Moses are preached; it says that Moses is preached. (You'll see why that matters below.)

The NLT translators obviously take one side in this debate, and it is a very defensible side; but the way they do it keeps you as their reader from knowing about the debate itself. They force you to take their side with them. Translations like NLT, NIV, and The Message (a title that suggests Quran, not Bible!) do this more often than translations like RSV, NAS, and even KJV. Furthermore, they often take the "safe" and "orthodox" side when they do it, smoothing out the rough edges we academic types (and rabbis from time immemorial, Jesus included) know and love.

Seriously, I think that's a shame, because it pretends to tame Scripture. Would the New Testament's writers have found the Christological references in Israel's scriptures if the first-century Jewish equivalent of Zondervan or Thomas Nelson or Tyndale had gotten to them first?

My teacher Richard Hays recommended that his students read the HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible. I don't own one, but I figure he knows what he's talking about.

The annotation for this passage says about the dietary restrictions: "These practices were offensive to Jews and made it particularly hard for them to have table fellowship with Gentiles. We, too, should be sensitive the feelings of others. All Christians must abstain from sexual immorality, emphasized because it was a prominent sin in the Gentile world."
I think that interpretation is not only condescending, but flat out wrong. You are right to notice the baseless inconsistency there:

So it sounds like the dietary rules were simply matters of courtesy that don't apply to all Christians at all times, while the sexual immorality rule does. I was wondering a) what the basis for this interpretation was, b) why those practices were especially offensive to Jews as opposed to all the other laws of kosherness and cleanliness, and c) whether there were disputes about sexual morality at the time that James was trying to settle. Any thoughts?
Of course!

Yeah, that commentary does make it sound like dietary rules (but not sexual rules) were simply matters of courtesy. My cynical side wonders whether the basis for this interpretation is either (a) a rushed, underpaid copy writer who hasn't followed the issue, or (b) a publisher who doesn't mind putting out yet another set of "study notes" that mainly just reinforces the piety of its target audience. After all, if we take the rules seriously, this passage seems to demand that Christians be legalistic; but if we disregard its rules, it seems to allow Christians to be sexual libertines. So why not simply repeat the cultural status quo here and hope that no one notices that this isn't actually what the passage is saying?

Here are the most likely possibilities for the basis of James' guidelines, as I see them:

1. "God-fearers" like Cornelius (see Acts 10:2) were first-century Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel and attended synagogues but did not go all the way, become circumcised, and accept the full weight of the Instruction of Moses. It could be that in accepting James' list of rules (but not necessarily his reasoning), the council simply agrees not to impose a rule beyond the prior practices of Antiochian God-fearers. What uncircumcised Gentiles were doing as God-fearers is all they need to continue doing as Christians. This could help explain why the council writes a letter that doesn't explain the reasoning behind its guidelines. Here "Moses preached in synagogues" would probably refer to sacred but local Jewish customs.

2. The reason that God-fearers obeyed a list of restrictions like these is that they are laws of Moses that apply not just to Jews, but to both Israelites and to the Gentiles who live along with them in the land:

If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement... (Lev. 17:10-11).

You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these [sexual] abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled) (Lev. 18:26-27).

Here "Moses preached in synagogues" probably would refer to "the laws of Moses," as the NLT insists.

3. These regulations apply not just to all Gentiles living alongside Jews in the Church, but to all people. They are not part of the covenant of Moses with Israel, but of the covenant of Noah with all humanity:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. ... Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of humanity; of everyone's brother or sister I will require human life (Gen. 9:4-5).
Commentators favoring this interpretation have looked to later rabbinic (Talmudic) traditions for guidance on how first-century Jews might have understood Gen. 9 to function for the nations. "Moses preached in synagogues" would refer to Genesis, the first book of Moses (and perhaps even the "oral Torah" of Moses that the Mishnah and Talmud are said to embody), rather than the laws that govern the life of Israel. If synagogues then were doing what they are doing soon afterward – going through the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy, annually – then synagogue "preaching of Moses" wasn't just recital laws, but recital of the whole narrative of all five books.

All three of these arguments appeal in a general way to the apostolic communities' widely shared conviction of "the vices of pagans." (For instance, Paul’s Galatian teaching on pagan vices (Gal. 5:19-23) echoes the “ethical” necessities of James' letter (Acts 15:29). These are bad things to do, things that are incompatible with life in Christ, so Christians shouldn't be doing them.) However, each of these three arguments takes that conviction in a different direction. The first appeals to prior cultural practice at Antioch rather than laying down one rule for all time. The second makes Israel the paradigm for Christian community of Jew and Gentile. The third appeals to ethical demands on all humanity. None appeals merely to "offensiveness" or courtesy.

This is why biblical scholars sometimes forbid their students from referring to the marginal notes in study Bibles during their courses. They impose a view that once seen is hard to forget, whose authority easily becomes equated with Scripture itself.

So here in a nutshell are the answers to your three questions:

a) what the basis for this interpretation was,
Market share in Christian bookstores?

b) why those practices were especially offensive to Jews as opposed to all the other laws of kosherness and cleanliness,
If these practices are especially offensive, it would likely be on the basis of texts like Gen. 9, Lev. 17-18, and so on. Yet other texts like Rom. 14 show Romans taking offense at a different cluster of practices. Perhaps the study notes are conflating Rom. 14:13 and Acts 15:28-29 – and mixing apples and oranges in the process.

and c) whether there were disputes about sexual morality at the time that James was trying to settle.
It doesn't look like it; the question before the council of apostles and elders surrounds circumcision of Gentile believers, not sexual morality. Surely there were disputes about sexual morality – there always are – but it doesn't look like James or the rest are trying to settle them here.

Incidentally, there are two fun little twists to this episode.

First, Paul seems to take this conclusion as still too conservative, for he moves beyond Jerusalem's sphere of influence, concentrates his mission farther westward, and never mentions James' letter. Even when he mentions the council of Jerusalem's conclusion that circumcision of Gentiles is unwarranted (Gal. 2:1-10), he fails to mention these guidelines (unless Gal. 2:10's "remembber the poor" is some kind of extreme gloss). The Didache might reflect the council's guidelines, but only very vaguely: "As regards diet, keep the rules so far as you are able; only be careful to refuse anything that has been offered to an idol, for that is the worship of dead gods" (chapter 6). There is definitely variety in early Christian attitudes on these matters, and maybe even persistent tension. Weirdly, Acts 21:17-26 shows James receiving Paul and informing him of the letter as if Paul has not seen it before! (This might have something to do with Luke's use of a different source for that section of Acts, but I wonder whether in the final narrative it shows us relations that are still a little strained.)

Second, the various manuscripts of Acts take this list of proscriptions and change them slightly. One text tradition is said to take them more in an "ethical" direction and the other in a more "ritual" direction, ignoring inconvenient prohibitions. (My RSV notes this in a footnote on Acts 15:20 and 15:29, but not my NLT.) Why would different texts diverge like this? Perhaps scribes are “interpreting” the apostolic words. Perhaps Luke is revising his own manuscript. Perhaps churches in different traditions are "correcting" the verses to make them more sensible. The fact remains that traditions of textual mutation survive in the canon itself.

What is clearer from the text than from most of the commentaries and scholarly debates is that the regulations recognize the incorporation of Gentiles that starts with Cornelius and his household as the turning point in the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. This comes through a sinner's trust in the good news of Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit that comes with it (Acts 10:44-46), gifts won by Christ's profound faithfulness to the Torah of Moses. To a goy like me, that's good news.

6:42 AM

Terry Mattingly worriedly chronicles the rise and commercialization of the Christian contemporary music scene, which is taking over church worship.

[I]t will be up to ministers and educators to argue that there is more to worship than the niches on a CCM sales charts.

The industry can play a valid role in shaping the content of Christian music, [Charlie Peacock] said, even in "contributing to the congregational music of the church. Still, the industry is at the mercy of a consumer with narrow tastes. Until this changes, it can't possibly function as a definitive caretaker and should not be asked to.

"This means that the stewardship of Christian music from the Psalms, to Ambrose, to Bach, to Wesley, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and more, belongs to the church and the academy."

It was ever thus. CCM is about mass communication technology, and communication technology has been influencing worship since worship started. Papyrus, the scroll, the codex, musical instruments, musical notation, the high ceiling, the flying buttress, stained glass, the pamphlet, the printed Bible, the prayer book, the hymnal, the church bulletin, electric light, 'unfermented wine', the PA system, the automobile, the overhead projector ... and of course all the economic incentive structures created and destroyed by each of these technologies – every little revolution has changed Christian liturgy forever.

New liturgical technology is no more an occasion for uncritical celebration than it is for uncritical lament. It is always an occasion for discernment. It will change the way we Christians gather, and the way we gather is one of the most important things we have.

So far the Holy Spirit has been keeping up. (I think it's because Somebody made a promise.) But discernment is one of the gifts the Spirit gives to the communities he still indwells. Our churches and academies (kudos to Peacock for putting them in the right order) had better be using it.

Rock on, brothers and sisters!

6:24 AM

November 14, 2002

Joshua Claybourn makes some helpful points about the unending issue of whether "Islam is a religion of peace."

The lack of any central Islamic authority makes it hard to attempt any absolute answer like this. In fact, there are countless conflicting authorities and no Vatican we can turn to for the final word. We're forced to rely on the claims of Islam's practitioners, the claims of their critics, and the primary texts at the heart of Islamic culture.
Yet even if Islam did have some kind of centering institution, such as it once had (at least for Arab Sunnis) in Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque and affiliated schools, to establish that Islamic officialdom prescribed peace (by whose definition?) would not establish that "Islam is a religion of peace." A tradition is much, much more than its canon and its magisterium. Nor can one describe Catholicism just by appealing to Rome. Sometimes Rome leads, sometimes it follows; sometimes it reflects the consensus fidelium, sometimes it is out of step. Sometimes there is no consensus of the faithful; the Church is not always of one mind on an issue.

In the first week of my Church history class I administered an "entrance exam" with questions designed to stimulate questions and raise interest in what we would be doing for the rest of the semester. One question asked whether it is true or false that "Christianity is a religion of peace." My hope was that students would hear the obvious echo in that question, start thinking hard about their own tradition, and realize that "Christianity," "religion," and "peace" are never neutral words.

By the way, the responses were:

True: 17
False: 11
Both: 3
I myself, a "Church pacifist," think the answer is empirically false. As our society uses these words, "Christianity" – an ethical tradition rooted in the worship of Jesus but extending it in all kinds of directions, often incompletely, often inconsistently, often according to some other logic than its own gospel – resorted to violence after three hundred years of pacifism. Often it repented of the violence it found unjust by its own standards (and even of the violence it considered just), so it has regularly exerted theological effort to describe just violence and proscribe unjust violence. Nevertheless it has basically remained committed to critically affirming the exercise of violence by Christians. The facts that this turn is prima facie unwilled and explicitly countermanded by Jesus himself, and that some disciples have persistently opposed it, are beside the point. Christianity is a religion of violence, Jesus Christ notwithstanding.

One can only answer the question "true" by fleeing our world of ordinary language and defining "Christianity" and "religion" and "peace" not empirically but ideally: as ideas or practices that have no necessary correlation to those who claim to embody them. If the ideal Platonic form of Christian religion respects the ideal Platonic form of peace, then Christianity can be a religion of peace.

Needless to say, I am not a philosophical idealist. Such abstractions just confuse. The Christian tradition is embodied in real communities of real people that interpret the apostolic traditions they have inherited and in turn teach others.

So is the Islamic tradition. (Many Muslims might counter that true Islam is an ideal thing, embodied in the "mother of the book" which is the uncreated Quran. Very well. That is for them to believe, not the rest of us. For non-Muslims to accept the rhetoric of an ideal "Islam" is for them implicitly to accept the truth of that claim. When George W. Bush presidentially assures the country that "Islam is a religion of peace," he is doing it too.)

The question is not whether "Christianity" or "Islam" is empirically peaceful. The bloody histories of Christian and Muslim peoples alike answer that. The question is whether particular communities of disciples who swear allegiance to God are living in God's will.

We will have the answer someday in exhaustive detail, when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead according to the good news of God (Rom. 1:1, 2:16). Until that long awaited day, we have this parable to consider:

Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you? Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great (Luke 6:46-49).
If "Christians" who do not do what Jesus says live in houses without foundations, then pristinely peaceful religions that inhabit an intellectual ether untroubled by the practices of actual adherents are blueprints without foundations, houses, or residents.

12:28 PM

November 12, 2002

Lately Colby Cosh has been getting heavier airplay in my browser rotation. He, Den Beste, and other delightful atheists I have discovered are definitely in line to join the virtuous pagans in the glorious (and air-conditioned) outer circle of Dante's Inferno.

Cosh is a proud member of post-Christian (Canadian) America:

I must admit I share the orthodox Christian's frustrations – from the other side – about those who consider Christ an ordinary man who was a "great moral teacher."

I hasten to add that this is because much of Christ's moral teaching is simply lame. After twenty busy centuries of theology, we have devised elaborate ways of pretending that the man did not plainly say things like "Resist not evil", or that we should be as carefree as the lilies of the field, or that lust is morally equivalent to outright adultery.

It is to the credit of Christianity that Christ is so unrecognizable in it. There have been many artistic deconstructions of the Lord down through the years. Many, notoriously, have tried to strip away his sanctity – but they have always been careful to leave us with a romantic kind of Che Guevara figure, wholly admirable though not actually the Son of God. The consummate modern portrayal of Christ is not yet: it will be the one that dares reveal his evasiveness, his cynicism, his combative, egotistical side, his streak of charlatanry, the palpable love he had for fencing with the rabbis. It will be a true human Jesus without any lingering odour of incense.

Well, a lot of what you're looking for is already out there. But if no one has yet constructed your consummate modern portrayal of Jesus from the morally lame biblical source material, there is always room on the next historical Jesus quest for more volunteers. (Someone had just better do it while modernity is still breathing.)

There is a better way to find an acceptable Jesus. It starts in a community like this one that doesn't try so hard to make Jesus acceptable in the first place.

To quote Newbigin again:

Our proper relation to the Bible is not that we examine it from the outside, but that we indwell it and from within it seek to understand and cope with what is out there. In other words, the Bible furnishes us with our plausibility structure.

... We live in the biblical story as part of the community whose story it is, find in the story the clues to knowing God as his character becomes manifest in the story, and from within that indwelling we try to understand and cope with the events of our time and the world about us and so carry the story forward. At the heart of the story, as the key to the whole, is the incarnation of the Word, the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus defines for his disciples what is to be their relation to him. They are to "dwell in" him. He is not to be the object of their observation, but the body of which they are a part. As they "indwell" him in his body, they will both be led into fuller and fuller apprehension of the truth and also become the means through which God's will is done in the life of the world (98-99).

You know what? It really works! Follow along and you enter a world where evil is resistible, peace calms anxiety, and the lusty heart obeys the will. Suddenly what's lame is, well, healed and walking around.

Wanna try?

9:47 PM

My systematic theology class has just finished reading Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Each of its twenty chapters is a brilliant analysis of a pressing issue: pluralism, the fatal flaws of modern epistemology, healthy postmodern epistemological holism (Newbigin follows Polanyi and MacIntyre), theology of history, election, Christocentrism, mission, theology of culture and contextualization, universalism, theology of religions, theology of culture, structural evil and the demonic, secularism, ecclesiology, church leadership, and Christian witness. I highly recommend it.

Even its incidental points demand serious attention. For instance, for years I have been unhappy with the current dichotomy of Constantinianism – formal alliance between Church and state – and anti-Constantinianism, which seems overly determined by the Constantinianism it opposes. Since the good news of Jesus Christ is social rather than merely personal, and since human social arrangements vary widely, the history of missions has shown that plural cultures (such as ours) will receive the good news more individually, while hegemonic cultures (such as the Masai of Tanzania) will receive it more collectively. Anti-Constantinianism, embodied in the so-called "Radical Reformation" movements of Baptists, Mennonites, Hutterites, and so on, is no more universal in principle than Constantinianism is. Both are historically and culturally contingent.

In other words, anti-Constantinianism can be every bit as culturally imperialistic as Constantinianism. Both these opposing ideologies capture the good news and bind it with something else that isn't intrinsically part of God's loving reign.

It was necessary for the early church, at crucial moments, to take the heroic path and accept martyrdom rather than submit to what the vast majority of people took for granted. But it was also right that, when the time came with the conversion of Constantine, the Church should accept the role of sustainer and cherisher of the political order. It is right for churches to be dissenting communities challenging accepted norms and structures. It is right also in other circumstances for the Church to be the church for the nation or the parish, the cherisher and sustainer of the ordinary work of the farmer, the judge, and the soldier. What is wrong is the absolutizing of one position against the other and the corresponding ex-communication of those who take the other role. What is needed is the discernment to know, from day to day and from issue to issue, when the one stance is appropriate and when the other (195-196).
I still think the Constantinianization of Roman Christianity was one of the greatest calamities in the long history of Christian compromises of our own gospel, but I agree with Newbigin's overall point. Because there is no one inevitable shape of human community, there is no one inevitable shape of its various Christian forms. I am an "a-Constantinian" (if I may coin a term), not a Constantinian or an anti-Constantinian.

This is one of the many reasons why despite my enormous respect for the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, I am neither. I think their polities, which embody their eschatologies, historize the Kingdom of God and inevitably Romanize the Church. A monarchial episcopacy may be fine for many lands in the old Roman Empire, and adaptable to many contexts beyond those; but free-church ecclesiology better respects the Church's truly global character.

One of Newbigin's beautiful insights regarding cultural plurality (which is not the same as the ideology of pluralism) is that the gospel demonstrates Christ's universal reign by the way it inaugurates divine justice in every cultural setting without inevitably introducing any of the world's other cultural settings with it. In the first century, Christians watched the Kingdom of God leap over the wall between Jews and other nations without taking Jewish culture with it. Subsequent centuries have seen the Kingdom come to Europe, Africa, south and east Asia, and the Americas. Often the good news came distorted into wretched, sickening, evil caricatures – as cultural elitism, colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and now consumerism. Yet somehow God's justice has managed to free itself from its would-be cultural captors and bring both liberation and cultural afffirmation to its new settings. Today, however incompletely, churches are growing throughout the world that are not merely new forms of westernization (whether Catholicized Romanism or Protestantized northern Europeanism or Americanism), but true reflections of God's favor on every conceivable culture. Our world is discovering that Jesus is not only Jewish and Roman and Germanic but also Korean, African-American, Argentine, Vietnamese, Zulu, Apache, Kurdish....

Here the Christian faith stands in contrast to Islam. Despite early Christianity's pacifism and its own militarism, Islam has still by and large spread more peacefully. Yet sooner or later, Islam has always brought Arabism with it – in the Sunna of the Prophet, the precedence of centuries of Sunni and Shi'i tradition, the privileged status of the Arabic Quran, and the cultural force of the hajj. The Muslim world is only about 20% Arab, and the Muslim world is not an entirely Arab world, but any Muslim society is an ever more Arabized.

What Newbigin is saying is that Islam's Arabism is evidence not of the universal nature of its faith, but of its particularity. The God of the whole universe would not have to turn the world into one nation, one culture, and one language to reign. Islam's God is too small. The God of Jesus Christ reigns over and for all peoples, bringing mercy and forgiveness and justice to all the world's social arrangements. But the God of Jesus Christ is not a Pharaoh, an Emperor, a pope, a Caliph, a colonial master, a parliament, a prime minister, a president, a secretary general, a board of directors, or a multinational CEO. Christ is not a king after the kings of the nations. YHWH is King of all Kings and Lord of all Lords.


8:48 AM

November 10, 2002

The e-mail to which I previously responded has a BTW that deserves its own post:

BTW, the Joint Declaration on Justification was issued in '97, not '98. It is a document with substantial holes in it for the historian of theology. While there may be significant agreement between the two traditions, the way this particular piece of theology has worked out in the lives of the faithful is very different.
Sorry! It was released in '97, approved by the Lutheran World Federation in '98, signed by representatives of both parties in '99. You are also right about the differences – and this leads me back to a question Eve posed earlier. It is true that the Joint Declaration doesn't consensualize the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator. However my original analogy between the doctrine of justification and Jesus' treatment of family stands whether you take the relevant section of the Joint Declaration, "The Justified as Sinner," in a Lutheran or a Catholic direction:

28. We confess together that in Baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person. But the justified must all through life constantly look to God's unconditional justifying grace. They also are continuously exposed to the power of sin still pressing its attacks (cf. Romans 6:12-14) and are not exempt from a lifelong struggle against the contradiction to God within the selfish desires of the old Adam (cf. Galatians 5:16; Romans 7:7-10). The justified also must ask God daily for forgiveness as in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12; 1 John 1:9), are ever again called to conversion and penance, and are ever again granted forgiveness.

29. Lutherans understand this condition of the Christian as a being "at the same time righteous and sinner." Believers are totally righteous, in that God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament and grants the righteousness of Christ which they appropriate in faith. In Christ, they are made just before God. Looking at themselves through the law, however, they recognize that they remain also totally sinners. Sin still lives in them (1 John 1:8; Romans 7:17, 20), for they repeatedly turn to false gods and do not love God with that undivided love which God requires as their Creator (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:36-40 pr.). This contradiction to God is as such truly sin. Nevertheless, the enslaving power of sin is broken on the basis of the merit of Christ. It no longer is a sin that "rules" the Christian for it is itself "ruled" by Christ with whom the justified are bound in faith. In this life, then, Christians can in part lead a just life. Despite sin, the Christian is no longer separated from God, because in the daily return to Baptism, the person who has been born anew by Baptism and the Holy Spirit has this sin forgiven. Thus this sin no longer brings damnation and eternal death.(15) Thus, when Lutherans say that justified persons are also sinners and that their opposition to God is truly sin, they do not deny that, despite this sin, they are not separated from God and that this sin is a "ruled" sin. In these affirmations, they are in agreement with Roman Catholics, despite the difference in understanding sin in the justified.

30. Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ imparted in Baptism takes away all that is sin "in the proper sense" and that is "worthy of damnation" (Romans 8:1).(16) There does, however, remain in the person an inclination (concupiscence) which comes from sin and presses toward sin. Since, according to Catholic conviction, human sin always involves a personal element and since this element is lacking in this inclination, Catholics do not see this inclination as sin in an authentic sense. They do not thereby deny that this inclination does not correspond to God's original design for humanity and that it is objectively in contradiction to God and remains one's enemy in lifelong struggle. Grateful for deliverance by Christ, they underscore that this inclination in contradiction to God does not merit the punishment of eternal death(17) and does not separate the justified person from God. But when individuals voluntarily separate themselves from God, it is not enough to return to observing the commandments, for they must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God's reconciling work in Christ. [See Sources, section 4.4.]

It is enough for my point to hold either actual sin or just concupiscence – liability to sin, or for Dulles, "the disorderly desires and spiritual weakness that afflict our fallen human nature" – as the state of both the justified and unjustified. Regardless, Christ and his delegates show both (a) love, through the good news of God's unmerited favor, and (b) hate, whenever their social or ethnic or familial relations try to use those connections rather than evangelical connections as grounds for divine favor.

Astonishingly, that applies even to Israel in John 8:21-59. (And no, that doesn't contradict Paul's appeal to God's gifting and calling of Israel as irrevocable in Rom. 11:29.)

My use of the category of justification seems to have perplexed Eve, Camassia, and probably everyone else. So if it doesn't make sense to you, then never mind. (It still makes sense to me, which tells you my powers of theological hallucination are truly impressive.)

5:30 PM

With my family still ill (my wife and my oldest are at urgent care right now begging for antibiotics), the mid-semester crush upon all of us college types, and responsibilities looming for the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Toronto, blogging just seems ... irrational.

Of course many things in life are irrational, and better for it. (Two words: Four children.) By this I mean that the sensibility of certain actions is only retrospective.

The sensibility of the hours I invest in this once-per-day-at-best project called Clutter comes into focus when I get mail like this:

Just this week, I discovered your delightful (and attractive) blog by way of Eve's blogroll. I'm finishing an RC M.A.Th., so theological blogs are kind of up my street.
Eve Tushnet rocks, no doubt about it.

I was quite intrigued by your reading list for aspiring theologians. It is more eclectic than I would have expected, but that may say more about my own assumptions about Evangelicals than it does about you as a theologian.
Whether or not that is actually true, my list does say a lot about evangelical theologians in general. As a rule we do a lot of reading outside our own circles. There are many reasons for this:

First, George Marsden's Reforming Fundamentalism chronicles the rise of what was then called "neo-evangelicalism" as a theological reaction against the ingrown anti-intellectual isolationism of early twentieth century fundamentalism. Marsden uses Fuller Seminary, my M.A. alma mater, as his case study. The dynamics of my wing of the evangelical movement reach outward as well as inward and across to other schools of evangelicalism. We are intentional about looking beyond our own institutional and ideological confines. (My APU colleague Don Dayton has issues with Marsden's narrative, but not I think with my appropriation of it here.)

There are still isolationist and theologically self-sufficient evangelicals, but I don't really travel in their circles. (Nor do I think they would want me to.)

Second, one of the centers of evangelicalism is Pietism. Pietists search for and celebrate signs of living faith – the Spirit's fruit, the theological virtues, and so on – even when we find them in places we have trained ourselves to think unlikely. Thus many evangelicals have developed respect and admiration for Eastern Orthodox, liberal Protestants, and Catholics in whom we see the Spirit's presence and Christ's likeness. (You can hear that in the delightful evangelical exclamation, "She's a Catholic – and a Christian too!")

For these same reasons many of us have also developed respect for Oneness Pentecostals, newly indigenous Christian communities in mission fields, and other non-Trinitarian traditions whose convictions place them (for now anyway) outside the Nicene consensus. At APU there is a fabulous contingent of students from the Worldwide Church of God, which until the mid-1990's denied the doctrine of the Trinity, the full divinity of Jesus, and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Intensive Bible study led them back into the historical and catholic faith, and Pietistic evangelicals welcomed them with open arms. This aspect of evangelicalism is a powerful force for ecumenical convergence (even if our ecumenism looks strange and even threatening to those whose ecumenism is episcopally or confessionally focused).

Both of these first two dynamics – an isolationist and sometimes anti-intellectual heritage, and a Pietism whose underside sometimes privileges heart and body over mind in loving God – drive a third: a tradition of formal evangelical theology that is at times uncompetitive with other theological traditions. This too helps explain the wideness of evangelical theologians' reading lists. For instance:

As I'm sure you are aware, there are theological wars going on inside RC at the moment, with the right and left choosing, as their respective champions, von B[althasar] and Rahner. I rather suspect that this development has both men spinning in their graves. But I also assume that the cultural and theological controversies aren't unique to RC, and wonder how this is playing out in Evangelical systematics. Who are the theologians who are fueling the different strands in your tradition?

Evangelicalism has many wonderful, profound theologians. I was privileged to study with more than my fair share (in alphabetical order): Colin Brown, Richard Hays, Jim McClendon, Richard Mouw, Nancey Murphy, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Miroslav Volf. (Several of these are theologically interested biblical scholars or philosophers, which I think deserve inclusion in any list of theologians.) These are all extraordinary people I admire and imitate. Yet evangelicalism has no Barth, no Rahner, no Balthasar, no Pannenberg, no Moltmann. There is no indispensable evangelical theologian. There is no twentieth century evangelical theologian with that kind of influence.

Now some probably think this is because evangelicalism is intellectually poor and unsophisticated. However, I think that criticism is way overdone. Marsden does show a tradition working hard to catch up to the liberal Protestant tradition, getting up to speed on the debates and crafting an evangelical position. You can still see this in modern theology courses at evangelical schools that are still concentrating on figures like – and here I am quoting two course descriptions in one college catalog – "Hume, Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Ritschl, and Harnack" and "Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Tillich, and Moltmann". (Catholics are simply off the radar.) You can see it in evangelical systematics that almost exclusively engage this European high Protestant tradition rather than itself.

However, as evangelicalism was about to catch up, its mighty theological rival went and marginalized itself. Not in the academy or denominational superstructures, mind you; demythologization and correlation and liberation and process and the rest still get a lot of mindshare in seminary. But since the sixties mainline Christian theology has ceased to be a cultural or intellectual force beyond academic theological circles. This is even truer of the evangelical subculture: Our churches, our wider societies, and our mission fields care little about these movements except to defend against them.

Now my generation of theologians is truly grateful for the prior two generations of evangelical theologians. They faced down the isolationists in their own ranks – even in their own churches. They did the heavy lifting to grow unprecedented respect for evangelical theology in liberal Protestant circles. Their sacrifices made it possible for my fellow students at Fuller to attend schools like Duke, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Emory, and so on and flourish there. However, the world has changed since then. Liberal Christianity is increasingly marginalized culturally and even disestablished. Fewer and fewer people in and out of the Church care about whether they enjoy the respect of liberal Protestants and Catholics. Now that the rest of the world doesn't care, why should we spend all that time training the next generation of evangelical theologians to care about what their mentors cared about?

So the magisterial works of Carl Henry do not have the same shelf life as a Karl Barth or von Balthasar. Evangelicalism came of age a little too late for that.

Furthermore, systematic theology started changing as the era of theological giants passed. Today systematics still aims for coherence and well-roundedness, but it rarely aspires to the kind of comprehensivity that produced the multivolume dogmatics of old. Systematics has rediscovered theology's intrinsically occasional character. This naturally shortens the length of systematic projects. There are a few theologians writing multivolume systematics, and several evangelicals among them; but the audience for such projects is much smaller than it would have been fifty years ago. Evangelical theology is also changing quickly enough that it remains to be seen whether events will have overtaken these people's projects in midstream.

Another reason there aren't many evangelical works on my reading list is the fact that the most prestigious degree programs in the West have been in the hands of non-evangelicals. We evangelicals have other people train our theologians. I think this strengthens everyone, but it leads to a certain lack of acquaintance with our own material, and even lack of respect. (I continue to disbelieve that people would find my book worth their time when I look at my shelf and see all the other things they could be reading. Maybe unlike me they have actually read all those other things....) I remember being frustrated that we didn't read evangelicals in my classes; at Duke I finally designed a final paper project on comparative American evangelical Christology. Along the way I came across a wonderful evangelical Christology, Douglas Webster's A Passion for Christ, which I am delighted to see back in print after a long hiatus. I would never have been exposed to it had I not sought it out.

Furthermore, our greater familiarity with the material our non-evangelical mentors required of us naturally reproduces itself. Disengaging from advanced evangelical theological discussions and producing popularized or derivative non-evangelical theology packaged for evangelicals is a hard temptation to resist when a young theologian is spending his or her first few formative years developing and teaching intro classes. (That's a confession, in case you hadn't noticed.)

And another thing: Formal evangelical theology centers in North America and (to a lesser extent) Great Britain. The giants you refer to – Barth, Balthasar, Rahner, Pannenberg – are continental Europeans whose educational systems encourage a master to surround himself with a school of disciples. In the American committee system the mentor shares influence with others in the department. That means fewer mentors develop closely knit schools of disciples. Instead influence is more diffuse and decentralized.

However, my final reason for offering an eclectic list for aspiring theologians is also my favorite. I think evangelicalism's greatest theological resources are ethical rather than formally theological. That is our Pietism and evangelism showing: Our best theology is implicit. This is especially true in the Pentecostal tradition to which I have recently become attached. To find the forces fueling evangelical theology, look at our hymns (and even a few of our worship choruses). Look at our missiology. Look at the ways we are practicing Scripture. Look at our spirituality. Look at our grassroots ecumenism. Sure, there is a lot of chaff amid the wheat, but that is true of all traditions. There is a lot of wheat too. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

For this reason, the assignments I give my undergrads often take them to their churches, hymnody, spirituality, Bible, and relationships to show them how the material we study in class from evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics comes alive there. They supply the evangelical theological praxis; I just point out the connections.

My question to you above is of more than passing theological curiosity. I am currently (and possibly permanently) employed by the Washington Theological Consortium, an ecumenical association of theological schools and seminaries that reaches from Richmond, VA to Gettysburg, PA. This growing organization exists to encourage ecumenical dialogue between our faculties and student bodies, and is on the verge of reaching out into the interfaith dialogue by including a Muslim graduate school of theology in the coming spring. I am on the edge of an enormous learning curve as a result. In my formal studies in systematic theology, we were exposed to a number of Protestant theologians who were pulled into the Rahnerian orbit (Pannenberg, Macquarrie) or who had been influenced by Gutierrez and Co. (Soelle) or po-mo critical theory and feminist critique but I count myself as completely ignorant of theological trends in the modern Evangelical academy. I've read Barth, of course, and his conversations with Kung, but I don't know what is going on now.
That consortium sounds wonderful!

Right now the big issue in evangelicalism is divine foreknowledge. The "openness theology" movement (led by figures such as Greg Boyd, John Sanders, and Clark Pinnock) is currently being shown the door by the Calvinists who champion traditional doctrines of exhaustive foreknowledge.

That process is leading to another debate over the confessional shape of evangelicalism itself. The efforts to exclude openness theologians from groups like the Evangelical Theological Society have driven discussions and politics focused on "evangelical identity" and "evangelical boundaries." These discussions revolve around the question, "Is [x] authentically evangelical?"

This is a depressing development. When Christian faith becomes a matter of social identity, Durkheim takes over and witness turns into warfare. The debate over divine openness versus traditional exhausive foreknowledge is important, interesting, and potentially fruitful, but now that it has been turned into an exercise in group identity, I would not blame people like you for checking out until it's over. (Nothing to see here, move along.)

The present exercise in boundary-setting is also fruitless, because evangelical identity is not finally confessionally determined.

Evangelicalism is an unstable convergence of three commitments: The first is a dedication to the gospel expressed in personal faith in Christ as Lord; the second, an understanding of the gospel as defined authoritatively in Scripture; and the third, a desire to communicate the gospel both in evangelism and social reform. The first and third strands construct evangelicalism more ethically and existentially; the first and second, more confessionally; the second and third, more socially.

The scholastic wing of the tradition has always been more confessional, and because it controls the evangelical academy it often sets the theological agenda. So for all the brouhaha over openness theology, you would never know that the real forces shaping evangelical theology are liturgical and practical: innovations for the sake of church growth, a revolution in hymnody, radical experiments with small group structures, infusion of Pentecostal and charismatic practices, acculturation both in the west and in the many places around the world where evangelicalism is exploding, pressure from new religious movements like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, intermarriage and conversion to and from high-church traditions (especially Orthodoxy and Catholicism respectively), and so on. However, these won't find expression in systematic theologies for a long time. (Especially if I keep blogging rather than writing my next book!)

There are, however, some other relatively hot theological issues in evangelicalism. One is the exclusivity of Christ as savior and the problem of rival religions. Evangelicals are on the offensive against both pluralism and Rahnerian inclusivism (where, if Lesslie Newbigin has taught me Rahner accurately, world religions may be salvific before the good news reaches them), but not entirely happy with the old confessional exclusivism. I am not sure how much Roman Catholics would have to learn from evangelicals here, except perhaps through our missiology.

Still another issue is the challenge of postmodernity. Here too, though, the driving figures are beyond evangelicalism: MacIntyre in Roman Catholicism, Yale-Duke postliberalism in mainline Protestantism, Wittgenstein in the healthy Anglo-American schools of postmodernity and Derrida et al. in the much less healthy continental "mostmodernism" (that apt term is Jim McClendon's). Evangelicals, who appropriated lots of modernism to fight modernists, are just catching up. Watch Jim McClendon, Nancey Murphy, and Stan Grenz at the systematic level, and Brian McLaren at the pastoral level.

A healthy and happy trend right now is evangelical attention to premodern theology. We are undertaking our own ressourcement as you Catholics did eighty years ago. The Catholic challenge was to find true refreshment in the Fathers while avoiding the 'neo-conservative' Newmanian temptation just to use them to validate its course from Trent through Vatican I. (All right, that's probably unfair to Newman.) The evangelical challenge is find true refreshment in the whole premodern tradition – remember, it belongs to us too! – while avoiding our own neo-conservative temptation to raid the centuries selectively and pluck out only the material we already find appealing. Sometimes evangelical ressourcement degenerates into a "mostmodern" quest to find epistemological certainty in Holy Tradition rather than Universal Reason. Sometimes it just treats the Fathers as proto-evangelicals or early Pietists. But – because the Holy Spirit really was at work back then – I have two predictions: First, what we find will raise us above our own original aspirations. Second, our distinctively evangelical sensibilities will show us good things that Magisterial Catholics and Protestants have overlooked.

I know you didn't ask for all this. I know I enjoyed the excuse to rant (and who really wants tenure anyway?). Your query has made me want to offer a similar reading list for people who want to learn about evangelical theology, but putting together that list is going to take me some time. Thanks so much for the inspiration ... check back in a few months!

12:01 PM

November 9, 2002

Thursday I attended a presentation from a friend of mine, former employer, and fellow church-planter, George Barna. George made his name in the evangelical world by conducting demographic research into American cultural attitudes towards the Christian faith. Over the years his course has shifted more towards church growth, then leadership. These are hotly contested concepts in the Church. As a theologian I belong to a community that has often been hostile to George's approaches, impatient with his preference for marketing language over theological language, and antagonistic to his agenda. I have long been sympathetic to both sets of concerns, and as a "bilingual" I have long sensed a convergence between the two.

Thursday's seminar at Azusa Pacific was aimed at equipping church leaders for the task of leadership. It encapsulizes some of the theses of one of George's recent books, A Fish Out of Water. I found it invaluable to clarifying my task as a teacher. I get good teaching evaluations from students and colleagues, but over the past few years I have still been continually frustrated when I bump up against the limits of the classroom, the failings of textbooks, the abilities and expectations of both my students and me, or the assumptions we have all brought to formal Christian education. George's material helped explain the changes I have made so far and encouraged me to make them even more thoroughly.

I still have not read the book – maybe in December – but among the fruits of that one hour on Thursday are already new, better, higher expectations for what my classes will be. I have written them up in some required reading for next semester's students I am calling "Rules of the Game."

I don't know whether readers of the weblog will find them interesting. But the years and years all of us have spent in classrooms should provide some basis for your interest, and some ground for comments. They also apply to church and business education, not just college education. I'd appreciate any feedback you have to this draft, whether you are a student, a former student, a teacher, or both.

Shabbat shalom.

12:02 PM

November 7, 2002

Things are getting busier at school with every passing week. I haven't much time yesterday, today, or tomorrow. But I have time enough for a long overdue thank you. Consider it a diversion from all that time you have been spending enjoying, or ruing, the election returns.

When I taught at Westmont College, for one semester two years ago I unofficially filled in as an interim chaplain while the school waited for its current campus pastor to come. In the course of that semester I started receiving little index cards with my name and several encouraging Bible verses. They would come maybe once per month, and they were always anonymous. Often the verses would touch on something significant in my present circumstances, as Bible verses often do. Always they reminded me that someone out there was praying for me in secret, and for other people on campus.

Even after I left Westmont for Azusa Pacific University, they have not stopped coming. They used to say "staff" under my name to get them through the campus mail system. Now they just have my name and arrive in envelopes through the mail. The most recent one has Ephesians 3:16-19 written out:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God.

What do you think of that? Every time I receive one, this is what I think: I'm not worthy. I am not worthy of belonging to communities like this whose love just overflows.

Of course it isn't about worth, it's about grace. Love like this isn't demanded out of a sense of entitlement or generated out of a sense of obligation. It springs naturally out of a shared joy. "One who has been forgiven much loves much," Jesus said. These communities – Westmont, APU, my church – have been forgiven much. Like our fathers in the wilderness, we have been set free to enjoy a new life together. And we enjoy it very much indeed.

Gifts like these little index cards come so often – in encouraging words on one student's evaluation of another's paper, in students' extraordinary concern for fellow students going through family or health or academic crises, in fellow faculty that don't backstab or compete but genuinely love and rejoice in others' triumphs – that these communities have almost stopped surprising me. But then arrives another index card, or some other sign of the Lord's favor on us all, and it hits me all over again that a life like this is available.

Sure, it passes many people by. I have met with students who were miserable with campus life, tired of the judgmentalism and petty legalism and pastoral insensitivity that inevitably characterizes a community still learning the way of the cross. But I have seen the same students turn around in a matter of weeks as they seek and find the channels of grace that are all around. The joy in these places is on offer to those who will take it, allow it to transform them, and offer it themselves as their own cups run over.

One day two years later, by chance, I found out who had been sending the cards. I also now know how the practice started and why it continues. But even though the writer knows I know, the cards keep coming. So it's not just about blessing in secret any more than it is about blessing publicly. It is just about blessing.

You know who you are, my friend. For every one of those cards, and for the invitation each one represents to enter more deeply the Kingdom of God, thank you.

9:10 AM

November 3, 2002

Camassia's and my long exchange over hating one's family has now turned to a long exchange over murder and adultery in the heart. I had better go line by line through Camassia's response to my post. Apologies to any readers who don't care this much.

I didn't mean to say that Telford's argument about love and hate was "sophistry," -- I was talking about his earlier dismissal of the question of the origin of evil.

All I will say here is that I think refusing to explain, make sense of, or originate evil in God's character or plan is a theological move, not a dismissal of the question. I find the definition of evil as senselessness to be a profound Christian answer to the problem of evil's nature and origin. Sin contradicts the grammar of all good sense. It goes against every grain. It has no grammar of its own; it is grammatical error in creation. Any other answer is liable to turn evil into a form of good – dismissing or trivializing the radical seriousness of sin.

I was also sort of kidding about Orwell; I understand the point he was trying to make, it's just an idea that's so open to abuse.
I responded as I did because I agree that reading hate as love is open to terrible abuse, and I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify what I meant.

Actually, it seems like our interpretation of the Luke passage is basically the same: the "hate" is supposed to be a transitional state on the way to a higher love.
Yes, with this little caveat: Not a higher love, but a proper love. Augustine calls sin "concupiscence." It is not lower love or lesser love, but disordered love.

(Eve Tushnet asks an interesting question about this: what does this say about how you treat nonbelieving family and friends? Is Telford supposed to be hating me? If so, he's not doing a very good job of it!)
To answer Eve (may I call you Eve, Ms. Tushnet? please call me Telford), I don't think Jesus distinguishes between believers and nonbelievers here as objects of this kind of hatred. Both are candidates. Here I think Luther's description of believers of "simultaneously just and sinful" is very helpful. Whenever the apostles, Jesus' mother (who, given Luke 1:38, might be called Jesus' first believer), and Jesus' homies begin to treat their relationships with Jesus as means of social leverage over him (let us call this "justification by works"), he rebukes them, rejects those claims, "hates" them: "A prophet is without honor in his own country." But this hatred coincides with the unconditional love Jesus also shows for them as recipients of justification by grace through faith. "I have called you friends." His conditional hate and unconditional love are two sides of the same coin.

(Note to Roman Catholic readers: Since 1998 your church now officially agrees with Lutherans about justification, so this is not merely a Protestant argument.)

As to my failure to hate you, Camassia, if our relationship were the basis for social power – if we were family or co-workers or neighbors – then maybe I could practice Christian hate toward you. For now you'll have to settle for Christian love. Hooray!

I do want to address this idea of "psychologizing sin" and the interpretation of Matthew 5:21. I don't want this to turn into dredge-up-my-pet-peeves-with-Telford week (I'm sure I have my own annoying habits he could name!) but I am getting a bit frustrated by how here and in a lot of his other replies to me he diagnoses some objection of mine as being a product of cultural brainwashing. This seems to be a common attitude among professors; I got it from my lefty profs when I was in college, and getting it from a righty evangelical prof isn't any less annoying. I mean, obviously the way I think is affected by the culture I grew up in, and I'm always happy to see different ways of looking at things. But it's insulting to my capacity for independent thought; it often assumes larger schema in my head that aren't actually there; and it unnecessarily complicates things.
You're right; there is a common attitude among professors: Not so much that we have been brainwashed or have no capacity for independent thought, but that ideological factors are powerfully at work in our assumptions. (Not just your assumptions; ours.) I guess I'm a habitual mimeticist.

If the ideological shoe I'm offering doesn't fit, then don't wear it. I'm only trying to diagnose the reason that you are making this practical syllogism:

We do not choose our emotions.
Looking lustfully is an emotion.
Thus God punishes us for reasons over which we have no choice.
Now whether God punishes people for reasons over which they have no choice should probably be a topic for another post. Here I am mainly concerned that your assumption that looking lustfully is merely an emotion is leading you to misinterpret Jesus in Matthew 5:21-30. You are objecting to a position Jesus is not taking. If I am reading too much into your reasoning, then I apologize.

In this case, I don't think you need to drag Kant and Freud into the picture to understand where I'm coming from. The idea of "sinful thoughts" seems to be a pretty standard Christian concept, including thoughts that you never act upon. And while I don't know Greek, I assume that words like "love" and "hate" included emotional states, even if they were more action-oriented than in the current use.
I think it would be hard to deny that they do.

I am really not sure from Telford's description how important he thinks emotions are; on the one hand he implies that you can "love your neighbor" even if you are feeling emotional repugnance towards him, and on the other he speaks of the "root cause" of sin. He almost seems to be implying that an emotion doesn't really exist without an action, which in my personal experience is absurd.
One of the reasons I am talking this way is the influence of Wittgenstein, who argued that sensations and emotions like "pain" are behavioral. They are not undetectable mental states that bear no necessary relationship with actions. Likewise, the physiology of emotion similarly shows that emotion is irreducibly a form of activity. Emotions manifest themselves.

Emotions may manifest themselves in action involuntarily (think of how a spectacle causes people to gasp in shock) or voluntarily. The mental sins Jesus is describing in these passages are emotional and intentional, not emotional and unintentional.

In fact, I think personal experience is a lot of what's dividing us here. Telford is very "left-brained," in his own words; he also seems to me to be fairly extroverted, both in the colloquial sense of being sociable and in the literal sense of being "turned outward." I'm not that way; I've always been introverted, right-brained, imaginative and emotional, which has generally meant that I've had a vivid and very distracting inner life that is sometimes only tangentially related to the outer one. I do not think my culture "trained" me to be that way; it would, in fact, be a lot easier for me to live in this culture if I weren't. Moreover, if any culture encourages the importance of the inner life, it isn't the West. I'm reminded of a paper I did on the Bhagavad-Gita when I was in college, where I remarked upon the fact that the Indian attitude places a huge emphasis on the inner life, to the point where it almost doesn't matter what you're physically doing, and how different this was from the Western Christian approach.
Our personal differences are surely making this conversation a lot more tortured than it could be. But I do not mean to privilege outward over inward actions. That would set me against the whole passage! It would also set me against the whole Christian contemplative tradition, both eastern and western. Both Paul (e.g., Romans 7) and Augustine (e.g., Confessions and On the Trinity) are variously credited for creating "the introspective conscience of the West." Look at both Protestant and Catholic European spirituality and you will discover how important the inner life is to both, and rightly so. However, Descartes and Kant turned the distinction between interiority and exteriority into radical epistemological problems. Modernity has trained us to not just to distinguish inward from outward actions, but to dichotomoze our inner and our outer selves. The modern dualistic form of interiority draws on but finally overturns the earlier Christian holism of inner and outer self.

To return to a holistic Christian understanding of inward and outward action would heal and reintegrate both the sinful and rebellious inner self, and the sinful and rebellious outer self. Jesus' program is about repairing them and repairing their breach, not wrenching them further apart or preferring one to the other. That's why the same Sermon on the Mount that radically interiorizes sin and righteousness is just as radically ethical.

But the point is that thoughts and emotions that are never acted upon are as real to me as those that are; sometimes they are overwhelming.
Mutatis mutandis, I agree completely.

This is why I don't like the way Telford keeps holding up the Hebrew culture of the time as the standard against which others are measured; like every culture, it seems to me, it favored some personality types over others.
First century Palestinian culture is not absolutely privileged over any other. But we need to respect that Jesus is speaking into that culture. In fact, far from simply endorsing Jewish culture, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is overturning some basic cultural assumptions of his time – such as an expectation that only outward actions are sinful, not inward ones.

However, Jesus does not oppose the subordination of inward to outward action by subordinating outward to inward action, but by reintegrating inward and outward actions. Here the Hebraic notion of a unified self is superior to the dualistic modern Cartesian notion of the self, in which the relationship between the mental and the physical is problematic. Here I have found extremely helpful the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the twentieth century Austrian Jewish crypto-Catholic professor of philosophy at Cambridge. His notion of the self is wonderfully examined in Fergus Kerr's Theology after Wittgenstein. Read this and you'll turn into one of those irritating professors who finds Descartes and Kant under every hedge!

A God who does not consider the inner life important, who does not have a way of dealing with powerful and tormenting emotions, is not a God who understands me very well and could hardly be my creator.
Amen and amen! But that's not the God I'm trying to describe. But Jesus' distinction between the inward and the outward is not your distinction between involuntary emotion and voluntary action. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount thinks that the inner life is just as profoundly important as the outward life. Furthermore he does offer ways of respecting and healing powerful and tormenting emotions and the intentions and actions they indwell.

As one created in the image of God, your personality is not something God wants you to move away from. You are a gift to all God's creation. Whatever healing you need (like whatever healing I need) restores you in Christ's image rather than replacing your image with his. The description you're giving me of real, tormenting, and sometimes overwhelming emotions fits both the Hellenistic-Jewish divided self of Romans 7 and the scattered self of Augustinianism. It seems like something familiar to the tradition, not alien. And the Sermon on the Mount is prescribing a community life to heal the scattered selves of Jesus' audience. He is speaking to an audience of people who have learned to blame themselves for outward acts but have not learned to address their inward counterparts. His solution is the therapy of shared Christian life. There we will find our original and ultimate, social and personal identities. There the variety of our personalities will harmonize, and we can build each other up "in Christ."

Anyway, about the Matthew passage. I can't read Greek, but I have read a few different translations of that passage by now, and they all express the same basic idea: if you look at a woman with lust you have committed adultery already. You've committed it only in your heart, but you've committed it. Now it's true, as Telford says, that to look at someone is an action. But it is not ordinarily a sinful action; moreover, it's an unavoidable action, unless you're a hermit. What makes it sinful is the emotion. It is not surprising that many people have interpreted this to mean that having a thought or feeling a feeling can be a sin in itself.
It's certainly not surprising, but it's not necessarily right either. Billy Graham once offered an interpretation of this passage that I found cute when I first heard it, but rather profound the more I think about it. He said that when an attractive woman catches his eye and he looks, that first reaction is unconscious. It's the second look that's sinful.

"Looking lustfully" in Matt. 5:28 – literally (if woodenly), "looking toward longing" – is not merely a matter of what today we might call "sexual attraction" or "sexual orientation." To me those terms inform what Wittgenstein calls "primitive reactions." I don't think sexual attraction or orientation is intrinsically sinful, even when aroused involuntarily by someone besides one's spouse. (And that means they are good, not just "neutral".) On the other hand, "looking lustfully" might be well translated in terms of "imagining," "fantasizing," "coveting," and "plotting." These more clearly connote intention and action – and choice. They are wrong.

Likewise, "being angry" in Matt. 5:22 is not merely feeling hot and flushed and bitter when one is the victim of perceived or real injustice. It is more. It is like the terms that follow it: "insulting," "slandering," and "accusing." These clearly connote intention, action, and choice.

They are also avoidable. It is instructive that Jesus' prescriptions for these mental sins are physical actions: plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand (I think it's safe to say these are figurative, employed for shock value) in response to lusting, and going to one's fellow Christian to be reconciled in response to angering. Even if these mental sins were involuntary in the short run, Jesus would be prescribing training in order to prevent them, which means that they would ultimately be voluntary. Life together in Christian community is ordered (among other things) to training – conditioning, as it were – in righteousness.

One last thing: Remember that the context for this whole discussion is my effort to deny that the passage shows us God sending people to hell for natural instincts.

One of the reasons I think this point is so important is that, e.g., it frees women from having to be responsible for keeping men pure. Jesus does not tell women to wear burkas; he does not tell men to become hermits; he shows his whole audience a way of life in which they can control themselves. In a society obsessed with personal purity, he roots sin in the will and thus liberates pietistic hermits to enter a life in real community. Thanks to him, I get to sit next to my wife at church, as well as neighbors and strangers. We can even share a common cup. (Except that at my church, each communicant gets his or her own little sterile disposable plastic one. Boo!)

Another reason I think the distinction is so important is that it frees each of us from having to be other than we are in other to find favor with God. Jesus does not expect anyone to stop being human. Indeed, he is interceding to restore our humanity: inwardly, outwardly, emotionally, physically, mentally, socially, personally, familially, culturally. It's all good – or it can be anyway. As I said before, Matthew is about life in God's reign, not new reasons to go to hell.

I'll try to cool the philosophical appeals, Camassia, and I'll stop accusing you of being a modern westerner. ;) Seriously, I am sorry for whatever pain I seem to cause you when we're talking past each other. My impressive capacity to do that still grieves me, my left brain notwithstanding.

9:36 PM

A week ago I read my Church history class the following selection from a sermon on the Lord's Prayer by Martin Luther:

The third companion and tempter is Master Devil. He tempts you by causing you to disregard God's Word: "Oh, I have to look after the beer and malt, I can't go to hear a sermon; or if you do come to church to hear the sermon you go to sleep, you don't take it in, you have no delight, no love, no reverence for the Word. Then pray that you may not despise it! ... When you feel such temptations, go running to the Lord's Prayer! You have the promise that God will deliver you from the temptation of the flesh, the world, and the devil. Our whole life is nothing but temptation by these three, the flesh, the world, the devil. Therefore pray: Father, let not our flesh seduce us, let not the world deceive us, let not the devil cast us down.
My first son Jeremy, eight years old, is stubborn as a mule. He even has a mule's exquisite sense of timing: Just when it is time to get in the car to go somewhere, he will dig in his heels and refuse. Then the battle of wits begins.

This morning, with two minutes remaining to get in the car if we are to be on time to church – and not to be on time means not to get a parking space or a seat – there he goes. "But I hate church!" "This is my day to rest and do what I want!" My wife and sick daughter are staying home, so he could stay home if we wanted him to. However, I grew up in a family that found lots of excuses to skip church "this week," and our behavior taught me that church attendance basically mattered less than our own sloth. It taught me that God was optional. And that is a lesson I do not want to teach my own children. So I told him: "God asks us to meet together on Sundays with other Christians, not just as a family. So if you want to stay home from church this week, then you may. But I won't be praying with you this week at dinner or bedtime. If God doesn't matter to you on Sunday morning, then I won't be there with you pretending that God matters the rest of the time."

Now Jeremy hates to miss prayers at dinnertime, and he has a tantrum whenever I cut off bedtime prayers early because he and his brother won't stop screwing around. He seems almost superstitious about it. So this is psychological hardball. And it works. He stomps into the bedroom to get his shoes; I tell him that if he's going to pout, he can stay home; he stops pouting. Two minutes later the boys and I are in the car going to church. There's no bitterness or resentment. Just like a mule, after he starts moving again, he's fine.

On the way I try to explain it all to him: America is a place where people have learned to pick and choose. Many people here like to pray, but don't go to church. That's the way my own family was when I was a child. But if we restrict our love of God to family occasions or school occasions (they have chapel three times a week at their Episcopal school), then we teach ourselves that God is the God only of our family and the God only of our school. So we make it a priority to come together every week to remember the resurrection, and we do it in a place where all families and schools and peoples are invited to remember it with us, because God is the God of everyone.

While the boys are in Kids' Church, I'm in the main service. I'm feeling pretty proud of myself about my clever parenting tactics, and relieved to have found a way out of the mule's dilemma of brute force or surrender. But I'm a little worried too, going through my reasoning over and over to check my argument. We parents do this a lot. For the rest of our lives we replay wrenching moments like these, wondering whether this is where it will have all gone right, or all gone wrong.

In the middle of the set we sing this song:

I will worship
With all of my heart
I will praise You
With all of my strength
I will seek You
All of my days
And I will follow
All of Your ways
It is then that it hits me, and I say to myself (or, perhaps, the Holy Spirit says to me): "You are no different from your little boy. You hold back in all kinds of ways. Why should God be any more satisfied with your own selective, convenient spirituality than with Jeremy's? At least he isn't a hypocrite like you are."

We evangelicals call that "being convicted." That clicking sound you hear is the handcuffs.

My boys have a grand time at church, playing air hockey, making crafts, singing and eating snacks, and enjoying all the other decadent spirituality of American evangelical youth culture. Afterwards we even get doughnuts.

So did I do the right thing when I threatened to withhold family prayer as the consequence of withholding church attendance? I'm still not quite sure, but I'm thinking: Yes and no.

Yes, in that God doesn't want anything less than everything. My boy and I both learned that lesson all over again today. Furthermore, church should be a priority. If it slips away, everything eventually follows. Where was it that I was convicted? Church, that's where, hearing in someone else's song the Word of God aimed right at my heart.

No, in that Luther has better advice to mules and their masters. When Master Devil tempts you to have no delight, no love, no reverence for the assembly's visible Word, that's not when you stop praying with your family. It's when you start. A wiser response would be for me to tell Jeremy I would pray with him this week, but differently: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

Thus these six petitions [of the Lord's Prayer] deal with very great matters and needs. Whatever needs are in the world, they are included in the Lord's Prayer. And all the prayers in the Psalms and all the prayers which could ever be devised are in the Lord's Prayer.
Amen, brother Martin. Preach it.

6:45 PM

November 2, 2002

Even if I still don't speak in tongues, I must be becoming a real Pentecostal, because hearing this story on the local TV news last night got me ticked:

A California man who sought help from a faith healer to cure a persistent rash is dead. And now two people are under arrest.

Four doctors couldn't help the man. But police say people shouldn't put their lives in the hands of people who use non-traditional treatments.

The 54-year-old man died after being injected with an unknown substance.

Two women are charged with involuntary manslaughter and practicing medicine without a license.

The home where the man sought treatment had a waiting room, complete with a soda vending machine, as well as a treatment room featuring candles, religious figurines and what appeared to be a shrine made up of voodoo dolls.

Police say a dog slept on the treatment table that was used to give injections.

Injections, a treatment table, voodoo dolls? Excuse me, but why are these people called "faith healers"? Doesn't this sound a little more like "folk medicine"? Or even "witch doctoring"?

We charismatics already have our hands full with the wackos who really are faith healers. Let somebody else take the rap for this one, OK?

(Link via Holy Weblog.)

2:04 PM

Following up on a promise to Camassia, here is a new FAQ answering the question, "Is the resurrection historical?"

It might also be helpful for my theology classes, in which we have just covered the resurrection's theological import.

Get well soon, Camassia.

11:28 AM

November 1, 2002

Camassia's reply to mine goes back to the original reason for her post: not whether hate is "small love," but the broader issue of why a disciple must "hate" his or her family:

I still think he doesn't directly address the question of why this requires hate. Detachment from your family's emotional and financial neediness would seem to require, well, detachment, but hate is a pretty undetached emotion. Telford's own examples of the word from elsewhere in the Bible imply exclusion, repulsion, abuse, cursing and disrespect, which surely Jesus doesn't mean you to exhibit toward your family forever. Telf says himself a few paragraphs later that he feels "called to show Christlike love" towards his family, which is rather different from hate.
(By the way, I restricted my examples to Luke-Acts because I don't want to assume that other authors are using "hate" in the same way. That's standard operating procedure in critical biblical studies.)

I don't mean to weasel out of having to answer Camassia's question with the following caution: In our culture we psychologize love and hate. To us they are merely interior dispositions, emotions, attitudes. That kind of reduction was rather foreign in the ancient world. For Westerners the psychologization of love and hate travels from Augustine through Kant to Freud. Sermons rightly stress that in the Bible's world, love is something done, whether or not its felt. "Love your neighbor" doesn't mean "have fond feelings about your neighbor." We never learn whether the Good Samaritan has an emotional attachment to Jews. In fact, I expect that he does not. Nevertheless, we learn that the Good Samaritan "loves" one in need. He does the right thing, even when it hurts.

That's what makes the story of the Good Samaritan so gripping. His love for a dying Jew is all the more forceful and beautiful for being emotionally unpleasant to both parties. Indeed, I wondered in a sermon whether Jesus, like Jonah (and here, the Samaritan), might find loving the world that hates him emotionally repugnant.

So when Camassia offers this objection to God's goodness –

We do not choose to have our emotions; we can choose what to do about them, but not whether we have them. Yet because of certain of our emotions, apparently, we deserve to burn in hell.
– I think she is overly psychologizing sin.

And by the way, I think that through training we can choose to have our emotions.

(DETOUR: What about the passage she has in mind here, Matt. 5:21-30? That's probably for a different thread; we're in Luke and talking about hate, not in Matthew. But I will offer a brief response anyway. Matthew's God is not the Thought Police. In Matt. 5:17-7:29, Jesus is confronting the twisted ethics of his culture that seek to justify certain behaviors theologically. In this particular passage he is confronting a tradition that lets evil fester and grow because it is not considered sinful yet. It is okay to harbor a grudge because it is only murder that is forbidden. Jesus answers, in effect, that a long march begins with a single step. The sin begins not somewhere along the way, but at the very beginning. The things translated "anger" and "lust" here are not merely emotions in the modern psychological sense; they are actions. Orgizomai to be angry, connotes wrath and vengeance (and it is paired in this passage with insulting and accusing). To look longingly, pros to epithumesai, is already to act.

In this culture the heart is not merely the seat of emotions, but also the seat of thought, will, and religious devotion. In these teachings, Jesus is addressing the root causes, as it were, of social evils. He is not willing to let his disciples hide behind privacy. This new and long awaited covenant is written in disciples' hearts:

Behold, the days are coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says YHWH. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his sibling, saying, 'Know YHWH,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:31-34).
You see, the Sermon on the Mount is not about finding new excuses to send people to hell. It is about offering new resources to keep them out.)

Now back to our regularly scheduled program. Distinguishing between modern psychological hatred and biblical hatred doesn't allow me to evade the question that remains: How can all disciples be called to exclude, repel, abuse, curse, and/or disrespect their families? These are actions whether or not they are also feelings.

I think an important clue here lies in how Luke's Jesus acts towards his own family. (Remember, hating one's family in Luke 14:26 is followed immediately in 14:27 by taking up one's cross and following him. His life is exemplary here.) And it turns out that he is pretty rude to his family whenever they try to make familial claims on him:

1. The one story of Jesus' childhood occurs in Luke, where Jesus gets separated from his parents during a pilgrimmage. They don't notice until a day into their journey back (close family, eh?). When they do, they return to Jerusalem and spend three days searching for their son. When they find him at the Temple,

they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously." And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart (Luke 2:48-51).
Mary's question suggests the massive disrespect Jesus had showed them, and Jesus' response is rude enough that Luke has to smooth things over for his readers by emphasizing that Jesus obeyed them once everyone was home (and perhaps by suggesting in 2:52 that Jesus still had some growing up to do). I bet he did. He must have been grounded until Yom Kippur.

2. In the middle of Jesus' career, we again glimpse the happy family:

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. And he was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you." But he said to them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (8:19-21).
The nerve!

3. A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:27-28).
Now I'm a Gentile, so what do I know? – but I get the feeling that your typical Jewish mom doesn't want that on her Mother's Day card.

4. By the way, on his first day back in his hometown after his baptism and his wilderness experience, Jesus is just as rude toward his neighbors (Luke 4:16-30). Does the guy have a problem?

No, just a mission: To inaugurate a kingdom of love relationships rather than power relationships. The problem is that doing it means first unmasking the power that poses as "love" in a world, forsaking those who would rely on it, then offering them the kingdom's unconditional love instead.

5. Ironically, this brings us right back to Camassia's appeal that "surely Jesus doesn't mean you to exhibit [hatred] toward your family forever." Indeed not. In Luke's story we next meet Jesus' family in Acts 1:14, immediately following Jesus' ascension. They are part of his kingdom of divine love:

All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (Acts 1:14).
Jesus' biological family finally finds its rightful place in his theological family – and it is obviously a deeply respected place. In fact, his brother soon leads his Church in Jerusalem. "Seek his reign and these things shall be yours as well" (Luke 12:31). To hate the world's treasure is to gain heaven's treasure; to hate the world's family is to gain royal family; to hate the world's powers is to be filled with power from on high. As Christ is the end (i.e., the goal) of the Law, so love is the end of God's hate and fellowship the end of God's renunciation.

There is another kind of familial renunciation that forsakes a far more noble lineage (Luke 15:11-32). The prodigal son uses his father to abandon his station in life and squander his precious fortune. His obedient brother uses his father to nurture self-righteousness and self-pity and hate the father's unconditional love. The lost son's hate is not the father's hate; the good son's love is not the father's love.

Camassia senses a thin, even Orwellian line between love and hate. I think that's almost right. To follow Jesus is to be a disciple; to try to lead him is to be a satan (i.e., an adversary). Both actions are competing forms of love. Or better, each action "loves" according to its own grammar. The word actually belongs to entirely different languages, different forms of life, different worlds. Despite their similarities, their differences are so vast that one world's love looks a lot like the other's hate.

Think about it: Haven't the worst crimes in human history, including the worst crimes of Christians, been misplaced love?

"He hated me by loving me unconditionally." The snarky secular humanist in me wants to ask if this means that war is peace and freedom is slavery. But on the other hand, I sort of entertained the idea that freedom is slavery in an earlier post of my own, so I shouldn't be hasty.
Let me give you an example from right out of the Bible of "he hated me by loving me unconditionally": Paul's use of Malachi 1:2, "As it is written, 'Jacob I loved and Esau I hated'" (Rom. 9:13). I don't want this to get sidetracked into a discussion of predestination; I simply want to point out that in the next few chapters Paul reasons from here to conclude that "God has consigned all people to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all" (Rom. 11:32). God's hatred of Esau and his nation Edom rebounds to the love of all nations, including Edom. Rather than "loving" Esau according to the conditional love that a first son deserves, he "hates" Esau in order to offer him the unconditional, reconciling love that no child deserves (cf. Gen. 33).

Similarly, you will find Paul waging war through peace, and arguing that one freedom is another slavery (Rom. 7:1-6). But Paul is not an Orwellian demagogue; he is a prophet of the end-times. What turns synonyms into antonyms and vice versa is the radical distinction between the old age and the new. These two realms collide wherever the Church finds itself in the world. At that intersection, peace makes war against war; slavery to Christ frees from sin; hatred of hate loves unto love. Glory empties itself; humility exalts; wealth starves; power weakens; weakness empowers; mourning comforts; the meek inherit the earth.

Far from being sophistry, "false wisdom" that speaks doubletalk, my argument is striving for folly: foolishness that manifests the wisdom of God, weakness that overpowers the world's demonic strength. It seems to turn our language upside down, but only because salvation turns our world right side up.

Shabbat shalom.

10:21 PM


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