Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Krister Stendahl and the New Perspective on Paul

Long before E. P. Sanders stood the traditional understanding of first-century Judaism as a "religion of legalism" on its head in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), the late Krister Stendahl—professor at Harvard Divinity School and later Bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden—had already laid the foundation for the New Perspective on Paul with his masterful essay, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" (1963). [Most of us read this essay in the collection Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles (Fortress, 1976).]

Click here to download a copy of this important essay.

Against the longstanding (Augustinian-Lutheran) interpretation of Judaism as a "religion of legalism" which promoted self-righteous efforts to merit salvation before God through human good works, Stendahl—later followed by Sanders and the rest of the New Perspective on Paul writers—argued that Judaism was always (and still is) a religion of grace, faith, and forgiveness.

Nothing in the Hebrew scripture ever called humans to self-salvation—meritorious acts that would earn God's favor. Biblical religion was always a religion of covenant, rooted in the free, undeserved election of Israel by God. This covenant faith was structured by moral and purity laws and underpinned by a sacrificial system specifically designed to provide a means of atonement/forgiveness for men when they fell short of covenant obligations.

Specifically, Stendahl attacked the persistence of the guilty conscience in western culture rising from Augustine's (and furthered by Luther's) reading of Paul. Augustine saw Paul in Romans 7 as a man languishing in guilt, paralyzed by his moral shortcomings, and given to the "unrelenting introspection" that has come to characterize the western mind.

In contrast, Stendahl held that while Paul genuinely felt the weight of his chief sin—persecution of the church—he put any crippling guilt behind him and lived triumphantly in the grace and forgiveness of God. (Stendahl offers a parade of Paul's autobiographical statements to support his interpretation.) Romans 7, Stendahl shows, is part of Paul's larger argument about the role of the law in demonstrating the power of sin over "the flesh."

Paul happened to express this supporting argument [in Romans 7] so well that what to him and his contemporaries was a common sense observation appeared to later interpreters to be a penetrating insight into the nature of sin. (Mark A. Mattison, A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul)

Stendahl argues that Protestants should no longer assume Paul was battling against Jewish legalism—since Paul's opponents never taught that salvation was merited/earned by human works. Rather Paul and his "Judaizing" opponents both shared the Jewish religion rooted in grace, election, and covenant. Romans 7 must be understood as something other than a sinful man consumed and wallowing in his guilty conscience.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

120 in an Upper Room on Pentecost

How many people were in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4)? Where was the crowd of diaspora Jewish pilgrims who heard these men and women speak in their own "native languages"? Where was Peter's Pentecostal sermon preached?

I have always been taught that 120 of Christ's disciples assembled in an upper (second-floor) room of a Jerusalem residence after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and waited patiently there until they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues (Acts 2:1-4).

But a closer look—and some practical thinking—undermines this picture. It is difficult to imagine a second-floor room of any first-century Jerusalem residence holding 120 occupants. It is equally curious how the "other languages" were heard by those outside the room—especially when the hearers swelled to a crowd. It is altogether impossible to believe that Peter's sermon addresses the crowd from within the confines of the upper room.

The problem here is the human tendency to run details together in adjacent sections of an episodic narrative. Remember, Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke and follows the same presentation of events as discrete episodes that may or may not be connected in sequence, location, or time. The Gospel narratives offer a collection of episodes—no doubt arranged around the rough outline of the life of the historic Jesus.  These episodes sometimes abruptly shift in time and location, but more often, the episodes are delimited and tied together by clear transitional phrases that indicate (suggest) a change in time, location, or situation.

With this in mind, let's take a close look at Acts 1 & 2 and at our assumptions about when, where, and to whom the Pentecostal experience occurred.

Following the literary introduction of the book of Acts (Acts1:1-3) which ties the current volume to the earlier Lucan Gospel and the narrative to the passion of Jesus, Acts 1 & 2 divides into 7 distinct episodes, each beginning with a clear transitional phrase.

Acts 1:4-11 - The Ascension of Jesus (beginning with "on one occasion").

Acts 1:12-14 - Return of the Eleven to Jerusalem (beginning with "then"). Here the apostles (the Twelve minus Judas), Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the brothers of Jesus go to the second-story room of a Jerusalem residence which was probably where they had been staying since the resurrection of Jesus. This is probably fifteen or sixteen people.

Acts 1: 15-26 - The Election of Matthias (beginning with "in those days"). 120 people are present, but no location is specified. It is doubtful this occurred in the upper room of a residence since such a space would hardly hold 120 people.

Acts 2:1-4 - Spirit's Outpouring at Pentecost (beginning with "when the day was fully come"). The time is designated as early in the morning on the feast of Pentecost. The location is designated very loosely ("the house where they were sitting"). The NT word for house can refer to a residence, a public building, a sheltered area, etc. No indication is given of the number in attendance. (This is at least the following day—or perhaps several days after—the election of Matthias. Night has past and day has come.)

Acts 2:5-13 - Gathering of the Crowd Brought by the Public Display of Glossolalia (beginning with "now there were"). This appears to be a public place capable of holding a crowd. This is clearly a place where diaspora pilgrims would gather. There is certainly no indication that the crowd entered a room of any sort.  The best guess for the location would be the temple grounds on the feast day.

Acts 2:14-40 - Peter's Sermon (beginning with "then Peter"). This presentation assumes a public area large enough to hold the Jewish pilgrims at the feast. Again the temple grounds make the most sense.

Acts 2:41-47 - Author's Summary of the Aftermath/Results of Peter's Sermon. This section describes a period of time ("day by day") of public life in the temple and table fellowship in homes.

If we are to take these episodes seriously as separate events (some obviously in sequence), then there is no reason to conflate or "smudge" the details of the events together. There is no reason to assume that the 120 that elected Matthias were in the same upper room where the Eleven, Mary, and Jesus' brothers set up residence. There is certainly no reason to think that the Pentecostal experience took place in this same upper room to this same 120 people.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think this is a great interpretive insight. Neither would I even think about parting company over how the details of these stories are conflated.

But the consistent presentation of the "facts" that Spirit was poured out on 120 in the upper room on Pentecost bears witness to our tendency to "run together" the details of adjacent episodes in the Gospels and Acts. This calls us to a more careful and closer reading of these texts, taking seriously the literary conventions upon which they were built.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I Corinthians 11:2-16 (Veils and Christians) Resources

I have to thank Dan Lewis for telling me about Bruce Winter's excellent study, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. This book places the specific difficulties and conflicts in the Corinthian Christian communities within the broader context of Roman law and Greco-Roman culture.

This book is particularly helpful on the issue of veils (head coverings) that the apostle prescribes for women (more precisely, wives) and forbids for males in I Corinthians 11:2-16. While my youthful understanding of this passage focused on the issue of the length of women's and men's hair, the actual meaning of this passage concerns wearing or refraining from wearing veils in public places (including meetings in house churches). The passage addresses both men and women (wives) arguing for head coverings for wives along one line of reasoning and against head coverings for men along an entirely different line of reasoning.

Winter's After Paul Left Corinth has led me into further study and I thought I might share a brief bibliography for interpreting I Corinthians 11:2-16 with you. Some of these resources are free; others can be purchased via Amazon or other book sellers.

Let me begin by highly recommending three books:

Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Eerdmans, 2001). See especially the chapter on ""Veiled Men and Wives and Christian Conscientiousness." Available at Amazon.

Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Eerdmans, 2003). Available at Amazon.

E. Fantham et. al., Women in the Classical World (Oxford, 1994). See especially the chapter on "The 'New Woman': Representation and Reality." Available at Amazon.

The following journal articles and conference presentations are available free as Internet downloads:

Benjamin Edsall, "Greco-Roman Costume and Paul's Fraught Argument in I Corinthians 11.2-16", Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism. Available here.

A. Phillip Brown , "A Survey of the History of the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16", Paper presented at the Aldersgate Forum. Available here.

Mark Finney , "Honour, Head-Coverings, and Headship - I Corinthians 11.2-16 in its Social Context", Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Available here.

David W. Gill , "The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in I Corinthians 11.2-16", Tyndale Bulletin. Available here.

Troy M. Martin, "Veiled Exhortations Regarding the Veil - Ethos as the Controlling Factor in Moral Persuasion". Available here.

Troy M. Martin, "Paul's Argument from Nature for the Veil in I Corinthians 11:13-15", Journal of Biblical Literature. (This one is a little off the wall, but interesting nevertheless.) Available here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Theological Purpose of the Book of Acts: Part 2

If, then, the purpose of Luke's second volume, the Book of Acts, is about how the gospel crossed ethnic barriers so that the initial community of faith, which was exclusively Jewish, gradually broadened its scope so that it also included non-Jews in the circle of God's chosen people, then this greatly affects the way one reads the narratives. It means that while the Book of Acts indeed may have something to say about salvation, what it says about salvation is corollary to the main issue, and therefore, must read as a corollary. Does the Book of Acts say something about how a person is set right with God? Certainly it does in a series of incidents and reflections that are intertwined with the main story, this crossing of ethnic boundaries between Jew and Gentile. Indeed, there are more than thirty descriptions of people accepting the Christian faith, and a survey of how Luke describes these salvation accounts is instructive:

 Jews at Pentecost:  Faith/repentance/baptism (2:37-38, 41)

Jews in Jerusalem:  Believed the message (4:4)

Jews in Jerusalem:  Believed in the Lord (5:14)

Priests in Jerusalem:  Obedient to the faith (6:7)

Samaritans:  Believed the message, accepted the Word, baptism (8:12, 14)

Simon of Samaria:  Believed, baptized (8:13)

Ethiopian at Gaza:  Belief, baptism (8:36-37)

Saul at Damascus:  Baptized (9:18)

Jews at Lydda & Sharon:  Turned to the Lord (9:35)

Jews at Joppa:  Belief in the Lord (9:42)

Gentiles at Caesarea:  Belief, received the Word of God, baptism (10:43, 47-48; 11:1)

Greeks at Antioch:  Believed, turned to the Lord (11:21)

Sergius Paulus in Cyprus:  Believed (13:12)

Jews in Antioch:  Believed, converted (13:39, 43)

Gentiles in Antioch:  Honored the Word of God, believed (13:48)

Jews & Gentiles in Iconium:  Believed (14:1)

Gentiles in Derbe:  Put their trust in the Lord (14:21-23)

Gentiles in Asia Minor: God opened the door of faith (14:27)

Gentiles in Asia Minor:  Converted, heard the message of the gospel and believed, purified by faith, saved by grace, turned to God (15:3, 7, 9, 11, 19)

Lydia & household in Philippi:  Opened her heart, baptized, believed (16:14-15)

Jailer & household in Philippi:  Believed, baptized (16:30-34)

Jews & Greeks in Thessalonica:  Were persuaded (17:4)

Jews & Greeks in Berea:  Believed (17:12)

Greeks in Athens:  Repented, believed (17:30, 34)

Jews & Greeks in Corinth:  Persuaded, believed, baptized (18:4, 8)

Achaia: By grace believed (18:27)

Jews & Greeks in Ephesus:  Heard the Word of the Lord, believed (19:10, 18)

Jews in Jerusalem:  Believed (21:20)

Gentiles: Turned from darkness to light, received forgiveness (26:18)

Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea, Gentile nations:  Repent and turn to God (26:20)

Jewish leaders in Rome: Convinced of the message (28:23-24)

         Clearly, the basic response to the gospel is faith. Luke's language is especially instructive, and while he describes the event of salvation in various ways, his intended meaning is that the message of salvation is primarily something one believes and embraces rather than something one does as a religious ritual. Repentance and baptism are mentioned occasionally, but Luke’s favorite descriptions of those becoming Christians is simply that they believed the gospel. This doesn’t make repentance and baptism unnecessary, but it does show that Luke’s basic purpose in this book was not some sort of three-step plan for how one should be saved—or at least it if was, he managed to miss most of the opportunities to talk about it, which seems absurd.

        Hence, readers of the Book of Acts should not be scouring its pages as though it were the most important book in the New Testament for how one should be saved. This is not primarily what Luke is writing about, and any attempt to truncate the book along these lines violates a basic hermeneutical principle and skews the narratives along artificial lines. Rather, while Luke does offer insight into how he understood the event of becoming a Christian, such information is secondary to  his essential reason for compiling these narratives, which was to show how the gospel widened the Jewish circle so that God's ancient promises that the nations would be saved had actually been fulfilled in the life of the early church.

The Theological Purpose of the Book of Acts: Part 1

I grew up in a branch of the Christian church that placed great emphasis on the Book of Acts in the New Testament. As a Pentecostal group, it was natural that it should gravitate to a document that emphasized the Holy Spirit (though the Pentecostals largely seemed to miss the fact that Luke’s first volume, the Gospel of Luke, equally emphasized the Holy Spirit, using much the same language as found in Acts but not so easily coerced into supporting certain favored theological themes). Especially, they gravitated to a document that was easy to interpret experientially. To up the ante, they also added the corollary that the basic purpose of this book was to describe the way to be saved. Four passages, in particular, they singled out as primary: Acts 2:38; 8:12, 17; 10:44-48; 19:1-5. Here, they alleged, was all the necessary elements for a three-step plan of salvation, repentance, water baptism by immersion using the shorter formula, and the gift of the Spirit as authenticated by the phenomenon of other tongues. Some were even more insistent that not only did the Book of Acts detail how to be saved by this three-step process, it was the ONLY book in the New Testament where one could discover how to be saved. Twenty-six of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were inadequate to answer this basic issue.

The more foundational question, what was Luke’s theological purpose in writing the Book of Acts, is a critical interpretive issue. Because Acts is a narrative, average readers tend to approach the book as though it were an objective account by a disinterested reporter. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Greater or lesser degrees of objectivity can be debated, but there is no reason to think that Luke was a disinterested writer. He was unabashedly Christian, wrote out of his concern and support for the Christian movement, and intended to tell the story of Christian origins with particular goals in mind that would be compelling to his patron, Theophilus, and to the larger Gentile world. He was both a historian and a theologian.

Any careful reader will easily observe that his primary goal, far from being a manual on how to be saved, was to show how the good news about Jesus Christ and the Christian movement became international as a fulfillment of God’s ancient purpose. I. Howard Marshall makes the cogent observation that in the opening of the book, Luke’s description of “things brought to fulfillment” (Lk. 1:1; cf. Ac. 2:23) is in the passive voice, suggesting that it is not only the distant past, but also the present that is a fulfillment of what God intended. What was true about the story of Jesus was equally true about the beginnings of the early church, for what Jesus “began to do and teach” is carried on through the apostles as directed by the Holy Spirit (Ac. 1:1-2). In fact, the opposition to Jesus (Ac. 4:27-29), the outpouring of the Spirit (Ac. 2:16-17), the mission to the Gentiles (Ac. 13:47), the expanding boundaries of God’s people to incorporate non-Jews (Ac. 15:13-19), and the general refusal of the Jewish constituency to accept the Christian message (Ac. 28:25-28) all were fulfillments of the Scriptures as directed by God.

Luke’s manner of approaching this history addresses a profound problem. How was it that God, who chose Israel to be his special people and gave them profound promises for the future, now had fulfilled those promises to those who were not from the Jewish community? Could God’s promises be trusted, especially if the group to whom these promises were made ended up largely on the outside, while those who had no certainty of the promises from the start were on the inside? In one sense, at least, Luke’s approach is very much along the lines of Paul’s statement, the gospel is “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Ro. 1:16b; Ac. 3:26; 28:25-29). In his gospel, Luke intends to show how God indeed fulfilled his promises to Israel in the life and ministry of Jesus (Lk. 1:54-55, 68-75, 80; 2:25, 38), but especially, he wants to demonstrate how the fulfillment of these promises spilled over beyond the Jewish circle (Lk. 2:32, 34; 24:46-47). Similarly, in Acts he shows how the Jerusalem church, which was entirely Jewish at the first, through divine providence began to reach beyond its confined circle. Acts 1:8 is programmatic toward this end: the message spread from Jerusalem to all Judea to Samaria and to the larger Roman world.

 The first half of the book describes the birth of the Jerusalem Church and its struggle to break out of the confines of Jewry and exclusive Judaism. Given the life, ministry and death of Jesus, the disciples of the Lord could never go back to “business as usual.” They had been forever changed by the teachings of Jesus, and even more, by the atoning crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. Still, there was both continuity and discontinuity between the past and the future. In the earliest period, Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem made no attempt to break completely with Judaism nor reject their standing in the Jewish community. Some of the early Christians still claimed to be Pharisees (cf. Ac. 15:5; 23:6), and to varying degrees they participated in the temple and Torah observation (Ac. 3:1; 21:20-26). On the other hand, the gospel of Jesus widened their scope, both theologically and ethnically, beyond anything they had ever experienced in their native Judaism. What the prophets had promised had now happened! The Messiah had now come, and this affected everything!

Luke details how this widening vision occurred, first in the dispute between the Hellenists and the Hebraists (Ac. 6:1-7), then in the outreach to Samaria (Ac. 8:1-25), then in the conversion of a Gentile proselyte (Ac. 8:26-39), then in the conversion of Saul, who was marked to be a missionary to the Gentiles (Ac. 915; cf. 22:15, 21; 26:17-20, 23), then to a Gentile God-fearer (Ac. 10) and finally to the Antioch missionary church that sent missionaries to Asia Minor and Greece (Ac. 13-20). The heart of this mission to the non-Jews of the world occupies the last half of the book, detailing the missionary work of Paul. In particular, it describes his final trip to Rome, which was at the very center of the empire. The closing words of Acts are particularly telling in the Greek text. What seems to be an unfinished conclusion is Luke’s artful way of intentionally suggesting that the proclamation about Jesus would be ongoing until the consummation of the kingdom of God. The very last word in the Greek text of Acts is akolutos (= “unhindered”), a suggestive ending implying more than just the freedom of Paul to preach. The story that began in Galilee, proceeded to Samaria and Judea, and climaxed in Jerusalem with the passion of Jesus in the Third Gospel now had followed the reverse pattern in the Book of Acts. It went from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and now to the ends of the earth. Paul’s arrival in Rome becomes a symbol of the gospel to the nations of which Rome was the capital.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Top Twenty Jesus People Songs

I recently read Larry Eskridge's wonderful God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (2013). I highly endorse this informative and insightful book.

Eskridge rightfully points out that the Jesus People movement did not just begin and end in California in the late 1960s. Rather it eventually spread to middle class evangelical youth across the United States in the early 1970s.

A major tool of the dissemination of this message and movement from West coast counter-culture to evangelical suburbia was the great music that has since laid the foundation for Contemporary Christian Music.

I recently promised my lifelong friend and fellow lover of Jesus People music - Chris Rossetti - that I would offer my Top Ten list of Jesus People songs. But I could not stop with just 10. So here are my Top Twenty choices.

Country Faith - Ballad of the Lukewarm

Love Song - Front Seat, Back Seat

Children of the Day - For Those Tears I Died

Malcolm & Alwyn - Fool's Wisdom

Debby Kerner - The Peace That Passes Understanding

Honeytree - Clean Before the Lord

2nd Chapter of Acts - Which Way the Wind Blows

Larry Norman - I Wish We'd All Been Ready

Tom Stipe - Come Quickly Jesus

Jamie Owens Collins - Hard Times

Love Song - A Love Song

2nd Chapter of Acts - Easter Song

Malcolm & Alwyn - Tomorrow's News

Love Song -Think about What Jesus Said

Day By Day - Original Cast of Godspell

Love Song - Welcome Back

Marsha Carter (of Children of the Day) - Can I Show You

Church Girard - Sometimes Alleluia

They Will Know We Are Christians (By Our Love) - Everyone who sang it

Pass It On - Everyone who sang it

I also want to strongly recommend the "A Decade of Jesus Music 1969-1979" presentation at the One-Way.org web site. Check it out and leave a message of appreciation.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Personal Reflection on Heretics and Politics

I wrote the personal reflection below in response to Ed Kozar's inquiry in June 2014 about my reaction to Thomas Fudge's recently published Heretics and Politics.


I was a little depressed—I guess is the right word —when I finished reading Thomas Fudge's new book. I was unaware of the details of the "collapse" of Don Fisher's life—especially his treatment of his family. This left me feeling quite sad. I wonder if any good he ever did or any vision he ever had can survive this final legacy.

My involvement in all of this was limited to Jackson College of Ministries (JCM)—the first half of the book—and I thought Thomas made a pretty good presentation here. I think he correctly depicted the dynamic between my scholarly drive and Dan Lewis' application of these ideas to United Pentecostal Church doctrine. Thomas made the point —but I wish he had made it a bit stronger—that in my teaching at JCM I was not really dealing in the traditional apostolic Pentecostal categories at all. In fact, I consciously avoided talking about UPC distinctives.

At this time, I was very much influenced by the "new evangelicalism" of Fuller Theological Seminary. The NT theology of George Eldon Ladd pushed me into serious study of the synoptic Gospels. I was deeply influenced by the moderate thought of C. H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias and even the more challenging thinking of Bornkamm, Conzelmann, Kasemann, and Norman Perrin. I read but was not greatly influenced by the form criticism of Bultmann. (NOTE: I bought all these books at Luther Seminary and read them while a student at Apostolic Bible Institute (ABI) in St. Paul. Everything the late Rev. Robert Sabin said I should not read, I immediately purchased. Surely, he must bear some of the blame for my academic adventurousness.)

At JCM, I taught about the inauguration of the kingdom of God as central to the teachings of Jesus and primitive Christianity. I taught about the historical roots of Pentecostalism in Wesleyan and Reformation circles—clearly an outgrowth of the influence of Robert Sabin. When I taught about water baptism, I took at strongly sacramental position that baptism was a means of grace—that something happens to you when you are baptized—which ran in opposition to the Pentecostal Church Incorporated (PCI) teachings on baptism often associated with JCM instructors. I always affirmed that the most primitive baptismal formula was "in Jesus' name"—although I said nothing about the validity of any other form of baptism. When I spoke of the Holy Spirit, it was always in the context of Joel 2:28 and the primitive kerygma's assertion that a "new thing" had happened in Jesus and that with the dawning of the kingdom, the promised Holy Spirit was available to all. (Clearly, my "kingdom theology" was an obvious attack on dispensational premillennialism, although I do not ever remember attacking these ideas explicitly. The first step of many evangelical scholars—both Dan Lewis and I included—toward broader academic thinking is often the rejection of Darby's dispensationalism and the structure it imposes on reading the Bible. For us, "rightly dividing the word of truth" came to mean more than applying Scofield's notes to all biblical interpretation.)

In my JCM instruction, I also placed a lot of emphasis on the 8th century prophets—something I learned from Wendell Gleason at ABI—and the centrality of ethics in ethical monotheism. I introduced students to the social dimension of Christian obligations that had largely been missing in apostolic Pentecostalism. I portrayed Jesus as a conscious successor of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. I was even beginning to approach—at this early date—the "Jewishness" of Jesus which has been the center of my study to this day.

In my earliest time at JCM, I honestly did not think I was attacking UPC doctrine. I felt that UPC doctrine would be strengthened by restatement in Reformation terms of grace and faith. (Interestingly, David Bernard's subsequent writings take a step in this direction.) I did not—and still do not—see how serious Bible study using the best methods available could ever be a bad thing.

But I was VERY young—22 years old in the fall of 1979—when I largely rewrote the JCM curriculum and embarked on my teaching career. I was only 25 when the "JCM tragedy" came to an end.

I am more than willing to bear my share of blame for this debacle. I was so naïve. Initially, I really believed that I was faithfully serving the community of my heritage. (My grandfather was a Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ (PAJC) man before the merger with the PCI formed the UPC. I was raised under O. C. Crabtree's ministry. I had no roots in the PCI tradition that is sometimes associated with the influence of C. H. Yadon on JCM.) Apostolic Pentecostalism was my theological home as much as anyone's. Clearly, I knew that we were stretching the limits. But by the time I realized we had stretched them too far, it was too late. Don Fisher was my great "protector" in all of this. At the time, I thought this was a great blessing. With hindsight, I am not so sure.

Since my departure from JCM, I have tried to do the honorable thing by withdrawing from the UPC public view. My dissertation topic was "demanded" by my graduate committee. My post-doctoral writings and research have been in other areas. (Actually, I was so isolated from the UPC world that I was unaware of the change in Don Fisher's life and his eventual death until I was contacted by Thomas Fudge for an interview for his book Christianity Without the Cross. I knew almost nothing of the Westburg Resolution until I read about it in Thomas' book. Much of that interview made its way into the pages of Heretics and Politics.)

Of course, social media (as well as Fudge's publications) have brought me back into contact with many of my former colleagues from JCM and ABI. But even now, I try to play down the events of the JCM years. Those debates and deep feelings are probably best left to the past.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Idioms and Generational Curses

Recently, I was asked a question by an Asia-Pacific missionary whom I met while lecturing for University of the Nations. Occasionally I get questions like this through missionary contacts who encounter ideas, notions, theologies and interpretations that seem suspect. In general, I am of the opinion that good theology is also practical theology and not merely ivory tower. This is one of those occasions, and the question concerned a teaching based on Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18 and Deuteronomy 5:9, loosely called “generational curses”. The idea is that since God “punishes the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generation”, the sins of a person carry with it a curse that extends to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Such curses must be broken through repentance for the past sin and the power of prayer—almost to the level of exorcism—before a person can escape the penalty of punishment for something done by one's ancestors. In societies that already are rife with superstition, such a theology can play into an unhealthy worldview that already embraces various levels of magic in the collision between the unseen world with the visible world.

My response to this question is that I'm not on the side of the generational curse interpretation of these passages. I think it may be a classic misinterpretation of a Hebrew idiom. Here's why I think so. In the first place, Hebrew idioms often use numbers in non-mathematical ways (e.g., "for three sins, even for four" and "six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination" and "there are three things too wonderful for me, yes, four which I don't know", etc.). The passages cited may very well also be non-mathematical comparative idioms, which is to say, they intend to show the vast difference between God's punishment of sin and his great mercy toward faltering humans. The "punishing sin to the third and fourth generation" stands in contrast to the "showing mercy to thousands of generations". In other words, these are statements about God's character, and his character is such that his capacity for mercy far outweighs his punishment for sin. Expressed differently, but with the same essential intent, are the words of the Psalmists, "His anger lasts only a moment", but "his mercy endures forever." Hence, I doubt that these passages intend to teach that punishment for sin is passed down mathematically and generationally. At least one thing seems clear: there is no clear and unambiguous teaching in the Bible about such a thing as a generational curse. Certainly the apostles never voiced anything resembling such a thing, and so far as I am aware, it is entirely absent in the post-apostolic church and the Ante-Nicene fathers.

What for me is the clincher is the fact that the Israelites around the time of the exile had also taken these ancient statements in the Torah to refer literal, mathematical formulae. Hence, they had coined a proverb, "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Eze. 18:2; Je. 31:29). By this proverb, they intended to respond to Jeremiah's and Ezekiel's predictions of exile by saying, "It's not our fault. It's our parents' fault or our ancestors' fault if something happens, not ours." Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel say that this idea is fundamentally wrong. Jeremiah says, "Everyone shall die for his own sin," and Ezekiel says plainly that no one will die because of his ancestors' sins. Rather, if a person dies, it will be because of his own sins. If a parent sins, but the child turns away from the parents' sins, he will not suffer punishment for someone else's guilt.

In principle, then, the teaching of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it seems to me, precludes the idea of the generational curse, at least as it was rehearsed by my missionary friend. Now, I will readily concede that some sins have implications that may extend to succeeding family members. For instance, a pregnant mother who uses cocaine will endanger her child. An alcoholic father's abuse of his children will leave scars that are deep and visceral. Both need healing. Nonetheless, these are not generational curses, at least as some of the faith-healers describe it. They are simply the consequences of reckless judgments that have affected others.

In the end, I do not subscribe to the generational curse theory, and my assessment is not very positive of healing ministries that are based on this notion. I'm sure many of the so-called healers are sincere, but I think they are sincerely mistaken.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

David Bernard and Positive Biblical Criticism

I recently downloaded a copy of the doctoral dissertation of David K. Bernard—the General Superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International—entitled "Monotheistic Discourse and Deification of Jesus in Early Christianity as Exemplified in 2 Corinthians 3:16-4:6." Rev. Bernard has been awarded the Ph.D from the University of South Africa. Having accomplished this incredible feat of endurance myself, I want to offer my congratulations to Dr. Bernard and the growing number of UPCI scholars who have obtained or are seeking doctoral degrees.

You can download a copy of this dissertation by clicking here.

I am now in the process of working through this 282-page document. This work offers a close reading of II Corinthians 3:16-4:6—a passage that I long thought held potential for Oneness Pentecostal interpretation, but one that has largely eluded Oneness scholars to date.

I was surprised by Dr. Bernard's use of rhetorical criticism in the title of this work and as one of the main hermeneutical tools used in his reflections on this passage. Rhetorical criticism focuses on how biblical writers used the figures of speech and rules of composition common to the culture of their day for effective spoken and written communication—and especially persuasion.

Concerning rhetorical criticism in biblical study, evangelical scholar Ben Witherington states: "I'm interested in the question of how ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric helps us to understand the New Testament, and whether or not the writers of the New Testament used such a methodology. As a historian, the first question is, "Did the writers of the New Testament use rhetoric?" Did they use this kind of methodology to persuade people about Jesus Christ? For me the answer is clear enough: yes, to one degree or another. Some writers in the New Testament use it minimally, but others are really quite seasoned practitioners of Greco-Roman rhetoric in the way they present their material, ranging from Paul to the author of Hebrews to Luke and various others."

While I have spoken with Rev. Bernard a few times over the years, I have had only one substantial conversation with him. He had just been hired as a theology instructor and Dean of Students (I believe I recall this correctly) at Jackson College of Ministries at the time when I was leaving this institution. (My departure—as many of you know and as is documented in Thomas Fudge's Heretics and Politics—was under a cloud of suspicion. I, along with several of my faculty colleagues, had introduced a new world of academic biblical scholarship to JCM students as well as stressing the Wesleyan and Reformation roots of the Pentecostal tradition.)

In our conversation, which occurred in the JCM library, Rev. Bernard and I discussed several books in the JCM collection—all of which had been purchased at my suggestion. Our conversation eventually turned toward biblical criticism—in this specific case, redaction criticism of the synoptic gospels. Redaction criticism investigates the editorial role that the biblical writers played in assembling, structuring, combining, and elucidating source materials as they constructed the books which are now recognized in the Jewish and Christian canon of sacred scripture.

Norman Perrin in "What is Redaction Criticism?" states, "The prime requisite for redaction criticism is the ability to trace the form and content of material used by the author concerned or in some way to determine the nature and extent of his activity in collecting and creating, as well as in arranging, editing, and composing."

I argued that various forms of biblical and literary criticism were neutral tools that could greatly benefit conservative evangelical scholars. I stressed that the threat to biblical authority did not lie in these methods, but in the presuppositions of their users. Liberal Protestant scholars with a low view of biblical inspiration would certainly confirm their views when employing these tools. But the same thing is true for conservative evangelical scholars who hold a high view of biblical inspiration. There is no reason to believe that when a conservative scholar employs these tools that he will necessarily reach liberal conclusions.

To demonstrate my point, I raised the issue of editorial differences in the parallel gospel passages about Jesus' confrontation with a ruler of the synagogue. (We often wrongly identify this man as the "rich young ruler." These passages speak of his wealth, but not of his age. Luke designates that he was a "ruler," a respected leader in the synagogue.) I pointed out the obviously different theological emphases and implications in the ways that Matthew and Mark frame the initial question asked by the ruler to Jesus.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." (Matthew 19:16-17 NIV)

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good-except God alone.  (Mark 10:17-18 NIV)

The key difference is the way the word "good" is used in the two passages. In Mark, "good" has a Christological emphasis—he addresses Jesus as "good master" and Jesus replies that there is none good but God, at least hinting at the issue of Jesus' divinity. In Matthew, the emphasis is on human moral behavior. Here "good" modifies "works" or "deeds"—the ruler asks what "good deed" does he need to do and Jesus replies that only God is good, apparently arguing that only God is capable of truly good works.

I pointed out that these parallel presentations of the same event have very different theological meanings and that this difference is best explained by the editorial activity of the gospel writers—each stressing his own theological goals—when committing this oral memory of Jesus to the written page. I also stressed that the editorial contribution of each evangelist in no way undermines the authority of the gospel message. Rather it demonstrates the multi-dimensional ways that the early Christians "remembered" the words and stories of Jesus and applied them in a variety of situations in their own lives.

Sadly, my willingness to entertain such questions and to use critical tools to deal with them must have confirmed the suspicions of the weakness of my commitment to biblical authority in the mind of Rev. Bernard. The conversation ended with him unconvinced and the cloud of doubt still firmly ensconced above my head.

So it was a bit more than surprising to see Rev. Bernard, in writing his doctoral dissertation, taking essentially the same position regarding the positive possibilities of biblical and literary critical methodologies in the hands of evangelical scholars that I took all those years ago. The tools of literary analysis, it turns out, are neutral after all and can be used with Bible-affirming results by scholars who hold a high view of biblical authority.

Admittedly, both Dr. Bernard and I were very young when this conversation took place in the early 1980s. But it seems to me that I arrived at the conclusion that literary-critical methods are valid tools for conservative biblical interpretation a few decades before Dr. Bernard embraced it.

Maybe someday—hopefully—the cloud of suspicion that has followed me for all these years will dissipate as my JCM affirmations become less heretical and more mainstream within Oneness Pentecostal scholarship.

But I am not going to hold my breath.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Early Christian Worship: Part 4

                The earliest direct descriptions of a Christian worship service, paradoxically enough, come to us from early writings external to the New Testament. Probably the earliest of these descriptions is from the Didache, a compendium of various instructions by an unknown Christian from about AD 100. Teachings about the general order of Christian worship are as follows:

And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord: ‘In every place and at every time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.’

Several noteworthy features are to be found in this short description. First, as we already have seen, Christian worship was on Sunday, “the Lord’s own day”. Central to this worship was the celebration of the Eucharist, which is described by the language of sacrifice. In fact, the writer in the Didache connects Paul’s language of “the Lord’s table” (1 Co. 10:21) with the Old Testament prophet’s language of “the Lord’s table” (Mal. 1:7). He seems to suggest that the prediction by Malachi that this sacrifice was to be “among the nations” has its consummate fulfillment in the Christian Eucharist celebrated by Gentile Christians! Following Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about reconciliation with one’s fellow prior to approaching the altar of God (Mt. 5:23-24), he urges Christians to reconciliation prior to the Eucharistic meal in order for their sacrifice to be “pure”, the very thing urged by Malachi. Further, the Christian meal should be preceded by “first confessing your transgressions”, in keeping with Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians (1 Co. 11:28-32).

Though not described in the context of a worship service, the compiler of the Didache also offers additional instructions concerning baptism, the Eucharist and itinerant apostles and prophets. Baptism, in agreement with Matthew 28:19, is to be conducted “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. It is to be in “living (= running) water”, language that draws both from Jewish tradition, in which mikva’ot were to be constructed so as to provide running water, and Christian tradition, where Jesus used a pun when he spoke of “living water” (Jn. 4:10). Water other than running water was acceptable for baptism if necessary, and baptism by pouring was acceptable if immersion was not convenient. A day or two of fasting was recommended for the baptismal candidate.

The celebration of the Eucharist is attended with two liturgical prayers, one for the cup and the other for the bread (and curiously, the order of cup first and then bread is reversed from Paul’s order in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). They are:

We give you thanks, O our Father, for your holy vine of your son David, which you made known unto us through your Son Jesus; yours is the glory forever and ever.

We give you thanks, O our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known unto us through your Son Jesus; yours is the glory forever and ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever and ever.

Once again, a collage of both Old and New Testament passages converge in these prayers, ranging from the pedigree of David to Jesus’ claims, “I am the true vine” (Jn. 15:1, 5). The repeating phrase, “Yours is the glory forever and ever”, is typical of several New Testament doxologies, while the reference to the gathering of the broken bread scattered upon the mountains is an oblique reference to the feeding of the 5000, when Jesus commanded his apostles to gather up the fragments (Mt. 14:20//Mk. 6:43//Lk. 9:17//Jn. 6:12-13). It is hardly to be doubted that the miracle of feeding the 5000 was firmly connected in the teachings of Jesus to eating the “bread from heaven” (Jn. 6:26-59). That Jesus commanded his apostles to “gather the pieces that are left over…[that] nothing be wasted” seems to symbolize the apostolic mission to the nations of the world. Here also, for the first time, is a requirement that the Eucharist is reserved for those who have been previously baptized. This description of the Eucharist, while it is couched in the language of sacrifice, clearly is marked in the Didache as “spiritual food and drink”, just as Paul similarly spoke of “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Co. 10:3-4). Even the ancient Israelites in the desert had received communion of a sort, for the rock from which the water gushed was a type of Christ.

After the celebration of the Eucharist, yet another liturgical prayer is offered:

We give thee thanks, Holy Father, for your holy name, which you have made to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which you made known unto us through your Son, Jesus; yours is the glory forever and ever. You, Almighty Master, created all things for your name’s sake, and gave food and drink unto men for enjoyment, that they might render thanks to you; but you bestowed upon us spiritual food and drink and eternal life through your Son. Before all things we give you thanks that you are powerful; yours is the glory forever and ever. Remember, Lord, your church to deliver it from all evil and to perfect it in your love; and gather it together from the four winds—even the church which has been sanctified—into your kingdom which you have prepared for it; for yours is the power and the glory forever and ever. May grace come and may this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If any man is holy, let him come; if any man is not, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen!

Clearly, the major temple motif of the Old Testament—a dwellingplace for the holy name of God—has been fulfilled in a spiritual way in the community of Christian believers, who now have received God’s name tabernacled in their hearts. The liturgical responses of Hosanna, Maranatha and Amen round off the prayer.

Finally, the instructions regarding itinerant apostles and prophets regulated their length of stay and any requests for money. Such traveling Christians must not stay more than two or three days, and any requests for money were signs of a false prophet. Itinerants deserved food, but they must not take advantage of their position. They clearly were given the freedom to speak in the name of the Lord, but there were controls set in place to test their authenticity as well.

                Another very early description of Christian worship from nearly the same time as the Didache appears in a letter from Pliny, the Governor of Bithynia, to Trajan, the Roman Emperor (ca. AD 108-112). The value of this description is partly because it was composed by an outsider. Pliny was concerned about his method of prosecuting Christians, whose religion was not legal (now that Christians were distinguished from Jews). His province along the south coast of the Black Sea had been exposed to the Christian message at least since the composition of 1 Peter in the New Testament (cf. 1 Pe. 1:1). He wrote to Emperor Trajan, explaining his methods of interrogation, torture and execution, to which the emperor replied that his course of action was proper. However, Trajan also set forth that Christians were not to be sought out, but only prosecuted if they were formally accused—and anonymous charges were not to be entertained. In this correspondence, Pliny offered a brief description of Christian worship:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath (sacramentum) not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honor it; after which it was their custom to separate and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

                Once again, several features are prominent in this description. First, Christians met on a fixed day, probably Sunday. Because Sunday was an ordinary work day, they were compelled to meet in the pre-dawn darkness. The early morning service contained both hymn-singing and sacred commitment. The hymns were directed to Christ, recognizing him as divine. Possibly the sacramentum was a baptismal vow or possibly the Eucharist itself, or perhaps it simply refers to prayers in general. Later, possibly that same evening after their day’s work was completed, they assembled again, this time more clearly to celebrate the Eucharist. From this suggestion, some have suggested that the morning worship was a “service of the Word”, while the evening service was a “service of communion”.

                A few decades later (ca. AD 155), Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, offered two contributions concerning Christian worship. The first describes a baptismal service followed by the Eucharist. Here, after the baptism, the newly baptized convert joins the assembly of worshippers, where prayer is offered and commitments are made to be “keepers of the commandments”. After the prayers, the kiss of peace is exchanged by congregational members, and the leader presents to the congregation the elements of the communion service.

There is then brought up to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at his hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying, “Amen.” This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

In explaining the communion, Justin says the food is called Eucharistia (= the Eucharist, the thanksgiving), and only baptized believers are allowed to participate. The bread and wine signify the flesh and blood of Jesus following the explanation of the Lord at the last supper, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. Justin’s second description of worship is similar in kind:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying, “Amen”; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who assists the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For he was crucified on the day before that of Saturn [Saturday]; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun [Sunday], having appeared to his apostles and disciples, he taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

As with other post-apostolic references, the day of worship is Sunday. Prominent in the service are the readings of Scripture, where the writings of the apostles are listed alongside the writings from the Old Testament. The fact that the Scriptural readings are “as long as time permits” may be an intentional contrast with St. Paul’s restrictions on spontaneous gifts of prophecy or tongues. Paul restricts these two gifts to “two, or at the most, three” times in a given worship service (1 Co. 14:27, 29). Scripture, however, clearly takes precedence. The leader bases his exhortation on the Scriptural passages read, and the sermon is followed by communion. In both Justin’s descriptions, elements of the communion are carried by the deacons to brothers and sisters who were not able to attend. The service concludes with an offertory where gifts are given for the support of the poor or others in need. While the office of deacon is familiar from the New Testament, the title of “president” seems unusual. Perhaps this refers to the bishop or elder or pastor, since he presides over the communion.

                Various other fragments pertaining to early Christian worship are scattered throughout the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, but those given above are among the most complete. Altogether, the surviving accounts describe the major components of Christian worship to be Scripture reading, preaching, singing, praying, the Eucharist and giving.

Early Christian Worship: Part 3

               The concepts of sacred time and sacred space, central to Old Testament worship, were carried over into Christian worship, yet with considerable development beyond what was practiced in the Second Temple Period. In the first place, as with Jewish worship, Christians worshipped weekly. While in the earliest period they also may have attended the synagogue on Saturday, rather quickly they developed worship times on Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection (Ac. 20:7; 1 Co. 16:1-2; Rv. 1:10). Following the pattern of the synagogue, Christians developed worshipping communities throughout the world rather than depending upon a single site, such as, the Jerusalem temple.

                It is often assumed that Christians abandoned the Sabbath almost immediately, but this is hardly the case. As we already have seen, participation in the synagogue continued until around the turn of the century. Still, Christians also worshipped on Sunday in a service that was uniquely their own. Several religious and social factors affected this “first day of the week”. In the first place, all four gospels agree that it was the day Jesus rose from the dead (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1). Sunday also was the day the Spirit descended at Pentecost (Ac. 2:1). Only because Christians were perceived by the Romans to be a sect of Judaism did they have the liberty to meet as often as weekly. Pagan worship was largely the activity of individuals who did not worship together in a formal, community service, except on annual festivals in honor of a deified emperor. In any case, Rome did not permit regular meetings of voluntary associations more than once per month in the effort to control seditious groups. The Jews, because their religion was legally recognized by Rome, were granted an exception. Christians, so long as they were perceived as a sect of Judaism, benefited by this exception. Still, the fact that they met in private homes rather than in a temple with a statue might raise suspicions, and Paul warned the Corinthians about expected decorum during Christian worship in deference to the empire’s “messengers”, the scouts who sniffed out seditious meetings and reported on them to the authorities (1 Co. 11:10). Further, Sunday was not a day of rest in Rome, but a normal workday. Hence, unlike for the Sabbath, Christians could only meet at awkward hours, either very early or very late. At Troas, Paul attended a service of Christian worship that lasted virtually all night long (Ac. 20:7, 11). Early in the 2nd century (about AD 112), Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan says the Christian habit was to meet “on a certain fixed day before it was light”.

Other references from about the same period substantiate that Christian worship was regularly on Sunday. Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) writes, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place…” An even earlier work, the Didache (ca. AD 100), says, “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks…” Ignatius (died ca. AD 110), similarly, speaks of Christians as “no longer observing Sabbaths but fashioning their lives after the Lord’s day, on which our life also arose through Him…” Since the early 2nd century, almost all Christians have gathered for worship on Sunday.

                As to places for worship, the early Christians made use of a variety of venues. Already we have seen that in Jerusalem they gathered in the temple precincts, while in various parts of the world they attended the synagogues. What became even more common was the use of homes. Christians accommodated the social structure of the Greco-Roman oikonomia (household community) to worship settings. Such communities were large, socially cohesive units comprised of a number of families, usually under the authority of the senior male of the principal family. Often, such communities shared in common employment, either agriculture or mercantile enterprises, and lived on the same estate. The household consisted of families, friends, clients, free persons and slaves. The conversion of entire households doubtless facilitated the use of such estates as venues for Christian worship (Ac. 10:1-48; 16:13-15, 31-34; 18:8; 1 Co. 1:16). By the time Paul was writing letters at the mid-1st century mark, already he could name several homes where Christians customarily gathered for worship (Ro. 16:4-5, 14, 15, 23; 1 Co. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2). Of course, Paul was creative enough to use other facilities if they were available. In Ephesus, he utilized a public lecture hall, for instance (Ac. 19:9), but this seems to have been more the exception than the rule.

                Archaeologically, a most famous house church has surfaced in recent years, the fisherman’s home in Capernaum. Near the synagogue, archaeologists examined three superimposed structures, an octagonal-shaped building (5th century AD), under it yet an earlier structure (late 4th century AD, and beneath it a fisherman’s residence (1st century AD). Octagonal buildings in the Byzantine era were memorial churches, which is to say, churches built on sites to commemorate an ancient tradition. This one was constructed as concentric octagon (an octagon within an octagon). The inner octagon featured an apse oriented toward the east and a baptistry on the east side of the apse dating to about the middle of the 5th century. Beneath this church was yet another building dating to the late 4th century, this one also a church, judging from the graffiti (e.g., “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant…”, “Christ have mercy”, etched crosses on the walls, etc.). Some of the graffiti was in Greek, but one inscription was in Hebrew, possibly suggesting a Jewish-Christian community. This church had a central hall with an atrium and an arch over the center of the hall. In turn, it was constructed of yet an earlier existing house that dated to the Early Roman Period (ca. 63 BC and later). Sometime in the 1st century, the house was modified with plastered floors, ceiling and walls in a single room (very unusual for ancient Capernaum). At the time the room was plastered, the pottery changed from domestic (cooking pots, bowls, pitchers, etc.) to only storage jars and oil lamps. Obviously, people were no longer using this room for preparing and eating food. In the Early Roman Period, the only houses that were so plastered were buildings intended for public gatherings (plaster aids in reflecting light from oil lamps and provides better illumination). Once again, graffiti marks the room as one used by Christians (e.g., “Lord”, “Christ”, etc.). Altogether, the inscriptions consist of 111 in Greek, 9 in Aramaic, 6 or more in a Syriac alphabet, 2 in Latin and 1 in Hebrew. One particularly intriguing inscription may even contain the name of Peter, though this is not entirely clear. In the end, the name of Peter notwithstanding, the house in Capernaum may be one of the oldest house churches in existence, and while certainty cannot be obtained, circumstantial evidence suggests that it may have been the home of the big fisherman.

                Buildings used for Christian worship continued to be built. According to Eusebius (ca. AD 260-340), a large Christian church existed in Jerusalem prior to the Second Jewish Revolt (AD 135). In putting down the revolt, the Romans destroyed all significant buildings and rebuilt the city, so no remains are expected to be found. Mostly at this early period, Christians in the Mediterranean met in the large courtyards typical of the Greco-Roman oikonomia (household). In Rome, Christians met in the catacombs, not only to celebrate memorial services for their dead, but to share in the Eucharist. One of the earliest Christian churches outside Palestine has been discovered in Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River (ca. AD 232-3). It was adapted from a home, and the walls were painted with scenes from the Old Testament and the Gospels. Another from about the same period is currently being excavated in Megiddo, Israel. As of this writing, not too much can be concluded about this site other than it dates to about the mid-3rd century. Because it is from a period when Christianity was outlawed, excavators are reluctant to use the word “church”, since Christians did not have public buildings as such at this time. However, mosaics of fish (an early Christian symbol) and an inscription that unambiguously refers to Jesus Christ as God places the building squarely within an early Christian context. By the 3rd century, a veritable building boom of Christian churches occurred in most major Palestinian cities, and under Constantine, in the 4th century, even more were constructed, including the famous Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. Typically, such churches were oriented toward the east and took the basic form of the Roman basilica, which was patterned after the Roman patrician home. The single religious symbol at this early period was the cross, and it began appearing in Christian worship settings before the end of the 1st century. In time, the addition of transepts made the basilica style into a cruciform shape, creating a distinctly Christian architecture. More than 130 of the churches in ancient Palestine were built with an apse for the communion altar. About a third of the excavated churches have a narthex, separating the interior holy space from the outside world. Hence, the first three centuries of Christianity saw Christian worship settings shift from caves, synagogues and private homes to structures built specifically for worship.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Early Christian Worship: Part 2

                In his Corinthian correspondence, Paul addresses at length the free participation of worshippers in offering expressions of verbal spiritual gifts. While he mentions in passing a short list of possibilities (“a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation”, cf. 1 Co. 14:26), his larger discussion focuses upon the gifts of tongues-speaking, the interpretation of tongues-speaking and prophecy. Whether or not such free offerings were typical or atypical of 1st century churches is not immediately clear, since such expressions are not described in any of his other letters. However, there are indications by Luke that such expressions may have been more widespread than generally acknowledged (cf. Ac. 10:44-46; 11:27-28; 19:6; 20:23; 21:10-11). This subject, of course, has been a lightning rod since the birth of Pentecostalism more than a century ago. Pentecostals and charismatics, working against a perceived formalism in the traditional churches, tend to argue that such expressions were normal and should be regularly expected in public worship. Non-Pentecostals and non-charismatics, reacting against what they perceive to be extremism, tend to argue that such expressions were more exceptional. While the outcome of this debate will probably never be settled, among the Corinthians, the gift of tongues-speaking seems to have been elevated as the supreme gift, and Paul is at some pains to show that it is only one among a number of spiritual gifts, not better than the others (1 Co. 12:4-31). Further, he points out that in public worship tongues-speaking requires special guidelines, since it is a gift that may not immediately be understood by the listeners (1 Co. 14:1-5). His guidelines proceed from the basic premise that what is unintelligible can hardly be edifying to the church (1 Co. 14:6-12, 14-19). Hence, any public use of tongues must be accompanied by an interpretation for the edification of the assembly (1 Co. 14:13, 27); otherwise, the one so gifted is required to remain silent in public. Further, there are limits for such expressions in a given worship service, “two—or at the most three” (1 Co. 14:27, 29). Also, under the rubric that things should be done “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Co. 14:32-33, 40), Paul does not allow two people to be speaking at the same time, whether in intelligible or unintelligible language (1 Co. 14:27, 30). Speakers must be “one at a time” and “in turn”. The basic rule that there should be no more than one person speaking at a time extends even to those who are not speaking in tongues, since Paul forbids women to interrupt the service of worship by calling out to their husbands (1 Co. 14:34-35). Presumably, this basic approach also would apply to any other verbal expressions in the worship service other than those parts that may have been spoken collectively in unison (i.e., the Amen, etc.).

                If the evidence of the New Testament letters is any indication, then the apostolic church was a preaching, teaching, believing and confessing community, that is to say, its very center was the content of its faith. It is likely that the reference to Timothy’s “good confession in the presence of many witnesses” refers to his confession of faith at the time of his baptism (1 Ti. 6:12), and Paul’s reference to the Corinthians’ confession of the gospel may be analogous (2 Co. 9:13). The documents of the New Testament are filled with such confessions. Typical in this regard is the introductory clause of 1 Timothy 3:16, “And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness…” (NASB). Many such confessions are short:

Jesus is Lord! (1 Co. 12:3; Romans 10:9) 

There is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Co. 8:6).

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, [and] he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures… (1 Co. 15:3-4)

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Ro. 5:8b)

Such confessions define what it meant to be Christian, for as Paul said, “This is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (1 Co. 15:11). Peter spoke for them all when he declared the unique and exclusive Christian message: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Ac. 4:12). The “truth of the gospel” was a standard consciously upheld and protected (Ro. 16:17; Ga. 1:8-9; 2:14; 1 Th. 2:13). Those who departed from this standard were sharply rebuked (2 Co. 11:3-4; Ga. 1:6-7; 1 Ti. 6:3-5), and those who touted another message were cut off (1 Co. 5:3-5; 2 Th. 3:6; 1 Ti. 1:19-20; 2 Jn. 9-11).

This is not to say, of course, that there was no diversity among Christians. Rather, it is to say that the early Christians had a core of faith, they knew what it was, and they refused to allow it to be altered. Some Christians were Torah observant, while other Christians were not—and this diversity was permitted. Liberty was granted over various scruples concerning diet and the observance of holy days (Ro. 14). Paul could say that he “became all things to all men”, whether they were Jews under the Torah or others not under Torah (1 Co. 9:19-23), but these areas were never the core. The core itself, on the other hand, had to remain intact, and there was a sacred duty to preserve it without change. It was the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Ti. 1:13), “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). It was what was “received” and “passed on” (1 Co. 11:23; 15:1, 3; 2 Th. 2:15).

How was this core passed on? Primarily through the public reading of Scripture and through preaching, forms that passed from the synagogue into the churches.

Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. (1 Ti. 4:13)

The elders who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. (1 Ti. 5:17)

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodecia. (Col. 4:16)

I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. (1 Th. 5:27)

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it… (Rv. 1:3, ESV)

Preaching could take the form of evangelism, where people were called to repent and believe the good news (Ac. 2:38; 3:19; 5:21, 42; 13:1; 1 Ti. 3:2). It could take the form of prophecy, that is, words for “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Co. 14:3). It could take the form of teaching, which doubtless included exposition, instruction and exhortation (Ac. 2:42; 18:11; 20:7, 11; Col. 1:28; 1 Ti. 4:13; 2 Ti. 3:16; Tit. 2:7-8). Behind apostles and prophets, teachers are ranked as the third most important leadership gift in the church (1 Co. 12:28).

                Finally, there is the collection of freewill gifts. While the Jewish system provided for a tithing structure to support the temple, the Levites and priests, and various charitable concerns, Christians had no such structure. Still, they were concerned to be stewards of their God-given resources. On more than one occasion, Christians helped support Paul in his missionary endeavors (Phil. 4:15-16), and other church leaders were supported as well (1 Co. 9:5-12a). Paul was not averse to tactfully asking for such support (Ro. 15:24, 28-29). Beyond this, relief efforts, especially during times of economic distress, were undertaken by Christians to help each other (Ac. 11:27-30). Paul urged his constituent churches to participate in such relief work (Ro. 15:25-27; Ac. 24:17; Ga. 2:10; 2 Co. 8-9). His advice to the Corinthians was probably typical in this regard:

Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Co. 16:1-3)

Obviously, Paul could assume that the Corinthian Christians would be meeting together on Sunday, and during their worship service, a collection of funds would be made. His ethic was that Christians with means should be “generous and willing to share” (1 Ti. 6:18; Ga. 6:10).

                In summary, the central elements of Christian worship that come to us from the New Testament are these: the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist; public reading of Scripture, teaching and preaching; hymn-singing; communal prayer; opportunity for free expression of spiritual gifts; liturgical elements like the Thanksgiving, the Amen, the Maranatha, doxologies and blessings; the confession of faith; the collection of offerings. What did a 1st century worship service look like and how was it ordered? With no biblical description, it would be presumptuous to attempt precision or to assume that Christian worship in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor and Palestine was identical. Nonetheless, the above elements seem to be widely attested.