Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Disciplined Use of Words

Joachim Jeremias, the great New Testament theologian of the kingdom of God,  points out that the disciplined use of words is one of the practical ways of "belonging to the reign of God" in everyday life.

In Matthew 5, Jesus strongly condemns the sins of the tongue - extending to the smallest detail and intent. He warns against unfriendly words, words that fail to show hospitality, words that raise suspicion, words that condemn a brother, and even words of "harmless slander" that can ultimately have a hurtful end.

He reserved his strongest statements for his condemnation of oath-taking.

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.  (Matthew 5:33-37 NRSV)

These sayings of Jesus focus not only on oath-taking in legal proceedings (courtrooms and contracts), but to a more general constant and consistent attitude of truth-telling which manifests itself in the everyday life of his followers. Participants in the kingdom of God should have such reputations as truth-tellers that no one should expect or demand any act of heroic assertion of their truthfulness.

When one's "Yes" means "Yes" and "No" means "No", there is no need to swear one's honesty by heaven or earth. Oaths - exaggerated protestations of one's truthfulness - are only required of those who are expected to lie.  Those living under God's rule need make no such affirmations.

Jeremias concludes, "God is the God of truth, and therefore truth is a characteristic of his reign."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Evangelical Christians and Anti-Catholicism

I am startled when my evangelical Christian friends continue to show a strong anti-Roman Catholic bias. To continue to define Catholicism by the abuses of the late medieval period means that we are all still fighting the battles of the sixteenth century. Honestly, you would think someone was selling indulgences on the street corners of every major American city given the vehemence of the anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Roman Catholicism - like Christianity in general - is a historic faith; it grows, matures, and changes with time. As much as any of us might strive to mirror biblical religion, no Christian church has perfectly reflected the "New Testament pattern" since the first century. And while it is true that the Roman Catholics across Europe "struck back" at the rebellious Protestants in a "war of words" after the 16th century Protestant Reformation - that sometimes escalated in to real, extended wars across Europe - it is equally true that Roman Catholics "heard" the Protestant criticisms, rid themselves of offending abuses, and modified their language/understanding of grace and justification. This is clearly seen at the Council of Trent (1545-73).

It would be very enlightening for my evangelical Protestant brethren to actually READ the Catechism of the Catholic Church on "Grace and Justification." BEFORE YOU DISAGREE WITH IT, IT JUST MAKES SENSE TO READ IT. Click here to download the section of the Catechism on "Grace and Justification."


Yes, there is some vocabulary here that gives my Protestant heart a pause - words like "merit" and "cooperation" make me uneasy. But these words of the Catechism are consistently cast in terms of divine initiative and providence that allays my Protestant fears. Look at these quotes:

"Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion."

"With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator."

"The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit."

"Our merits are God's gifts."

The entire section of the Catechism on "Grace and Justification" is replete with the language of divine initiative in justification and empowerment in sanctification. (Admittedly, there are differences from many Protestants about when the work of justification is complete in the life of the Christian, but this in no way undermines the language of divine initiative in the Catechism.) As a Protestant, I might not choose the vocabulary used in this document, but I do not disagree with its overall "grace through faith" message.

To download a complete copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Edition), click here.


The real issues that divide some 21st-century evangelical Protestant Christians from Roman Catholics are these:

Sacramentalism - Catholics believe - on a strong biblical basis - that God has ordain certain ceremonies such that the grace of God is communicated to those humans who correctly participate in them. Simply put, the sacraments are "means of grace" - formal, structured ways in which the grace of God comes to human beings. While Protestants may differ on the nature and number of the sacraments and how they should be performed, to see these ceremonies as acts of "works righteousness" in which Roman Catholics seek to justify themselves through human action is to miss the point entirely. The anti-sacramentalism of the Protestant "free churches" and other groups influenced by the free church tradition is an intra-family disagreement and not a reason to disallow Catholic Christian commitment.

Issues of Human Will - The language of "cooperation" with God in sanctification is particularly troublesome to Protestants - especially to those who deny any semblance of human free will. For those Protestants who affirm the "total depravity" of human will (the total corruption, or even destruction, of the image of God in sinful humans), by definition, any talk of human wills doing anything of themselves is impossible. But the Catholic Catechism - along with many other Protestants who do not share this understanding of the human will, the Orthodox churches, the "forgotten" churches of the east, and all of the church fathers before Augustine - understands that the human will - corrupted, but not destroyed - comes to serve God by "the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit' - that is, through prevenient grace (that comes before any human decision or action) by which God justifies and sanctifies humans. From this view, divine initiative empowers the human will to do what it could not do of itself - to love God and His ways and to move toward a life of holiness.


The sixteenth century is over and all its theological battles with it. It is time to stop fighting battles that have long since been settled. In an age of post-modern secularity where Christians are now a minority voice and where western social and cultural norms have been "cut free" from their Judeo-Christian roots, it is imperative to UNITE not further divide Christians.

But honestly, my evangelical Christian friends, if you truly believe that Roman Catholics "do not preach the Christian gospel" - if you believe that there are some Catholics that are Christians only in spite of their Catholic faith - then I fear, in the words of the apostle, that you have not correctly "discerned the Lord's body."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Did Paul forbid women to teach?

1 Timothy 2:11-15 is by far the most controversial in the New Testament with respect to the role of women in the church. In the first place, there are significant translation difficulties.

  • How should one translate the term gyne (either “woman” or “wife”).
  • How should one translate the expression hesychia manthaneto? Does it mean she is to “learn in silence” (i.e., don’t speak out publicly, so KJV) or she is to “learn quietly” (i.e., she is not to disrupt worship, so NASB)?
  • To whom or what is she to be in “full submission” (pase hypotage)? The object of this submission is unstated. Does Paul mean she is to be in submission to the church, in submission to men generally, or in submission to her husband?
  • How should one render the phrase ouk epitrepo? If one translates it absolutely, “I do not permit”, it indicates habitual practice (so NIV). If one translates it periphrastically, “I am not permitting”, it indicates a temporary restriction for the present time, e.g., “I am not [i.e., at this time] giving permission for a woman to teach…” (so JB).
  • What is the meaning of the infinitive authentein, a rare word that appears only here in the New Testament? It certainly is not the usual Greek word that Paul uses to describe authority. Does it mean “to have authority over”, implying a prohibition of female leadership altogether (so NASB)? Does it mean “to dominate”, implying an abuse of leadership power by women who are already leaders (so Berkeley Version)?
    In addition to translation issues, there are significant interpretive issues, particularly in the latter part of the passage.
  • Why does Paul say Adam was created first? Does he intend this as a statement about rank (i.e., Adam was superior to Eve) or a statement correcting a popular Ephesian myth (i.e., a myth advocating that the woman was the first created being)?
  • Is Paul’s statement that the woman was deceived intended as a derogation toward all women (i.e., women are not to be trusted) or the refutation of an Ephesian myth (i.e., a myth advocating that the woman was the source of all wisdom)?
  • How is the woman “saved” through child bearing? The grammar is complex, for literally it reads, “She shall be saved….if they remain in faith…” Who is the “she” and who are the “they”?
    The most restrictive approach to this passage (sometimes labeled “hard patriarchalism”) sees it as a categorical prohibition. Here, women are to be silent in a congregational setting. They can listen, but they cannot say anything. They must be in total submission to men. Under no circumstance may they teach men. They can have no leadership role in the church, at least if such a role would require them to be directive to men, for they were divinely created to be in submission to men. To do otherwise would usurp the woman’s God-ordained role to be under male authority. The order of creation is hierarchical. Adam was created first; therefore, males are superior. Eve, not Adam, was deceived in Eden. Women are by disposition inclined to be fooled, and therefore, they are more apt to be tricked into transgression.
    A less restrictive approach (sometimes labeled “soft patriarchalism”) reads the passage as allowing women to learn quietly so long as they do not disrupt the worship service. They should be in submission to their husbands, and they cannot be a teacher of men, though they may teach other women and also young children. They cannot serve as overseers or elders, since such a role would be a usurpation of the God-ordained pattern that men are to be the primary leaders in the church, but they can serve in lesser roles (e.g., administrative, supportive, secretarial, etc.). The creation sets the hierarchical order. Men were created first; therefore, men should be the primary leaders. Eve was the first to fall into disobedience; therefore, women should not be the primary leaders. However, women may serve in subordinate roles in the church so long as they serve under the jurisdiction of a male leader. They may speak publicly, so long as they do so in submission to their husbands or fathers or male congregational leaders.
    An egalitarian approach reads the passage as a temporary restriction upon women in the Ephesian church due to the rise of a matriarchal heresy with roots in Ephesian paganism and the beginnings of Gnosticism.  This position emphasizes the cultural context of Ephesus (1 Ti. 1:3), a Roman city with an extensive history in mother goddess worship and whose patron deity, Artemis, was famous throughout the Roman world. When Gnostic ideas began to infiltrate Ephesus via Judaism, the notion of feminine mediators was advanced so that men could only learn the esoteric knowledge of the Gnostics from women, several of whom are known by name. To be sure, what we known of Asian Gnosticism comes from documents somewhat later than the writing of the pastoral letters (2nd century AD), but at the same, many scholars have suggested that incipient Gnosticism (i.e., an early developing form of Gnostic thought) probably underlies not only the Pastoral Letters, but also Paul’s Colossian letter and perhaps the letters of John. The female was perceived to be the primal source of spiritual knowledge, an idea present in Ephesian myths but transferred over into formative Gnostic teachings. Such mysticism held that Eve pre-existed before Adam, and in fact, was responsible for infusing him with life. Sophia Zoe (= Wisdom-Life), an alias for Eve, created Adam before the fleshly Eve was removed from his side. She breathed life into him, and she is the one who holds the power of enlightenment. Adam was ignorant of the true state of affairs, tricked into believing that he was created first. His enlightenment—the Gnostic secret knowledge that his source of life was the feminine-divine—could only be revealed by the woman, and the Gnostics’ claim was that they held the key to this enlightenment.
    If the foregoing culture of Ephesus lies behind Paul’s statements in 1 Timothy, which I think it probably does, then the reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 takes on quite a different cast. Certainly, there could hardly be a more pointed disagreement between St. Paul and the Gnostic mythologies:
    GNOSTIC LITERATURE                   ST. PAUL
    The Hypostasis of the Archons, 2.89    1 Timothy 2:13
    The spirit-filled woman came to him        For Adam was formed first, then
    and spoke with him, saying, “Arise,         Eve.
    Adam.” And when he saw her, he said,
    “You are the one who has given me
    On the Origin of the World, 2.5.116      1 Timothy 2:14
    But let us not tell Adam because he is        And Adam was not the one
    not from among us, but let us bring a         deceived; it was the woman
    sleep upon him, and let us teach him          who was deceived and became
    in his sleep as if she [Eve] came into          a sinner.
    being from his rib…
    That some sort of feminine aggression was prominent among Ephesus’ false teachers seems apparent, for Paul rebukes the ostentatious dress of such women who flaunted themselves in public worship (1 Ti. 2:9-10). He calls to silence any women leaders who were given to malicious talk (1 Ti. 3:11; 5:13) and rebukes those spreading “godless myths and old wives’ tales” (1 Ti. 4:7). Near the end of the letter, he warns against “godless chatter” and “opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Ti. 6:20-21). His language about “what is falsely called knowledge” is an admirable description of what we know of Gnostic thought a few decades later. How far developed Gnostic ideas were at this early stage is difficult to ascertain, but the similarities are striking. In any case, Paul was blunt: such female-perpetrated heresies already had induced some to turn away from the true gospel of Jesus Christ to follow Satan (1 Ti. 5:17).

If this is the context, then Paul’s restrictions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are to be read in their local setting. He is not issuing universal demands that women never speak in church, never occupy positions of leadership, or never are allowed to teach. Rather, he is emphatically shutting down a virulent heresy in Ephesus, demonstrating by his citations from the Book of Genesis how distorted was this false teaching. The feminists were wrong: Adam, not Eve, was created first. Eve, not Adam, was deceived by the snake.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Rock of Ages - Controversy in a Hymn

One of my favorite hymns of the church is "Rock of Ages" - a powerful statement of a sinner's total reliance upon God for salvation. Every line, every stanza speaks of the sinner's self-awareness of his guilt before God and his sense of total incapability to redeem himself. Likewise, every word points beyond the sinner's deeply-felt inability to God's free, but costly, provision of salvation.

    Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
    Let me hide myself in Thee;
    Let the water and the blood,
    From Thy wounded side which flowed,
    Be of sin the double cure;
    Save from wrath and make me pure.

Augustus M. Toplady (1740-1778), the author of this hymn, was a devoted Calvinist, convinced of the total depravity of man and the singular action of a sovereign God in providing human salvation. His outspoken Calvinist views often put him at odds with his contemporaries, the Wesley brothers - John Wesley, the itinerant preacher and founder of the Methodist faith, and Charles Wesley, a staunch supporter of his brother's ministry and one of the best known song writers in all Christian history. This disagreement led to public debate and lasting hard feelings between Toplady and the Wesleys. This dispute mirrors the debate that lingers even today between Calvinists and Wesleyans.


But here is something I find quite interesting. One couplet in Toplady's song - "Be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure" - is a thoroughly Wesleyan sentiment. John Wesley - and his Methodist followers - stressed both the centrality of prevenient grace - grace that comes before anything else - in turning sinful man toward God and the absolute necessity of the sanctification process - the growth toward true righteousness and holiness - in the life of the Christian after this conversion experience.

This powerful song seems to accomplish what years of discussion and debate - both friendly and otherwise - never could. It brings together the strongest affirmations of both Calvinism and Wesleyanism in one place.

Sometimes, a song accomplishes things that nothing else can do.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Calvinism - A Quick Overview

I was recently asked to describe the main tenets of Calvinism. I referred the questioner to the following materials that I used as a hand-out when teaching a "Religion in American Life" course at a Florida college.

While I am not a Calvinist by persuasion, I think the following presentation is a fair and reliable description of the main themes of Calvinist thought and practice. This presentation does not seek to persuade, promote, or attack these ideas for which I maintain the greatest respect.

NOTE: These materials are a synopsis I developed from a longer piece in A History of Philosophy in America (Flower and Murphey) and a lengthy quote from the major professor of my doctoral program. I make no claim of originality for any of these materials.


John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is perhaps the most significant literary expression of the sixteenth century Swiss Reformation. This work - and Calvin's teachings in general - gave birth to many later religious movements, among them Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism.

For Calvin, God is above all the locus of power. He is the Almighty, the creator, the master of the universe. His sovereignty is unconditioned, His power is infinite, and His will is arbitrary and unconstrained by any outside force. He is constrained only by his own nature. It is God who completely determines all events - although lesser forces may appear to be causative agents, in fact, ultimate causality resides in God alone. He is omniscient - with absolute foreknowledge - and He is transcendent - so that human knowledge can never adequately depict him. Calvin's God is therefore always mysterious and inscrutable. His ways, the biblical writer tells us, are "past finding out." The vast distance between God and man - a fact rooted in both divine and human nature - is further compounded, Calvin tells us, by the fallen state of humanity.

Calvin argues that since God is all powerful and since he determines all to be, it is true that He, and He alone, decrees, elects, or predestines those who receive eternal salvation and those who receive eternal damnation. This divine choice is eternal and irrevocable: no human act, however noble or depraved, can affect it in the slightest.

Calvin further argues that those elected to salvation receive the grace of God as a free gift - unmerited and undeserved. Moreover, this grace is irresistible: God effectively redeems those he chooses and the chosen are merely passive recipients of this grace.

Upon receiving God's salvation, the elect must be cleansed of their moral depravity, that is, their "fallen" nature. But man, powerless before moral evil, is incapable of such a change and it is therefore God again who fuels the process of sanctification - the movement toward true holiness in the life and behavior of the elect. When the grace of God is given to man, the object of his affections is changed from himself to God, so that thereafter he loves God above all else and seeks to fully obey God's will. Calvin depicts receiving grace as falling in love with God. Again it is God who acts to sanctify; the human will remains passive.

One would think that such a position would weaken moral vigor - would deprive humans of moral challenge and strength. Such a doctrine might appear to offer an excuse for sin and a flight into ethical irresponsibility. But in fact, Calvin's doctrine proved to have just the opposite effect - individuals and communities were energized toward moral life. For Calvin, the state of the will was the crucial sign of grace. The sinner is a willful sinner - he loves his sinful ways and win not leave them. To be regenerate - to have receive grace - is to have a regenerated will, to be able to strive for the good (by God's empowering alone) and to turn away from sin. It is not by striving that one acquires grace; rather the fact that one can strive to do good is a sign that grace has been given.

But there was always a question mark about one's state of grace. Since sanctification is incomplete in this life and since all human wills are drawn toward evil, each moral failure, each breach of God's commandments however small, might well indicate that grace was never given at all. The state of the soul must be inferred from the signs of moral life. This doctrine of visibility means that there are external, moral signs by which a man can attain some assurance - though never complete certainty - of his election. Accordingly, the would-be Christian must constantly scrutinize his life and behavior. Since there is always some doubt, it is necessary to prove one's self daily. Thus, far from weakening moral vitality, Calvin's doctrine drove his followers to a ceaseless struggle to attain an unattainable goal and made every failure to reach the goal a fresh motive for renewed effort. (Sociologist Max Weber has pointed out that many of Calvin's early followers belonged to the rising business class in Europe and that their "work ethic" and thrift undoubtedly accelerated the pace of the expanding capitalist development.)

 Leo Sandon, Professor Emeritus of Religion of Florida State University, points out that in Calvinism "the primary ethical focus is on the public good (commonweal) to which purely private interests are subordinated. Calvinism characteristically evidences a positive attitude toward the political order, favoring firm, stable, representative governance, but providing for revolutionary action in the extreme case in which rulers may require obedience to policy which is contrary to the clear will of God. The insistence that both governors and people are under God's rule leads Calvinists to a normative understanding that governance is to be by laws, not persons. Economically, the Calvinist bias is toward productive work, frugality, modest life style, and disciplined savings and reinvestment. Calvinism has tended to stress the subordination of the erotic dimension of human life to the rational dimension."

 In summary, we can say that for Calvin, human freedom was always overshadowed by divine sovereignty. Humans were free only to live out their election. The possibility of rebellion against this divine choice meant the denial of God's full power. For Calvin, such a conclusion is unthinkable.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Thomas Oden - Patriarch of Paleo-Orthodoxy

"Thomas Oden is a Methodist, ecumenist, evangelical, and patristics scholar who was dissuaded from liberal modernism by a Jewish conservative, becoming himself a theological paleo-orthodox and devoting the last half of his life to the reaffirmation of Christian orthodoxy rooted in the early church fathers." So begins the recent review of Oden's A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (2014) in the pages of the Weekly Standard. Click here to read this excellent review.

Paleo-orthodoxy is a loose term to used to describe the trend among a range of scholars - Oden chief among them - to root theological thought in the broad consensus of belief expressed by creeds and councils during the first six centuries of Christian history rather than in medieval Catholicism, the Protestant revolt of the 1600s, or the Enlightenment thought that came to define the experience of modernity. Of paleo-orthodoxy, one writer states, "It is in many respects a reaction against Protestantism's '400-year memory'. Proponents of paleo-orthodoxy aim to widen the Protestant collective memory to include all 20 centuries of church history."

In his Classic Christianity, Oden - retired Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University - describes his commitment to the "Christianity of consensus" - that which was believed "everywhere, always, and by all."

My basic purpose is to set forth an ordered view of the faith of the Christian community upon which there has generally been substantial agreement between the traditions of East and West, including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. My intent is not to present the views of a particular branch of modern Christian teaching, such as Roman Catholic or Reformed, but to listen single-mindedly for the voice of that deeper consensus that has been gratefully celebrated as received teaching by believers of vastly different cultural settings, whether African or Asian, Eastern or Western, sixth or sixteenth century.

My intention may be simply put: I hope to set forth what is most commonly stated in the central Christian tradition concerning God. This effort is therefore ecumenical in a larger sense than is usually assumed in the modern ecumenical movement. It proposes to follow that ancient ecumenical consensus of Christian teaching of God as seen in earliest creedal summaries of Irenaeus, c. AD 190; Tertullian, c. 200; Hippolytus, c. 215; Council of Caesarea, 325; Council of Nicaea, 325; Marcellus, 340; Cyril of Jerusalem, 350; Council of Constantinople, 381; Rufinus, 404; Council of Chalcedon, 451. These confessions still embrace and empower not only centrist Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox but also great numbers of evangelicals, liberals, and charismatics.

Hence I am seeking to set forth key constructive arguments of two millennia of ecumenical Christian thinking - that God is, who God is, and what that means for us today. I seek an internally consistent statement of classical Christian thinking about God so as to provide a reliable foundation for baptism, the life of prayer, scripture studies, and for the living of Christian life.

Other Christian scholars identified with paleo-orthodoxy include the late Richard John Neuhaus, Alan Padgett, J. I. Packer, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten, Stanley Grenz, Bradley Nassif, and Thomas Howard. Special attention should be paid the the Ancient-Future series by the late Robert Webber.


Of the writings by and in honor of Thomas Oden, these are the essential works:

The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (HarperOne, 2002)

Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (HarperOne, 2009)

After Modernity . . . What? (Zondervan, 1992)

Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century - Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden (IVP, 2002)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Question Asked and Answered

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,  they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;  and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)  So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" (Mark 7:1-5 NRSV)

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" (Mark 13:1-4 NRSV)

Both of these passages introduce a lengthy dialogue/discourse by Jesus to address the question asked. The dialogue is a very common form used by Gospel writers to gather and express the memory of the sayings of Jesus on a specific topic.

"Dialogue" may be too strong of a word here, inferring an on-going verbal exchange - a back-and-forth communication between teacher and students - as clearly seen between Socrates and his pupils in Plato's  "Dialogues."

Regarding "Dialogue Gospels," Helmut Koester in his Ancient Christian Gospels writes

"Questions and answers in the dialogue are usually quite brief, some units comprising only one question by one of the . . .disciples (sometimes by 'all' the disciples) and an answer from the Lord in the form of a saying. . . . A traditional saying may constitute the final answer; but sayings are also used in the formulation of the disciple's question, while the answer given by the Lord is actually a secondary interpretation posed by the understanding of the saying that was quoted at the beginning of such a dialogue unit."

The most common structure of the Gospel "dialogues" is very simple. (1) Jesus says or does something not completely understood by his audience. (2) In response, the audience - either collectively or through the voice of one of its members - questions or comments about the meaning of the word or action of Jesus. (3) In turn, Jesus offers an explanation of his words or actions. Sometimes this response goes into great detail (as in Mark 7 and 13) and sometimes it consists only of a single explanatory - even dismissive - statement.

In John's Gospel, we witness a number of full-blown dialogues with give-and-take interactions between Jesus and his audience. Both types of dialogues can be seen in the later non-canonical Gospels. The simple "question-answer" form is found throughout the Gospel of Thomas, while more participatory dialogues are found in the Dialogue of the Savior and the Apocryphon of James.


So much for the history lesson. What does this have to do with the way we interpret these passages today?

Here is a modest proposal for interpreting Gospel dialogues. TAKE THE QUESTION SERIOUSLY. The answers Jesus gave were not given in a vacuum. His answers address the specific questions asked and, therefore, should be interpreted accordingly.

Look at the passages I quoted above.

Commentators have gone to great lengths to see Mark 7 as the rejection of the Torah (the Mosaic law) by Jesus and all subsequent Christians. But the Pharisees' question was not about Torah observance - a commitment that they shared with Jesus and his disciples.  Rather the question is about obeying the "traditions of the fathers" - the "oral Torah" that collected the interpretations and expansions of the Mosaic law by Jewish teachers down through the years. To read the passage to say that Jesus attacked Torah observance is to miss the point altogether. The answer that Jesus gave directly related to the question asked.

Similarly, there is a world of silly end time speculation that arises from modern interpretations of Mark 13 (and its parallel passages in Matthew 24-25 and Luke 17 and 21). The question Jesus is addressing in Mark 13 regards his prediction of the destruction of the Jewish temple (which took place in AD 70). The small group of disciples asked about the timing of this destruction ("when will this be") and the events leading up to this disaster ("and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished"). To project the answers given by Jesus to these very specific questions on the distant future or even on modern times fails to realize the correspondence between the questions asked and the answers given. Hearing his answer as a direct response to the question regarding the temple's destruction (AD 70) is the only way to make sense of his concluding remark.

Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. (Mark 13:30)

In both Mark 7 and Mark 13, a question is asked and answered. Our guide to interpret the dialogues of Jesus should be to pay attention to the question he is asked and to understand his answer in the context of the question.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When Will Tongues Cease?

Paul offers a fascinating Greek construction in his famous chapter on the enduring character of love as contrasted with the temporary character of spiritual gifts (1 Co. 13:8). He says, But where there are prophecies, they will be abolished. Where there are tongues, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be abolished.

To fully appreciate what Paul is doing in this text, one needs to know something of Greek vocabulary and grammar. In the passage, Paul uses two verbs:

            καταργέω  (katargeo = “to destroy, to abolish, to set aside”)

            παύω (pauo  = “to stop, to cause to stop”)

For the gift of “prophecies”, Paul puts the verb in the 3rd person plural future indicative passive voice form:  katargethesontai = “they will be abolished”.

For the gift of “knowledge”, Paul puts the same verb in the 3rd person singular future indicative passive voice form:  katargethesetai = “it will be abolished”.

Both uses of the verb “to destroy” are identical except for the number (plural vs. singular). However, for the gift of tongues, Paul does something different, something that is not discernible from an English translation but is quite plain in Greek. Here, he puts the verb in the 3rd person plural future indicative middle voice and says that “tongues”: pausontai = “will cease [of themselves]”.

It is this change from passive voice to middle voice that is curious. Why does Paul do this? For English speakers, middle voice is virtually non-existent as a distinct form, but it is very much a distinct form in NT Greek, and in the future tense (which is the case here), it has a specific inflected spelling that is unmistakable (stem + sigma + future middle suffix ending). The middle voice verb in NT Greek expresses action performed by the subject in its own interest or of itself. For instance, when Judas hanged himself, Matthew uses a middle voice verb (this action he performed on himself, which is to say, no one hanged him, but he hanged himself). When Paul tells the Corinthians, “But you washed yourselves…” he uses a middle voice verb.

There are two basic interpretive options as to why Paul uses this distinct middle voice form with regard to the gift of tongues. One is that he intends that the gift of tongues will eventually die out of its own accord. Unlike the gifts of prophecies and knowledge, which ultimately will be abolished “when that which is perfect is come” (here, an oblique reference to the eschaton, 1 Co. 13:9-10), the gift of tongues will cease [of itself]. Hence, some exegetes offer translation possibilities, such as, “they shall make themselves cease” or “automatically cease of themselves” (A. T. Robertson and others). It is on this basis that some interpreters suggest that the lessening use of tongues in the post-apostolic church showed a gradual process of dying out.

The other interpretive option is that Paul varies his verbs for rhetorical reasons rather than didactic ones. Here, Paul simply uses the two different voices to provide linguistic variety. To say that he intends to teach that tongues will cease [of themselves], according to this view, puts too much weight on a brief statement without a larger context to support it (Gordon Fee and others).

In the end, a rather large gate turns on this tiny hinge of a single middle voice verb. Did Paul think that the gift of tongues was in any way time limited—that it would (or should) eventually die out in the future Christian church? Or is he simply varying his verb structure so as not to be unduly repetitive? That is the 64-dollar question. I suspect that most exegetes lean in the direction of their experience, Greek grammar notwithstanding.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Hem of His Garment

"And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment,  for she said to herself, "If I only touch his garment, I will be made well." (Matthew 9:20-21 ESV)

"And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick  and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well." (Matthew 14:35-36 ESV)

The King James Version's translation of these passages - "touching the hem of his garment" - fails to communicate the clear reference to "fringes" or "tassels" attached at the four corners of an outer garment that were required of Jewish males by the law of Moses.

"Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.  And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.  So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God." (Numbers 15:38-40)

"You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself." (Deuteronomy 22:12)

These fringes (Hebrew tzitzit) consisted of woolen threads (strings) women together to form a cord. These cords would be pulled through holes in the corners of an outer garment. From the four corners to the garment, the fringes would hang loosely.

These fringes were worn by Jewish men (in biblical times) throughout the day to remind them to obey the obligations of the Torah (mitzvot) at all times. Later rabbis reasoned that since the command in Numbers specified "seeing" the fringes that the obligation to wear the tasseled garment applied only to the daylight hours (the "time of seeing").

Today, these fringes are most often seen in synagogue worship on the four-cornered prayer shawls (tallit) worn by Jewish men when reciting the Shema - "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" - and during morning payers.

Jesus clearly observed this Torah obligation. The Gospels report that the reputation of Jesus as a healer was so widespread that many felt that merely "touching the fringe of his garment" would bring healing. NOTE: This was not simple magical superstition. Rather touching the fringe of his garment was a public recognition of Jesus as a holy man. The fringes symbolized the depth of his commitment to and practice of the laws of the Torah and his rightful authority as a "teacher in Israel." Touching these fringes was an act of honoring Jesus.

In Matthew 23, Jesus criticized the scribes and Pharisees for their self-serving public displays of religiousity - especially their abuse of the fringes (tzitzit).

"They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others." (Matthew 23-5-8 ESV)

With this condemnation, Jesus is not attacking the practice of wearing fringes. Rather he is denouncing ostentatious public displays of one's religious self-importance.

Jesus was a practicing Jew. Wearing fringes on his garment was the fulfillment of a Torah obligation. Touching these fringes was an act of honoring, of recognition and affirmation of the righteousness and healing power of Jesus.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ritual Purity and the Miracles of Jesus

Within the Torah-observant Jewish community, various sorts of conditions caused ritual impurity, including touching the dead (Lv. 11:29-40; Nu. 5:1-3; 19:11ff.), skin abnormalities (Lv. 13; Nu. 5:1) and contact with blood or bodily discharge (Lv. 12; 15). Further, such ritual impurity was transferable by secondary contact (cf. Hg. 2:10-13). In a practical sense, ritual impurity called for quarantine. Indeed, the so-called “four room house”, an Israelite arrangement of rooms around a central court which began to appear as early as the 10th century BC, may well have been designed especially with ritual impurity in mind, since it was an architectural form that permitted quarantine without rendering the whole house inaccessible. This form was unique to Israel, and some archaeologists simply call it the “Israelite house”. Another practical outcome of ritual impurity was isolation from the temple (or tabernacle), and later, the synagogue. Even appearing in a public place was problematic, since the condition of impurity could be passed on to anyone who touched the impure person, whether intentionally or by accident (cf. Lv. 5:3). Typically, Jews in the time of Jesus avoided all such contact.

Imagine, then, the unrelenting anguish of the woman in Matthew’s Gospel who had a chronic hemorrhage. She could never enter the women’s court of the temple during the annual haggim. She could never attend the synagogue in her local village. Her access to community spiritual life was completely barred. Her association with close family members—even sons or daughters—would be significantly curtailed. She was isolated and ostracized. The same could be said of lepers (and here, one must not limit the condition to Hansen’s Disease) as well as a variety of other people with chronic conditions.

Again and again in the gospels, Jesus crossed this barrier of ritual impurity in order to minister to those caught in conditions where there seemed no way out. The point, of course—the really important point—is that instead of ritual impurity transferring over to Jesus, his perfect sanctity was transferred over to them. In healing the man with leprosy, instead of the ritual uncleanness being transferred to Jesus (cf. Lv. 5:3), the sanctity of Jesus was transferred to the leper (Mt. 8:1-4). In his robe being touched by the woman with the hemorrhage, the ritual uncleanness of contact with blood was reversed by Jesus’ miracle of healing (Mt. 9:20-22). I can only imagine the desperation of this poor woman as she edged her way into the crowd surrounding Jesus, taking huge personal risks of rejection and even physical reprisals, to reach out so that she might only touch the edge of his cloak from behind him. In the same narrative, when Jesus touched the dead girl, he reversed the ritual uncleanness of contact with a corpse by raising her to life (Mt. 9:25).

Awareness of these very Jewish issues in the 1st century sheds new light on the ministry of our Lord. Indeed, it would not be farfetched to suggest that these very incidents would later become even more meaningful when the early Christians began reaching beyond their traditional boundaries with the gospel. Peter, for instance, traveled up the coast and stayed at the home of a tanner (Ac. 9:43). This was no small thing! Tanners, by virtue of their occupation, had continual contact with blood. In lists of despised occupations for Jews (given several times in the Talmud), tanners were near the bottom along with dung-collectors and others whose livelihood rendered them unclean! Yet Peter had come far enough to actual stay with a tanner, and it was while staying there that he had the vision of unclean animals and the voice from heaven telling him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean!” In no category is this issue more telling than in the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles, who once were alienated from the citizenship of Israel, foreigners to the covenants, without hope and without God—but those once far away have been brought near by the blood of Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Daily Prayer in Early Christianity

I saw a Facebook post earlier today that asked if Muslims pray 5 times a day, why can't Christians likewise develop a daily pattern of prayer. The post went on to announce a noon day prayer service at a local church pastored by a former student and her husband.

This is really a good question - especially since it seems quite clear in the historical record that early Christians universally participated in a daily cycle of prayers - not unlike modern Muslims.

The historian of early Christianity, Eusebius, writing in the early 300s, stated that "throughout the whole world in the churches of God at the morning rising of the sun and at the evening hours, hymns, praises, and truly divine delights are offered up to God."

This practice in the early Jesus movement was no doubt inherited from its Jewish forebears. In Jerusalem - before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 - specific prayers were associated with the morning and evening (Tamid or daily) sacrifices. It is reasonable to think that the Psalms played a major role in these daily prayers.  Jews living outside Palestine - who could not participate in the Temple sacrifices - often practiced prayer at these same appointed times. It is very unlikely that Jesus and his earliest followers - all practicing Jews - would fail to observe this pattern of daily prayers.

We do not know many of the details of this early Christian prayer cycle. We do not know with certainty the nature of these prayers? Were some communal? Some familial? Some personal? Neither do we know the content or specific language of these prayers, although early Christian writers speak of psalms, scripture readings, and hymns during these times of prayer.

It does not appear that there was a single worldwide structure to the daily cycle of Christian prayer. Some writers describe a two-prayer cycle (morning and evening), paralleling the times of the Temple prayers. Others write of a three-fold pattern of prayer, following the normal divisions of the day (morning, noon, and evening). Yet others tell of a five-fold pattern of daily prayer (early morning, the third hour (9 AM), the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3 PM), and the evening). It is quite possible that in some places , some of these prayers were made in a community assembly (especially the morning prayers), while others were probably made privately or in a home setting (especially the evening prayers associated with the lighting of the lamps - a really great symbolism).

While we cannot know for certain the content and nature of these daily prayers, it is safe to assume that these were times of praise and petition and, sometimes, meditation and lament. We do know from the instructions of Jesus that his followers were to pray with "watchfulness" and readiness for God's saving action (Matthew 25:1-13 and Luke 12:35-48). Early Christian prayer was always "an expectant vigil for the imminent return of the Lord" (Oxford History of Christian Worship).

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Never Too Old to Learn from Your Elders

Bishop Thomas L. Craft recently shared these wise words at the JCM 2015 Reunion in Nashville.

"Winning souls, loving people, preaching the gospel - that's what is all about."

And the church said . . AMEN!

Acts 2:39 - All Who Are Far Off

"For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all who are far off [τοῖς εἰς μακρὰν], even as many as the Lord our God shall call." (Acts 2:39 KJV)

"for all who are far off" (NIV)

"for all who are far away" (NRSV)

I was taught that the promise "to all who are far off" refers to all future generations to whom the promise of Acts 2:38 (in reality, the earlier promise of Joel 2:28) is made - the promise of the end time outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh regardless of nationality, ethnicity, culture, or social standing. That is, the verse makes a promise to you and me - all of us who are "far off" in time from Peter's sermon.

If this is the best interpretation, then the Greek adverb for "far off" -  makran - is primarily an expression of time and the verse means that the promise retains its vitality over the years, decades, centuries, even millennia.

But the highly respected "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT)" identifies makran as primarily an adverb of place. This term can be used literally as in Luke 15:20, a reference to the prodigal son who was "far off" - that is, geographically distant - from his father's house. The term can also be used metaphorically as in Eph. 2:13 where the Gentiles who we once "far off" are now made "near" by the blood of Jesus. "Far off" here metaphorically refers to a spiritual remoteness from God. The TDNT points out that while makran may be used as an adverb of time, such usage is limited to the Septuagint - the Greek Old Testament - and lists no such uses in the New Testament.


If "far off" in Acts 2:39 refers to a separation in distance rather than time, who then is the object of Peter's promise?

A possible key to understanding this passage is to see the language of Isaiah 57:19 echoed in Acts 2:39. Here, Isaiah reassures the Jews crushed by military defeat and exile at the hand of the neo-Babylonians that God will soon act to restore them. Through Isaiah, Yahweh promises "peace to him that is far off [Jews in exile] and to him that is near [defeated Jews remaining in Palestine]." "Far off" here - the word makran in the Greek Old Testament - is clearly a contrast of distance (geographical separation), not time.

Likewise, if the "far off" of Acts 2:39 is a spatial rather than a temporal reference, the object of Peter's promise must be both the Jews in his immediate audience ("to you and your children") and to the Jews of the diaspora ("and to all that are far off'). Remember, by the first century of the common era, a great number of Jews lived outside Palestine. These are the "dispersed" - thus the name "diaspora" - among the Gentile nations.


Now should we have a prolonged doctrinal debate about the use of this adverb in Acts 2:39? Should we draw interpretational "lines in the sand" and part company with anyone who disagrees? CERTAINLY NOT.  Do I personally believe that the end time outpouring of the Spirit is still available today regardless of the meaning of this adverb? I MOST CERTAINLY DO.

So what's the big deal? By interpreting the phrase "far off" in its original Jewish context as a reference to Jews living outside Palestine, we are reminded of the essential Jewish character of the early Jesus movement. Before there was a "Christianity" - a separate and distinct religion from Judaism - Jesus and his followers were just another "Judaism" amidst the variety of "Judaisms" in the first century.

Whatever else Jesus might have been, he was first and foremost a "teacher of Torah." He - like his contemporary rivals - interpreted the law of Moses. He never denied its authority, never rejected its claim over the life of Israel, and never sought to replace it with a new and different religious faith. The gospels are clear: Jesus never intended to form a rival religion to Judaism, but rather, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets,  sought to revitalize his inherited faith with a reaffirmation of Israel's hopes through his teachings of the nearness and even presence of the kingdom of God.

There is very little about the teaching of Jesus that is novel. His words and actions are only understandable against his Jewish background. His language is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. His message was the same as Moses and the prophets. (When someone tries to portray Jesus as something other than a Jewish teacher/prophet, run the other way.) Jesus differed with his contemporaries about the timing of God's saving action, but not its content. The kingdom of God is a Jewish teaching. Jesus simply argued that the coming salvation was not in the distant future, but was, even in his time, being inaugurated in the present age. This is the "good news" that Jesus taught: the future is now, God's salvation has already come. The kingdom of God in the present may be hidden from some, but to those "who have ears to hear," it is here now.

Paul tells us that the Christian message was "to the Jew first." Maybe the adverb "far off" in Acts 2:39 is telling us the same thing.

When we seek to interpret Jesus - or Paul or any other NT writer - we are always well-served to ask what is the Jewish source of these words and actions? What Hebrew scriptures are "echoed" in the language and imagery of the NT writer? The "Jewishness of Jesus" and "Paul within Judaism" may be the most important guiding principles of NT interpretation today.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Meeting in the Air: Footnote on a Greek Word

In Paul’s famous “rapture” passage (though the word rapture comes from the Latin Vulgate, not the Greek text), he describes a “meeting in the air” (1 Th. 4:17). This word “meeting” (apantesis) acquired a somewhat technical nuance in the Greco-Roman world, where it was used to describe the ancient civic custom of a delegation going out to welcome important visitors to one’s city. One sees this usage in other New Testament passages, such as when Paul and his company were approaching Rome and the Christians in Rome sent out a delegation to escort him back into the city (Ac. 28:15-16). By analogy, Paul seems to use this word in 1 Thessalonians to describe the saints rising in the air to meet the descending Christ so that they might escort him back to the earth.

If this is what Paul intends, however, it undercuts a very popular image—the idea that the saints will rise to meet Christ, Christ will make a reverse turn, and they all will go back to heaven for the seven years of the Great Tribulation (this is the version, for instance, one finds in the popular “Left Behind” series of novels). In fact, what is envisioned is not Christ making a reverse turn and going back to heaven, but rather, the saints making a reverse turn as they meet Christ so that they might escort him back into their “city” (i.e., the earth).  Insofar as this imagery holds true, then it fits quite awkwardly with the notion of a preliminary coming of Christ before the end of the age, where Christians go to heaven while the rest of human history continues on for several additional years. It fits much better with the idea that at his second coming at the end of human history, Christ will descend to the earth as its reigning King. When he comes, both the living and the dead in Christ will be joined together, rising to welcome him to the earth, his rightful domain.