Friday, March 25, 2016

Oneness Pentecostal Theologies of God

I recently received an email from Dave Ferrell - a Ph.D student who is researching the history and thought of Apostolic (or Oneness) Pentecostalism - with a couple of questions about my dissertation. Specifically, he asked that I clarify my use of the terms "Father-Son Christology" and economic modalism in my assessment of the Oneness Pentecostal theology of God. To this request, I wrote the following response.


I think that there are several versions of the Oneness Pentecostal theology of God - all of which center on the undivided and indivisible unity of God's being and all of which privilege the Hebrew/Old Testament presentation of God as the interpretive framework/foundation for dealing with all New Testament language regarding God's person and work. Perhaps different "versions" is too strong a term; for it implies that each position is clearly delineated from the others and is mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to describe several different - perhaps competing - conceptualizations in Oneness Pentecostal thought about God. These are not just "variations on a theme." Rather they are distinguishable strategies for explaining how the creator God was also present in the life and death of Jesus and is still present today in the life of the Christian believer and the worship of the gathered Christian community.

I also think that some of the contemporary Oneness Pentecostal theological expressions parallel historic positions that were taken in the post-apostolic, pre-Nicene/Constantinople period. I say this with a little trepidation because the historic sources of some of these early Christian views - especially those that were later labeled heretical - are slim and are available to us only in the context of the polemic writings of their opponents.

Let me also say that I am restricting my comments to the truly theological thinking about God's being rather than more popular Oneness Pentecostal views. While it would be interesting to list some of the popular expressions of Oneness Pentecostal teaching - ranging from the unique to the truly bizarre - such an entertaining exercise would not further this discussion.

The first common version of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is by far the simplest and in many ways the most profound: embracing the mystery of God in Christ. This view simply adheres to powerful scriptural proclamations - like "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" and "without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up in glory." - all without consciously recognizing any theological problem, contradiction, and/or difficulty with these passages. For those holding this view, Christological debate is a non-starter. This view bluntly affirms that the selfsame creator God was present in Christ and is equally present as the Holy Spirit in the church today - without any attempt - or even a felt need - to delve into the challenging questions rising from biblical language and its Christological interpretation, a concern that dominated Christian debate in the first centuries of church history.

This view does not acknowledge any problem with its overly simple Christological interpretation of biblical language or attempt to engage in any debate or defense of its position. I am tempted to say - without any concrete evidence to back up my statement - that this is probably the majority view among Oneness Pentecostals today.

The second common version of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is what I have labeled the "Father-Son Christology." This view takes a Chalcedonian understanding of the two natures of Christ as the solution to the "Father-Son" language in the New Testament. This view originates in the New Issue dispute in the Assemblies of God (1914-1916) about baptismal formula that relegated the terms "Father" and "Son" to mere titles rather than names - titles that point beyond themselves to the true divine name, Jesus. (This logic seems to follow the progression of Frank Ewart's thinking in the fall and winter of 1913-1914.) "Father" comes to represent the divine side of the incarnation and "Son" the human. The total incarnate God - Jesus - was both Father (God) and Son (man) at the same time.

This view reconciles all New Testament Father-Son distinctions - especially in John's Gospel - by an appeal to the dual nature of Jesus. The solution is particularly helpful in dealing with scriptural passages that show inequality between Father and Son - especially in clear subordination passages like "The Father is greater than I" and those passages that speak of the limitation of the Son's knowledge in contrast with the Father's. Problem passages that seem to confer the power and privilege of deity on the Son are understood to refer to the entire incarnate Christ who is both God and man.

This view distinguishes Father and Son qualitatively - one is God and one is man - and also spatially. God is physically inside the man Jesus. Colossians 2:9 is a great proof text of the Father-Son Christology. "For in him (Jesus) dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily."

The chief shortcomings of this view are twofold. First, while the term Father is used consistently of God, equivocation occurs regarding the term Son. Sometimes the Son refers to the human or physical side of Jesus; while at other times, it refers to the entire incarnation (the God-man). The shifting definition of the term Son allows Oneness Pentecostal exegetes to sidestep many problem passages that seem to distinguish Father from Son. Second, the underlying Chalcedonian conceptualization of Christ's dual nature - that underpins the Father-Son Christology - often devolves into a somewhat-Nestorian affirmation of two separate and distinct persons within the incarnate Christ - at least in practical terms. The prayers of Jesus - where the bodily side of Jesus prays to God inside him - is the best example of this sundering of the incarnation into two distinct beings bound together in only the loosest way. The "departure" of Christ's spirit (the Father) from the physical body of Christ (the Son) at the death of Jesus is another example of this strict "dichotomy of being" in the incarnate Christ.

The third and final common view of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is economic modalism - the notion that there is no division of being or person in God, but rather there is only a progression of roles/manifestations - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -  that God has played throughout salvation history. The selfsame God was - according to this Oneness Pentecostal understanding - Father in creation, Son in redemption, and Holy Spirit in salvation of believers. This view of the unfolding economy of God's actions, if seen consistently, must be progressive - the Father gives way to the Son and the Son, in turn, gives way to the Holy Spirit. (This may have been the historic position of Sabellius although all records of his teachings have been filtered by his opponents who may or may not have fairly and accurately understood or portrayed his views.)

With economic modalism, Jesus was not Father and Son at the same time - rather he was the one God who had been manifested as Father in creation and was now manifested as Son in first century Palestine. Likewise, to be consistent, the Son will one day "surrender" his role that God may be "all-in-all" - that is, the Son is only a temporary manifestation of God that began and will end in time. This temporary appearance of God in Jesus is especially troublesome to several of the most prominent Oneness Pentecostal defenders who reject any idea of progressive modalism. The Father-Son Christology is entirely incompatible with the progression of divine roles/manifestations in economic modalism.

Of these three commonly held views, I find the first to be the most compelling. (I am not being clever or facetious in saying this.) I am more persuaded by the appeal to the raw language of the New Testament proclamation that I am by the other reasoned arguments.  The "Father-Son Christology" (rooted in Chalcedonian dual natures of Christ) and economic modalism both have something profoundly in common with the Niceo-Constantinople Trinitarianism that these views seek to deny. All of these arguments  - Oneness and Trinitarian alike - recast Hebraic biblical language, symbols, and metaphors through the thorough-going Greek conceptual world of middle Platonism. Adolf von Harnack, the late 19th century church historian, labeled any such reformulations of biblical religion into Greek philosophical categories as the "Hellenization of the Christian church."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Who Moved the Stone?

Good religion is never convenient.  It calls upon its adherents to sacrifice what is easy so that they may listen to a call that is more real. So it was with the Jews’ religion.  Of all the observances that were observed with meticulous care throughout the year, none was more frequent than the weekly Sabbath.  Shabbath was sacred.  The Torah said so.  The prophets said so.  The rabbis said so.

            By the first century, Judaism had developed to the point where all kinds of regulations attended Sabbath observance, but over them all was the basic directive of the Ten Commandments:  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but on the seventh day you shall not do any work. Almost anything could be construed as work, and that rule certainly included caring for the dead.  So, it was a long Saturday for the women who had stood near the cross of Jesus late Friday afternoon. Sabbath began at sundown on Friday evening, and after Joseph had secured permission from the authorities to bury Jesus’ corpse, there was barely enough time to complete the simplest of details. The traditional anointing that the women had wanted to perform had to be postponed.  By the time darkness had fallen, they had left the garden tomb, pausing only to watch as the huge rolling stone was fixed over the entrance.  Later, of course, it was sealed with a heavy Roman seal and placed under guard.

            It must have seemed strange to the soldiers at the tomb. They had been called many times to guard prisoners, but this may have been the first time they had ever been called to guard a dead man. Meanwhile, at home the women prepared spices and perfumes. Their intentions were clear. When the Sabbath ended, they would go back and complete what they had been forced to postpone on Friday evening.

So, it was a long Saturday.  They determined to return to the tomb in the gray of Sunday morning before full daylight. The Sabbath ended at sundown on Saturday, but there was little they could do in the dark. In the half-light of early Sunday morning, they would be able to do what they could not have done on Friday night. One thought, above all others, occupied their minds.  It was the huge rolling stone that blocked the entrance. Whether or not the women even knew about the guards at the tomb, we don’t know, since the guards were more-or-less an afterthought. But they knew about the huge rolling stone. They had watched as it had been rolled into place. Could the three of them move it? They weren’t sure. The sun was just breaking over the Mt. of Olives as they entered the garden. They asked each other as they went, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” When they arrived, they discovered to their amazement that the stone was already rolled away. Upon entering the tomb, they discovered to their further amazement that the body of Jesus was not there. While there, they were confronted by a young man who said, “Don’t be alarmed.  You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.  He’s not here!  See the place where they laid him.” Trembling, bewildered and afraid, the women fled from the garden and ran to tell the others.

The problem of the rolling stone is one of those small intersections between faith and history that is often overlooked but that give the account the ring of truth.  All four gospels speak of this great stone. Stones large enough to cover the entrance to a tomb would weigh several hundred pounds. The problem of moving one of them is obvious. Yet, the stone had been moved! Who had done this?

Skeptics, as we all know, have had a field day with the resurrection narratives.  All sorts of suggestions have been offered as alternatives to the biblical account. Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea secretly removed the body to another place.  But why would he?  The tomb had been sealed and protected by a Roman guard. In any case, the garden tomb had been selected by Joseph in the first place.  Why would he want to change the burial site? Maybe the authorities moved the body, some suggest.  But again, the question looms. Why should they? Pilate had no reason to do so, since, after all, he ordered the guards to protect the tomb. In any case, Roman prefects were not known to be fearful of dead men! And as for the Jewish authorities, the last thing they would want to do would be to move the corpse. This crucified man was the one who said he would rise again, and the worst possible course of action would be to remove their very proof that he was still dead! Then, there is the “passover plot” theory that crops up every few years or so.  Here, Jesus did not really die.  His disciples drugged him, or he drugged himself, and later he would revive in the cool atmosphere of the tomb and stage a resurrection. The really surprising thing is that anyone with a knowledge of Roman crucifixion would ever buy such a thin argument. Romans were not known for bungling their crucifixions. The executioners were consummate professionals in the most grisly sort of way! Then there is the suggestion that in the darkness the women went to the wrong tomb.  This version sounds suspiciously like a subtle form of the chauvinism that Jesus rejected—the three women were so stupid they couldn’t be trusted to find the same place twice in a familiar city.

So, who moved the stone?  No one had even the slightest reason to move it!  Not Pilate, not Caiaphas, not the disciples, nor anyone else. It is Matthew, of course, who tells us that an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.  He is the young man that the women mistook for the gardener. Regardless, even for someone who doesn’t believe in angels, the remarkable fact that the stone was rolled away is a single feature of the story that is never debated. Sometime between the hour that Joseph and the women left on late Friday evening and sunrise on Sunday morning, this great blocking stone had been moved!

I do not think it has been sufficiently realized how this simple circumstance—this one indisputable fact, unimportant as it may seem at first sight—contributes to the veracity of the story. The sealing of the stone had been a Roman action, prompted by the high priest but ordered by Pilate on Saturday. The women knew nothing of it, since it had occurred after the burial and on the Sabbath itself, when the women and the other disciples were sequestered in their homes. Had they known of the guard, they might never had gone to the garden tomb on Sunday at all. But they didn’t know—and their only concern was about the great rolling stone and how they might move it! But before they arrived, that stone had been moved! The Roman guards were no longer there. They had fled into the streets of Jerusalem early on Sunday morning to report to the high priests that something was amiss at the tomb of the Nazarene! Indeed, it was this feature of the story that years ago drove the English reporter, Frank Morison, to reexamine the gospels’ Easter story in such meticulous detail. And Morison, who began with the assumption that the accounts rested on very insecure foundations, found that in the end he had landed on an unexpected shore—a firm and unshakeable conviction that Jesus had truly risen from the dead.

Now, I don’t for a moment expect that faith in the resurrection of Jesus rests only on a single issue, the issue of who moved the stone.  Nor do I suppose that those who do not already accept Jesus’ resurrection necessarily will be persuaded to do so in view of this small point. At the same time, this is one small window of credibility in the witness of three women who came to the garden tomb early on Sunday morning. While their witness may not have carried much weight in the patriarchal culture of their own times, it has carried considerable weight in the judgment of Christians ever since! And it is surely in keeping with Jesus’ revolutionary evaluation of women that he would choose them to be the first witnesses of the gospel. And so, I say as Christians have expressed it since the very beginning: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Worship in Oneness Pentecostalism, Part 3

Oneness Pentecostal worship reaches it goal in the after service, when in the context of community prayer and ecstasy, a "divine epiphany" occurs which leads to individual conversion and congregational renewal. The excitement of charged preaching creates an ambience for the altar appeal. A blending of emotional background music and a rising "wall" of congregational prayer enhances the moment of expectation and exerts enormous pressure on the unconverted to respond. The calling of the uncommitted and the congregation to the altar by the pastor signifies—in an outward and visible way—the inward readiness to accept the grace of God. The altar symbolizes the dwelling place of God, the place in which he is expected to move in decisive ways in the lives of individuals. The altar appeal moves the congregation from hearing the proclamation of God's word of salvation into direct participation in this saving action.

All the elements of classical Pentecostal worship converge in the altar call to maintain pressure on the unsaved. Enthusiastic appeals by the pastor, moving musical accompaniment, and even physical demonstrations add to this tension. Such "overflows" of the Spirit's activities heighten the pressure on the unconverted and provide a release for building tensions in the congregation. Arthur Paris points out that this prolonged moment of tension is especially effective in persuading those who have "withdrawn their assent but not their conviction of the efficacy of the church" and "its claim to truth." Therefore, "prior conviction," the pressure generated by the atmosphere of enthusiasm, and the sense of guilt elicited by the sermon compel the uncommitted into response.22 Such pressures create a willingness to step out—despite the potentially embarrassing admission of sinfulness—and act upon the promises of salvation. This physical movement toward the altar is the initial step in the conversion process.

After the altar appeal is concluded, the congregation gathers around those responding for a time of personal ministry. Congregation members and ministers "assist" the seeker through prayer, encouragement, and counseling. Fervent, loud corporate prayer, various positioning of the seeker, the clapping of hands, and the before-mentioned spiritual "overflows" maintain the atmosphere of expectancy at the altar. This scene often reaches its peak of intensity when ministers gather and lay their hands on the seeker in a special prayer. This action usually results in the first appearance of glossolalia in the seeker and an "overflow" of rejoicing in the congregation.

Unlike other Pentecostals who understand conversion as simple faith commitment, Oneness Pentecostals demand the full Acts 2:38 "plan of salvation"—repentance, water baptism administered to adults by immersion in the name of Jesus, and Spirit baptism evidenced by tongue- speaking—for conversion. Naturally, the altar service is expanded among Oneness congregations to include all of these activities. The after service, therefore, reduces the building tension of the service to an individual level and the congregation focuses on "praying through" the seeker. Although the act of repentance is emphasized in Oneness preaching and appeals, it plays only a small role in the altar service. Perhaps the act of responding to the altar call has come to replace the lengthy periods of repentance evident in early Oneness years. Seekers are almost immediately considered candidates for Spirit baptism when they respond to this appeal. In turn, the congregation directs its full attention and support to the respondent. Many seekers, however, do not immediately receive Spirit baptism. Some actually respond to altar appeals for years before finally personally experiencing a spiritual "overflow" manifest in glossolalia and physical demonstrations. In light of these cases, the notion of "tarrying" for Spirit baptism has been popularized.

Baptismal services, embodying another "essential" in the Oneness "plan" of salvation, often occur during or following altar services. Counselors admonish the seeker—whether he has manifested the spiritual "overflow" and speaking with tongues or not—to be baptized for the "remission of sins," thus completing and validating his experience of repentance. Baptismal tanks are kept full and warmed for spontaneous baptisms. The seeker, having admitted his guilt publicly and submitted himself to the pressures of the congregational "overflow" in the altar service, will seldom reject the admonition to baptism.

The entire Oneness service—its elements and order—gears itself toward initiating the unconverted. The action of God in the life of the individual always occurs in the context of the worshipping community. This stands as the distinct feature of Oneness Pentecostal worship. All experiences—repentance, water baptism, and Spirit baptism—gain meaning from the acts of public worship. The occurrence of these basic experiences in the uninitiated and the renewal of these experiences in the believer dominate the acts of worship and serve as sure tokens of God's action in the worshipping community. Such "crisis conversions" occur within the context of and as a result of corporate worship rather than subtle persuasion or theological instruction. Although Pentecostal writers affirm the possibility of isolated conversions, this contradicts denominational practices. Entering into normal Pentecostal life occurs within and is maintained within the arena of community worship.23

Conversions occur when the elements of worship are focused in such a way that the seeker is motivated to commitment. These elements highlight the need and availability of salvation. Oneness preaching largely consists of instructing the uncommitted of their present state and the salvation provided by Christ. The sermon motivates the seeker to bold decision, a public admission of sin and the need for salvation, and tangible acts of faith in responding to the altar call, repenting, and submitting to water baptism. The music during the altar call likewise enhances the appeal by presenting the basic doctrines of salvation, promising the desired effects of conversion, influencing the seeker toward decision and determination, providing an avenue of emotional release, emphasizing the expectancy of the congregation, and offering a background for exhortation, encouragement, and prayer. Altar hymns always focus on the "real presence" of Christ at the altar with terms like "here right now," "passing by," and "watching and waiting."24

At the altar, the seeker is invited to salvation, placed in the middle of believers, and bombarded by prayers, songs, and tangible manifestations of the spiritual "overflow." These elements occur simultaneously, resulting in a fevered pitch of ecstasy and the experience of the immediate encounter with Christ—not just part of God or an abstract notion of deity according to Oneness teaching, but the quantitative fullness of God's person—and his saving power. Together, the congregation and seeker share this explosive over powering of the "divine epiphany." After this initiation experience, the seeker enjoys full fellowship in the congregational family, passing from the individual life of sin to the corporate experience of salvation.

The Oneness Pentecostal worship service shares the basic elements and order of general Pentecostal worship, but the zeal to restore the Azusa purity which spawned the Oneness movement pushed these elements of worship to their extreme expressions. This is not to say that Oneness Pentecostal worship has yet to be institutionalized. On the contrary, Oneness churches have followed much the same pattern of denominational maturation as other Pentecostal bodies. But the forms of worship standardized in Oneness churches tend to reflect the more primitive, more demonstrative Pentecostal worship of the earliest revivals, whereas the other major Pentecostal expressions institutionalized the worship of second generation Pentecostalism. While lacking the true spontaneity of the early revivals, Oneness worship does welcome the more extreme physical demonstrations which accompany such spontaneity. This is clear in the after service due to the expansion of the "simple faith" rite of initiation to the complex three-step "plan" of Acts 2:38. Oneness worship captures the form, but not the continued revivalist zeal, of Azusa.


22Paris, Black Pentecostalism, p. 67.

23Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 292-93, 374, 402.

24Ibid., pp. 405-08.

Worship in Oneness Pentecostalism, Part 2

But Oneness worship itself, after its first decade, also fell into the pattern of formalizing Pentecostal worship, although the doctrinal distinctives of the movement left a peculiarly Oneness mark on these routinized worship forms. Contemporary Oneness worship follows the normal pattern of Pentecostal life. The Oneness believer structures his life—most specifically, his social and religious life—around the regular worship services of his congregation. The believer dedicates a substantial portion of time during the week to regular and special services: active members of the congregation attend all regular services, whereas the less committed develop their own pattern of attendance. Oneness congregations usually offer five basic weekly activities: Sunday school, Sunday morning worship service, Sunday evening evangelistic service, a midweek Bible training session, and a midweek prayer meeting. (In many cases, Oneness churches combine the Bible study and prayer meeting into a single midweek service usually held on Wednesday night.)11

Like all Pentecostal worship, Oneness services provide an opportunity for the believer to personally and actively participate in the church's life through corporate music, prayer, testimony, and affirmation of the preached Word. The supernatural is viewed as latent in every service, ready to interrupt the normal order with a "divine invasion." There exists a "constant intersection" between the natural and supernatural in the Pentecostal service along with a "constant susceptibility" of the natural being swallowed up by the supernatural.12 For the Pentecostal, especially the Oneness believer, the divine is more than just an object of worship, it is also the subject of action within community worship.

To be sure, the non-Pentecostal feels that the divine acts and speaks in a special way through the preached Word of the ordained minister, and perhaps even in a general way in the hearing, confession, prayer, and sung praise of the congregation. The Pentecostal, however, feels that the divine speaks throughout the entire service in a special way throughat different times, in different manners, and by different personsthe entire congregation. The result is the Pentecostal congregation's feeling that heaven is open not only in the preacher's proclamation but in the assembly's participation.13

Oneness Pentecostal worship is corporate in its performance and results. All elements of Oneness worship as well as the formalized order of worship within which these elements appear are ultimately community expressions. Community participation in these elements and this order evokes the moment of "divine epiphany"—the explosive "real presence" of Christ within the congregation which converts the uninitiated and renews the believer. Pentecostal services offer several elements absent from other evangelical expressions: concert prayers and songs, spontaneous testimonies, demonstrative acts of worship14 (including hand- clapping, shouting, and dancing), public exercise of spiritual gifts, and the extended "after service."

Oneness Pentecostals engage in public prayer and hymn singing with pronounced enthusiasm. Both prayer and singing are community experiences which create an atmosphere for later evangelistic appeals. During the prayer service, each congregation member prays aloud, vocalizing requests and praises. Such concert prayers often border on ecstasy, evoking extended periods of spontaneous worship. Such extended prayer services, although potential at any point in the service, usually occur only during the after service following the altar appeal when the congregation unites in prayer for the salvation of the unconverted. Similarly, Oneness Pentecostal song services elicit the full participation of the congregation. Loud, animated music, usually provided by an amateur church orchestra, accompanies a variety of hymns and choruses. These songs tend to be repetitive and the choruses are sung numerous times. More often than not, the lyrics of these songs focus on the joy of conversion, a comparison of present salvation with past sinfulness, and the efficacy of the presence of Christ to save—thus, arousing the congregation to worship and expectancy of a manifestation of God's saving action. Occasionally, songs concerning specific doctrinal distinctives or the superiority of the Oneness claim are sung. While these songs are in the minority, their frequent use is significant. Like prayer, Oneness singing often borders on ecstasy and may be accompanied by clapping, raised hands, and even more demonstrative physical actions such as shouting, dancing, or running. A skilled song-leader will allow the congregation to spontaneously respond for a while or to a certain limit and then carefully reassert his leadership role.15

Pentecostal worship also encourages personal testimonies—public sharing of individual experiences as praises to God and for the edification of the entire congregation. Although sometimes spontaneously interrupting the given order of worship, testimonies are usually limited to a designated portion of the service. These voluntary expressions of praise often center upon personal spiritual dilemmas, answered prayers, healings, or conversion. Testimonies tend to follow a three-step pattern: an initial word of praise to God, a recounting of various blessings for which the speaker is thankful (most often cast in a "before/after" mold emphasizing the troubles of sinfulness and the blessings of salvation), and a fairly standardized conclusion (usually requesting continued prayers from the congregation).16 Oneness testimonies also reveal perceptions of opposition and hostility from the secular world and historic Christendom. Against this "hostility," these speakers often vindicate the Oneness message as "the truth" or "full truth" in contrast to the limited, insufficient understanding of the "false" Christian groups. As a whole, the testimony service provides a stage for public confession and catharsis in which the most personal problems are shared. This results, more often than not, in real, observable encouragement from the congregation and points to the availability of similar saving action for the unconverted.

Pentecostal services often progress through a series of moments of ecstatic worship and subsequent "cooling down" as the pastor or devotional leader reasserts control. These ecstatic moments, which normally build to the crescendo of the "divine epiphany" in the after service, produce demonstrative physical manifestations in the congregation such as dancing, shouting, exuberant singing, falling into trances, and prostration. Such manifestations, whether contrived, conditioned, or truly spontaneous, are uniformly interpreted as human response to the "real presence" of God in the worship. This overwhelmed state in which normal inhibitions and behavior patterns are suspended often borders on chaos if not carefully managed by a leader skilled in directing such corporate displays of emotion. Interestingly, the desire to prolong the intensity of this ecstasy is evident in the Pentecostal description of heaven as a place of uninterrupted worship, unending ecstasy in the presence of God. The degree of participation in these times of ecstatic worship directly measures the individual's position within the community. Degrees of surrender, hesitancy, and unease emerge within the congregation during these extremes of worship. Such ecstatic worship "heats up" congregational pressure on the unconverted to respond to God's available presence and salvation. Not surprisingly, the more extreme physical manifestations occur during the after service.

From the earliest revivals, Pentecostal worship has encouraged free, regular exercise of spiritual gifts in the congregation. These gifts—delineated in I Corinthians 12-14 as direct, specific acts of the living Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit in the church body—operate as spiritual tokens or signs which arrest the attention of the unbeliever and vindicate Pentecostal worship as the arena of divine action. This is especially true of the more visible and striking gifts: healing, tongues and interpretation, and prophecy. Through these spiritual operations, an atmosphere of the miraculous arises which invests the message and worship with an aura of divine presence and authority.17

The public use of the gifts has undergone a clear evolution in the movement's maturing years. These gifts, rather than a formal sermon, provided the most direct "word" from God during the earliest revivals. Although the sermon came to usurp this role in the early denominational years, ample room for such manifestations remained within the growing framework of the service. Over time, the order of the service has become so fixed that operation of the gifts is normally restricted to times of corporate prayer and singing and during the demonstrative worship of the after service. This is especially true in "performance- oriented" churches in which a spontaneous interjection of spiritual gifts disrupts, rather than accents, the program of worship.18

Classical Pentecostals understand glossolalia, tongue- speaking, as an inspiration of the Spirit empowering the believer to supernaturally speak in a language he does not know. Viewed as the tangible evidence of Spirit baptism, glossolalia occupies the central place in Pentecostal thought and corporate worship. Pentecostals explain tongue-speaking—in the language of dispensational premillennialism—as God's unique gift for the church age. (All other spiritual manifestations, including the other gifts listed in I Corinthians 12, were already experienced in Old Testament times.) When this notion is wedded to the Pentecostal scenario of end time restoration of primitive Christianity, tongues are celebrated as God's special gift for the latter-day church. Rejection of glossolalia is, therefore, rejection of the express will of God in the present world.19

Tongue-speaking plays three distinct roles in Pentecostal worship and life. Although in each case the tongues experience takes the same form, the purpose and results differ. First, tongue-speaking is seen as an evidence of Spirit baptism, the divine confirmation of the initial infilling of the believer. Second, tongues are used in private prayer for personal edification. Tongues as a "prayer language" involves a transcendent level of communion between the human and divine and results in the enrichment of the individual believer. Third, speaking in tongues, along with the complementary gift of interpretation of tongues, provides a prophetic message for the congregation, a message from God which edifies the believers and convicts the unbelievers. These messages usually involve a proclamation about the church's future, a promise of God concerning the church's present, or an admonition concerning sin or improper behavior within the community.20 In each case, tongue-speaking functions as the key spiritual gift through which God speaks to his people and they respond to his presence. Glossolalia validates, not only the believer's initial Spirit baptism, but also the on-going authority of spiritual worship.

The gift of prophecy parallels the third function of glossolalia. Whereas the "message" of tongues is expounded to the congregation through the gift of interpretation, prophecy provides a more direct communication from God. When prompted by the Spirit, the prophet speaks in sentences and phrases in the vernacular—often in biblically sounding language—which communicate a divine exhortation usually cast in eschatological overtones. In present forms of Pentecostal worship, such utterances serve to support, rather than supplant, the formal sermon. Through the gifts of utterance—tongues, interpretation, and prophecy—the proclaimed message of God's readiness to save is confirmed in the worshipping community.21


11Compare this weekly schedule with the typical schedule of black Pentecostal churches discussed in Paris, Black Pentecostalism, pp. 49-53.

12Bruner, Theology of the Holy Spirit, pp. 132- 36.

13Ibid., p. 137.

14See Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," p. 250 for a similar evaluation of the distinctives of Pentecostal worship.

15See Bruner, Theology of the Holy Spirit, pp. 133-34; Masserano, "A Study of the Worship Forms," p. 72; Paris, Black Pentecostalism, pp. 71-79; and Rooth, "Social Structure," pp. 83-85.

16Paris, Black Pentecostalism, pp. 58-61. See also Bruner, Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 135 and Rooth, "Social Structure," pp. 85-86.

17Bruner, Theology of the Holy Spirit, pp. 139-40 and Masserano, "A Study of the Worship Forms," p. 73.

18Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 251-54.

19Bruner, Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 143.

20Bruner, Theology of the Holy Spirit, pp. 142-48 and Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 255-56.

21Bruner, Theology of the Holy Spirit, pp. 142-43 and Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 254-55.

Worship in Oneness Pentecostalism, Part 1

[In the next several posts, I will share a chapter from my dissertation, The People of the Name: Oneness Pentecostalism in the United States (Florida State University, 1985).  Each subsequent post will deal with the defining reality of Oneness Pentecostalism: corporate, participatory worship. Several of the examples used in these posts reflect American evangelicalism in the 1980s when the dissertation was written.]

To truly hear the voice of Oneness Pentecostalism, one should not turn to official documents or even the written page, for this voice is heard most clearly in the acts of ritual worship—especially the corporate practices of song, testimony, and sermon—upon which these believers center their lives. Oneness life is worship. The regular worship service offers the overwhelming, almost singular expression of Oneness community life. The emergence and subsequent development of Oneness Pentecostalism (as well as classical Pentecostalism in general) resulted most directly from a novel, distinctive emphasis and interpretation of corporate, participatory worship. Although these Pentecostals are distinguished from other Christian groups by differences in theology and culture, at the most foundational level this separation arose in the Pentecostal redefinition of the shape and content of ritual worship.1

Peter L. Berger, in his The Sacred Canopy, recognizes the crucial role of ritual worship in the development and maintenance of a religious system. He states,

Men forget. They must, therefore, be reminded over and over again. Religious ritual has been a crucial instrument of this process of "reminding." Again and again it "makes present" to those who participate in it the fundamental reality-definitions and their appropriate legitimation. The farther back one goes historically, the more does one find religious ideation embedded in ritual activity—to use more modern terms, theology embedded in worship.2

For Berger, religious men are actors (participants) before they ever become theoreticians. Therefore, through the sacred acts and words of ritual worship, believers are again "made present" with the deeds and even the person of the divine. This experience and these activities provide the ground for subsequent religious thought and the rise of a cogent religious worldview.3

In the weekly worship service, Oneness Pentecostals engage in and act out all the essential aspects of their religious life. The worship service, the central arena and primary function of the Oneness church, defines the characteristics of the religious community for both participants and observers. In the repetitive religious rituals, Oneness life expresses its faith most tangibly. To be Oneness Pentecostal is to fully participate in the public acts of worship and to ultimately confront the overwhelming power of God's presence in the context of this corporate action. This worship service—its elements and order—enables the congregation to directly encounter the person and presence of God. This "divine epiphany" is the goal of every ingredient of Oneness worship and the crowning, defining moment of the congregation's life.4

The forms and expressions of classical Pentecostal worship have undergone a significant evolution during the history of the movement. The spontaneous, pew-oriented worship of the Azusa revivals gave way to more formalized, structured worship forms early in the drive toward denominational and theological stability. Oneness Pentecostalism attempted to reverse this trend by recapturing the spontaneity and intensity of the early worship forms. In this attempt, the Oneness Pentecostals actually radicalized the ritual worship of Azusa when applying their new understanding of God's person to the moment of "divine epiphany" in worship and redefining the roles of water baptism (administered in Christ's name) and Spirit baptism as rites of initiation.

Worship during the early Pentecostal revivals was almost entirely congregation-centered and, accordingly, resembled the worship of a large house meeting rather than that of a fully structured denomination. This worship largely consisted of spontaneous eruptions of spiritual gifts—those miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit discussed in Paul's Corinthian correspondence, especially the gift of tongues, interpretation of tongues, and prophecy—and various demonstrative, emotional responses to Spirit baptism. At Azusa, the elements of worship had not yet been placed in a fixed order; services were considered most spiritual when the order emerged spontaneously. Corporate praise and thanksgiving, expressed most often in concert prayers, singing, and testimonies, outweighed the importance of preaching in these services. With some exceptions, early Pentecostals considered preaching merely another element in worship. This secondary role allotted to preaching was rooted in a reaction against "clergy dominated" worship, a revolt against the notion of "one man" ministry.5 Even when preaching occurred, the Pentecostal "minister" remained open to the "redirection" of the sermon by the Holy Spirit's leading in the congregation. The congregation as the central locus of God's action undermined the sermon's priority and the minister's authority. In all aspects, the spontaneous movement of the Holy Spirit within the congregation served as the central aspect of early Pentecostal worship.6

During the latter years of classical Pentecostalism's first decade, the forms of Pentecostal worship and congregational structure emerged as the movement organized itself along the normal lines of American denominations. Church buildings were built and furnished with pews and pulpits—the first token of a substantial clergy/laity division in the movement. Public worship became relegated to certain days and times, while the content and performance of the various ritual forms of worship became fixed. This crystallizing of worship forms correlated directly with the rise of ministerial authority, administrative structure, and denominational organization.7

With the appearance of independent regional and national Pentecostal bodies, the early Pentecostal spontaneity that often usurped the leadership of services gave way to an emerging service order which proceeded from prayer, congregational singing, and special music presentations to the sermon and altar call. Spiritual gifts and free demonstrative response to the Spirit's prompting became relegated to given times within the service (especially during the song service and the "after service" following the altar call). Although spontaneous disruptions continued to occur, these came to be the exceptions rather than the rule.

With the recognition of early Pentecostal excesses and the need for instruction, preaching gained prominence in the new denominations. Preaching came to equal and eventually replace the gifts as the means of divine communication. The message of God's saving action, once expounded in the gifts and spontaneous testimonies, came to be proclaimed in the preached Word. Rather than just a time of instruction, the sermon acted as a vehicle for expressing and creating the immediacy of the "real presence" of Christ and the overwhelming moment of God's saving action within the community. The new prominence of preaching did not displace the expression of spiritual gifts, but led to a reinterpretation of their role in community worship as an extension and confirmation of the sermon rather than as a substitute for it.8

Along with this reassessment of the elements of ritual worship, the classical Pentecostals witnessed a clear evolution in the order of the service—a structuring of the elements of worship which provided content and direction within the service. These believers came to see God acting in the entire service, not just in the moments of "divine interruption." The order of the service as well as the elements of worship became the arena of the Spirit's acting. Although this shift paralleled the assimilation of second and third generation Pentecostals into the mainstream of post-World War II middle class America, it did not spell the end of spiritual manifestations. While such ordering necessarily hindered the spontaneity of songs, testimonies, and the gifts, it also provided for their orderly operation within a structured, and therefore highly efficient, evangelistic appeal.

In more recent years, many classical Pentecostal churches, including Oneness churches, have moved toward more "performance-oriented" worship. With the advent and prevailing influence of mass media, these Pentecostals have developed a high degree of professionalism in song and sermon. This has often led to a passive congregation with these performances replacing corporate worship as the public expression of God's action and presence.9 (This is nowhere more clear than in contemporary charismatic television broadcasting such as Pat Robertson's 700 Club and Jim Bakker's PTL Club.) Nevertheless, as a whole, Pentecostal worship remains the most highly participatory form of congregational worship. The immediate access to the Spirit by all believers continues to undermine any notion of clergy-dominated worship. Pentecostalism—in both its historic and contemporary forms—offers a distinctive interpretation of the priesthood of the believer when asserting that the entire assembled group ministers to God and each other in the acts of community worship.

Almost every contemporary Pentecostal worship service—except for those on the radical fringe of the movement—follows a similar order of worship:

I. Devotional Service
Welcome or Prayer of Invocation
Congregational Singing
(Usually several lively evangelical "hymns" and a series of repetitive choruses)
Prayer Service
    Requests for Prayer
    Congregational Prayer
(Requests and confessions verbalized by the entire body simultaneously which often results in moments of ecstatic demonstration)
Tithes and Offerings
Special Music
Soloist or group of singers
Choir selection(s)

II. Ministry of the Word
Pastoral Prayer
(Invoking the Holy Spirit to save and heal)
Altar Call

III.  Altar Service (Here referred to as the "after service")
Community prayer for those responding to the altar appeal
Testimonies of those converted or healed
Gestures of greeting and fellowship among believers

IV. Closing
Further announcements

Despite this obvious ordering of worship with its restriction on the free operation of the gifts, Pentecostals maintain that the Holy Spirit continues to operate spontaneously throughout the service. In fact, the order of the service itself has taken on an initiatory function of its own as early Pentecostal worship forms succumbed to the more traditional evangelistic service structure of revivalism.10

But such clear definition and institutionalization of ritual worship forms often resulted in a loss of the original worship's appeal and forcefulness. The suppression of full spontaneity in testimonies, songs, demonstrative acts, and spiritual gifts often left these rituals as limited, rather hollow expressions of their former power. It was this weakening of the impact of the various elements of Pentecostal worship and the "cooling off" of revival fervor which elicited Oneness restorationism. The Oneness Pentecostals called for a continually renewing revival, a forever fresh encounter with Christ in enthusiastic Spirit-led worship. This call sought to reverse the pattern of declining revivalism which came to emphasize formal worship, education, and increasingly centralized administration as the early fervor faded.


1Kevin Mathers Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation in Representative Pentecostal Churches in the United States, 1901-1972" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1974), p. 280.

2Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1969), p. 40.

3Ibid., pp. 40-45.

4This term is introduced in Arthur E. Paris, Black Pentecostalism: Southern Religion to an Urban World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982).

5Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 135.

6Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 224-25.

7Ibid., pp. 226, 282-83.

8Ibid., p. 283.

9Ibid., pp. 283-85.

10See Frank C. Masserano, "A Study of the Worship Forms of the Assemblies of God Denomination" (Th.M. thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1966), pp. 71-74; Paris, Black Pentecostalism, pp. 54-71; and Richard Arlen Rooth, "Social Structure in a Pentecostal Church" (M.A. thesis, University of Minnesota, 1967), pp. 82-90.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Languages of Jesus and Paul

Earlier this week, a good friend, Rabbi Loren Jacobs of the Christian-Jewish synagogue Shema Israel, asked me about the language(s) of Jesus. He noted that in the various English versions of the New Testament, some used the word “Aramaic” and some the word “Hebrew”. A case in point is the difference between the NASB and the NIV, the former using the word “Hebrew” and the latter the word “Aramaic”. Rabbi Jacobs was under the impression that Hebrew rather than Aramaic was the lingua franca of 1st century Jews, and indeed, in the texts of the New Testament, the word that is always used is (hebrais = Hebrew). He specifically asked about John 19:17 where the word Golgotha is said to be in Hebrew (NASB) or Aramaic (NIV). Highly reputable linguistic sources (such as BADG) indicate that this word should be understood as Aramaic. So what was it, Hebrew or Aramaic?  

The answer to this question about Jesus’ spoken language is somewhat vexing, though we may be getting a better handle on it now than a few decades ago. First, there is plenty of evidence that biblical Hebrew was not "dead" if for no other reason than that the Hebrew Scriptures were still retained and in use in their original tongue. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were in Hebrew, and these texts from the Judean desert included not only Scripture, but also sectarian documents of the community. It would be one thing for the Qumran community to have Scriptures in Hebrew, but where their own sectarian documents, such as, the Manual of Discipline, etc., are in Hebrew, obviously it suggests that Hebrew is not "dead". There also is plenty of evidence that both Aramaic and Greek were widely used, even in Jewish communities, the former in Syria Palestina (the Roman name for Syria, Galilee and Judea), where the Jewish community produced Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures (more-or-less along the lines of paraphrases) and the latter among the Diaspora (which presumably used the Greek Septuagint and perhaps Hebrew scrolls as well). That Aramaic was a common vernacular is attested by these Targums (why else translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic except that it was widely used). Much earlier, when Ezra came back from Babylon several centuries before and publicly read the Torah, many of the newly arrived returnees no longer could easily understand the Hebrew Scriptures, since Aramaic was the lingua franca of the larger Mesopotamia world, a language they had now adopted. They needed assistance with either translation or interpretation or both (Neh. 8:7-8). As is well-known, portions of Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah are also in Aramaic.

When one then addresses the spoken language of Jesus, it is entirely possible that Jesus was conversant in all three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek (Latin is much less likely). However, the direct quotations of Jesus' words outside Greek, mostly in Mark's Gospel, appear to be in Aramaic, which is why many scholars have concluded that Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic. Whether Jesus' vernacular was Hebrew or Aramaic (or both) is not entirely clear, as is the question of whether or not he ever taught in Greek, or the wider question of whether the current vernacular of the Jewish community was Hebrew or Aramaic (with Greek as a second language for business purposes). The answer to the one question bears upon the answer to the other. If the wider language of the Jewish community was Aramaic, then it seems most reasonable that Jesus would have addressed them in that language. If the wider language of the Jewish community was Hebrew, then Jesus would have addressed them in Hebrew. Most scholars have concluded that Aramaic was the conversational language of the Galilean and Judean Jewish community, and therefore, that Jesus’ primarily language was Aramaic. He may have used Hebrew on occasion, but most likely those who would understand Hebrew were not the common people to whom he regularly taught, but the rabbis, scribes and priests.

Related to this issue is the fact that there is a difference between language and script. In America, for instance, our language is English but our script is Latin. We can use the term "English" to refer to both, even though they are not the same thing. (The script of most European languages is also Latin, the language differences notwithstanding, which is to say that whether one is working in English, French or German, the working alphabet is the same.) The same thing was true of Hebrew and Aramaic. Both languages used the same script, even though the two languages were distinct (albeit there were quite a number of common words between them). Hence, when the New Testament uses the word Hebrais ("Hebrew"), which it certainly does in describing various circumstances, it still is possible that this is a loose usage that could be applied to Aramaic, since Aramaic used the same 22 alphabetic letters as did Hebrew. That Jesus used Aramaic at least sometimes seem clear enough from Mark's Gospel. Also, certain Aramaic words retained their usage in the later non-Jewish church, even among Greek-speakers, since almost certainly they were the original words of Jesus (words like "Abba" and "Maranatha".) Could Jesus also have spoken Hebrew? Certainly. However, if one is to conclude that Hebrew, not Aramaic, was the lingua franca of the Jewish community in Galilee, I think the burden of proof is on them, for one must also then explain why the Jews even translated their Scriptures into Aramaic in the Targums and why what snippets of original language we have from Jesus are in Aramaic. It also is possible that Jesus spoke Greek. Certainly he was reared in the proximity of a Greek-speaking city, since Sepphoris was only 4 miles from Nazareth, and Joseph, being a laborer (either mason or carpenter), would in all likelihood have found some work there. When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth, the passage he read was Isaiah 61:1-2, and at least as quoted in Luke’s Gospel, it seems not to have been an Aramaic Targum. Actually, the citation seems to be from the Greek Septuagint, probably because Luke’s non-Jewish audience would have been more familiar with this version. Still, it is unlikely that the synagogue in Nazareth used a Septuagint and much more likely that Jesus was reading from a Hebrew text.

When it comes to Paul, he seems fluent in both Hebrew and Greek. He quotes both from the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint in his letters, though he uses the Septuagint more frequently, possibly because, as with Luke, his audience was largely Greek-speaking. Having spent a significant amount of time in Jerusalem studying under Gamaliel, I would suppose that Paul was fluent in Aramaic as well, though his speech at his arrest in the temple is described as being in "Hebrew" in Acts 21:40. What is not clear is whether Luke is using the term "Hebrew" in the sense of script or in the sense of language. Most modern English versions opt for Aramaic as the language Paul used on this occasion.

One more facet of this issue concerns the terms Helleniston and Hebraious in Acts 6:1. The distinction here seems primarily to be one of culture and language, but both within the Jewish community. Most scholars argue that while the one term applies to Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem who had adopted a Hellenistic culture and probably spoke Greek, and the other refers to Jews native to Palestine who did not use Greek as their lingua franca. How strong a case can be made of "Hebrew" over "Aramaic" in this instance is unclear, since the primary linguistic distinction may be between scripts (Greek uses an entirely different script than either Hebrew or Aramaic, while Hebrew and Aramaic use the same script).

Now, to Rabbi Jacob’s specific question about John 19:17: was it "Hebrew" or "Aramaic"? There is no doubt that the Greek text of this verse uses the word "Hebrew"; however, what is not clear is whether this is a description of script or language. In John 19:20, just a couple verses later, the inscription over the cross was written in three distinct lines, and it specifies Hebrew, Greek and Latin, which are three different languages, to be sure, but three different scripts as well. In John 19:20, I'm inclined to think that the three designations of Hebrew, Greek and Latin refer to scripts, but this is certainly not an opinion I'd die for. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Conversion in the Roman Empire

In the first century Roman empire, "gods bumped up against each other with some frequency even as humans did" observed Paula Fredriksen in her essay "What Parting of the Ways?" As Rome expanded across the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds, so did its plurality of gods and religious expressions. In imperial Rome, subjugated peoples were not expected to abandon their ethnic gods. Quite to the contrary, the very nature of empire (the subjection of diverse peoples over large areas) meant the inclusion of many peoples and their gods (or perhaps better, many gods and their peoples) under a single Imperial government.

The Roman empire was a world of religious pluralism with many divergent religious views and practices existing side-by-side and expressing the cultures of subjugated nations. This was not a system of religious tolerance - for tolerance assumes a single established, state-sponsored religion that nevertheless extends a degree of religious autonomy to dissenting religious groups. Rather than suppressing or tolerating the native religions of conquered peoples, the Roman imperial government positively accommodated these varieties of faith - as long as these religions met two fundamental criteria: antiquity and ethnicity.

Fredriksen, in a delightful turn of phrase, points out that ancient religion "ran in the blood" - that is, it was tied to particular peoples who lived in particular places. Native religious commitment was the "natural" and expected commitment of every member in a given society and culture.

The Roman government recognized the legitimacy of "foreign" religions by their antiquity and ethnicity. Ancient religions - those that had endured the test of time - were treated with respect and accommodation; whereas new religious expressions were deemed innovative, suspect, and potentially dangerous. Legitimate religions also expressed the "ethnicity", the culture, of native peoples. Religion bound people to a common culture, legitimating institutions and social structures and providing means of social control within the group. Such religions provided the backbone of social order. A religion that demonstrated antiquity and ethnicity - like the faith of second temple Judaism - enjoyed recognition and accommodation by the Roman government.

The connection of religion to national and social identity was particularly threatened by the destabilizing effects of religious conversion. Embracing a new religious idea or practice into one's a larger religious worldview and commitment was not a problem. But making an exclusive commitment to a new and different worldview meant abandoning one's native ethnic religion - a traitorous act against nature, an act that could only be disruptive to the social order.

These observations lead us to describe two types of conversion found in the New Testament writings: one which was largely ignored by Rome and the other which threaten the Roman order.

The first kind of conversion occurred within the Jewish faith when an individual abandon a specific interpretation of the Torah to embrace a rival Torah interpretation. The earliest Jewish Christian conversions were of this type. Christians abandoned the Torah interpretation of Hillel, Shammai, or Gamaliel in favor of the new Torah interpretation of Jesus. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus/Paul seems to be exactly this type of conversion from one Jewish school of interpretation to another.

As long as it was understood as just another variety of Judaism, Christianity enjoyed the Roman accommodation of this ancient and ethnic faith. Even the "God fearers" - those Gentiles drawn to the Jewish synagogue with its ethical monotheism - were not seen as a direct threat to the Romans. For the God fearers appeared only to "add" Jewish thought and practice to their own native beliefs, not submitting to the ultimate identity marker of circumcision which signified a complete conversion to Judaism - a radical change that abandoned native religious practices in favor of an exclusive commitment to the foreign faith.

But the Roman accommodation of the early Christians began to break down with the success of the Gentile mission. While the earliest Christian inroads in the major Roman cities of Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece were all tied to Diaspora Jewish synagogues, the eventual "parting of the ways" of the Gentile Christian converts from non-Christian Jewish synagogues and the growing number of thriving Christian "house" churches alerted the Roman officials to a different kind of conversion among the Gentile Christians. These converts were abandoning their native pagan religions - including refusing to participate in the civic devotion to the patron gods of the cities which was understood to guarantee the welfare of these municipalities. The Gentile Christian converts would not offer public sacrifices to the gods, nor participate in the temple ceremonies and public spectacles/parades for the gods, nor even eat meat from the marketplace that had been sacrificed to pagan deities.

The rejection of these identity markers of the pagan religions demonstrated that these Gentiles were "true converts," making an exclusive commitment to a foreign religion other than their native faiths. Over time, as Christianity and Judaism parted ways, it became clear that Gentile Christian conversion was not the embrace of legitimate ancient Judaism with its particular identity markers (circumcision, Sabbath observation, and dietary restriction), but rather - to Roman thinking - the introduction of a new religion - an innovation that was not to be confused with or accommodated to like ancient Judaism.

More and more, at the end of the first century and throughout the second and third centuries CE, the "parting of the ways" of Jews and Gentile Christians resulted in rising hostility by the Romans toward the Gentile Christian converts who were seen as traitors to their legitimate native religions and ultimately subversives to the Roman political and social order.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Order of Paul's Letters in the NT

I have always wondered why the canonical Gospels were organized in the traditional Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order in the New Testament. It seems logical to me that John should come last since it is so different from the synoptics (which should be "seen together") and probably was the last of the Gospels written. I have read that Matthew received the "pride of place" due to its wide use in church government and liturgy. But these two insights do not explain the overall order of the Gospels.

The order is not alphabetical by author's name. Neither does the order appear to be chronological. Most contemporary scholars see Mark as the first written Gospel with Matthew and Luke using Mark when they constructed their later Gospels.  There are alternative theories - none of which I find convincing - that put Matthew first. But none - to my knowledge - argue for a Matthew-Mark-Luke-John chronological order.

So to this day, I am not sure why the Gospels appear in the Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order.

Now to make matters worse, I have realized that I have exactly the same lack of understanding about the order of Paul's letters in the New Testament. II Peter implies that Paul's letters may have been collected long before the closing of the NT canon. So it is altogether possible that the order of the letters were determined prior to their inclusion in any of the early "canon" lists.

Paul's letters were not ordered chronologically. Romans - which appears first in the NT - was certainly not the first Pauline letter written. In fact, Romans appears to come late in Paul's story as he plans a missionary trek to Spain that will necessarily lead him first to Rome.

There does appear to be some topical groupings in Paul's letters. Certainly, the pastoral letters - I and II Timothy and Titus - fit together nicely in tone and content. The "prison" letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians seem to be written later in Paul's life, each reflecting a sense of imprisonment and a maturity in Paul's theological thinking. But topical grouping breaks down with the other letters.

Why is Romans first on the list of Paul's letters? Many would argue that Romans is the most important of Paul's letters, his most comprehensive presentation of the gospel, almost a "systematic theology" of Paul's thinking. But if the doctrinal preeminence of Romans pushed it to the top of the list, certainly the other doctrinal letters - Galatians and Philippians - should appear early on the list as well, but they do not.

This week, I accidentally bumped into a convincing answer to my questions while reading a commentary on the Thessalonian letters. In a passing comment - a little throwaway sentence - that makes everything clear about the ordering of Paul's letters, I found the answer. This insight was so obvious, so apparent, that I could not believe I had not seen it before.

Paul's letters are organized by their length - their physical size. Beginning with Romans - Paul's longest letter - and ending with Philemon - Paul's shortest (one chapter) letter - Paul's letters decrease in size as they are ordered in the NT.

Sometimes you can't find a deep theological explanation of things because none exists. Sometimes a simple, obvious explanation is best.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Ambiguity and Literal Translation

"Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer." (II Corinthians 5:16 NASB)

"From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way." (II Corinthians 5:16 NRSV)

As a young man, I struggled with the great New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann's negative assessment of early Christian memories of the details of the life of the historical Jesus. Bultmann argued that only the resurrected Christ - a cosmic being beyond human description - concerned the early Christians. The biographical details of the life of a particular Palestinian Jew from the backwaters of the Galilee were of no enduring interest to the primitive Christian community. For Bultmann, Paul clearly states this principle in II Corinthians 5:16 where he affirms that he (and, by implication, other Christians) no longer concerned themselves with knowledge of Jesus' life "according to the flesh."

But this reading of II Corinthians 5:16 betrays the ambiguity that often accompanies overly literal translation. Compare the literal translation of this passage in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the "dynamic equivalence" translation of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The more literal translation leaves ambiguity in the meaning of the Greek propositional phrase "kata sarka" ("according to the flesh").

The literal NASB translation seems to read this propositional phrase adjectivally referring to the noun "Christ". The result (similar to Bultmann's view) is that Paul no longer concerns himself with the details of the "fleshly" biography of Jesus of Nazareth.

The dynamic NRSV translation sees the phrase "kata sarka" adverbially, modifying the verb "know". Thus, Paul states that "from now on" - that is, since the radical transformation to new life that he has experienced in Christ - he can no longer know Christ in the old (mistaken) way he did before. Christians know Christ through "transformed" eyes, no longer from the "human point of view" they had previously known.

Regarding "kata sarka", the esteemed Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) interprets this phrase in the context of II Corinthians 5:16 as knowing "qualities which are only on the surface" and having "regard only to what is seen and what counts to men." For the TDNT, the phrase "according to the flesh" is used as an adverb and modifies the verb "know', denoting "a knowledge of Christ which judges by human standards" - a knowledge which Paul explicitly states he can no longer maintain.

[It is interesting to note that even Bultmann (in his Theology of the New Testament) acknowledges that "kata sarka" is best understood as an adverb in II Corinthians 5:16. But he nevertheless held to his position that this grammatical reality makes no difference - "means nothing" in his own words - in light of Paul's obvious lack of interest in the life of the historical Jesus. Many contemporary scholars would strongly disagree with both Bultmann's interpretation of II Corinthians 5:16 and his view that early Christians showed no interest in the memory of the historical Jesus.]

In conclusion, while it may seem that the most literal translation of a biblical text is the one that is most faithful to its true meaning, this is often not the case. "Words have usage, not meaning," my old Greek professor, Roger Greene, reminds us.

The goal of biblical translation is to communicate words (and the ideas behind them) across barriers of language, culture, and time and, in turn, to allow these words (and ideas) to speak to our situation today. This is not always an easy task. A well-meaning commitment to the most literal translation of a text possible may sound the most faithful to the original text when in fact such literalism can cloud rather than clarify the text's meaning.