Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation 1-2

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

Here it is!  The week where we fly through four books (while retaining the usual five chapters)!  This week, I am working through 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation, chapters 1-2.

2 John
  • Verse 1 - When we went through 1 Peter, I mentioned a theory that suggested that an unnamed woman referenced there was actually intended to be a reference to the congregation of the church.  I expect that the "lady" referenced here is even more likely to be a reference to the church, but I do wonder, if this is so, how one understands "the church's" children, given that the church is made up of the people of God in the first place.
  • Verse 7 - Here's that last "antichrist" reference.  Again, it seems apparently that any number of people might be given this label.  It's certainly not intended to reference a single epitome of all-time evil entity.
  • Verse 13 - Might "sister" be another congregation (presumably the one John is writing from)?
  • Just what do we get out of these 13 verses that 1) is distinctive from other letters, and 2) was so important that it was retained in the canon of the Christian Church?
3 John
  • Verse 3 - Wow, what did Gaius do
  • Verses 9-10 - Similarly, who is this Diotrephes that his attitude should get such special mention?  And, am I correct in surmising that he is doing these misdeeds while nominally being part of a Christian congregation?
  • Verse 13 - Another "pen and ink" reference (same as in 2 John, but not 1 John, for whatever that's worth).  Indeed, verses 13 and 14 are very similar to verse 12 of 2 John.
  • Verses 4-5 - We've seen a bit of this elsewhere, but this seems to be another call for discipline within the church.  Indeed, Jude is suggesting that certain people be cast out entirely.
  • Verse 7 - Much has been said in our modern culture about how certain Christians focus almost exclusively on sexual sins.  Whatever may be true about such Christians' potential blindness to other sins, it is nonetheless true that sexual sins do get singled out with reasonable frequency in Scripture itself.  Besides that, I remain struck by Jude's harsh rhetoric.  We're not just talking about correction.  He's in full "eternal punishment" mode.
  • Verse 9 - According to the footnotes, this is an apparent reference to the Testament of Moses.  I confess that this is not an apocyphal text with which I am familiar. 
  • Verses 14-15 - I am somewhat more familiar with 1 Enoch, referenced here.  What does it mean for our understanding of Jude that he references (as Scripture) texts that we do not recognize as Scripture?
  • Verse 10 (yes, I know I'm going out of order) - Ironically, it seems to me that those who advocate for greater religious discipline are usually the ones who I would accuse of "speak(ing) abusively against whatever they do not understand" (and, frankly, I don't see this text as sufficient to challenge this attitude).
  • Verse 22-23 - After so much harsh rhetoric, it's a bit of a relief to see this call to show mercy and rescue people... although that relief is diminshed again by the quick return to such language as "hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh."
Chapter 1
  • Verse 4 - I'm going to have to decide in the coming weeks just how much depth I want to get into with this book.  The imagery is so dense I could comment forever (indeed, the commentary I'm consulting at the moment is 374 pages long, not counting introductory material, and that's just for the first five chapters!), and having tried to keep from making this st of blog entries an exhaustive commentary series for nearly 11 whole months, I really don't think I should shift gears now.  That said, it's worth noting that the number seven, a number "commonly understood to signify completeness" is used quite a lot in Revelation.1 We get it twice in this verse alone!
  • Verse 13 - I was prepared to suggest that the phrase "son of man" gets used a lot, too, but as it happens, it actually only appears twice.2  I guess it's just that so much has been made of those words.  It has already been noted that the term was used by Jesus himself in the gospel, and the footnote here references the book of Daniel.  I find myself thinking that the phrase is so strange that it has to be a conscious reference.  I mean, really, why should John take note of the fact that "someone" looks like a human being (the way I would interpret the phrase "son of man" absent any known symbolic reference point)?  It would be self-evident, wouldn't it?
Chapter 2
  • Verse 6 - From Aune, pp. 147-148: "The Nicolaitans appear to be a minority group of Christians trying to gain a hearing and a more extensive following in the Ephesian church and are also mentioned in connection with the church in Pergamon (2:15)"  The text does not make clear what the "hateful" practices of these people actually were,3 and it is noted that "apocalyptic literature rather consistently avoids the actual names of protagonists and antagonists," further muddying matters.
  • Verse 13 - I'm guessing that "Antipas" was not the better-known Herod Antipas, who could hardly be considered God's "faithful witness." 
  • Verse 20 - While I note the use of "tolerance" as a bad word (common with many conservatives today), I also note that the "Jezebel" referenced here, by being a self-proclaimed "prophet," is apparently trying to be an active part of the church.  This would be a rather important distinction from the kind of "tolerance" of secular values often decried by believers today.4

1David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5 (Word Biblical Commentary), Word Books, 1997, pp. xciii-xciv.  Aune counts fifty-four uses of the number seven.
2Aune, p. 93. The other time the "son of man" appears is in Revelation 14:14.
3Aune, p. 148, suggests that a reference in 2:14-15 to "the 'teaching of Balaam' is apparently identical with the 'teaching of the Nicolaitans' and consists of eating meat previously sacrificed to pagan deities and the practice of fornication."  As I read those verses, however, I'm not so sure that the two groups hold such "identical" teachings.
4Interestingly, Aune, p. 204, suggests that "the charge that 'Jezebel' teaches Christians to practice sexual immorality is probably groundless and reflects the stock slander (unaffected by the facts) typically leveled at opponents by ancient writers....  Nearly all the uses of the πορν- cognates in Revelation are figurative rather than literal.... The term 'fornication' is probably used here in the sense of 'apostasy,' a usage found frequently in the OT." 

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Theological Competence Exam Question #3 - Art

We were given a choice to answer one of two different questions for the third and final part of the Theological Competence exam.  Although the question that asked us to respond theologically to issues that arise out of dealing with a loved one struggling with Alzheimers was important to me for personal reasons, I really didn't have to think too hard about deciding to respond to the question below.  There is a sense in which I feel like I've been answering this question for years.  It was this question, more than the other two, that left me with the conviction that this was the best chance of passing the exam I was ever likely to have.  I'm glad to see my feelings were rewarded!

You are pastor of a church and post a sign-up sheet for a trip to a local art exhibit.  Members begin the following conversation with you.
Lois: Pastor, I am surprised that you would suggest this trip.  I thought that, given the Reformation, Presbyterians were against art.

Tim: My former church had an artist-in-residence who helped us understand God through the use of Scripture and painting.

Bruce: I think the arts are a bridge to help us understand our culture and bring the gospel to culture.

Abby: But some particular works of art today are just anti-Christian.
  1. Write an essay articulating a Reformed understanding of the place of the arts in Christian life.  Base your discussion on your knowledge of Reformed theology, using at least one (1) of these resources: the Scriptures, classical theology, contemporary theology.
  2. Building on your essay in Required Response 1, respond theologically to three (3) of the comments above.
This part of the exam was closed book.

1.        For the first several hundred years of the Church’s history, the vast majority people could not read.  Creating works of art such as statues, paintings, stained glass windows, and other items were often used as a tool with which to teach believers about the works of God when reading the Bible itself was simply not an option for most of them.

By the time of the Reformation, some Reformers, recognizing the commandment not to create idols, began to grow concerned about this practice.  The fear was that people would worship the works of art, rather than the God that the works of art were intended to point people to.  Indeed, as Moses was coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his brother Aaron told people that the golden calf he had created was the God who had just freed them from Egypt.  The story was essentially right, but the object was all wrong.  It wasn’t the calf that saved God’s people!  And the calf was in no way being used to point people to the God that actually did the action.  If such a grievous abuse of art could happen so quickly after people had seen the real works of the authentic God, surely the works of art created to tell the story of God through Jesus Christ held that same dangerous potential!

For this reason, many of the Reformed denominations prohibited the use of art in their worship spaces, and indeed in Christians’ lives.  The concern that the art would become an idol, an object of worship in its own right, was simply too great a risk.

In more recent times, Reformed believers sought to recapture some of what was positive about the use of art as a tool to help convey the story of God, while remaining mindful of the dangers of idolatry.  Remembering that Paul could point to the statues dedicated to “an unknown God” at the Acropolis (works that were by no means “Christian”), using them as a point of evangelism from which to tell them the truth about the authentic God, Reformed believers began to advocate for the use of art as an expression of how God has blessed the world once again.  Moreover, Christians could argue for the myriad of ways in which God has gifted people with talents and abilities specifically for the edification of the church, and recognize that artistic talent is indeed one of those talents which could be used, if used in response and recognition of God, pointing people toward God as being behind it all, and not confusing the work of art with the object of worship itself.  Thus, Reformed believers of today have become more comfortable (at least in comparison with times past) with the use of art in Christian life.

2.        Lois is right to recognize that Presbyterians have indeed been against art in certain times and for certain reasons.  There has been a real, historic concern that art could become an object of worship, and that this would be a clear violation of the commandment against idolatry.  We must always keep in mind that art is not to be worshiped, and should always point to some greater truth beyond the art itself.  However, God is (among a great many other things) a God from which all good and beautiful things come, and thus it is appropriate to enjoy art and remember that all good and beautiful things come from God.  To the extent that art does remind us of God, Presbyterians need not be against art.

Tim’s artist-in-residence stands in a strong tradition of artists from the centuries of the church’s history who have used sculpture and painting to teach truths about God.  Indeed, some of the things we can learn about God through art may not be as readily communicated through other means, especially to some people who may respond to artistic expression in a way that they do not necessarily respond, say, to the spoken word.  No one way of teaching will reach all people, and thus God gives us a variety of means by which to help understand God better.

Abby expresses a legitimate concern on a couple of levels.  At one level, art has indeed been misused and abused.  As already noted, art has been used for idolatrous purposes in the past, and can indeed be used in this way in the present.  Also, whatever the purpose behind a work of art, if a work of art is used by the viewer in an idolatrous way, that is indeed a problem.  Another level of concern is the fact that art is sometimes used by an artist who may not only be “anti-Christian,” but who may actively be trying to articulate an “anti-Christian” message through his or her work.  We need not be afraid of such messages.  Our God is more powerful than any “anti-Christian” message a hostile artist may be trying to communicate to us.  We remain clear on who we worship.  However, God can work through even these works of art if we have eyes to see God’s truth.  Just as Paul used the pagan works of the Acropolis to convey a prophetic message to his audience, perhaps God is trying to tell us something about how the world sees the church that we need to hear.  For example, perhaps the world sees the church as “hateful” because we have failed to communicate God’s love adequately to some group of people.  If this is the case, God can use this “anti-Christian” work of art to correct our own failings, so that we learn to reach out with God’s love in ways that better convey the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know it.  God remains supreme, and as long as we remember that, we may look at art without fear of whether it might be “anti-Christian” in its origins.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Brief History of Time... of Thanksgiving

Here in America, we all learn as children that the "first Thanksgiving" was celebrated by the pilgrims at Plymoth Rock, usually depicted as happily eating around a table with friendly Indians.  That this image is not entirely accurate to history is a topic for another time.  For now, it is enough to note that, even if first Thanksgiving did take place at this approximate time and with these approximate participants (and there's actually evidence that it may have even earlier origins!), no one really believes that Thanksgiving became an annual holiday immediately.  To get the kind of recognition it now enjoys took time.

In fact, even in the region of the pilgrims, Thanksgiving was merely a "regular," but not an "annual," observance for about 50 years.  In 1680, it finally became an annual observance in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Other regions also celebrated Thanksgiving celebrations (some annually, some not), but these were scattered all over the calendar according to region (and many of those regions celebrated not by eating, but by fasting!).  This decentralized attitude toward Thanksgiving continued for nearly two centuries.

Thanksgiving did not become an annual observance across the whole of America until 1863, when President Lincoln made a proclaimation (actually written by Secretary of State William H. Steward):
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
It's worth noting, however, that even at this point, at which point Thanksgiving became a de facto annual American observance, the current pattern was not yet set.  Nothing in Lincoln's proclamation dictated that Americans should (let alone would) continue to nationally celebrate the Thanksgiving event every year.  Even so, future Presidents did in fact declare an annual Thanksgiving observance from then on.

However, I'd like to point out that Lincoln declared the last Thursday of that 1863 November, rather than the fourth, would be the one recognized as a day of Thanksgiving.  Of course, in most years, November only has four Thursdays, making this is a purely academic distinction.  Presidents continued to follow this "last Thursday" pattern for decades, until Franklin Roosevelt broke with the then-current tradition in 1939 (a year when November had five Thursdays), and declared that Thanksgiving would be on the fourth Thursday of November that year.

Why make the change?  Apparently for economic reasons.  The country was still dealing with the Great Depression, and Roosevelt wanted to make sure that merchants had as much time to sell Christmas gifts as possible.  Although it's hard to understand these days, when we see and hear Christmas-related marketing even before Halloween, it was considered improper to advertise for Christmas before Thanksgiving had yet taken place.  The solution?  Have Thanksgiving earlier!  In fact, Roosevelt's original intention seems to have been to make Thanksgiving the next-to-last Thursday every November, and this was indeed set in his Thanksgiving proclamations for the next couple of years.

As is true when pretty much any long-standing tradition is changed, there were some people upset with Roosevelt's changes, and several regions flouted the presidential proclamations of 1939-1941 and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the final Thursday.  Congress even got involved, and passed a resolution in 1941 that would have fixed the old last-Thursday date.  However, a compromise was reached, resulting in an amendment that December which set the now-familiar fourth-Thursday Thanksgiving.  This was signed into law by President Roosevelt, and the date of Thanksgiving was set as a formal matter of federal law for the first time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: 1 John 1-5

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through 1 John, chapters 1-5.

Chapter 1

  • Verse 1 - The letter doesn't make any self-claim to authorship, but the similarity to the first part of the gospel of John is hard to miss.
Chapter 2
  • Verse 1 - The language of "advocate" also is peculiar to John's gospel, found only there in the New Testament (besides the use of the word here), although in the gospel, it is used by Jesus to refer to the Holy Spirit, whereas here it seems to refer to Jesus Christ himself. 
  • Verses 7-8 - First he says he's not writing a new command, then he says he is.  Make up your mind, already!
  • Verse 9 - What if you hate a non-believer?
  • Verses 18, 22 - These (along with a mention in chapter four, and one more time in 2 John) are the only times the word "antichrist" show up in the entire Bible.  The concept of "antichrist" definitely seems to be something John's readers are already familiar with, but the way John uses the term bares little resemblance the the "antichrist" concept as popularized in modern end times works (notably the "Left Behind" series).  Indeed, the plural John occasionally uses for the concept would seem to rule the common conception out entirely.
Chapter 3
  • Verse 4: "Everyone who sins breaks the law" - I find it notable that this verse is not constructed the other way around.  It is not "Everyone who breaks the law sins."
  • Verse 15: "and you know that no murderers have eternal life in them" - (To paraphrase Paul, permit me a moment's madness)  Especially not Moses nor King David.  And Paul?  Certainly not!
  • Verse 17 - This, again, seems to be a reference to fellow Christians, as opposed to a call to give aid to people generally.  But what about giving aid to non-Christians?
Chapter 4
  • Verse 20 - This idea that Christians should not "hate" fellow believers well keeps coming up in this short letter.  I wonder what was going on in the church that John felt the need to push on this point so much.
Chapter 5
  • Verse 3: "his commands are not burdensome" - Yet it seems to me that Christians (and I find this is true on both liberal and conservative sides of the spectrum) have so much to say about the difficulty of following Christ fully that I confess I don't really see how it can be anything other than "burdensome."  We're not talking about something that can be done without effort.
  • Verses 6-8 - I can guess at some of this, but I have to confess that the "water and blood" language is a bit alien to me.  I'm not confident that my guesses match up with John's intentions.  And he doesn't really explain the imagery all that much.  I can only assume that this language was clearer to the original audience.
  • Verses 16-17 - What does John mean in regard to "sin that does not lead to death"?  Or, conversely, what sin does lead to death, that we shouldn't worry about praying for it?  Is he just saying that we shouldn't bother praying for people who have already died?

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Theological Competence Exam Question #2 - Sabbath

Although I did earn the "Satisfactory" grade on this response (the same as both of the other two questions I answered), one of the comments left for me on this response did have a bit of constructive criticism that I think is worth sharing.  That comment suggested that a stronger response would also have drawn from the life and actions of Jesus in regard to the Sabbath to demonstrate how (as the gospel says) "the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath."

As pastor, you are leading the worship committee of the session in a discussion of the concept of Sabbath.  You share the following section from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 103. What does God require in the fourth commandment? A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and Christian education be maintained, and that I diligently attend church, especially on the Lord's day, to hear the Word of God, to participate in the holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian service to those in need.  Second, that I cease from my evil works all the days of my life, allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus being in this life the eternal Sabbath. (4.103)
Write an essay reflecting on the theological meaning of Sabbath for life today from a Reformed perspective.  Base your essay on your knowledge of Reformed theology, using at least one (1) of these resources: the Scriptures, classical theology, contemporary theology.
This part of the exam was closed book.

Even among Christians, we often struggle between the desire to go to Church on Sunday and the desire to do… well, pretty much anything else. This is nothing new. Even King James (the same King James who is known for the Bible translation which bears his name) produced a book on “sport” that made it clear he didn’t see any problem with non-religious activities on the Lord’s Day. While this may seem like nothing unusual to those in our congregations who anxiously await the end of the benediction so they can get home to watch the afternoon football game, this was actually pretty scandalous to church leaders of the time. Then, as now, we need to articulate a clear idea of what it is about the Sabbath (whether we celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday in recognition of the day on which Jesus Christ was raised from the dead or, as some would have it, on Saturday) that is special and worthy of being kept as sacred.

Obviously, God is worthy of worship at all times, not just on one day of the week. Speaking of the Sabbath as a particular day of worship and/or reverence may seem to dilute that, but it doesn’t need to. The commandment to keep one day holy, given in Exodus 20, was certainly not given to suggest that God’s people didn’t need to worship God on other days! It was given so that people would remember God in a special way. By remembering the Creation story of Genesis, whereby God rested on the seventh day, God’s people establish in their own weekly rhythms of life a constant reminder of who God is and what God has done. Even though God has power and resources that far exceed anything we humans possess or can even imagine, God rested. If God rested, so also we, beings that actually need rest once in a while, should also rest.

To make the Sabbath “holy” also means that it should be “set apart” in other ways. It is a day to gather together as God’s people. We can (and should!) worship God when on our own as individuals, but we are not called “the body of Christ” so that we can remain as individuals. We are called to gather together. In this way, we truly become a “body” of believers in which the individual members can strengthen and unify the whole in the love and worship of God. Being with other believers can help us to understand God more fully than we can understand God on our own. We learn from those who God has gifted with more knowledge than we have. We can get help and assistance from those who God has gifted with more resources than we have. And, if we have need of correction, we can get Christian discipline in those times in which we need it. John Calvin considered the health of the church to be at its strongest where the word was rightly preached, the sacraments rightly distributed, and where disciple was rightly exercised.

The Sabbath is also to be observed by setting time aside for prayer and for reading God’s Word. This can (and should!) be done in church worship gatherings, but can and should also be done in one’s personal life. Again, this is something that can be done on other days of the week, as well. The Reformed tradition recognizes this, and even hints at an “eternal Sabbath” in the Heidelberg Catechism. But by encouraging these actions “especially” on the Sabbath, one establishes a liturgical pattern in one’s life that helps serve as a constant reminder of God’s faithfulness to us, and especially of the ultimate act of God’s faithfulness, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This thereby encourages behaviors that draw one’s self closer to God.

Up to now, I have focused on those actions that should be especially encouraged on the Sabbath, but what about behaviors that should be discouraged? Is it permissible to watch football after church? Perhaps. But it is nonetheless the case that we are to “cease” those actions which are evil or which keep us from God, and keeping the Sabbath can remind us of those behaviors which are simply not helpful. It is probably obvious that a person who steals on the Sabbath is failing to fully observe the Sabbath in his or her life, but there are actions which are less obvious, as well, and remembering Sabbath observance can be a way in which God opens our eyes to these behaviors and gives us strength to discontinue them. If watching football keeps us from this recognition of God, then it is probably a problem.

However, football need not necessarily be a problem. God works in all aspects of life, and our enjoyment of whatever good things God has created may serve as reminder of what God has done. Perhaps engagement in sports helps us to remain healthy and take care of the physical bodies God has given us. Perhaps that person holding the “John 3:16” banner reminds a viewer of the fact that Jesus died for them. Perhaps the testimony of a particular player (and there are a great many Christian sport players) helps someone understand God a little better. Whether or not a particular activity is in keeping with a Sabbath observance is ultimately left up to a matter of personal conscience. But that doesn’t mean it is to be determined entirely on one’s own. Again, this is one reason why God gives us the church. We are not to give up on meeting together, but by coming together, especially on a regular pattern of Sabbath observance, we are reminded again and of what God has done for us, and taught more and more of how God wants us to live.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: 1 Peter 4-5 and 2 Peter 1-3

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through 1 Peter, chapters 4-5 and 2 Peter, chapters 1-3.

Chapter 4

  • Verses 3-4 - I can't speak for others, but this bit about how (at least some) non-Christians treat Christians (especially those who were known before conversion) actually rings true to me.
  • Verse 6: "For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead" - I wonder how many decades after Christ's resurrection this letter was written, that Peter would make a point of mentioning those who have already died. McKnight suggests that the book was written sometime between AD 62 and 65 (Peter having been martyred in AD 65).1
  • Verse 7 - Either Peter had an expansive view of "near" (encompassing nearly 2000 years!) or he was simply mistaken.  What does that mean if we assume the latter? 
  • Verses 15-16 - I like that Peter isn't just saying that suffering, per se, is to be commended.  Indeed, he is quick to suggest that suffering for reasons of misconduct is not a good thing.  I would take as a corollary that Christians (either then or today) shouldn't be too quick to assume that, if they suffer, they are suffering because they are Christians. 
Chapter 5
  • Verses 1-5- In the first few mentions of the word "elder," the term is clearly used in the sense of a church officer, yet in verse 5, it is used in the more conventional sense (explicitly contrasted with "younger").  It does seem that the same Greek word (πρεσβυτέροις) is used in both instances.
  • Verse 13 - Because Mark is well-known as one of Peter's followers, it immediately my inclination not to take the word "son" as meaning Peter's biological son (despite the fact that, knowing Peter had a mother-in-law, it is a foregone conclusion that Peter was married, and thus a biological son would not be improbable).  Yet, it was a quick thought for me to jump from "son" to wondering if the unnamed woman mentioned here could be Peter's wife.  I could find no consideration of this possibility in McKnight, where the focus is on the probability that Babylon ("a notorious place of sin") is used here to reference a place of exile, probably Rome, from which Peter was believed to be writing.2 Michaels considers the possibility of a reference to Peter's wife, but ultimately dismisses this as Peter's intention for grammatical reasons.  He suggests that the "she" Peter refers to is, in fact, a congregation, possibly in Rome, but not necessarily there.3
2 Peter
Chapter 1
  • Verses 5-7 - For some reason, this list reminds me of the one Paul writes in Romans 5:3-4.
Chapter 2
  • Verses 1-10 - Woah!  Don't hold back!
  • Verses 15-16 - This story (the only one featuring a talking animal other than the serpent of Eden) comes from Numbers 22.
Chapter 3
  • Verse 1: "my second letter to you" - A surprisingly exact designation...  Even when Paul refers to other letters he'd written to the Corinthians, it is evident that, as often as not, he's referring to letters we no longer possess, rather than the ones we have....
  • Verse 9 - Honestly, given some of the other parts of this letter, it's almost a surprise to see an acknowledgement that God doesn't want people to perish....

1Scot McKnight, 1 Peter (The NIV Application Commentary), Zondervan, 1996, p. 29.
2McKnight, p. 280.
3J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter (Word Biblical Commentary), Word Books, 1988, pp. 310-311.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Theological Competence Exam Question #1 - Peace

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned having passed my Theological Competence Exams. I have now gotten my actual graded exams back with comments from the readers, and thus I feel that they are safe to post in public.

Here is the question I was asked to answer, with my response in smaller print below:

Several people in the congregation you serve as pastor have recently asked about the passing of the peace during the worship service.  In response, you and the session decide that peace will be the subject of the next adult education series.

In preparation, you turn first to John 14:27 (New Revised Standard Version), in which Jesus says, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

As you consider the many different types of peace, you turn to The Book of Confessions.
Write an essay in which you identify and discuss different aspects of a Christian understanding of peace from a Reformed perspective.  Use and discuss four (4) citations (e.g., 0.000) from The Book of Confessions.  Citations must come from four (4) different documents in The Book of Confessions.
(We were allowed to use a "clean, unmarked, printed copy of The Book of Confessions" for this question.  This was the only such "open book" question of the three I answered)

Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)  Consequently, we talk about “peace” a lot within our churches.  But as with many terms that get a lot of use, it can actually be confusing what we mean when we use the term so much, and perhaps in different ways.  Here are some ways in the Reformed tradition has articulated the concept of “peace.”

One obvious way in which we talk about peace is the absence of armed conflict.  For example, when the Second Helvetic Confession discusses war, war is clearly seen as a last resort:
“And if it is necessary to preserve the safety of the people by war, let (the magistrate) wage war in the name of God; provided he has first sought peace by all means possible, and cannot save his people in any other way except by war.” (5.256)
While the Confession allows for the possibility of war under certain circumstances (specifically, “to preserve the safety of the people” in this instance), it emphasizes that peace (here being specifically opposed to the concept of war) should be sought “by all means possible.”  Too many people give lip service to this kind of teaching (almost no one comes right out and says they want war), yet fail to actively pursue all possible alternatives.  The Confession emphasizes how important it is to pursue peace so persistently by adding the next line, reminding the magistrate that war is permissible only when all other alternatives have been exhausted.

But peace is not simply the absence of armed conflict between nations.  Indeed, conflict need not even be between two people, let alone two nations.  An individual may struggle within him or herself, especially as there are unresolved matters of sin involved.  For this reason, the Westminster Larger Catechism links peace to prayer for forgiveness:
“In the fifth petition (which is, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”), acknowledging that we and all others are guilty both of original and actual sin… we pray for ourselves and others, that God of his free grace would, through the obedience and satisfaction of Christ apprehended and applied by faith… fill us with peace and joy.” (7.304)
But if God does grant us this peace, we are not intended to retain it only for ourselves.  We are called to work to spread that peace to others.  We cannot do this on our own, of course.  But God’s Spirit gives us this ability, as noted in this section of a Brief Statement of Faith:
“the Spirit gives us courage…
            to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” (10.4)
This work may take many forms, of course.  It need not be in the suppression of conflict as done by a policeman or a soldier.  Indeed, peace is often sought through social action.  By building homes for those who need them, we create an environment in which people are safe.  By advocating for economic equity, we help them to meet their need for food or clothing.  By passing laws protecting the unprotected, we enable people to be free to be who God created them to be.  The Spirit is not only a part of all of this, but indeed makes it possible.

Ultimately, all peace comes from God through Jesus Christ, as the Confession of 1967 makes clear:
“God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace….  The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace.” (9.45)
But even if God’s act of reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the “ground” of peace, the Confession likewise makes clear that we are not to sit idly by.  God calls us to participate in that peace.  We must practice the peace that God’s Spirit enables in us.

May the peace of Christ be with you all.

I'll follow up with the other two questions in the coming weeks.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: James 4-5 and 1 Peter 1-3

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through James, chapters 4-5 and 1 Peter, chapters 1-3.

Chapter 4

  • Verse 2 - I have to assume that James is employing hyperbole to at least some extent.  It's hard for me to believe that he's seriously accusing people in his audience of having committed murder as a result of whatever greed they might have.  That said, it certainly seems an apt description of human nature.
  • Verse 12 - Throughout most of this letter, James has some fairly harsh things to say to his audience.  Perhaps this makes him sound a bit hypocritical when he suggests that no one has the right to judge another person.  Perhaps it's important to note that James is (as was noted just above) speaking in generalities rather than to particular people?  Of course, Paul seemed not to worry about calling out individuals who he considered to have sinned.  How are we to follow the advice to take sin seriously while also obeying the injunction against judging others?
  • Verse 17 - How does this verse follow from the verses that come before it?  "So then" implies such a progression.
Chapter 5
  • Verse 3 - The "last days" seem to be hanging on yet....
  • Verse 4 - One doesn't perhaps expect non-Christian secular business owners to listen to James here, but it seems to me that a surprising number of "guilty parties" in this matter profess Christian faith.  Or, at least, if they don't, I wonder how the CEO-to-worker ratio can remain so off-balance (although it does seem to be improving).
  • Verse 12 - Granting that the word "swear" here seems to have less to do with cursing, and more to do with taking oaths, I still wonder why James considers this something to be avoided "above all."
1 Peter
Chapter 1
  • Verses 1-2 - Someday, I need to do some research into how Jews (and Christians) of the first century (who haven't been sitting with the writings of Paul and Peter on these matters for two centuries) understood the concepts of election of God's foreknowledge, and on what basis.
  • Verse 4 - The concept of "inheritance" is one that shows up in Scripture quite a lot, too.  I should focus more on this sometime....
  • Verses 10-11 - There's some interesting Christological discussion here.  Apparently the prophets (of the Old Testament era?) were led by the "Spirit of Christ."
Chapter 2
  • Verse 2 - Here (and in the previous chapter) Peter encourages believers to be like children.  Contrast this with Paul's concern that the Corinthians were immature and not ready for adult things, and the author of Hebrews' similar complaint of his audience.
  • Verses 18-20 - Clearly, Peter's instruction that believers should live godly lives of obedience extends to slaves--even slaves with cruel masters.  I wonder what Peter would say to abolitionists of more modern times (and, by this, I mean non-slaves who acted to end slavery, rather than slaves who sought freedom).
Chapter 3
  • Main point - Do what is right, even when others don't do what is right to you.

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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Transformer Teaser: Universe Sideswipe

I've been taking a lot of pictures lately.  Mostly (but not intentionally) of toys I've not featured on this blog before!  It's all part of a special project I'm working on.  I'm not ready to say more just yet, but here's a teaser image of Universe Sideswipe!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The New NIV - Initial Thoughts

Before saying anything else, I need to be up front about a couple of things.  First of all, I'm not a Biblical scholar.  I'm just a seminary graduate with an interest in these matters.  Secondly, since the new NIV has only been publicly available since Monday (and that, only online), I've by no means had a chance to read through more than a tiny fraction of the whole text.  I am depending heavily on the observations of others.  The good news is that BibleGateway.com, after initially removing the links to the TNIV and the old NIV in favor of the new version, has restored those links, so you can compare versions quite easily.  I recommend starting with this link, and working from there if you want to do you own informal comparisons.

My initial reactions are better than I'd feared.  The new NIV is far closer to the TNIV than it is to the old NIV in many respects, including the area I've focused the most attention on: gender language.  My concern, as I've tried to describe it in comments elsewhere on the web, has been less with "gender inclusive" language or "gender neutrality," and more with not being "gender exclusive."  Many readers may feel that this is only a subtle distinction, and maybe they're right, but I am personally most concerned that would-be readers of the biblical text not feel excluded when the original intent wouldn't have warranted it.

This is certainly not to say that the new NIV is perfect (no translation ever is) or that they haven't ever backtracked where the TNIV was better.  To use just one example that Joel Hoffman points out, the change from "people" to "man" in Matthew 12:35 (for ἄνθρωπος, which suggests humanity more than maleness) is a bit inconsistent with less gender-specific usage elsewhere in the new NIV.  I assume this particular instance was done because there was concern about the shift (in the TNIV) to plural, which the translators' notes to the new NIV indicate that they tried to avoid when possible (this is different, by the way, than the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, which is becoming increasingly common in modern English), but why not use "person"?  That said, by avoiding plurals where the original text was clearly intended to be singular, I do feel that the new NIV is more accurate than the TNIV was in at least that respect.

A quibble of mine is the use of the word "mankind" in the new version where the TNIV had used other words like "humanity."  I'm not sure I understand the motivation in this case.  My concern with "mankind" is less that it suggests "male-kind" and thus would potentially exclude people, and more that I don't feel that "mankind" is in particularly common use today (compared to words like "humanity").

Here's a quick list of sites that have given more observations about the new NIV.  They seem to reflect a diversity of positions on the theological spectrum, and thus I hope that it represents a fair accounting of what's going on. 

One final note.  The division over the TNIV was so strong that many well-meaning Christians have figuratively thrown their hands in the air and asked "why all this fighting?  These are debatable matters!"  And, of course, there is a large extent to which they are right.  However, I do think it's appropriate to acknowledge that there are good reasons why people are so passionate about these matters.  I, for one, am unwilling to concede that gender-exclusive language (when sound scholarship tells us that the passage was understood inclusively in the original context) is an "equally viable choice."  I thus intend to defend my position when it is attacked.  However, I do hope that I can do so with a sense of perspective.  People come to their positions (whatever they are) for a variety of reasons, and it is unfair to attribute malicious motives to most opponents.  I hope that the debates that come in response to the new NIV, however passionate, remember that we are all God's children, and are conducted with a greater sense of respect than some of the debates of the recent past.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Hebrews 12-13, James 1-3

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Hebrews, chapters 12-13 and James, chapters 1-3.

Chapter 12

  • Verse 1 - I remember a sermon at Fuller from a few years ago, where it was pointed out that the "great cloud of witnesses" from chapter 11 were all people with well-documented faults and sins.  Paul's instructions to "throw off" sin made in reference to these people must be understood in that light.
  • Verse 4 - Dr. Scholer has noted that Hebrews may have been written to a people experiencing persecution (although this verse definitely indicates that such persecution hasn't killed anyone yet).  The author seems concerned that the believers here might fall away, even despite the comparatively mild nature of the persecution.  I cannot help but wonder if he would have called them "wimps" if he were writing today.
  • Verses 5-11 - In fact, if this is written to a group experiencing persecution (however mild), it's worth noting that the author frames it as discipline from God.
Chapter 13
  • Verse 5: "Be content with what you have" - This one's a hard one for me (especially when I'm not sure how we'll make it to the time of our next paycheck).  Even allowing for the clar message that one should trust in God for one's income, when is it appropriate to ask for help?  Or is the act of asking a sign of not being content?
  • Verse 19 - Although the writer of Hebrews is anonymous, it seems the original audience must have known who it was.
  • Verse 23 - And the author apparently knows Timothy. 
Chapter 1
  • Verse 2 - Leaving aside the obvious oddity of being told to consider the facing of trials as "pure joy," I am reminded of the end of the beatitudes, where Jesus tells followers to rejoice in persecution because the prophets were so persecuted.
  • Verses 6-8 - I'd be lying if I didn't admit to having problems with this passage.  The insistence on being doubt-free makes prayer sound a bit too much like magic, and God a bit too much like a genie, for my tastes. 
  • Verse 13 - I wonder how the thought "God is tempting me" might be compared or contrasted with the thought "God is testing me."
Chapter 2
  • Verse 8 - How is "love your neighbor as yourself" a "royal" law?
  • Verse 26: "Faith without works is dead." - Much has been made of this line.  I think it bears emphasizing that the gist of this passage is not to advocate works in the sense of obeying a list of rules (as important as that may be for other purposes), but in living out one's faith in the manner of one's life--especially by treating people with respect and attending to people's needs.
Chapter 3
  • Verses 1-11 - I wonder which would be considered the greater sin for the would-be teacher; to know what is right, but fail to teach it fully or adequately, or to think that something "not right" is right, and to teach that falsehood as truth?

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