Standing Under Scripture

If you have been reading the last few posts (my “Uncertain Inferences” series) you note that I have been illustrating how we can look at a passage of Scripture and deduce, or infer, that something is true when, in fact, it is either not true, or at least the certainty of our inference is indeed “uncertain.” You may disagree with me on one or more of these issues: that is fine – by no means am I claiming infallibility. However, you better have more solid scriptural evidence than I have presented to bolster my case if you want to convince me. I am passionately opposed to perpetuating error just because it happens to be popular.

What all of this boils down to is our approach to Scripture. One of my most favorite professors stressed to his students that we stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. When we stand under Scripture, we submit to its message, listen to its modes of communication, and seek to obey what it directs. In the 21st century, that means we have to unlearn as much about reading Scripture as we have to learn how to read Scripture.

As just a few examples, consider these: we (and I speak as an American, although much of what I say can be shared by other Western cultures) think linearly. Point B follows point A, and point C follows point B. Time flows in a straight line. Result Y is directly related to cause X. When we read Scripture, we automatically impose that way of thinking on the text. We think that is the way Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter must have thought and acted, because that is the way everyone around us thinks and acts.

Philosophically we are basically Platonists. The world is made up of the ideal and the material. The material is somehow corrupt, whereas the ideal is perfect  – how many times have you heard the phrase “true love?” Our Platonic worldview is especially seen in our view of “heaven.” We have a view of disembodied “spirits” or “souls” flying around on little clouds in some nebulous realm “up there.” We base virtually every decision we make on some form of scientific “truth,” and yet we pray on Sunday mornings for “divine guidance.” These are all grand-children, or step-grand-children, of Plato’s understanding, and we are so immersed in that thought that to think otherwise is to be branded as a heretic.

Yet, when we enter into the very different, and we might even say strange, world of the Bible we see that so much of what we consider to be the only way to view things is NOT the way the biblical writers viewed them. Their world did not always follow a direct cause and effect pattern. Time for them was not always linear – sometimes it was, and sometimes it was cyclical and sometimes it was significantly disjointed. Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter lived in a world where paradox was more common than consistency. And while Jesus and Paul and Peter lived in a world influenced by Plato and Aristotle, their thinking was more in line with Abraham and Moses than with the Athenian philosophers.

Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is this difference in thinking more profound than in the type of literature we call “apocalyptic.” This is the very strange world where beasts live that have seven heads and ten horns, where the sun goes dark and the moon turns red. We, as good 21st century Westerners, read those passages and immediately we think in “literal” terms. We start trying to figure out how ten horns can be divided onto seven heads – we start trying to calculate when solar or lunar eclipses must have occurred to give the biblical writers their “literal” reference. In so doing we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point! By forcing our worldview (literal, linear, and scientific to a fault) onto a mostly Hebraic, and sometimes Persian, and sometimes Egyptian, and sometimes Babylonian, and sometimes Greek, and sometimes Roman worldview, we destroy not only the method, but we destroy the message as well. What we are doing when we do that is we are standing OVER the text, not standing under it.

The problem is that this is the way we have been taught to read the Bible ever since we were very small children. We read a passage, made a modern day application, and moved on. We were never taught about Egyptian or Mesopotamian creation myths, or about Hebrew poetry, or about Zoroastrian dualism because our teachers knew little or nothing about those topics – and they did the best they could understanding that they had not been taught about those subjects. When I was a small child I searched the maps in the back of my Bible for hours, knowing that somewhere in those maps I could find Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my beloved Pecos river. We did not even have a globe in our classroom so that the teacher could show us just how far Bethlehem was from Santa Fe.

Please understand – I am not criticizing my teachers. They did the best they could with what they knew, and I might add that they did a remarkable job with those flannel boards and little sand boxes where the battle of Jericho was fought again and again with striking realism. But I do want to shine a light on a serious problem – what was adequate, and perhaps appropriate, for elementary age children is pathetically inappropriate for grown adults. We must grow beyond flannel boards and sand boxes. As we mature in our understanding we have to learn that the world of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter and every other biblical writer was vastly different from our own, and if and when we impose our way of looking at reality onto their way of describing their reality, we distort and even misinterpret Scripture.

Genesis is not a scientific textbook. Job is not a guide to astronomy. Revelation is not a road map of the future. Jesus spoke in parables because of, not in spite of, their open ended conclusions. It just seems to me to be the height of arrogance for us to say that we know everything about everything in the Bible when we are separated almost two millennia from the youngest of the biblical writings. We, who claim to be people of the book, must be the most careful and humble when it comes to speaking from that book.

Standing under the Bible means we have to get on our knees, not stand on a soap box. It means that we have to ascend by bending lower.

[Note: this post was edited to better reflect our Platonic worldview.]

Jesus, God, and the Cross [Uncertain Inferences Series]

If you have been following this series of posts, I hope you have noticed something. Most inferences, especially what I have labeled the “uncertain” ones, usually derive from the misinterpretation of one, or maybe two, passages of Scripture. That is particularly true of the inference that Jesus was separated from God on the cross. In my gentle, humble, and (undeniably) correct opinion, that is one of the most egregious, pernicious, and just flat-out wrong inferences that has been made about Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. In defense of this audacious claim, I present seven (7, what a wonderful, biblical number) pieces of evidence.

  1.  The quote from Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1. The entire point – the only point – of Psalm 22 is that the psalmist is not abandoned, is not forsaken, and indeed has been heard and delivered by his God. If Jesus wanted to quote a passage of Scripture that described his separation from God then he chose a really, really bad example.
  2. The context of Gethsemane and the cross. Consider Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, John 17:1-26. All the gospels have Jesus in close fellowship with his Father. Notice the seven statements we have recorded of Jesus from the cross: John 19:26 -30, Luke 23:34, 43, 46, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:35. Of the seven statements, three are specifically related to a time, “about the ninth hour,” or immediately before Jesus died. The last statement recorded in Luke clearly has Jesus in a close relationship with his Father. The quotation in Matthew and Mark (from Psalm 22) occurs at approximately the same time as the other last statements on the cross. Luke and John have Jesus in unity with God at the same time that Matthew and Mark supposedly have them separated. Either Jesus was separated from God, or he was not, but he could not be both at the same time.
  3. Consider Romans 6:1-4, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Colossians 1:15-23, Hebrews 2:9-18, 5:7-10, 9:11-10:18, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Revelation 5:9. These passages confirm that it was the death of Jesus which provided salvation. Some passages refer to the “suffering” of Jesus, but in context that suffering always refers to his death. As noted above, the gospel writers agree that Jesus was in unity with God at the point of his death. If God cannot be in the presence of sin (a false doctrine*, but I digress) then that means Jesus absolved our sins before his death – which means that Jesus’s death was totally unnecessary! How many really want to argue that point?
  4. The biblical doctrine of the unity of God and Jesus. Read Deuteronomy 6:4, John 1:1ff, 4:26, 8:24, 8:58, 9:35-37, 13:19, 17:1-26, Colossians 1:15-23. To say that Jesus was separated from God on the cross means that God was separated from God, the Son separated from the Father. God is indivisible. God and Jesus are indivisible. The supposed separation is an essential impossibility. To argue that Jesus and God were separated on the cross is to claim that Jesus was of a different essence than God. Thus, Jesus was only a mere human at some point on the cross. We are walking in tall cotton here, but does anyone really want to argue that a mere human died to save us from our sins?
  5. The chronology of the crucifixion simply does not allow for a separation. It is impossible to decipher exactly when Jesus could have been separated, and when he was reunited with his Father. If he was separated, it had to be for a very brief period of time after he was nailed to the cross and before he died. As noted above, this also bifurcates the suffering of Jesus from his death, something the gospels, and the later epistles, refuse to do.
  6. No other New Testament text teaches, suggests, implies, or even hints that Jesus was separated from God on the cross. You would think as passionately as this ghastly teaching is promoted today that there would be at least one reference in the New Testament of its truth. But – you just cannot find any reference to such a thought.
  7. The voice of history is unequivocal – to separate God from Jesus means two different essences, two different natures, of God and Jesus. This teaching has been rejected as heretical from the earliest centuries down to the modern day. The only groups who want to teach this error are those who want to minimize the role of Jesus, or those who want to elevate some other human to the level of Jesus.

The sum of the matter – you just cannot hold to the idea that Jesus and God were separated on the cross. It is an incorrect inference – and I believe a dangerous one – from one verse of a Psalm. No other teaching of Scripture supports the idea, and multiple passages refute it. It is illogical in the extreme – you just cannot fit a separation into the chronology of the crucifixion.

Why do we go to such lengths to believe and promote such obvious false teachings? Why, in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do we refuse to let go of such unscriptural notions?

I have a better idea. Instead of letting our emotions dictate what we think must have happened that day on the hill of crucifixion, let’s let the inspired authors of the Bible tell us what actually did happen, and then we can safely attach any legitimate applications at that point.

*The idea that God had to separate himself from Jesus, or “abandon” Jesus is inextricably connected to the equally false idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin. Since Jesus bore our sins on the cross, God had to reject him. It is suggested that the Bible supports this claim, but the only passage that even comes close to this idea is Habakkuk 1:13 – which is a complaint from the prophet Habakkuk that God is too good to do what he has told Habakkuk he will do. As the entire book makes clear, Habakkuk is dead wrong, and like Jonah, needs a little correction. Note how many times from Genesis to Revelation is it said that God saw, or remembered, or took note, of man’s sin. Note the times that God “dwelt” or “walked” on this earth, rubbing shoulders with sinful men. Note that Satan, the accuser of mankind, had a conversation with God! (Job 1, 2) Note finally that this is exactly what Jesus did for his entire ministry! I would agree that sin cannot be in the presence of God for long: it is burned up, annihilated, destroyed, or it is purified, atoned for,  covered up, forgiven – choose your verb. But the claim that God cannot be in the presence of sin, and therefore had to abandon Jesus, is simply a specious argument! It is compounding one erroneous inference to support another one. Yet, sadly, it is believed by countless Christians who have been duped so that an author can sell a few more books, or a preacher gets invited to a few more conferences.

Those Mysterious “Rolling” Sins [Uncertain Inferences Series]

When we examine inferences made from Scripture, whether ours or those of others, we can note that some are sound and legitimate, some are kind of squishy, although not necessarily wrong or dangerous, and some are just flat out wrong. When we make inaccurate inferences it is either due to simple ignorance (we are not aware of other passages that bear on the subject we are discussing, or we misinterpret the verses we use to defend our inference) or due to a blatant disregard for opposing Scriptures in an effort to make our inference unassailable, or “necessary.” The results can be anything from amusing to dangerous. Regardless, an incorrect inference is incorrect, and I do not believe anyone wants to promote falsehood.

One common inference is based on Hebrews 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” From this verse, taken by itself and entirely out of context, it would appear that no one was ever forgiven of their sins by the sacrifice of any animal. Now, this misunderstanding could be rectified if 10:4 was read in the context of 9:13-14, and 9:22. But the idea that the sins of the Israelites were not forgiven until the death of Christ became an entrenched teaching – and to explain it the idea of the sins of the Israelites being “rolled forward” was promoted. [cue the theme to “Rawhide” here, “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, keep those doggies rollin’, rawhide!] First let’s examine the teaching of the forgiveness of the sins of the Israelites under the Mosaic covenant:

The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf, and you shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.

You shall confess the sin that you have committed . . . and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement . . . and you shall be forgiven.

The priest shall make atonement on your behalf with the ram of the guilt offering, and you shall be forgiven.

You shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it . . . The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the LORD, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby.

(Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:5-6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:5-7, NRSV; See also the chapter on the Day of Atonement, chapter 16)

Color me silly here, but I just do not understand how anyone can read these passages and come up with the conclusion that the sins of the Israelites were not forgiven at the time that they went to the priest, confessed their sins, and provided the appropriate sin offering. These passages are in perfect agreement with Hebrews 9:13-14.

Now, let’s examine the passages that teach that the sins of the Israelites were “rolled forward.”

[ . . . ]

That was fun, wasn’t it?

You see, someone, or a bunch of someones, wanted to emphasize the importance of the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. Who would want to minimize it? So, taking Hebrews 10:4 as their proof-text, they had to “explain” how the sins of the Israelites could be forgiven by Jesus. This person, or persons, came up with the idea that these sins were “rolled forward” to the day of the crucifixion. There is no passage that teaches such an idea, and even Hebrews 10:4 does not teach such an idea. Never-the-less, the belief has become as undeniable for some people as the nose on their face.

I do not believe there is any profound ethic or behavior that would result from a misunderstanding of Hebrews 10:4. But the inference that the Israelites were NOT forgiven, when God repeatedly and emphatically told them that they WOULD BE forgiven, is to twist, and even deny, Scripture. If you were able to ask a faithful Israelite who was leaving their sacrifice if they had been forgiven of their sins, they would have looked at you as if you were crazy. Of course they had been forgiven. They had been promised the forgiveness of their sin, they believed in the promise of God, they had obediently followed the command of God – why would they think they had been denied that which was promised?

Let’s be blunt here. The idea that what was effective for the Israelites is somehow effective for us is just plain falsehood. The author of the book of Hebrews makes that point in a number of ways. Christ’s sacrifice is superior to the Mosaic sacrifices as the sun is superior to my little flashlight. The Mosaic code provided for the temporary, (the Hebrew writer called it “fleshly” forgiveness), while Jesus provided for “once-for-all” (forgiveness of the conscience) forgiveness. The two are profoundly different in the mind of the author of the letter to the Hebrews, and we should not try to put them back together.

The idea that the sins of the Israelites were “rolled forward” is certainly a possible deduction from Hebrews 10:4; it has been taught and defended with the greatest of fervor. But, is it a correct inference or deduction? I do not believe it is, and I am convinced that the book of Leviticus and even Hebrews 9:13, 14, and 22 all teach quite clearly that while the forgiveness under the Mosaic system was temporary, and therefore imperfect, it was none-the-less effective for that covenant.

I am profoundly thankful that we have the covenant established by Christ and sealed with his sacrifice on the cross to trust for our salvation. As the writer to the Hebrew Christians encouraged, let us not trivialize nor forsake that great sacrifice!

Reading the Bible Through Fresh Eyes

I am experiencing some wonderful things in my Bible reading this year, and as a result I believe I am doing some of the best work of my life in terms of Bible study. If you have seen my daily Bible reading plan, you know that I try to read the Bible through twice every year. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, but this year just seems to be different.

This year I am trying to approach my daily Bible reading through what I have come to call “fresh” eyes. Some people speak of reading the Bible “as if they have never read it before,” but that is really impossible. Our brains just do not work like that. Once we have read something, especially if we have spent any time studying it, our initial conclusions will always affect our subsequent reading. But, I think it is possible to hold those first thoughts and conclusions and still approach the text through eyes that are “fresh” (or perhaps “refreshed” might be the better term.) We do not seek to erase those prior conclusions; rather, we hold them close, but realizing their presence, we read the text again, looking to see if those first (and often powerful) impressions are indeed the most beneficial.

Anyway, this has been a particularly fruitful couple of weeks. I will illustrate with two examples, one from each Testament.

I am teaching the book of Revelation again, so I have been reading and thinking about that great book in preparation for my classes. So, as I was in the book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading I was struck by the phrases in Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31. These verses all speak of the sons of Noah, their sons, and in particular their lands, languages, clans and nations. A light bulb went off in my mind, “Boing!” (My light bulbs go “boing” when they light up). That is remarkably similar to John’s language in the book of Revelation as he speaks of “tribe, language, people and nation” (see 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 10:11; 14:6 and 17:15). I have an idea about why John is using that phraseology, but never mind. Back to Genesis, I immediately thought, “wait, up until the confusion of languages at Babel there was only one human language.” Bingo! Chapter 11 describes the confusion of languages at Babel. You see, the author of Genesis (Moses in my way of thinking) introduces some events, and then backs up to explain in greater detail how, and sometimes why, those events occurred. Now, I have studied Genesis academically and read it dozens of times, yet this year for some reason this passage jumped out at me (a lot of it had to do with my preparation for the book of Revelation, I admit).

Could it be, in fact is it not highly probable, that Moses does exactly the same thing with the creation narrative in chapters 1 and 2? Even a cursory reading shows some differences in the two accounts. I know many try to “harmonize” the two chapters, but to me that seems to be Scripture twisting in the worst possible way. Why not allow Moses’s style to lead us to accept the two chapters as different, but equally instructive, ways to understand God’s creation? Why do we have to make them the same?

Hence, I turn to the New Testament. On Sunday nights I am teaching the gospel of John. This past week we studied chapter 12. John says that “six days before the Passover” Jesus went to Bethany where a feast was provided, and Mary anointed his feet with a costly perfume. A quick check of Matthew and Mark, however, reveals that this same event took place two days before the Passover, and that the unnamed woman anoints his head. (Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:1-9). Now, there are some ways to attempt to “harmonize” the accounts. You could say that John is reporting that Jesus went to Bethany six days before the Passover, but is not specifically saying the feast took place six days before the Passover. That works until you get to v. 12, when John describes the triumphal entry on “the next day.” If you use Matthew’s and Mark’s chronology, that would place the “triumphal entry” the day before the Passover (unless, of course, you want to argue for more than one “triumphal entry.”) Another attempt to harmonize the accounts is to suggest there were two feasts four days apart, with two women basically doing the same anointing, with the same response by the apostles, and with the same rebuke by Jesus. Possible? Yes; but realistically? Would not the apostles recognize the value of the second anointing and praise the sacrifice?

Or, is John trying to tell us something different using this story? John appears to be using chronological markers (days, feasts) in a different way than what we expect chronological markers to be used. Once again, because of my daily Bible reading, I was drawn back to Genesis. What happened on the sixth day of creation? It was on the sixth day that God finished his work. What is the last statement of Jesus on the cross in the gospel of John? “It is finished.” (John 19:30) Jesus rested on the seventh day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection begins a new week, “on the first day of the week” Mary went to the tomb, while it was still dark.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read John 12, nor is it necessarily the best way to read John 12. I am suggesting it is a possible way to understand John 12, and one that opens fresh ways to understand the entire gospel (why, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early in the ministry of Jesus, while the synoptics place it in the final week of Jesus’s life).

You see, if we are desperate to make the gospel accounts “harmonize,” we are faced with a discrepancy – six days or two days before the Passover, anointing the feet or the head. Some differences in parallel passages can be easily harmonized. With others it appears we have to resort to using crow-bars and a can of axle grease to make the separate accounts “agree” with each other.

I have a better solution: let’s let the text speak exactly as the author intended, not as we think the author should have intended based on some other text we find in the Bible. That means occasionally we have to deal with some ambiguity, as there are passages where we cannot crawl into the author’s mind and know for certain what he intended.

As I said, we cannot read the Bible every time “as if we had never read it before.” But we can read it through fresh eyes – eyes open to discover new truths, and to re-discover new light in old truths. We need to read the Bible expectantly, not with the intent to justify our previous conclusions, but to challenge us and to draw us closer to the one who gave it to us in the first place.

What an amazing book – and what an amazing God who gave it to us!

Why is a Knowledge of History so Critical?

Last year I posted an opinion that one of the major issues facing the Churches of Christ in the coming year (and in fact, the coming decade) is the deficiency of knowledge regarding our history. Over the next three posts (at least) I want to expand that thought to include higher education in general, and the study of theology in particular, as particular weaknesses of the Restoration Movement.

Whenever I have mentioned teaching church history, and Restoration Movement history in particular, I typically get the same eye-rolls and groans. “Why do you want to study that stuff?” is the question, and “stuff” is spat out with enough venom to make sure I understand that the speaker is somewhat disinclined to join in with the study. The same is true when the word “theology” is used. A theological education is almost universally dismissed as being either unimportant or even detrimental to a Christian life.

Well, to make this as brief as possible, there are two reasons why studying “that stuff” is so important.

[As a brief aside, I am not suggesting that such knowledge is critical to become, or to remain, a Christian. Heaven will be full of people who had no understanding of church history during their lifetimes. However, I hold teachers and preachers to a higher standard, and I am fully convinced that a greater understanding of history/theology does make us wiser and more thoughtful Christians.]

Reason number 1: a sound theological education makes it less likely that we will make statements that are factually incorrect. NOTE: This is not the same as a lie. A lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of facts as known by the speaker/writer. If we say something that is factually wrong, and we do not know that it is factually wrong, we are not guilty of lying, but we are guilty of perpetuating a falsehood. Why would we want to do that?

I use as one example my own ignorance. I believed for a number of years that it was Thomas Campbell or some such Restoration leader that came up with the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in matters of opinion, freedom; and in all things, love.” Turns out I was only wrong by a few hundred years. I loved to attribute the quote to Restoration leaders, and I’m certain they used it, but it was not original with them. I was not lying when I attributed it to Campbell, but I was factually wrong.

A second example comes from my preaching experience. A preacher friend of mine got red-faced, spitting mad in a preacher’s meeting  as he recounted an experience visiting a church while on vacation. It seems that during the communion service the congregation sang a song. “You cannot perform two acts of worship at the same time” the preacher roared. I wasn’t going to say a word, but I immediately thought of the song “Father Hear the Prayer We Offer” –

Father hear the prayer we offer,
nor for ease that prayer shall be;
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

Let our path be bright or dreary,
storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls in hope unweary
Make thy work our ceaseless prayer.

Now, the song is clearly a prayer. If he had ever sung this song, he was doing two things at the same time – he was singing, and he was praying. [Note: the Psalms are Scripture and many are prayers, so when we sing a prayer Psalm, we are participating in three acts of worship: the reading/reciting of Scripture, the singing of a Psalm, and praying.] But somewhere in this preacher’s training he was taught that a person can only worship performing one task at a time. Bad theology or bad history? I would argue it is both. I do not question his motives or his integrity – but his theology is definitely skewed.

Reason number 2: a healthy theological education opens up the possibility that we will view our own particular history with more humility and view others with less loathing. Again, I will illustrate with my own experiences.

First, at one time I was adamant that there was no such thing as the “Sinner’s Prayer” (note the capital letters) in the Bible. Not only was I convinced of that fact, I was utterly contemptuous of anyone who suggested otherwise. My ignorance was matched only by my feeling of superiority. Imagine my chagrin, then, when during a class on prayer I discovered the “sinner’s prayer” (no capitals) in Luke 18:13, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Although placed on the lips of the tax collector, the teaching comes straight from Jesus. [It is with no small amount of irony that I have to point out that when I arrogantly denied the existence of the “sinners prayer” in the New Testament I was guilty of the exact sin that Jesus was condemning in his parable. Hmmm]

Now, please hear me out – I am NOT defending the manner in which the “Sinner’s Prayer” is used today. The application in which the tax collector’s prayer is used today (in relation to eternal salvation) is a gross distortion of the context in which Jesus told the parable (i.e., humility in prayer). That truth does not absolve my ignorance, and certainly not my arrogance. Now, whenever anyone uses the “Sinners Prayer” as a path to salvation, I have a much better understanding of (a) where they might be coming from and (b) a much healthier way to help them understand the passage.

The second example I have is more technical, but no less powerful. Growing up I was taught repeatedly that the Greek preposition eis must mean “for the purpose of” and that’s it. This is because Acts 2:38 reads “be baptized for (eis) the forgiveness of sins.” In fact, not too long ago I read an article that stated that out of the thousands of uses of the preposition eis in the New Testament, not one single time can it mean “because.” Wow! Talk about skating out on thin ice. (Pardon the pun.) Many Baptists, and a number of other groups, however, do believe that the preposition eis in Acts 2:38 must mean “because,” because they have been taught the forgiveness of sins precedes baptism.

The fact is that the preposition eis must have some sense of the meaning of “because” in at least one usage – Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented eis the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Now, there are a number of ways you can translate eis here, (The ESV uses the word “at”), but you cannot get around the fact that Jonah preached, and the men of Nineveh repented! That is, the repentance was subsequent to, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Their repentance was certainly not “for the purpose of” Jonah’s preaching. The point is not that eis must mean “because of” in Acts 2:38 (I certainly believe it does not, and I know of no committee translation that so translates it that way!) The point is that by not knowing some basics of the Greek language a person can draw some conclusions that are factually wrong. Once again, I am not questioning motives, but only the correctness of some of our statements.

To summarize: is a knowledge of church history or Greek grammar absolutely necessary? Not, as I mentioned above, in the sense of one’s ultimate salvation. We can believe many incorrect things and still be saved by God’s grace. However, for teachers and preachers a greater degree of accuracy is critical in one respect – we must not be found guilty of promoting error just because it fits our “doctrine,” and we must certainly not be arrogant and dismissive of others who hold differing, although incorrect, beliefs.

In other words, we ascend to healthy or “sound” doctrine by descending into the grit and grime of history in order to make sure that what we are teaching is, indeed, God’s truth.

Book Review – Perspectives on the Ending of Mark (David Alan Black, ed.)

Perspectives on the Ending of Mark : 4 Views, Edited by David Alan Black (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 141 pages.

Okay, this book may be a little geeky for some, but I will not apologize one teensy little bit for it. I have had a lifetime love affair with textual criticism (well, at least since my undergraduate days), and the problem of the ending of Mark is a well-known and much-debated subject. If you are interested in such issues, this book is as easy to read and as complete as you will find – especially compressed into 141 pages.

This book is made up of five essays. In the first, Daniel B. Wallace defends the position that Mark intentionally ended his gospel at 16:8. Maurice A. Robinson defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 is the original ending to the gospel. J.K Elliott defends the position that we simply do not have the original ending to the gospel – it has been lost (at least until it is found). David Alan Black defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 was not the “original” ending to the gospel, but is Mark’s work and was added to the gospel some time after an original copy (ending at 16:8) was circulated. And finally Darrell L. Bock summarizes all the preceding essays, basically agreeing with Wallace that the gospel ended at 16:8.

From what I have read (comprehensively, although far from extensively), nothing new or earth shattering is presented in these essays. Each author summarizes his position and presents the evidence that best supports his conclusion. This is not a written “debate” per se, so there is not a significant amount of addressing the position held by others, although there is some of that sprinkled throughout the essays.

The one new theory that I learned came in Elliott’s essay. He pointed out that in the “Western” order of the copying of the gospels, Mark comes last. (The apostolic authors Matthew and John come first, Luke third). What we now know as Mark 16:9-20 was appended, not to the gospel of Mark itself, but as a summary of all of the resurrection appearances in each of the gospels. Because it came at the end of Mark (which, by the way, he believes was damaged somehow), the so-called “Long Ending” became the ending that was copied onto subsequent copies of the individual copies of the gospel of Mark. Interesting theory, for sure, but it just has too many holes in it to satisfy my curiosity, and I think Elliott offers it as an outlier option, not one that he puts a lot of stock into.

I have to say that of the first four essays, I found Black’s essay to be the most original (pardon the pun) and most entertaining. He really does make his argument come alive through his telling, although, I must admit that he does not convince me. On the one hand, his idea is just plausible (and crazy) enough to have occurred, but on the other hand, there is some really fanciful imagination in the telling of the story.

The ending of Mark is, in my opinion, the most significant of the major textual problems in the New Testament. Growing up in the Church of Christ I was routinely challenged by the decisive tone of Mark 16:16 – if you want a passage defending the practice of baptism you do not have to look much further! But, also as a child growing up in the Churches of Christ where we were told to “do as they did” and to “call Bible things by Bible names,” I was confused as to why I never heard a sermon on Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (ESV) These verses are not promises made about the apostles, or those specially gifted by the apostles. These verses are specifically directed to “. . . those who believe.” So, I have always had a “love/hate” relationship with Mark 16:9-20.

I am not anywhere close to being educated in textual criticism enough to know the answer to whether Mark 16:9-20 is original or not. From my own study, it is not likely that Mark would end his gospel with the women being afraid, and there being no confirmation of the resurrection of which Jesus spoke so plainly. On the other hand, the textual evidence suggests very strongly that verses 9-20, although known at a very early stage of copying, were also questioned as to their authenticity.

As Darrell Bock points out in his concluding essay, we can be absolutely sure that there is no doctrine related to salvation taught in these verses that is not taught clearly elsewhere in the New Testament. The clear statement regarding the importance of baptism is instructive to me – but the snake handling and the poison drinking are equally troubling to me. Luckily, I have many, many other passages which instruct me about baptism, and nary a single one that tells me I have to make friends with a Cottonmouth Water Moccasin.

Bottom line – I give this five stars out of five and two thumbs up. There might be brief sections that are too technical for the average reader, but not to fear – I believe the main points the authors make are very clear. The evenness of the book is remarkable – this is a very well edited product! Go ahead, feed your inner Geek. This is definitely a good purchase.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#14)

If I have not made clear by now, I need to emphasize something – these Undeniable Truths are NOT something that I have mastered. I struggle to live out all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day or week or month. They are not mountain peaks that I have conquered, but rather signposts to (hopefully) keep me on the straight and narrow path.

So, please do not think that I offer #14 as some kind of “do what I say and what I do” kind of moralism. Rather, #14 in given because I believe we all struggle with the intersection of doctrine and discipleship, of orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action).

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.

I have heard it said that right action can lead to right thinking. I disagree – at least on the level of principle. I do not want to suggest that right behavior can never lead us to right thinking, but in my experience what passes for behavior leading to doctrine is simple eisegesis, the practice of coming to a conclusion and then searching for an acceptable proof text. Let me illustrate:

In a textbook that I was given to read for my doctoral studies, the author used an incident in the life of the seminary in which he was working as proof that behavior can lead to a positive change in doctrine. It seems the faculty of this seminary was confronted with a crisis – young women were demanding to receive the same ordination for ministry as young men. Many women had been taking the courses leading to ordination, but could not be ordained because of denominational practices. It was decided to change the policy and procedures and to ordain the females. A fervent search was then made to justify the decision on the basis of biblical precedent, and, lo and behold! The precedent was discovered after thousands of years of mysteriously being hidden in the bowels of a male dominated, patriarchal church. The author was emphatic that, had it not been for the change in practice, the change in the doctrinal position would never have been made. His point was that orthopraxy (at least, in his mind) can effect a change in orthodoxy.

As I said, I am not going to categorically deny that this can occur, but as the above case study suggests, the change in the doctrinal position had much more to do with political correctness and the financial stability of the seminary than in any guiding of the Holy Spirit. This, in my mind, was as blatant a case of eisegesis, of a decision in search of a proof-text, as I have ever seen or read.

No! Right action, right behavior, faithful discipleship comes as a result of right thinking – of proper doctrine. A change in circumstance might drive us to re-read and re-study Scripture – in fact it should. But we must never change our behavior or re-structure our discipleship and then go rummaging through the crevices of Scripture looking for a piton upon which to hang our conclusions.

I believe my Undeniable Truth #14 can be beautifully illustrated by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Early in his youth he was as nationalistic a German as a young boy coming to age during World War I could have been. In his early sermons he clearly taught that wars could be fought and killing could be justified if one’s nation or family was at risk. Years later, as he witnessed the developing violence of the National Socialists (the Nazis), he realized the gospel taught another truth: no wars should ever be fought and no killing can ever be justified. But Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist or conscientious objector and then look for a Scriptural blessing. He was driven into his pacifist convictions through a long and painful study of Scripture, primarily the Sermon on the Mount.

[Technical aside here. Much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s compliance with, and some would say promotion of, the attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. At this point in my study, and I believe with adequate justification, I do not believe Bonhoeffer would have attempted a biblical justification of Hitler’s assassination. He would have justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to end the war and to save thousands, if not millions, of lives, but I am not sure he would have done so on a purely theological basis. He wrote frequently enough about the guilt that the conspirators were acquiring to convince me that he would have confessed that the assassins (and conspirators) were clearly guilty of murder, but that God’s grace was sufficient to cover their guilt, and the value of saving innocent lives was worth the death of one “tyrannical despiser of humanity.”]

Right doctrine, without faithful discipleship, is meaningless. We can have all the “i”s dotted and all the “t”s crossed and all the jots and tittles in their right places, but if all those teachings do not result in changed lives, what good do they do?

I think we need to spend more time thinking about the eternal consequences of passages such as Isaiah 58:1-1-8, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13 (and 12:7), Matthew 23:23-24, and James 1:27 (among many others).

Let us not be guilty of becoming theologically perfect, and practically useless.