What Is Our Authority?

Some additional thoughts on my study on Christ and culture . . .

It occurred to me that the contemporary church has an authority problem. Not that this is original with us in the 21st century, but the problem is revealing itself in a manner that is becoming more critical by the moment. Let me work through a little bit of “our” history.

Two examples demonstrate how the sciences have been used to correct, or to make amends for incorrect and, in one case, blasphemous, misunderstandings of Scripture. The first example is that of recognizing, and then accepting, that a geocentric universe is incorrect, and that the earth revolves around the sun, rotating on its axis as it does so. The second example is that of recognizing, and then overcoming, the disgraceful way in  which the Bible was used to defend and support slavery. In the first example, students of the Bible had to realize that the biblical authors could use language that was not scientifically correct, but that was correct by man’s experience none-the-less. In the second example, students of the Bible had to recognize that just because a word is used (i.e., “slavery”), that did not mean that God blessed or even approved of the practice, and certainly would not condone a practice as distorted as was the American practice of slavery.

In the first example, the science of astronomy proved to be authoritative, and in the second example, the science of sociology (perhaps along with physiology, and psychology) were employed along with appropriate Bible study to correct bad Bible interpretation.

I am grateful for the scientific knowledge of Copernicus, Galileo, and many others. I am grateful for the men and women who stood up and demanded that the basic dignity of every human being be recognized, first with the abolition of slavery and then one hundred years later, with the civil rights movement.

Simply stated, there have been times in the two millennia since Christ walked on the earth, that either the hard sciences or the soft (humanities) sciences have been employed to correct faulty exegesis and hermeneutics.

However, a new crisis is facing the Church, and I am afraid that, having been proven wrong on those issues, far too many Christians have surrendered the authority of Scripture for the authority of the sciences. Where the sciences can be of value in some areas, there is one area in which the sciences are utterly incapable of providing any guidance. That area is the area of morality – God’s teaching about holy or sinful behavior.

I hear and read that more and more Christians are looking to science to answer questions of basic biblical morality. Thus, particularly in the area of sexuality, the divinely appointed creation of two sexes and of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is being called into question because of recent supposed scientific discovery. It’s almost like Christians are saying, “Look, we were wrong about the earth thing, and we were wrong about the slavery thing, maybe we need to back off of saying anything for certain about the sexuality thing.”

Well, it’s one thing to be mistaken about the biblical use of experiential language. And it certainly is shameful that Christians abused the biblical text to defend slavery for over two hundred years. But when the inspired authors speak unequivocally and consistently about the basic nature of God and how that nature is manifested in the creation of the sexes, it is the height of hubris to reject that uniform, consistent teaching. There are few, if any, teachings in the Bible that show more consistency than the fact that God created male and female to reflect his creative nature, and that it is only through monogamous, heterosexual marriage that he has approved the utilization of our sexual beings. Forced sexual behavior (rape) and polygamous marriages are described, but in the first case rape is always condemned (with capital punishment for the abuser) and in the second case, polygamous marriages are virtually always portrayed in a negative light, if not outright condemned. In that regard, homosexual behavior is always condemned. There are no examples in the Bible of any male to male or female to female sexual relationships being blessed. The authority of Scripture is diametrically opposed to the perceived authority of science, and it is exactly here that the Christian is going to have to make a choice.

And, as a brief aside, it is exactly here that those who are pushing the authority of the sciences have met their Achilles heel. On the one hand the mantra from the extreme social left is that one is born homosexual and cannot change that orientation. For anyone to suggest that homosexual behavior is therefore a sin is to themselves be guilty of a the sin of intolerance and hatred (homophobia). On the other hand, those same individuals on the extreme social left want to argue that the biological determination of sex as recognized at birth is simply a fluid and inexact marker, and that a person can choose to change that sexual orientation at some later point in his/her life as he/she so recognizes that he/she “feels” like he or she has been born in the wrong body.

Has anyone else caught this hypocritical view of science? On the one hand out DNA is sacrosanct, that we are born one way or the other and cannot even begin to think about changing it; and on the other hand our very DNA that makes us male or female is simply an accident that can be accepted or rejected (and therefore changed) with a simple surgical procedure and a name change, all based on a fleeting human emotion. Like anything else, follow a course as far as it can be reasonably projected and you will see either its folly or its perfection. The social left is caught in an unsustainable contradiction here, and those who are only too willing to sacrifice Scripture for science need to be aware of this inconsistency.

God’s word is utterly consistent: God created mankind – male and female – in his image, and heterosexual monogamous marriage is holy. All sexual behavior outside of that relationship (forcing another against their will, sex acts with one’s same birth sex, sex acts with animals, sex acts outside of the holy bond of marriage) is sinful.

We have reached a point, at least in the United States, where Christians are going to have to take a stand and proclaim whether our authority is God’s inspired word, or whether we are going to turn our spiritual lives over to the authority of the sciences. As for me – I will let the sciences speak where they are qualified to speak – in answering the questions of how things work in our universe and in our world. Where the sciences can inform my understanding of Scripture I will gladly listen to that conversation. I will gladly learn from the “soft” sciences about how the human mind works and how humans work (or don’t work) in societal units.

But, I cannot, and will not, allow either the hard sciences or the soft sciences to dictate my understanding of morality. When it comes to deciding what God has said about the basic nature of human beings, and how that nature reflects His nature, then I must confidently and adamantly say with Peter, John, and the apostles:

Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard. . . We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29)

We stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. God speaks, we must either listen and obey, or reject and disobey. We cannot climb higher by rejecting God’s most fundamental truths. We ascend higher by climbing lower.

Yes, Our Thoughts Matter

I have attempted to write this post several times – each time getting close to posting it, but then finally deciding to send it to the trash. What concerns me is that some people will think I am attacking one specific group of people. I am writing to attack a specific belief, and if that belief is common or commonly espoused by a group of people, I cannot separate the two. I mean no ill will to any group of people, but I have to address what I believe is a serious misapplication of Scripture.

The belief I want to challenge is this: it really doesn’t matter what you think about, or the feelings you hold privately, the only thing that matters is how you might act on those feelings. That is Scripturally false. The truth is that our feelings, our beliefs, and our private thoughts really do matter.

Where I am hearing this the most frequently is in regard to homosexual thoughts and behavior, and mostly from those who wish to promote that a person can be a homosexual, just so long as they do not act out on their homosexual thoughts and feelings. The line I hear repeatedly is this, “a person can have homosexual thoughts, can be ‘inclined’ homosexually, but as long as he/she is celibate, that person is not sinning is his or her thoughts.”

Just to put my cards on the table, consider passages such as Matthew 5:27-30; 12:33-37; and 15:10-20. Those who argue that our thoughts, our feelings, are inconsequential so long as we do not act out on them are not arguing against me, they are arguing against Jesus.

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who is a closet racist, who hates people of a different race in the depth of his heart, but who never verbalizes that hatred?

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who has visions of sexually abusing children (a pedophile)? Would we welcome such a one with no misgivings so long as they promised never to satisfy their dreams?

Would we make the same kind of excuse for the wife who has wild and explicit visions of having sex with a co-worker who is also married with a family to support? Would we just smile and nod and tell her that as long as she kept her adultery “in her head” that there was nothing wrong with her fantasies?

You see, I just cannot justify the logic that is so common in our churches today – that a man can have sexual fantasies about other men or a woman can fantasize about other women and it is perfectly acceptable, just so long as it stays in their heads and never moves below the belt. No, it is not. If Jesus said it was a sin to fantasize about another man’s wife even if there was no physical sex, then it cannot be acceptable, normal, or permissible for a man to fantasize about having sex with another man, or a woman with a woman.

I write this fully aware of my own demons. For anyone to stand and say they are guiltless in the matter is to invite the harshest condemnation – either for willful ignorance or blatant falsehood. I have known no one who did not, at some point, wrestle with impure thoughts, whether they are sexual in nature, or racist, or related to anger and hatred. I do not want anyone to think I am coming from a position of pure innocence.

The fact is that we have swallowed the dualism of Plato so fully that we have  created a false reality. We believe that our heart and our bodies are so separated that whatever one does has no impact on the other. We can think or believe anything we wish, and so long as we do not physically act on that thought, all is well. Or, conversely, we can behave with the most sinful of actions, but as long as “we really didn’t mean it” and “that is not the way I really am” all is equally okay.

No, and No.

We are not dualistic creatures, half mind and half body. We are not minds imprisoned in bodies, and we are not physical bodies with a “mind” that floats somewhere separate and apart. We are unities, we are complete selves, we are whole creations. Our hearts do affect our bodies, and as Paul makes so clear in regard to men using prostitutes, what we do with our bodies does affect our hearts.

Let us be done with this heresy that just because we do not act on sinful thoughts, fantasies, and dreams that we are somehow worthy of God’s kingdom. If it is sinful for a heterosexual to have dreams or fantasies about bedding his neighbor’s wife (or daughter), then it cannot be acceptable for a man to have fantasies about having sex with a man, or a woman with a woman.

Let us rid ourselves of this Platonic dualism. We are whole creatures, created in the image of our God and savior. Let us learn to act – and think – like the truly awesome creatures that we are!

How Big is Your Church? (Pt. 2 of 2)

If you have not read part one of this thrilling series, I suggest that you do – because I don’t want to repeat myself too much here. Suffice it to say that I recognize that the church is NOT your church, it is Christ’s church – God’s church. But like it or not, and right or wrong, we do sometimes refer to “my church” and though it grates on my ears, I will use the term in its most colloquial (albeit incorrect) sense.

In my previous post I challenged a view that makes the church much smaller than it really is. We do it when we start shaving off all of the folks who don’t think like us, act like us, believe like us. Some say “to-mah-to” and we say “to-may-to” – so obviously one of us has to go. We divide over issues as weighty as the divinity of Christ or as trivial as a coffee pot in the classroom. We draw our circles ever smaller and smaller.

However, those who draw their circles too small are not the only sinners in this matter. There are those who go way too far in the other direction as well – and within the Churches of Christ this segment is growing exponentially. If those on the right demand adherence to every “jot and tittle” of their creeds (either written or unwritten), then the folks on the left don’t even recognize that there might be a “jot or tittle” that needs to be adhered to.

Let’s be perfectly blunt here – those who demand strict obedience to every thought and interpretation of a select group of gate keepers are best described as Pharisees. On the other end of the spectrum are universalists – those who welcome all regardless of beliefs or behavior. Universalists are so nervous about the appearance of Phariseeism that they bend over backwards to repudiate any level of boundary keeping. Is baptism too legalistic? Just welcome anyone who “accepts Jesus into their heart.” Is congregational acapella singing too restrictive of those gifted with musical talent? Hey, let’s start a worship band! Is limiting public leadership to one gender too oppressive? Well, let’s just let anyone lead in worship regardless of gender. And, while we are at it, let’s do away with the “gender binary” concept altogether and welcome anyone into the church regardless of what they believe about gender or sexual relationships.

If there is a “slippery slope” regarding drawing one’s circle too small, there is an equal but opposite “slippery slope” when one starts destroying every form of boundaries. For example, some who advocate for gender inclusiveness become apoplectic when it is pointed out that the same arguments they use for gender equality are used by the LGBTQ+ crowd for inclusiveness for any and all sexual behaviors. Righteous indignation or not, the fact is the exact same arguments are used by both groups, and unless you are willing to accept the argumentation of the LGBTQ+ groups, you had better be very careful about using those arguments for gender inclusion.

There is an “inconvenient truth” (to use a popular expression) concerning those on the extreme far right and the extreme far left. They disagree with each other so vehemently that they meet in the middle. What I mean by that is that both the extreme right and the extreme left are, at their core, humanistic manifestations of church polity. This infuriates those on the right, and embarrasses those on the left, but it is true. Let me explain.

Classic Liberalism (capital “L”) can best be described as a human effort to solve whatever problem is being discussed. That is to say, classic Liberalism admits of no supernatural solution to any problem. We humans are smart enough to fix anything, be it sin or a sanitation issue. Classic Fundamentalism was, and is, the direct response to classic Liberalism. Fundamentalism states that there are divine, fixed, immutable rules for everything, and we as humans must submit to those laws or our efforts are doomed to failure.

What both of these movements share is the core element of humanism. This is what ultra-conservatives refuse to see, and ultra-liberals are embarrassed to think that they might share something with the fundies. Both camps, however, exist through the power of the human being to determine what God does or does not approve, or will or will not accept. Within the Churches of Christ that means that on the one hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you worship in a building that has a fellowship room; and on the other hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you deny a woman the privilege of preaching on Sunday morning.

So, is there a middle ground? Is there a way to navigate between the Scylla of rabid fundamentalism and the Charybdis of vacuous liberalism?

In my first post I used the phrase, “tendentious interpretations of disputed texts” (or something like that). In my own little thought world, that is the crux of the problem. Fundamentalists reject the idea that there are any disputed texts in the Bible. For them everything is black and white, cut and dried. The liberals see everything as disputed (or at least disputable), and since nothing can be firm, there can be no boundaries of either doctrine or behavior.

The problem, as I see it, is there are disputed interpretations of texts (as the apostle Paul freely admits), and at the same time Paul clearly and unabashedly declares there to be matters of undisputed truth. Romans 14 is the clearest example where Paul concludes that there are just some issues that where there are going to be disagreements, and the way to handle those disagreements is to be generous and loving with each other, each Christian willing to forego their “rights” so as not to offend their Christian brother or sister. On the other hand, Paul handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan because of their blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20). Paul unequivocally stated that there are matters of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). If there were matters of “first importance,” then there were certainly matters that did not matter as much (i.e., Romans 14).

Simply stated, we recognize and defend the boundaries that God has put into place, and we work as diligently as possible to tear down the boundaries that we humans have put into place.

Now for the personal confession – I too have boundaries that are important to me. I cannot worship with some who, biblically speaking, might be my brothers and sisters in the faith because they have chosen to practice certain elements that I believe violate Scripture, or at the very least, are divisive in nature. I cannot worship with others because I do not view certain practices as sinful, and they do. What this means to me is that I am a sinful human being, and there are brothers and sisters to the right of me and to the left of me who are sinful human beings. No one on this earth has a perfect, incorrupt understanding of Scripture. We all, despite our best efforts, sometimes fall either too far to the right, or sometimes too far to the left.

What I want to do is to defend and to protect the boundaries that God has created for his church. Boundaries matter. Doctrine matters. Ethics and moral behavior matters. If there were no boundaries, there could be no church. But I want to make certain that I am defending God’s boundaries, and not my own.

It is entirely too easy for me to draw my circle so tightly that only I am secure.

Let us remember that it is not our church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of God. How big is that church?

God, and only God, can be the judge of that.

The Future of the Church Is . . .

Ever since I was a pre-teenager, back yonder when the crust of the earth had just begun to cool, I have heard that “the future of the church is our young people.” Sometimes it was stated like this, “the youth are not the future of the church, but the youth are the present of the church.” When you are a pre-teen, or a teenager, that is pretty heady stuff. “Hey everybody, listen to me, if not the present, I am certainly the future of the church.”

Well, if my generation was the present of the church back then, or even if we were the not-too-distant future of the church, we have done a pretty good job of mucking the whole thing up.

I have been reminded of my glorified past as I have been thinking about Andrew Root’s two books, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, and Faith Formation in a Secular Age. Pertinent to both of these books is a very brief work by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled, “Theses on Youth Work in the Church,” which is found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 12, Berlin 1932-1933 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 515-517. I quote the first sentence of these eight theses:

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself, but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone.

[For a little longer discussion of these theses, see my post here, The Church and the Idolization of Youth ]

Bonhoeffer recognized, probably early in 1933, that the church was fixated on its youth. Spurred by this insight, and bolstered by many decades of sociological and ecclesiological evidence, Root speaks a prophetic voice to a church that remains infatuated with youth and youthfulness. We have not learned much since my youth-hood, and unless we start listening, we may lose another couple of generations to the mythological concept that they, and they alone, hold the key to the future of the church.

Stated as emphatically as I can, the future of the church lies with Jesus Christ – and I would add the working of the Holy Spirit which empowered the church on the day of Pentecost – alone. The church is not bound by generations, by location, by nationality, by political association. The church is not bound, period. As long as Jesus remains Lord and Christ, the church will be free, and will bring freedom to all who surrender to Jesus.

Let us stop drinking the cup of this noxious poison. The church does not have to “listen to the young people” in order to survive. The church needs to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, and follow those teachings to the cross if necessary. The youth do not drive the church – the youth need to bow in submission to the Christ – just as the middle aged and the elderly must do.

We ascend by climbing lower, not by worshipping youthfulness.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt. 4)

[A little background here – after I posted my first review of Andrew Root’s book, Baker Academic “tweeted” a link to it. I was mortified. It’s one thing to opine about someone’s work if you are, like, 99.999% sure the author will never read your critique. With the surprise advertisement, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Dr. Root might read my review. He did. And he responded. In some of the most gracious words imaginable, no less. I emailed back and forth with him a couple of times, and I am deeply touched by his willingness to discuss his book, and what he saw as legitimate critiques that I made. His correspondence made my week.]

Okay, its been a while in coming, but I think I am finally ready to share my last (maybe, hopefully) review of Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. As I have hopefully already made clear, this book has deeply cut into what I consider to be “faith development,” and I eagerly await the next two volumes in this series. If you have not read my earlier posts, the bottom line is I highly recommend this book – even with the caveat that there is some technical language used, so parts of the book may be daunting.

Now I want to share my main “quibble” with the book. I have a real hesitancy in doing this for one huge reason. My quibble is not so much with something Root said, but with what he did not say. My hesitancy is that I have a real issue with people criticizing what does not exist in a work. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and the one thing that always irritated me the most in getting a graded paper back was when the professor said something like, “…but you did not address ‘x'” (what ever ‘x’ might have  been.) The one time I really deserved this critique was in my Master of Divinity comprehensive exams. I totally forgot to answer half a question. I thought I was going to get “pass plus” and I think I got a pass-minus. Oops.

In regard to Dr. Root’s book, the essence of what he identifies as “faith” centers in the Pauline expression, “in Christ.” My ears perked up. He went on to discuss Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, and the transformation that took place in Saul’s life. I grew more interested. Root emphatically defended his contention that faith in the New Testament occurs when a person symbolically dies, has someone come and minister the death of Christ to them, and then comes to a new life consisting in service and ministry to others. I was totally captivated. And, with bated breath, I kept turning pages waiting for the ultimate hammer to fall – the hammer that would locate this death, burial, and resurrection to a new life in the physical moment of baptism.

It never fell.

And, as I mentioned above, it is not appropriate to overly critique the omission of a topic in someone’s else’s work – so in terms of reviewing Faith Formation in a Secular Age, I will leave you with this simple observation. The omission in no way minimizes the value of this book – I recommend it highly. But – if the book had been mine to write, this is the section I would add regarding baptism.

Ever since the days of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, the heirs of the Restoration Movement (especially the Churches of Christ) have been accused of overly emphasizing the physical and spiritual act of baptism. Too many times, I fear, this accusation has been all too accurate. Maybe “overly emphasizing” is overly critical, but we have taken one aspect of conversion and, hopefully not to generalize too much, have turned it into the only aspect of conversion. Just as an example, when someone comes to one of our congregations and seeks membership, the primary question asked of them is not, “do you have the gifts of the Spirit active in your life?” but, “have you been baptized?” (And often included in that question, “. . . by the right person in the right church. . . “)

The end result of this emphasis is that now two hundred years (give or take a few) from the writings of Stone and Campbell, I honestly believe that many members of the Churches of Christ have a totally sacramental view of baptism. Conversion and transformation have been replaced with a magical view of baptism that is utterly absent from the New Testament. What I hear from all too many members of the Church is a curious mixture of evangelicalism (you must be ‘born again’) and Roman Catholicism (it’s just ‘one and done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out’). Talk about your unholy marriages.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the practice of baptism in so many churches. We say that we do not believe in infant baptism, that we are “credo-baptists,” that we only baptize believing adults, or, at the very least, those who have reached the “age of accountability.” [WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE THAT PHRASE IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?] And, yet, I see and hear of younger and younger children being baptized – as young as 8 or 9, in some cases probably younger.

We do not allow adolescents to drive until they reach an age twice what we gloriously accept as a “believing adult.” We do not allow anyone to join the military until a couple of years past that. We do not allow anyone to purchase or legally consume alcohol until a couple of years past that. Yet, we trumpet the decision of a child barely into elementary school as a great transformation of life and character. And, we come up with some of the most specious arguments to defend that practice. “But, they believe in Christ.” Um, yeah, so do the demons, according to James 2:19, and it does them no good. “But, what happens if we tell them ‘no’ and they leave the church?” Well, why do we tell our children they can’t have a driver’s license until a  certain age, that they cannot marry until a certain age, that they cannot join the military or drink a beer until a certain age? Why does our judicial system protect minors who are not capable of making adult decisions and being responsible for those decisions until they reach a certain age? And, just to respond to an absurd argument with one equally absurd, what happens if we DO baptize them and then they leave the church – as is happening by the hundreds if not thousands? What then? Do we become crypto-Calvinists and whisper, “Once saved, always saved” as our young adults stream out the back door?

[If you have never sat and answered the anguished questions of one who was baptized as an infant/child, and had them question their faith, their beliefs, their actions, then I suggest that you do sometime. You will not be so quick to dismiss their hopelessness. If they ask for baptism again they feel like they are rejecting the approval of their loved ones years ago. But to continue on living in the doubts and fears of realizing they simply “got wet” in order to please parents or to succumb to peer pressure is spiritually paralyzing.]

You see, as a group of biblical reformers – whose sincere and genuine desire was to restore baptism to a foundational place in the conversion process – we have come full circle to simply practicing baptism as a quaint “right of passage” that doubles as an entry into the membership of a congregation and provides legitimacy to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings me right back to Dr. Root’s book. If he is correct in his definition of faith (and I think that if not fully correct, his view points us in a bright and helpful direction), then we must, repeat must, restore the biblical view of baptism to that picture of faith. And, I emphasize this, not just as a brief, momentary photo opportunity, but as a life-long, unending commitment to following in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

After examining Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, the passage that was most lacking in Dr. Root’s book is Romans 6:1-14. But, hear me on this – it has also been lacking in my preaching and in my life as well. I too have fallen into the “one-and-done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out” mentality. I too have been caught up in the baptism of infant/children. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I think it is time, past time actually, that the heirs of the Restoration Movement do some actual restoring again. I think we need to restore baptism to its rightful place, not just in the event of a new birth, but in Root’s words, to a lifelong commitment to the death of Jesus – as lived out in service and ministry to others.

In other words, we need to restore the biblical view of faith back into our vocabulary and our practice.

The Sin of Teaching Too Much (When You Expose Your Ignorance)

Big sigh. It happened again yesterday. I was skimming through one of my social media sites and just briefly read the introductory section of an interesting looking article. I can’t remember if it was in the first or second paragraph, but it was right up there close to the top, when the author wrote (in regard to John 3), “. . . ‘born again’ literally means ‘born from above.'”

Grrr and grrr.

First, let’s lay aside the fact that the author equated two English phrases that have no “literal” equivalence. However, what we cannot lay aside is the inference, nay, I would suggest, the very strong implication, that the Greek word behind the two phrases has a “metaphorical” or connotative meaning and a “literal” or denotative meaning. It doesn’t. That is just wrong. The author is trying to make a profound spiritual point, and all he did was expose his ignorance.

Just to set the record straight, I looked up in my Greek lexicon the Greek word under consideration (anothen, for those who are curious). The lexicon gives three primary definitions for the word, with a number of sub-definitions. Those definitions are: 1. locally, from above; 2. temporally, from the beginning or for a long time; and 3. again, anew. There you have it. Three meanings, three definitions. No “metaphorical” or “literal” about it. Some words have different meanings, and the context of the passage is controlling when we attempt to discern which possible meaning is appropriate for that passage. (The lexicon goes on to note that in John 3 the meaning is deliberately obscure, so as to generate discussion as to the meaning Jesus intended).

This discussion just goes to prove a mantra my first year Greek professor drilled into us Greek newbies – one year of Greek (or less) only serves to make you dangerous. It takes a minimum of two years, and far preferably more, before you can claim an adequate understanding of a foreign language. Another preacher friend said it this way – the purpose of learning Greek or Hebrew is not to discover of new world of hitherto unknown spiritual truths, it is to keep you from making some really profound, and stupid, mistakes.

This sort of problem is compounded nowadays with the proliferation of computer programs which parse and decline Greek words with the simple move of a cursor. This is not a problem for the wise user who understands his or her limitations and simply uses the program as an aid or tutor. Where it becomes a serious problem is when someone mouses over a word, gets a thumbnail description of the tense or declination of a word, and then goes off to wax eloquently about things he or she knows little or nothing about.

[Pet peeve and aside here – more and more theological schools and seminaries are reducing or eliminating the emphasis on biblical languages in their degree programs. This is a huge, and in my opinion, tragic, move. It is justified because once a graduate leaves the school, he or she never really makes use of the hours and hours spent memorizing arcane rules and words that only occur 10 or 15 times in the text. In my opinion, that is a response to a crisis by letting the inmates run the prison. Just because graduates do something stupid – and yes! I have done and still do the same stupid thing – is no reason to abandon a critical part of theological education. Rant over.]

The example I used above regarding John 3 is not really a huge issue – I think the author borrows on expertise he clearly does not have, but his topic is not of any huge exegetical or theological import. There are, however, other examples where the profession of knowledge one does not have does become critical.

Quite some time ago I was reading an article written by a fellow minister of the Churches of Christ. The topic of his article was a Greek preposition, one of those little words (in this case eis, pronounced by some as ice, but I prefer the pronunciation ace), that are notoriously difficult to translate in a number of instances. The targets of his ire were those who want Acts 2:38 to mean that the first hearers of Peter’s sermon were baptized because of the forgiveness of their sins, rather than for the purpose of having those sins removed. The entire point of his article is that this little word can never, in no way, absolutely not, never, ever, ever, be translated as “because of.”

Except it can, and in at least one case, it has to.

In Matthew  12:41 Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” You guessed it, the little word I highlighted is that same little word eis. In this context the only way you can make sense of the statement is to understand that the people of Nineveh repented as a result of, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Jonah preached, they repented. If that is not a causative  meaning, I will eat my lexicon.

The meaning of eis in Acts 2:38 cannot mean “because of,” because the context will not allow it to mean “because of.” The sins of those in the audience had not been forgiven – they had just asked Peter what to do in order to have those sins forgiven!! Peter told them what to do in order for their sins to be forgiven – repent and be baptized. But – and this is critical – to base one’s theology on the vagaries of a little Greek preposition is just wrong. Talk about putting a hermeneutical cart in front of an exegetical horse! While I agree with my preacher brother that the use of eis in Acts 2:38 is “for the purpose of,” I lost a lot of respect for his exegetical skill (and maybe some of his integrity) because he based his argument on a false conclusion.

I will defend my understanding of truth until my face turns blue, but I refuse to use bad, or in this case, utterly incorrect arguments to do it.

The point is, if you only have a rudimentary knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, then recognize your weakness and don’t go around spouting information the truth or falsity of which you are absolutely clueless. If one year of university level Greek only serves to make a student dangerous, what is the result of training that is less than that?! By all means use those computer programs that help you understand more of the text – I am not arguing against their use as a helper, but they can only give you a thumbnail picture of what is going on. In order to fully understand and comprehend what is going on in the Greek or Hebrew, one must learn not only the grammar of the language (verb tenses and such), but the syntax (what it means for certain noun declensions and verb tenses to be used as they are) as well.

As the old adage goes, it is far better to remain silent and have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

The Genesis of God’s Laws (Pun Intended)

I am a strong proponent of daily Bible reading – whether one is motivated to read through the Bible in a calendar year or has other motivations (the slow and meditative reading of a particular genre, such as the gospels or the prophets, for example). The simple fact of our human weakness is that we cannot always be on the top of our game, and some days we read with brilliant clarity, and some days we read as if swimming in molasses. If we wait for one of those “brilliant clarity” days, we can make all kinds of excuses for not reading God’s word. I like to read whether I feel like it or not, because I have found that, just as frequently as not, I find a profound verse or two on my “down” days as much as my “up” days.

So, I was reading along in Genesis this month, and came across this sentence:

Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. (Genesis 26:5)

Wait, what?

When did God give Abraham any charges, commandments, statutes, or laws? The language is precise here – and is the language that is used repeatedly of the laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But that event is centuries in the future as Genesis 26 unfolds. Such language then would be considered prescient, not reflective.

And, while we are at it, why would it have been a crime for Pharaoh to have taken Sarai sexually in Genesis 12, or for Abimelech to have done the same in Genesis 20? Or, to go further, why was it a sin for Cain to offer an sacrifice unpleasing to God, or for Cain to have killed his brother? Why was it wrong for Shechem to have had sexual intercourse with unmarried Dinah?

What, exactly, is the Genesis of God’s laws?

You see, there are certain beliefs and attitudes that creep into our understanding of Scripture that are not necessary bad or malicious, but they are never-the-less wrong. One such belief that I labored under for many, many years was that prior to Mt. Sinai, the world basically operated under a “wild, wild, west” form of government and things were considered wrong or sinful based on “secular” or human concepts (i.e. the Code of Hammurabi, for example).

There is only one fly in that ointment, however. Well, there are probably many more than one, but one will suffice. God did not say that Abraham obeyed the laws of the land. God did not condemn Cain for violating a civil code against murder. Simeon and Levi were not responding solely to social mores (although, they were probably doing that as well). Jacob did not respond with approbation against Simeon and Levi just because they went too far with their form of “justice.”

Cain, Abraham (and later, Isaac), Simeon, Levi – all of these violated the expressed will of God prohibiting falsehood and murder. Pharaoh and Abimelech knew of a code that prohibited the taking of another man’s wife – more than just staying out of hot water with the local magistrate (note, for example Genesis 20:5). The problem for us is that we do not have written down for us exactly when or where those expressions were made. In other words, there is more to the Word of God than we have recorded for us.

On one level I find that deeply disturbing. On another level, I can be assured that I have all I need, and that is sufficient (see, for example, 2 Peter 1:3). John the Revelator was given more insight and more “revelation” than he recorded (Revelation 10:4), but should that bother us? I think not. God’s ways are utterly and completely beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9), so it should not surprise us that there are things that he revealed to his servants the prophets that were, and/or are, not appropriate for general audiences.

I really did not intend to get too terribly philosophical here – what I really wanted to point out is how important it is to read a portion of God’s word every day, because you never know when you will come across a text, or even a series of texts, that re-shapes and possibly even corrects, a flawed or incorrect understanding.

Read. Meditate. Pray. Ascend lower.