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

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.

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.

Book Review – The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (D. S. Russell)

D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964) 405 pp., including two appendices, and a comprehensive bibliography (at least through 1964).

As I responded to a correspondent a few weeks back, I make it a priority to stay abreast of the latest books and trends in theology. Thus, I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. And, in my latest endeavor to stay on top of the latest and greatest, I am reviewing a book published in 1964.

I am nothing if not contemporary. Oh, well.

Actually, I stumbled onto this book as a part of my last ministry. I was given the opportunity to peruse the congregation’s library and take a book if I thought it would be useful. When my eye fell on this title I almost flipped. I was disappointed to learn of its early publication date, but only for a moment. Many theological books – those related to apocalyptic especially – become dated rather quickly because of the exploding research into the Dead Sea Scrolls and other related archeological discoveries, many of which were just beginning to be studied in the 1960’s. However that might be, this is an extremely valuable addition to someone’s library if they are interested in understanding this bewildering, some might say mystifying, aspect of the biblical record.

First, a little personal background. My first class on the book of Revelation came in the early 1980’s. I have had a love affair with that book ever since. More recently I was blessed with the opportunity to teach the book of Revelation twice as a part of the faculty on the Eastern New Mexico University religion program. Counting congregational series, I have taught the book of Revelation five times over the past 9 years. Every time I teach the book I get a little deeper, find another commentary, find another resource to help me understand the book. By far the one single aspect of my research that has helped me grasp the meaning of the book has been my study of the topic of apocalyptic literature. So, for me, finding this book by D.S. Russell was like finding a diamond ring on the sidewalk.

This particular volume does not address the book of Revelation at all. It is focused on Jewish apocalyptic literature, arising during the three centuries between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. As such, if you want to apply the book to the N.T. book of Revelation you have to do so by analogy and parallel, but by understanding the thought world, and the process, and the message of apocalyptic literature as it was being produced both before and after the writing of the book of Revelation, it is easy to make those parallel connections.

This book is divided into three sections: Russell began by identifying the Nature and Identity of Jewish Apocalyptic; then discussed the Method of Jewish Apocalyptic; and finally concluded with the Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. I wish I could say that I found “X” to be the most valuable section, or to identify a particular chapter as being especially valuable, but to be honest, I found everything to be valuable (whether I necessarily agreed with Russell’s conclusions or not!) I guess as an over-all statement of value, what I took from the book was the idea that apocalyptic is not just a type of literature, or just a conglomeration of weird images and symbols, but it is a realm of thought processes, it is a method of seeing the world that transforms one’s perspective on every aspect of life. In John J. Collin’s arresting title, apocalyptic is an imagination – but a life changing one at that.

Speaking of John J. Collins, I went back and looked at Collin’s book (The Apocalyptic Imagination, 2nd ed., William B. Eerdman’s 1998) to see how he viewed Russell’s work. Not too favorably, I am sad to relate. But, Collin’s book first came out twenty years after Russell’s (with a second edition coming out in 1998). Between the two, I would recommend Russell’s book as being the more accessible, and Collin’s book as being the more comprehensive (and, a little snooty, but that is my limited opinion). There is a third book on apocalyptic literature on my shelf, Apocalypticism in the Bible and It’s World by Frederick J. Murphy, but I would not recommend it at all. If you are going to buy one book on the subject of apocalyptic, I would equally recommend either Russell or Collins. Collins is more recent, and has some distinct advantages over Russell, but honestly, I would have you buy both. Russell explains some things Collins does not even address, and especially at apocalyptic literature relates to the book of Revelation, I would strongly recommend Russell over Collins.

Now the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read as God’s truth” as it relates to a human production. I disagree with Russell (and Collins too, for that matter) as to the dating of the book of Daniel. They both have Daniel being written after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, and cast as being a prophecy foretelling Antiochus’ reign. I think that betrays a serious presupposition about the limitations of biblical prophecy – and raises some real questions about the textual record of the Old Testament as we have it (if the book of Daniel was written in the mid 100’s  B.C., how was it that it came to be studied, copied, and preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls?). As with any scholar, Russell’s biases are going to peek through at times. However, if we are going to learn anything from anyone, we are going to have to set aside our own presuppositions long enough to be challenged by other thoughts and ideas. As with any book, let the reader beware.

As I have suggested, my attraction to this book, and to its subject, all relates to the biblical book of Revelation. If you want to understand a little more of not only what John was attempting to say in this highly symbolic book, but also of how and maybe why he was using the symbolism of apocalyptic, then you need to learn more about the Jewish roots and usage of apocalyptic. It is just my opinion, of course, but I think you will come to understand and love the book of Revelation even more once you understand the literature, and the imagination, of apocalyptic.

P.S. – on a totally unrelated yet sort-of related note, the worldview of Barton W. Stone and later of David Lipscomb has been described as being “apocalyptic” in nature. That, my friends, provides a TON of explanation about why I regard Stone and Lipscomb so highly. Without being technicians in the field of apocalyptic, I think they just “got” the message that Jesus, and later John, was trying to communicate. Ergo and therefore, I think one of the huge failures of the Restoration Movement in general, and the Churches of Christ specifically, is the loss of this apocalyptic imagination from our worldview. In a word (and to invite all kinds of wrath from certain quarters) we are just too Campbellite in our outlook. Ah, but that is the topic of other blog posts, and this one is already much too long.

Jesus and the Disciples’ Feet

Because I am huge on context, let me set the stage for this post. I am teaching a series of lessons on “How We Study the Bible” on Sunday mornings. Last week the lesson was on the necessity for us to determine, as far as we humanly can, the meaning of the text in its original setting. If we do not look to see what the text meant to the original audience, then the chances of us ever learning what the text should mean for us are slim and none. This coming Sunday the lesson then proceeds for us to learn, once again as much as we humanly can, the differences between that original audience and our situation today.

My “test” passage is John 13:1-15, the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet. Many questions arise from this text, and chief among them, at least for me, is “Why is this event, so critical in many respects, totally ignored by the other gospel writers?” To phrase it the other way, why is it that only John records this event? Which then opens a very interesting study . . .

One would have to be blind and deaf not to notice the radical differences between John  and Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But let’s just take one slice of the larger picture and see if it does not help us with the issue of chapter 13. The slice I am referring to is that of the miracles recorded in the gospel of John. By my count there are seven – not counting, of course, the resurrection of Jesus himself. These are: the changing of the water into wine (or Welches grape juice, depending on your theological leanings), the healing of the official’s son, the healing of the paralytic, the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Of these seven, only two are recorded by the other gospel writers (unless you count the healing of the official’s son, which is a possibility).

It is interesting to note that the two that John “duplicates” are also the two that receive the least amount of his attention. It is almost as if John is saying, “Everyone already knows about these stories, they have been discussed in other gospels accounts, so I am going to mention them but not spend a lot of time on them.” In contrast, the healing of the paralytic in chapter 5 and the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 receive careful and in-depth treatment.

John is communicating messages, even simply in the amount of space he allots to the stories he wants to highlight.

So, back to my point. If we could summarize, what is the common denominator in all of these seven miracle stories? What is their point? Only one appears to stress the supernatural power of Jesus as such – the story of him walking on the water. This is one of the stories John “duplicates” from the other accounts, and receives very little attention, comparatively speaking. I would suggest, however, that when viewed alongside the other miracle accounts, John is including this event not to stress Jesus’s super-human power, but to underline one of his major themes.

Note that every miracle account in the gospel of John emphasizes Jesus’s awareness of, and removal of, a person (or persons) physical or emotional need. Stated another way, Jesus serves the ones he miraculously heals, feeds, or brings back from the dead. His miracles are examples of his service to those who are hurting. Jesus relieves the pain of the groom and his family by providing the appropriate wedding beverage. He serves the official by restoring his son. He serves the paralytic and the blind man by healing them. He serves the people by feeding them. He relieves the emotional crisis of the disciples in the boat by walking out to them, and immediately getting them to their destination. He serves Mary, Martha, and of course Lazarus, by bringing Lazarus from the grave.

Catching on to a common theme here? Good.

The account in chapter 13 is not a one-off, stray account of a weird event in the final hours of Jesus’s life. The washing of the disciples’ feet is really the culmination of Jesus’s teaching to the disciples – and the exclamation point of John’s account of Jesus’s ministry (prior to the crucifixion, of course). Jesus came to serve, to wash the feet of not only his disciples, but of everyone he came into contact with.

I have heard it said that we have to physically wash one another’s feet in order to obey Jesus’s words in John 13:14. Never mind that a person’s foot in Jesus’s day was covered in all kinds of dirt and grime from walking up and down dusty streets strewn with all kinds of unsavory material. Never mind that our feet today are probably the second most hygienically protected parts of our anatomy. Never mind that most of us shower, if not daily, then at least several times a week, and that we protect our feet with comfortable socks and sturdy shoes (ladies sandals excepted). Never mind that we totally ignore other passages where Jesus is just as emphatic with commands we blithely overlook – has anyone chopped off their right hand or gouged out their right eye recently (Matthew 5:27-30)?

So, what is it about John  13:14 that makes people want to follow the command verbatim whilst eschewing other equally clear commands? Just an opinion here, but I think it is because washing someone’s already clean and hygienic foot is just soooooooo emotional and sooooooooo spiritual. And, again just a personal opinion, we are utterly and totally misapplying the passage when we do so.

John’s point is not that the follower’s of Christ need to wash an already clean and well protected foot. John’s point – I guess I should say Jesus’s point – is that we should serve other people, even up to and including performing the most embarrassing and personally disgusting acts of kindness for other people.

How many people who would gladly wash someone’s already clean foot would also clean an invalid’s filthy bathroom? How many people who would make a big show of washing clean feet would also clean the house of the crazy cat lady whose charges have urinated and defecated over every square inch of that house? How many people who want their foot washing to be recorded for posterity would want their picture taken while they wretch over the sight and smell of a homeless person passed out in their alcohol induced vomit?

We see pictures of someone, maybe even an important someone, washing the feet of another person and we think, “how noble.” Maybe it is. Maybe the person is diabetic and has not washed their feet in weeks and maybe it is an act of true service and kindness. But my guess is that in the overwhelming majority of cases the foot is already so clean as to be sterilized and the event is staged to demonstrate how much we are like Jesus.

And because we do not stop to think about how different our world is from the world of Jesus and his original apostles we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point of the story.

The point of this post is not that we should never wash the feet of someone who desperately needs that service and who cannot do it for themselves.

But, please, unless you are going to chop of your right hand and gouge out your right eye, don’t use John 13:14 as some proof text to justify your act of “service.”

We only serve when we climb lower.

Prayer – Telling God ‘NO’

Okay, so after a brief (and regrettable) foray through the swamps of sport, I return to some theology. Today, a conundrum of sorts. I think I have an answer, but as always I can be wrong, and am open to suggestions.

Here are the facts. On the one hand there are a number of passages in Scripture which indicate that God never changes his mind. This is the concept of “immutability” that is a key component of many Calvinist teachings. God’s will is permanent, unchanging, and eternal. Consider the following (not an exhaustive list!):

  • Numbers 23:19
  • 1 Samuel 15:29
  • Jeremiah 4:28
  • Ezekiel 24:14
  • Malachi 3:6
  • Romans 11:29
  • Titus 1:2
  • James 1:17

What is striking is that such passages are not isolated nor are they infrequent. There is strong evidence to conclude that God never changes his mind.

**Key interruption here – read these passages in different translations. For example, it is fascinating in the Revised Standard family of translations (RSV, NRSV, ESV) that the RSV uses the word “repent,” the NRSV uses the phrase “change his mind” and the ESV uses the totally unhelpful “relent” in a number of these passages.**

All of this would not be a problem if it were not for the following examples where God clearly does change his mind:

  • Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) negotiates with God, and even though the end result does not match the negotiations, God does agree to spare Sodom if a mere 10 righteous people can be found.
  • Moses twice (Exodus 32:11-14; Numbers 14:11-19) pleads with God to change his mind regarding the destruction of the rebellious Israelites. God changes his mind.
  • Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-7) is told by Isaiah that he will die, and even before Isaiah can leave the courtyard, Hezekiah manages to change God’s mind and have 15 years added to his life.
  • Jonah 3:9 relates that the King of Nineveh believes that it is possible for God to change his mind, and God does, in fact, change his mind.
  • Amos 7:1-6 relates that Amos twice stands in and negotiates on behalf of the Israelites, and twice God changes his mind.

So, which is it – is God immutable, once God has made up his mind is it beyond variation? Or, does God say one thing one day and do something entirely different the next? Can we trust God’s word to be certain?

The solution (if you want to call it that) that I have resolved in my mind is found in two passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 18:7-11, and Ezekiel 18:23-24, 30-32. Here, in these texts, God himself reveals when and why he will change his mind regarding a previous decision: the change in beliefs and behavior of the subjects of his earlier statements. I want to stress that other explanations may exist, and by no means am I suggesting perfect insight here.

The point, as I see it, is that God has an eternal plan that cannot be altered – and that plan is revealed in hundreds, even thousands, of smaller decisions and judgments. Any of those smaller decisions and judgments can be altered based on one criterium – the heart and behavior of people. God does not want any to die – even the sinner! He is willing, and as the above passages demonstrate, in fact does alter some temporary decisions based on the response of the human subjects.

All of this relates to prayer. If we do not believe that God can, and does, change his mind, why pray? If we believe that our lives are controlled by an immutable and unyielding force that was established before the beginning of time, then why waste our time praying to a God who is incapable of acting in this world?

On the other hand, God is not some whimsical “genie in the bottle” that yields to every fantasy that we might have. While he does respond to genuine repentance, we do not control him like some puppet on a string. As one final thought, Josiah was able to postpone the destruction of Jerusalem, but the sins of Manasseh (his grandfather) were just too great for God to ignore. Eventually, Jerusalem was punished.

As always, your thoughts, comments, objections, and donations of large amounts of cash are appreciated.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)

In my post entitled “No Strength to Answer” I wrote a paragraph the gist of which was that the Pharisees were in a better position to defend their view of the Sabbath than we are to defend some of our cherished traditions. I want to expand on that thought.

The Pharisees are our favorite whipping boy(s). If we need a villain to preach against, we never have to look farther than the Pharisees. In our common understanding they were vain, pompous, hypocritical, obnoxious – all the things we love about hating others. And, to be sure, some of those characteristics can be deciphered from the many mentions of conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees as a general group.

But, I want to step back a little and try to view the world from the perspective of the Pharisees, hopefully without becoming Pharisaical.

No one knows for sure exactly when and how the Pharisees as a religious group came into existence. For sure it had to have been at some point during the Babylonian exile – or perhaps shortly after the return from that exile. They were not referenced in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament their influence is unmistakable. So, this much is fairly certain – they were “born” during a time of extreme spiritual hardship and questioning. Without a doubt, the number one question that would have given birth to such a spiritually elite group would have been, “What caused this catastrophe upon our people, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?”

The Pharisees would not have had far to look to find an answer. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention a number of the “minor” prophets) addressed that very question. The answer was clear and unambiguous. The answer was spiritual compromise and moral laxity. Ergo, the solution was spiritual rigorism and moral perfectionism. The links from cause to effect are not that difficult to see in the formation of the sect of the Pharisees.

Where I want to crawl out on a limb (metaphorically speaking) and offer a defense of the Pharisees is in regard to their “rigorism” regarding Sabbath keeping. There is no way you can read Jeremiah and Ezekiel without coming away with the realization that one issue that burned in the prophets’ hearts was the manner in which the Jews were profaning the Sabbath. For evidence, simply read Ezekiel 20 – but that is not the last, or only, word on the subject. It really does not take a Ph.D. to realize that the honoring of the Sabbath was really an important issue to the exilic, and post-exilic, prophets.

So, let us look at Jesus’s actions through the eyes of the Pharisees. He was, in the most strictest sense, violating the Sabbath by performing “works.” They did not have to depend on oral tradition in order to be horrified by this. The Jews had been devastated and thrown into foreign captivity for, among other things, profaning the Sabbath. They had numerous “thus saith the LORD” passages to back them up. They had not one, but many, “book, chapter, and verses” to point to.

And, yet, they were utterly, completely, and totally wrong.

They were perfectly accurate and correct readers of Scripture, and entirely erroneous in interpretation. They believed with all their heart, and with good technical reason, that Jesus was doing the very thing that God punished their fathers for doing. In their day they were the good, “Bible toting, Scripture quoting” conservative believers, and Jesus was the wild eyed, long haired, hippie progressive.

Okay – let’s move on to today. One of the things that terrifies me as I ponder this situation is how might I be a Pharisee – someone who is perfectly correct and without spot or blemish in my reading of Scripture, and yet someone who is utterly bereft of understanding how to interpret it. The example of the Pharisees is instructive on many different levels – certainly we do not want to miss the surface level where Jesus warns us repeatedly not to follow their hypocrisy and pomposity. Yet, is there not another level, a deeper level, that we completely miss? Are we not the great-grandchildren of these Pharisees when we quote “book, chapter and verse” and utterly, totally, and completely miss the point?

As I said – it scares me. On one level I do want to be spiritually rigorous and as morally perfect as I can. Those are NOT inappropriate goals. But, along the way, I never want to fall into the trap of becoming so technically perfect that I miss the heart of God revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus was NOT  violating the Sabbath. In God’s eyes he was fulfilling the Sabbath – note Isaiah 58:1-7 (although the word “Sabbath” does not appear here, the passage defines true fasting and “rigorous” spirituality).

It all goes back to the question of whether we are standing above Scripture, trying to fit it into our ideas of perfection, or whether we are standing under Scripture, and allowing it to shape our lives.

We ascend by climbing lower.