Another Word Concerning Jesus and Jewish Messianism

A brief follow-up to my last post (here The Danger of Imprecise Assertions of Truth).

First, a qualification. I want to reassure everyone that, while I feel it critical to speak as precisely as possible, in no way should you think I would jump up and down and criticize anyone who made the statement, “Such and such is a prophecy concerning Jesus.” Sometimes we make statements that we would not make upon further reflection, and more often than that we are guilty of making statements that exceed our level of learning. So, I cringe when I hear these statements, and given the opportunity to correct in private I would (or I might just let it go, depending of the maturity of the speaker) or, more preferably, when given the opportunity to teach correctly I would do that. So, here in this space I can speak as loudly as I want, and I hope to stir my readers’ conscience a little so that when they go to make statements that sound true, but cannot be defended by Scripture, that they back up a little and reconsider their verbiage.

A second issue when we speak of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah that are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus is the fact that, at least in Matthew, quite a few of them are not messianic at all, and at least one is not a prophecy! When Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 he is not quoting a prophecy – Hosea is making a historical reference! But, here is a critical clue – Matthew does not call this text a prophecy. He simply said that the events he recorded of Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaping to Egypt “fulfilled” what the Lord had spoken. Now, we subconsciously interpret that to be a prophecy, but note that Matthew never calls it a prophecy.

Here is where we fall into a series of false assumptions. False assumption number 1 – that the word “prophecy” means a “prediction” that is only “fulfilled” when every aspect of the prophecy is met. False assumption number 2 – if a prophet speaks or writes, everything he says or writes is a prophecy (meaning prediction) that has to be fulfilled 100%. False assumption number 3 – if that prophet is quoted (or referenced) in the New Testament, what is being referenced is a prophecy (prediction) that has to be fulfilled 100%.

So, Matthew quotes (or references) Hosea, and since Hosea is a prophet, and since prophets say or write pure predictions, then what Hosea said or wrote is a prophecy that is fulfilled 100% in Jesus. Except, Hosea said and wrote a lot of things that were not prophecies, especially messianic prophecies, and what we read in Hosea 11:1 is just simply not a prophecy. Matthew (guided by the Holy Spirit) did see in that text a fulfillment of “what the Lord had spoken,” but is careful never to mention that it was a prophecy.

Check me on this – Matthew is very guarded in his language regarding the texts he uses to buttress his argument that Jesus is indeed the messiah. In 1:22 he quotes Isaiah 7:14, but once again does not use the word prophecy. Indeed, how could he, since Jesus was named Jesus, not Immanuel? In Matthew 2:5-6 he quotes Micah 5:2, and once again refrains from making specific reference to a prophecy. [Note: in all of these texts this is the one that fits our definition of a prophecy the best, but still, it is not specifically called a prophecy.] Then in 2:18 he quotes Jeremiah 31:15, and yet again refrains from making a specific claim to a prophecy. Indeed, once again, this is a reference to a current, or past, event, not a future “prediction.” Yet, he uses each of these texts to support his ultimate claim that Jesus is the messiah.

How can he say that Jesus fulfills these texts if they are not “prophecies?” Simply because he is working with one concept of Scripture, and we are working from another. We are working under the assumption that a text can only be “fulfilled” if it is a “prophecy,” because to us a “prophecy” is a “prediction” that demands a 100% one-to-one equivalency.

To me it is clear beyond any question that Matthew is using Old Testament texts to demonstrate (“prove”) Jesus is the messiah. Yet, Matthew was unquestionably aware of the multitude of varying views of the messiah that were current in his day. He was careful to use language that communicated his point, without unduly clouding his gospel with extraneous misunderstandings. In my most humble opinion, his gospel is a beautiful example of the use of precise language. We cloud and disrespect that language when we make the text say what WE want it to say, and not allow Matthew to speak clearly.

Once again with emphasis – the Old Testament authors spoke (and wrote) about a coming Messiah. Jesus fulfilled all of those passages, and the New Testament writers, guided by the Holy Spirit, took those passages and demonstrated how Jesus is the answer to the question, Who is the Messiah, and what will his reign look like?

Let us proclaim Jesus is the Messiah, let us do it fearlessly, and, above all, let us do it precisely, as Scripture calls us to do.

The Danger of Imprecise Assertions of Truth

Good morning gentle readers, today’s rant is brought to you by anyone and everyone (the humble Freightdawg himself) who has ever uttered something with absolute certainty that was, at to some degree or another, dead wrong.

I think I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog or its predecessor how my father gave me some deep and wonderful gifts. One of them is an awareness of the peculiarities and precision of the English language, used correctly. He was an architect, and there were a number of things that just really set him off – like when an architectural student confused a roof with a ceiling. True, they are both over your head, but apparently for some students the difference was much further over their heads than mere space. My father taught me, for instance, the difference between shade and shadow. When we sit in the cool side of a tree on a hot summer day, we are actually sitting in the shadow of the tree, not its shade. The shade is that which is connected to the bark as the tree stands. Nit-picking, you say? Harumph and pffft to you. Many words and expressions in our vocabulary carry life and death meanings, and to confuse them can have disastrous results. For an aviation example, pilots are always cleared for takeoff, and cleared to land. Arcane? Perhaps, but knowing the difference keeps a lot of people alive every day.

So, I am going to make a statement that, I’m sure, is going to upset some people, but here goes –

There is not one single prophecy concerning Jesus in the Old Testament.

None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. As in, zero.

You probably think I am enjoying some of the flora that has been recently decriminalized in my fair state, but no – and you can check me on this. I’ll wait.

Now, let me make another statement that is also 100% true –

The Old Testament contains many statements (I refuse to label them all as “prophecies”) about the coming Messiah, and Jesus fulfills every one of them as precisely as the New Testament writer intends.

You see, one thing I have learned in my study of Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (the books that most protestant groups do not consider to be Scripture) is that there was not one, single, monolithic, universal concept regarding who and what the Messiah was to be. When we make statements like, “The Jews expected the Messiah to be . . . ” (and believe me, I have done so many times) we generally limit that expectation to be of a warrior, military king. And, to be sure, that was one picture of what the Messiah was supposed to be. But, I really do not think that was the picture of the Messiah that the Essenes espoused. The truth is the Jewish people at the time Jesus was born were an eclectic people, with many thoughts and ideas and concepts and religious and political and cultural beliefs – and all of those religious and political and economic and cultural (Hebrew as well as Greek) components combined to make for a number of Messianic expectations.

So, what does this have to do with reading the Bible and making theological conclusions? Just this – when we say that an Old Testament passage was a “prophecy concerning Jesus” we are just as wrong as the architectural student pointing to the ceiling and saying that the roof needed another coat of paint. The Old Testament passage may or may not be a prophecy (depending entirely upon how you interpret the word “prophecy”), but you will never find the name “Jesus” in the Old Testament. The Old Testament passage may or may not have originally been viewed as messianic (and many were not, which subsequent Jewish writers did view as messianic), but, once again, Jesus was never mentioned. For us, the critical thing to accept is that through the Holy Spirit, the New Testament writers did see in a number of Old Testament passages a fore-telling of the coming Messiah, and that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled those word pictures fully.

I know that many of my readers view my posts as picky, sometimes to an extreme. Sorry – it’s inborn and instilled deeply. I am, as my father said (proudly, I think), a nut. I can’t help it. I believe that when we speak of spiritual things, and especially when we speak of textual passages, we need to be careful lest we inadvertently say or write something that is generally accepted, but factually incorrect. I am guilty of over-generalizations and careless speech far more often than I would like to admit, and it is this carelessness that I want to avoid.

We can argue that Jesus is the fulfillment of every passage in the Old Testament that refers to the coming of a messiah without making the incorrect statement that the Old Testament makes many prophecies about Jesus. To argue the first is to be on solid biblical and theological ground. To argue the second is to put on the Old Testament passages a precision that they simply did not have – and, at least in my humble opinion – did not even intend to have.

As the old sergeant said when he concluded roll call on the early episodes of Hill Street Blues, “let’s be careful out there.” Let us speak where the Bible indeed does speak, and be very careful when we make derivative conclusions based on those clear statements in Scripture.

It is all a matter of ascending by climbing lower.

Follow-Up to My Last Post

I received some comments on my last post, and a very good question, so I feel it important to extend my thoughts just a little more here. For the background, see my thoughts here – 1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

First, a little history. Whatever a preacher (or author, or teacher) says or writes is largely autobiographical, and it is almost impossible to untangle what is original and what is borrowed. So, my thoughts on this topic are hugely influenced by my classes with Dr. Everett Ferguson, an article on the practice of male priests covering their heads written by Dr. Richard Oster, and more generically by my understanding on how to do exegesis and thus hermeneutics.

Regarding the last point, I think it is absolutely critical that when we approach the text of Scripture that we remove ourselves as much as possible from the text. I emphasize “as much as possible” because it is impossible to completely do so (as much as Alexander Campbell would disagree.) So, in regard to the topic at hand, one profound issue I have with those who argue for no, or very little, limitations on women exercising leadership roles in the worship assembly is that invariably they insert 21st century worship wars into Paul’s letters. That is a HUGE exegetical, and ultimately, hermeneutical mistake. For us, Paul’s letters are all about me, myself, us, our, and we. We read Paul’s letters as if we are looking in a mirror, and, lo and behold, all we can see is ourselves!

Paul was addressing first century religious (and in the case of the Corinthian letters, Roman and Greek religious) practices as they impacted the first century church. That is where we have to start, and where Paul’s instructions (inspired by the Holy Spirit, no less) intersect with today’s culture, we can draw appropriate conclusions. Where that culture diverges from our culture we have to be very careful that we do not impose our culture on Paul (or Peter or James or even Jesus!) – questions and answers that they never intended.

So, with that said, let us return to 1 Corinthians 11, 14, and 1 Timothy 2 (and, just for giggles and grins, let’s add 1 Peter 3:1-6). If you read 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and remove from your interpretation any apostolic reference to 21st century worship wars, what do you see? Paul wants the Corinthians to maintain a certain set of “traditions” he handed down to them – seemingly related to authority and submission. His first (and I would argue, primary) subject is the proper decorum for men who go before God in prayer. A reader pointed out that Paul does, in fact, spend more time addressing women in these verses, and I agree. But mere volume does not equal significance. Let me illustrate with another text.

In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the parable of the “prodigal son.” The overwhelming majority of the parable revolves around a younger son and the relationship with his father. The older son only gets a few verses at the end of the parable, but I would argue that the real “point” of the parable was aimed at the Pharisees, who clearly stood in the position of the unforgiving and self-righteous older son. The repentance of the younger son, and the forgiveness of the father dominate, but the unanswered question of the parable is, “are you ‘older sons’ going to welcome the repentant younger son back into fellowship?” No-one could argue with genuine repentance or parental grace – but forgiveness from one who has been faithful? Ouch.

So, if I am correct (and that is a big “if”), Paul has his sights set squarely on the men who, accustomed to praying with their heads covered with a shawl or cowl, continued to do so following their conversion to Christ. Paul nowhere addresses the where or the when of the prayer, he simply reminds them that, in the new kingdom, men do not pray with their heads covered! To Paul, that was a sign of disrespect to their authority – Christ and God. Women, on the other hand, did pray with their heads covered – not the least of which was their long hair. Once again, the when or the where was not in Paul’s mind. Paul knew women prayed – by themselves, with their children, with other women – that was proper and good. Paul may use more words in relation to the females, but he never takes his eyes off of the men. [As I mentioned above, I borrow this point from Drs. Ferguson and Oster. I wish I could direct you to the article by Dr. Oster, but my books and files are buried in a storage unit, and I simply do not have access to them.]

Now, here is where my training and experience influences my interpretation. Beginning in v. 17 (and repeated a number of times), Paul shifts his attention to the public gathering of the assembled church. There is a shift, a change of emphasis, a new focus in Paul’s eyes. Paul addresses a number of Corinthian problems – the abuse of the Lord’s supper, the confusion of multiple prophets speaking, and the use (or abuse, the question is still open in my mind) of the miraculous gift of “speaking in tongues.” At the very end of that topic, Paul gives his instruction that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” Unfortunately for us, he leaves that instruction rather bare, but it clearly is in relation to the confusion and improper decorum of the Corinthian assembly.

If 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 provided us with the only comments on the question under discussion, we might be safe to say that the question remains open, and perhaps Paul’s accommodating position in Romans 14 might be important here. But, Paul does give additional instruction regarding male and female “authority” roles in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Once again, Paul is not addressing 21st century “worship wars,” so let’s be careful lest we look into that theological mirror again. Paul’s emphasis (once again beginning with the male) is that prayers be genuine, without anger or malice. The women are to dress with proper decorum. Then, Paul specifically mentions that women are not to exercise authority over men, either in teaching or, as I said in my last post, through prayer (Paul’s immediate context). This is where I see that prayer is an authoritative speech according to the apostle. I could be wrong here – have been in the past and will be in the future, but lest I sound like a broken record, I can only do exegesis as I have been taught, not as I have not been taught.

If you have followed me so far, thank you. Now for my main issue with the so called “egalitarians,” those who argue for full (or perhaps expanded) roles of leadership for females in the worship service. If you hold the egalitarian position, Paul has utterly contradicted himself in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 compared to 1 Corinthians 11. At this point you have to decide which is controlling – Paul’s so called “universal” teaching in 1 Cor. 11, or the “limited” or “correcting the one-off, aberrant behavior” of 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Those who hold that 1 Cor. 11 is the true, proper, and Spirit-inspired teaching have to diminish 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 by either removing 1 Cor. 14 completely (i.e., Gordon Fee), or by so minimizing those texts that they ultimately become meaningless to any situation beyond Corinth (or Ephesus) in the first century. I simply cannot go there. Once we  start eliminating Paul’s instructions because they do not “fit” our paradigm, where do we stop? Are Paul’s instructions regarding sexual perversity in chapter 5 also simply a rejection of a cultural taboo that is no longer valid? Are Paul’s instructions regarding division in the church (chapters 1-4) simply to be ignored because they are directed to Apollos, Peter (Cephas) and Paul? What of Paul’s instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper, or even his teaching regarding the resurrection?

And, just one final piece of evidence. Many argue that Paul reveals his chauvinism here – that he took Jesus’s egalitarianism and stood it on its ear. Okay, well, then what of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6? Peter nowhere mentions the assembly, so his words touch this issue only tangentially – but it is this tangential connection that I find so compelling. Peter’s focus is on the submission of the wife to the husband (also mentioned by Paul), and ties this Christian behavior to the behavior of Godly women throughout history. For Peter, apparently, a woman usurping the authority of her husband would be a violation of Christian behavior. My point is that Peter confirms my understanding of Paul’s overall consistency, and therefore that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 must be seen in a generic sense, and not in the specific situation of the assembled congregation.

Once again, I could be wrong here in any – or all – of my conclusions. I can only work with my understanding of how to do exegesis. I have been wrong before, and will undoubtedly be wrong in the future. But, as Martin Luther so famously said, here I stand until I am proven wrong. I sincerely believe that many hold to an erroneous position because of a number of false assumptions. There is the assumption that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 pertains to the assembled worship assembly. According to how I was taught to read Scripture, that assumption cannot be defended. Once again, I can only read, and therefore teach, as I have been taught. Then, there is the subsequent, but necessary, assumption that 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 are therefore only speaking to one-off, aberrant situations that no longer have any validity for the church of Christ. There is further an assumption that the apostolic teaching regarding authority and submission was bound only to the first century, and that any subsequent culture is free to define (or re-define) roles regarding gender any way that is predominant in that culture.

I don’t want to open another can of worms (okay, maybe I do), but just a question – if we are free to define roles of authority regarding sex and gender if we can discover, and eliminate, Paul’s first century cultural biases, then how can we argue against any of the issues of homosexuality, bi-sexuality, poly-amorous relationships, and gender fluidity so prevalent in our culture today? If there are no inherent significant differences between male and female, and if there are no spiritually significant connections to those differences, then who is to argue that there is any limitations as to sexual behavior, or even sexual identity?

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and if our culture’s headlong rush into sexual dysphoria has taught me anything, it’s that our understanding of God’s original plan for mankind is found in Genesis 1:27, and if we rupture that relationship we have nothing of any value to stand on.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the comments, and let us all ascend by climbing lower.

1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, and Paul Contradicting Himself (Again)

Regular readers of this post have noticed that I have been very quiet recently – unusually so. Well, I’m still alive, although I have taken to being more introspective lately. Alas, all good things must come to an end, so once again I pick up pen and paper (okay, keyboard and pixels).

I was reminded once again via various social media that unfounded assumptions can make mincemeat of our theology. The subject du jour was the role(s) that the apostle Paul either limits or allows for females in the worship service. The argument that followed included two assumptions – both of which are almost universally accepted – that have no textual support and even make the apostle contradict himself within just a few chapters of his letter. I will try to keep this as short and sweet as I can, and if you are a regular reader here my conclusions will come as no surprise, but I will share this once again for those who are struggling with this question. [By the way, my argument is not with any person per se, it is with the assumptions that are repeated, without evidence, and taken as prima facie truths. I believe those who accept these assumptions to be sincere and devout lovers of truth, but in this instance, also to be incorrect.]

False Assumption #1 – Paul allows, even advocates, for women praying in the public worship assembly in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

No, he does not. That is just false. I say that nicely, but that is just a false assumption that has no textual basis. Let’s look at that passage.

First, Paul addresses how men are to pray, not where, but how – with their heads uncovered. Paul only addresses females obliquely. Men are to pray with their heads uncovered, contra the standard practice (shown in many drawings of that era) of priests of various religions praying with a shawl, or cowl, over their heads. Women are only mentioned as a foil – women do pray with their heads covered (not the least of which with their hair), but men are not supposed to. No mention of where women are said to pray. But why should Paul specify something when the location is not his point? He simply mentions that women pray with their heads covered – when they pray by themselves, with their children, in female prayer groups. Where men pray, or where women pray, is simply not in Paul’s frame of reference.

But, let’s keep reading: v. 17 “…when you come together…” V. 18, “…when you come together as a church…” V. 20 “When you come together…” V. 33, “…when you come together…” 14:23 “…the whole church comes together…” 14:26, “…when you come together…” There is a emphatic (and, in my opinion, unmistakeable) disjunction between Paul’s previous discussion (once again, directed mainly at the men and the how) and his next point of emphasis, the common, joint assembly of the church (the when and the where). It is in of that discussion that Paul issues his now infamous teaching that “the women should keep silent in the churches.” So, whatever Paul had in mind in 11:1-16, it is beyond argument that what he says in 14:33-34 is in regard to a public, common assembly of the church. Which leads me to false assumption #2.

False assumption #2 – having given women permission (and maybe even encouragement) to pray in public in 11:1-16, Paul had to correct an aberrant, one-off situation to which he directed his attention in 14:33-34, namely, a woman (or number of women) who were disrupting a worship assembly by challenging their husbands (gasp!) by asking inappropriate questions.

Well, if you make one false assumption, why not get even more creative with the second? There is simply no contextual evidence to support this assumption! Why would Paul only constrain wives? Are unmarried women not capable of disrupting a service? And, where is there any indiction that the issue is domineering wives?

As I see it, the error is that if you hold to false assumption #1, you have to come up with a scenario that absolves Paul from blatantly contradicting himself in 14:33-34, and even more specifically in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. So, there are a number of options. One is that you simply remove 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 from the text (following Gordon Fee in his commentary on 1 Corinthians). That is a little radical for some, so they simply concoct a situation that Paul was addressing to his Corinthian brethren, but one that is limited by both time and culture, and has no bearing on the modern church. The fatal problem with that solution is that it is, once again, based upon the false assumption that Paul grants females permission to speak authoritatively (and, yes, I am suggesting that public prayer is an authoritative act) in the public worship assembly. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I flatly reject that assumption.

If we remove the false assumption that Paul grants, even promotes, women speaking authoritatively in the worship service in 11:1-16, then we have removed the supposed contradiction in 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2. Paul remains remarkably consistent, and there is no need to invent an imaginary scenario that he supposedly (and invoking self-contradiction) corrects later in the book.

Tangentially, this discussion also raises the question of just how authoritative is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for today’s church. I sat in a lecture by one of the finest Greek scholars ever to teach in a university associated with the Churches of Christ, and I heard him argue that, (to the best of my memory, these words are not verbatim) “because Paul was addressing an aberrant situation in the congregation in Corinth in the first century, we cannot take his words as being binding on the church today.”

Huh? What exactly in the letters to the Corinthians are not aberrant situations for which we are to learn eternal truths? I don’t get it, and yes, I am disagreeing with a world-renowned Greek scholar here. But that is the belief (either conscious or unconscious) of many preachers and church members alike. In other words, if it doesn’t gore our ox, then it is Scripture. If it does gore our ox, well, it was just meant for the first century church and thank goodness we have moved on from there.

Thanks for obliging me for my perfectionist little rant, but this is really a burr under my saddle.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Cycle of Accepting and Promoting a False Teaching

Some while back I posted an article about the triviality of Sunday School answers The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers” I want to expand a little on that thesis today.

How do these Sunday School answers get started, and, particularly troubling, how do incorrect Sunday School answers get started and promoted? I think the cycle goes something like this: a person hears or reads something that was said or written by someone they have no reason to doubt, and may even trust sincerely. Thus, whatever is said or written is accepted wholesale, with no questions asked. Then, they share what they see or have heard. Maybe they see or hear it again from another source, and maybe the particular group they are in accepts the teaching with open arms (ears). The cycle then becomes self-repeating.

Last night I was party to a discussion about a conclusion that I personally disagree with, but do not consider it to be of such importance as a salvation issue or a fellowship issue. I just cannot accept it, based on my education and on my exegesis of the relevant texts. What I found interesting as I sat (kind of like that fly on the wall) was that there was virtually universal acceptance of the teaching in question. As the class progressed, and after about 40 minutes or so of discussion, a later portion of the text was read which at the very least called the earlier assumptions into question (and, in my very humble opinion, flatly rejected those assumptions). At this point the class had basically two options: they could revisit their earlier conclusions, or they could attempt to somehow massage the later verses so that those verses could fit the earlier (again, imho) incorrect conclusion. They strove mightily to accomplish the second, while blissfully ignoring that their earlier conclusion might have been wrong, and so they might need to revisit the meaning of the first section of the passage.

It was a fascinating example of group-think, and how we will move mountains to justify a position we initially hold, rather than stop to consider we might be wrong to begin with, and therefore need to “start over from scratch” to correct an invalid conclusion.

Regarding the passage in question, I am absolutely convinced of the correctness of my conclusion. The class members are equally convinced of the correctness of their position. The thing is, the two positions are diametrically opposed, and cannot in any way, shape, or form, be harmonized. One of us (or perhaps both?) are clearly wrong. Who is to judge?

I’m not going to pontificate here – as I said, based on the context, and on other relevant passages, and on related theological issues, I will hold firmly to my conclusion until someone can convince me based on solid exegetical methods that I am wrong. As I said earlier, I do not hold the two interpretations to be a salvation issue – although I would hasten to add that the “other” interpretation does come with some very serious theological baggage attached.

I do not write this to condemn, but only to identify a systemic and profoundly human problem – How do we correctly identify this cycle of accepting and promoting a shallow “Sunday School Answer” so that we can challenge it, and reject it when necessary?

Well, at the risk of redundancy and beating a dead horse – we do so by standing under Scripture, not above it, and by ascending by climbing lower.

Cherry-Picking and Proof-Texting Favorite Scriptures

I saw something the other day that kind of ruffled my feathers. It was another one of those appeals to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV translation) Now, I know nothing of the person who made the appeal, or the setting. But, I just wonder, was the appeal made in context – and did the speaker have the entirety of Jeremiah in mind as he made the appeal?

You see, very, very rarely will anyone include v. 10 in the quotation of v. 11 – “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Note the sequence – you are going to be led captive into an exile in a place you think is absolutely godless and degenerate -and you are going to have to stay there for 70 years while I punish you for your misbehavior. Then, I will bring you back because I know of the plans I have for you . . .”

In the entire pantheon of misquoted, cherry-picked and proof-texted Scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 has to rate in the top 10, maybe the top 5, and maybe even higher.

The prophecies of Jeremiah are rife with warnings that would limit, or even supersede, 29:11. I wonder, for example, if the speaker who so proudly appealed to 29:11 has ever read, or considered, 18:5-11,

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and deeds.”

I know this may just be me, but all of the trite little memes and what-not that you see on social media quoting Jer. 29:11 get really old, especially if you know the story of Jeremiah, and the impassioned pleas that God made through the prophet that were utterly ignored by the leadership, and most of the population, of Jerusalem. Yes, Jer. 29:11 is a wonderful and grace-filled promise. But – taken in context – it is just the silver lining to a very dark and destructive cloud. I am just not at all certain that those who teach this verse so glibly really understand the depth of the verse.

This is just one more example of my almost never-ending mantra – we have to stand under Scripture, not over it, and we have to humbly submit ourselves to the entirety of the meaning of a passage for us to “rightly divide” the truth intended by the Holy Spirit.

Let us continually strive to climb higher by ascending lower.

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.

Book Review – Paul’s Theology of Preaching (Duane Litfin)

Duane Litfin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth, (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) 359 pages plus 27 pages of bibliography)

I have been struggling with how to create an appropriate introduction for my review of this book. This morning I finally settled on what I think is the best way to communicate how I feel about not only the content of the material, but the manner in which it was presented: this is the book I wish I had available to me when I was a young man considering becoming a preacher.

First, for want of a better term, I will address the “style” of the writing. Many authors are absolutely brilliant in their field of study, but seem to be genetically prohibited from getting that brilliance out of their heads and onto paper so that others can share their illumination. Litfin’s book is the polar opposite of that obtuseness. I love reading this book because it was just such a joy to read. Once again, some authors are so in love with their thesis that they do not take the time to explain why their thesis is important to begin with. Litfin begins (part 1), not with explaining what he thinks Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 1-4, but rather by explaining the cultural understanding of rhetoric and the power of persuasion (Greco-Roman rhetoric) that Paul would be familiar with in Corinth. Then, in part 2 he turns to 1 Corinthians 1-4 and demonstrates that Paul was specifically rejecting this view of persuasion. Litfin could have cut the length of the book in half by simply arguing his position from 1 Corinthians 1-4. However, the value of the material would have been reduced by far more than 50 percent. Litfin’s knowledge of, and presentation of, the material in part 1 is, hopefully not to be too effusive, magisterial. When he moves to part 2, the reader (student) is thoroughly conversant with the basic understanding of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Here I must also praise Litfin’s use of primary writings. He quotes ancient writers at length, but not so many and so long as to make the material unreadable. I repeat what I said at the beginning, this book is so well crafted, so well written, that whether you want to be a preacher or not, just reading this book is an education in how to present your arguments.

But, let us move on to the content. Litfin’s thesis boiled down to a simple sentence is this: the apostle Paul was well aware of the prevalent culture of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but he (Paul) made the conscious decision to reject the art of that rhetoric in order to present the gospel message as an obedient herald, a simple proclaimer of the cross. On a simple reading, one might be tempted to say, “ho, hum, next . . .” But this message cuts against the grain of so much of what is taught in preacher training courses that it demands to be heard. I could not help but think as I read and digested this material – “wow, if Litfin’s thesis was widely promoted and accepted, hundreds of instructors in preaching trainings situations would suddenly be unemployed.” The reason for such a response is simple – we are training preachers to do exactly the opposite of what the apostle Paul presented as his guiding theology for both ministry and preaching.

Today preachers are taught the art of communication (we do not use the word rhetoric anymore, but that is what it is). Preachers are taught how to evaluate an audience (age, economic background, educational level, etc) and to decide how to “get under the audience’s skin” (my words) so as to manipulate the audience’s feelings in order to generate the greatest amount of positive response. The preacher may be after conversions or a greater commitment to giving, or to motivate people to become a short-term missionaries. But the process is all basically the same – how do I take my message to this audience and what tools do I use in this setting to achieve my greatest goals? That, in a very crude way, is to use the “art” of rhetoric. It is the basic skeleton of the process I was taught in my speech and preaching classes.

Litfin argues persuasively that Paul takes all of that and throws it out the window. Paul was well aware of that theory and all of the tools of rhetoric. However, Paul’s theology, Paul’s foundational motivation, was not to be an accomplished speaker/preacher/rhetorician. Paul’s goal was to be an obedient herald. Paul simply wanted to preach the message of the cross. The result was up to the Holy Spirit. Paul preached, God converted. Paul’s goal was not to be successful, it was to be obedient. Success, in other words, for Paul was not in the number of conversions, but it was to be measured in how faithful he was in presenting the gospel.

Now, to be sure, Paul was aware of his audience, and to Jews he referred to the law of Moses and to cultured Greeks he referred to secular poets. But this was not to use (or abuse) the art of rhetoric – Paul was simply adapting his presentation of the gospel message to the level of understanding of his audience. He was educating his audience, not manipulating them. There is a significant difference, and one that I believe is lost in much of contemporary preaching classes.

I will leave it to the reader to follow Litfin’s argument. I found it to be both profound, and profoundly significant. The author’s style is not elegant in the sense of flowery language, but it is indeed elegant in the sense of its structure and presentation. I think I am being redundant here, but this book provides an education in not only the content of what is being argued, but in the very essence of how it is being argued.

Although Litfin’s main purpose is not to write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 1-4 per se, I must add that his treatment of these four chapters is as fine a commentary as I have read on Paul’s introduction to this critical letter. If I had my druthers, I would have two copies of the book, and I would put one on my library shelf dedicated to 1 Corinthians, and one in the section I have dedicated to preaching and homiletics. I will probably keep the book in my preaching section, but the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1-4 is an education in its own right.

No book is absolutely perfect, and I do have to share one caveat for a reader who does not know Greek. Litfin’s use of Greek terms is frequent, and in about 95% of the cases he does provide an English translation. However, when he repeats a Greek word he does not always repeat the translation, and there are a number of times in which he assumes that the reader knows how to read Greek (the terms are never transliterated) and even knows the meaning of the words. In terms of editing, I would have liked IVP Academic to have demanded a little “dumbing down” for those who do not have a background in Greek, but this is a relatively small quibble, and if you do not know Greek the overwhelming majority of the book is still valuable. I would suggest that due to the inclusion of the Greek terminology this book is probably written for a 2nd or 3rd year college student, or seminary student, so buyer beware. On the other hand, the language is decidedly written, and the argumentation is so well defended (repeated appropriately, but never to the point of obnoxious redundancy) so that even if you have to “bleep” over the Greek words, the book would still be of inestimable value.

I end with how I started. I so wish I had this material back when I was starting my school work, back when the crust of the earth was first starting to cool. I’m just glad I have read it now, and over the next few weeks and months I am going to re-evaluate all of my preaching and teaching to see if I am being faithful to Paul’s theology of preaching, or if I am falling prey to the less faithful, but much more highly praised, skill of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Honoring Heroes – and Respecting Differences

In my last post I shared some reasons why David Lipscomb and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are two of my heroes of theology. I freely admit that my thinking contains more than one paradox. These two are hardly theological twins. Maybe that is one reason they attract me so much. In no way whatsoever do I want to suggest they shared the same theological conclusions in every possible way. And so, in part to clarify some issues, and in part to continue to honor their influence, I share these rather significant differences between my two favorite theologians.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
David Lipscomb
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trained in, and always practiced, the classical form of liberal biblical studies that was current in Germany in the early 20th century. David Lipscomb would NEVER have accepted what Bonhoeffer viewed as something that was self-evident – that theologians could, and should, identify the purely human elements involved in the production of Scripture as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Bonhoeffer would have viewed Lipscomb’s literalist approach to Scripture as being reactionary. But it is here that I find a remarkable similarity – when Bonhoeffer preached, he preached the Bible as fervently and “literally” as Lipscomb would have. That is to say, when Bonhoeffer was doing academic theology, he leaned heavily on his liberal training. But when he preached, he preached the text as if he were a conservative’s conservative. He thought the “theology” that was being taught at Union Theological Seminary was laughable – he wrote that the only place he could find the gospel being preached in New York City was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I am not the only one who strives to hold two vastly different viewpoints in tension!
  • Bonhoeffer accepted the view that the universal church was comprised of the various “churches” found primarily in Europe. He was mystified by the proliferation of “denominations” in America – I’m not sure he ever really figured out what Americans did with the concept of the church. Lipscomb was a Restorationist – he was firmly convinced there was only one church, and it could not be comprised of a number of different bodies who held significantly different beliefs. Lipscomb rejected both the European view of the church, as well as the uniquely American experiment in denominationalism.
  • Similarly, Bonhoeffer had no issue with promoting the classic creeds of Christianity, and was active in formulating the Confession of Faith that defined the Confessing Church in Germany. Lipscomb believed that creeds were unnecessary, and that Confessions of Faith were divisive, not unitive. Yet, even here, there is a strange intersection of belief between these two men – both men believed that the church they were a part of was the one true church! Bonhoeffer famously wrote (and was excoriated for it) that if one separated himself from the Confessing Church, he separated himself from salvation. For Bonhoeffer there was one church, and the Confessing Church in Germany was that church (or at the very least, was a part of that church). Lipscomb would have said the same thing (and perhaps did), except that the church to which he would have referred would have been a conservative Church of Christ (certainly not a congregation of the Disciples of Christ!) Coming from two radically different approaches, both men ended up basically in the same place.
  • As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a devout Lutheran, it goes without much explanation that he and David Lipscomb would have had significant differences in understanding the Lord’s Supper.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the finest explanations on the topic of baptism that I have ever read – and yet, he concluded that infant baptism was perfectly acceptable. [Note, this is one area where Bonhoeffer just drives me crazy. His justification for the necessity of baptism could have been written by Alexander Campbell or David Lipscomb, but then he concludes that it is this necessity for baptism that mandates, or at the very least, allows for, infant baptism. His logic makes my head spin. The only thing I can suggest is that, like every single one of us, Bonhoeffer was a product of his theology, not just a shaper of that theology. For him to have rejected infant baptism would have meant far more of a radical turn than he was willing to make, and, for the battle in which he was so completely devoted, the specific question of infant vs. believer’s baptism did not occupy a critical position.] Lipscomb rejected the idea of “inherited” or “original” sin, and for him infant baptism was not only unnecessary, it was unbiblical.
  • Related to another point above, Bonhoeffer was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement of the 1930’s. His conception of the church universal not only allowed this, it pretty much demanded it. Lipscomb would have rejected this approach of recognizing the church universal, and would have been emphatic that the only way to unify divided Christianity was to return to a simple and straightforward understanding of the New Testament.
  • Bonhoeffer held firmly to the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” One of the distinctive views of Lipscomb is that there is only one kingdom, that of God, and that any attempt of man to govern within that kingdom was a repudiation of God’s kingship. Therefore, for Lipscomb, a Christian should not participate in any form of government, even down to voting! Bonhoeffer believed that government was established and blessed by God, so long as it reserved its authority for strictly “secular” purposes. The role of the church was to teach the government how to govern appropriately, and to correct the government when it overstepped its boundaries.

As I mentioned in my first post – the differences between Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer are vast and deep. One should in no way confuse the beliefs of these two men! However, the intersection of their thoughts, where they do indeed intersect, is profoundly interesting to me, for the very reason that they approach Scripture and the church from such differently positions. I am captivated by both. I favor Lipscomb in many ways because he is family – we share the same ecclesiastical heritage. I find his political views refreshing, and dare I say it, far more biblical than most of my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. I believe Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer both drank from the same Spirit. I can see, despite their differences, a strange union. Maybe its because I am so strange. Who knows.

Anyway, thanks for sharing a bit of my conservative, and liberal, heritage!