Thursday, June 23, 2011

Did Abraham Lie?


I recently finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ book Evolving in Monkey Town. In it she relates the story of her crisis of faith. Raised with the certainty of a Bible Belt Fundamentalist and trained to defend biblical inerrancy, she came to question the doctrines she held dear. In the process, she grew into a new faith, one that embraces ambiguity and mystery. If this sounds the least bit interesting to you, I can recommend the book.

There may be a certain irony here, or it may just be a testament to my eclectic reading habits, but the same shipment that brought me Rachel Held Evan’s book also contained my copy of the Apologetics Study Bible. The notes to this Bible harmonize discrepancies  among the various writings of Scripture and provide allegedly logical reasons to believe. For example, there are footnotes to Matthew 27 and Acts 1 that give a familiar explanation for the differing accounts of Judas’ death.

Regular readers of this blog may wonder why I spent the money on the Apologetics Study Bible. Curiosity is part of the answer. I generally feel that apologetics, as it is presented in this Study Bible (and as Rachel Held Evans was taught it) is a waste of time. But, I once heard someone say “I want to understand my opponent’s view well enough to teach it.” So, that is the rest of the answer. I may not agree, but I want to understand.

On Monday, I was reading chapter 22 of Genesis which tells the fascinating, horrifying, difficult and ultimately important story that the Jews call the ‘Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. In this tale, God asks Abraham to offer his beloved only son, Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham then travels with Isaac, two servants and a donkey to a remote place. Abraham leaves the servants at a certain place saying,

"Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you." (Gen. 22:5 HCSB)

Abraham and Isaac go a little farther. Abraham builds an altar, places wood upon it, ties Isaac up hand and foot, and raises the knife to kill him. At the last moment, an angel of the Lord stops Abraham from killing his son and God provides a ram for the sacrifice.
A footnote in the Apologetics Study Bible raised (and answered) a question that had not occurred to me: Did Abraham lie? The note in question reads:

“22:2,5 Since God wanted Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (v. 2) some have charged that Abraham lied in telling his servants, ‘The boy and I will ... come back to you.’ (v.5). However Hebrews 11:17, 19 clarifies that Abraham’s response to God’s test of his faith was to believe that, if necessary, the Lord would raise Isaac from the dead.” (Apologetics Study Bible, p. 37)

And in fact, that is what the book of Hebrews says. Reading the New Testament backwards into the Hebrew Bible is a suspect strategy, but, in this case, if one wishes to defend Abraham against the charge of lying, it may be effective.

Interestingly, the Jewish Study Bible offers a similar explanation (which I have bolded below) of Abraham’s apparent lie as one possibility among others:

“5. Abraham may be concealing the truth from his servants (lest they prevent him from carrying out God’s will), from Isaac (lest he flee) and from himself (lest the frank acknowledgment of his real intention cause his resolve to break). Alternately, he may be expressing his profound trust in God’s promise, casting his faith and hope as a prediction.” (Jewish Study Bible, p. 46).

I like to think that I am a careful reader. Still, it never occurred to me to question whether Abraham lied to his servants. I simply assumed that he did. After all, he had a track record as a liar. In Genesis 12, Abraham (then known as Abram) tells the King of Egypt that  his wife Sarah (called Sarai at this point) is actually his sister. In chapter 20, Abraham tries the same stunt with King Abimelech of Gerar. Abraham “was practiced at the art of deception” as Mick Jagger sang.

For about 10 years of my ministry, I served as chaplain to a home for troubled children. We had 60 kids in residence, most of them adjudicated to us by the courts, and all of them from dysfunctional homes. As I told the stories of the Patriarchs to these children, I realized just how messed up the home lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really were. These were not paragons of virtue. They were fallible, sinful and all-too-human. They could (and did) lie, cheat and steal. And I love them the more for it, because I too am fallible, sinful and human. The kids at the home related to the Patriarchs and their families in very real and profound ways.

I understand the temptation to sanitize the character of Abraham. Who wants to believe that God would choose a liar to be the recipient of promises and to become the “father of nations?” But God did not choose Abraham because Abraham was better than anyone else. God chose Abraham for God’s own reasons. Perhaps it was for Abraham’s outrageous faithfulness, which included a willingness to sacrifice even his beloved only son. It certainly wasn’t becausw he always told the truth.

You may reduce the Patriarchs to Sunday School flannel-graph cut-outs or make plastic action figures of them. Me? I’ll take my treasures in earthen vessels. I like my Patriarchs with the bark still on them.

The Scripture quotation is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible because that is the translation used in the Apologetics Study Bible. The Mick Jagger quote is from the Rolling Stone’s 1969 hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I took Chagall's painting of the 'Akedah from this website. I loves me some Chagall.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Nod To Ekklesia


A friend who calls himself “The Classicist” left a comment on my last post. He wrote:

“I like your nod Εκκλεσια [sic] there at the end!”

While the comment is perfectly transparent to me, I’m sure that most of my readers will find it impossibly cryptic. Allow me to clarify. 

Eκκλησία (which I will hereafter transliterate into English as “Ekklesia”) is a Greek New Testament reading group which meets weekly at Augustana College, Rock Island during the school year. The group is comprised of instructors from the Classics and Religion departments, students, clergy and various other members of the community. The group is interdisciplinary and interdenominational. Through the years, the membership has included inerrantists and agnostics and people in the middle, like me.
We have read the Johannine literature, the book of Philippians, the Q parallels from Mathew and Luke, and most recently, in a departure from the New Testament, the early Christian book called the Didache. In the fall, we plan to begin reading the Acts of the Apostles.

Our procedure is this: We take turns reading a sentence or so from the text in Greek. The reader then translates the sentence. Next we discuss it, paying attention to grammar, textual variants, and, of course, the meaning of the text. Some members of the group do not read Greek, but come for the discussions.

The group is neither as dull nor as disputatious as you might imagine. In fact, we laugh a lot. The subtitle of this post is a pun that Ekklesia has chuckled over. The Greek word μαργαρίτας (which is transliterated “margaritas”) means “pearls.” The word is found in Matthew 7:6, where Jesus says, “do not throw your pearls before swine.” I like to translate it as “Don’t give margaritas to pigs.”
Okay. Reading that over I realize that it is Greek nerd humor. What can I say? It makes me laugh.
Ekklesia has come to be an important part of my life. So much so that I drive 140 miles round trip each week to attend.
Last year, one of the students, a politically conservative non-Greek reader from an inerrantist tradition, had other obligations that kept her from attending for a school term. When she came back, she told me that she had missed the group. She said, “I really didn’t do anything spiritual last term.” I would not have expected her to use the word “spiritual” to describe Ekklesia, but it is spiritual.

 The word “Ekklesia” means something like “assembly.” It is usually translated into English as “church.” My friend the Classicist has his own blog called Penned House, in which he discusses another of our common interests, pens and inks. Read it here. I borrowed the picture of the drunk pig from Linzi at To see it in its original context, click here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Children And PhDs


I was re-posted again over at Living Lutheran. This time they picked up my post titled “Reading Someone Else’s Mail” in which I described the letters of St. Paul as high context documents.

A reader who calls himself “Chemnitz” replied. I am assuming that Chemnitz is male. I am further assuming that he took the name Chemnitz from the Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz (1522 - 1586).  At any rate, the modern day Chemnitz wrote:

“Luther said that scripture is so simple a child can understand it. This article seems to say that only experts -- those with the correect [sic] gnosis (knowledge) --can interpret the Bible. If Paul was the author, that might be true. But the Holy Spirit is the real author, and He does not hide anything from us necessary for our salvation.”

When we were children, my brother and I were given wooden plaques by our Sunday School teacher. I honestly don’t remember what mine looked like. My brother’s had a picture of a fluffy white kitten chasing a butterfly and bore the inscription “God is Love.” The words are from 1 John 4:8. I loved that plaque. Its message was formative to my understanding of God.

I am currently reading Evolving in Monkey Town, by Rachel Held Evans. The book is breezily written and easily read. It is humorous and thoughtful by turns. I’m enjoying it. On page 27, Evans writes:

“I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know about Jesus. Stories of his dividing the fishes and loaves, calming the stormy sea, and riding the donkey into Jerusalem were as familiar to me growing up as Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella. I learned them from my parents and from pretty Sunday school teachers who smelled like peppermint and let me call them by their first names. They were more than stories really. They were grand narratives that flowed like streams into my own story, creating the currents that would move me forward and give me direction in life.”

So, Chemnitz is at least partly right. Portions of the Scripture are so clear and simple that even young children can understand them. I think that it takes a certain maturity of mind to comprehend Paul’s letter to the Romans or the book of Hebrews, but parts of the Bible are clear enough even for children. Thank God.

Then again, I think that Chemnitz has misunderstood my original post. I never said, nor did I mean to intimate, that only experts can interpret the Bible. (The term “gnosis” here is both loaded and inaccurate. I am not a gnostic.) I did not say, nor do I believe that the things necessary for our salvation are hidden from us.

My point was that some parts of the Bible, and in particular some parts of the letters of Paul are closed to us. For example, in Philippians 4:2-3, Paul writes:

“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Who were Euodia and Syntyche? What was the nature of their disagreement? Paul could assume that his first readers knew. Today, no one can say, not an expert with special “gnosis”, nor even a precocious child. This is a simple example of Paul’s letters being high context documents. Because many of the details of Paul’s writings are lost to us, I maintain that we should hold our interpretations lightly.
Though I don’t know the source for Chemnitz’s assertion that Luther said Scripture was clear enough for children to understand, I will take it at face value. I will also point out that Martin Luther was a doctor of biblical theology. He studied the Scriptures in great depth and sometimes struggled to understand them. He was also known, occasionally, to overstate his case.
I will also say that Lutherans have always required their clergy to be educated, at least partly so that they can explain the Scriptures clearly. This is not some special “gnosis.” It is education to be shared.
Finally, while it may not take an expert to understand the Bible, I have benefited many times over from sitting at the feet of those who do have expertise in Scriptural studies. I have found that those with PhDs are often the most cautious in their pronouncements about the Bible, the most tentative in their conclusions, the most careful to understand the Scriptures in their context, and the first to say “I don’t know.”

Scripture is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.The picture of the young Jesus among the Doctors is by Rembrandt.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Harold Camping Had A Stroke


Harold Camping is an old man. As of this writing he is a few months short of his ninetieth birthday.

Harold Camping has been the subject of quite a few of my recent blogposts. He is famous for predicting the date of the rapture. First, he said that it might be in 1994. It wasn’t. Then told us that the Bible “guaranteed” that the rapture would happen on May 21, 2011. He was wrong again. Now he says that the rapture and the end of the world will both occur on October 21, 2011.

He will be wrong again, and he will be wrong for the same reasons that he was wrong twice before.

There will be no rapture. Ever. The doctrine of the rapture is based on a convoluted and de-contextualized reading of a few verses of the Bible. It was not what the writers of Scripture intended. It is not a part of the historic Christian faith.

The world will not end on October 21 because Harold Camping reads the Bible in strange, idiosyncratic and nonsensical ways.

I have said that when Harold Camping’s 1994 prediction fell through, he set the date for 2011, never expecting to live to see the day. It was a joke about Camping’s age. It was not a funny joke.

I give Harold Camping this much credit. I believe that he is sincere. He is wrong, but he is not lying. I do not think that Camping is fraudulent, venal or crass. He is just mistaken.

He also has talents for persuasion and publicity. He managed to get his bizarre biblical interpretation widely known.

The news yesterday announced that Harold Camping has had a stroke. His speech is affected. Somehow I feel badly about that. Maybe it is because I made fun of his age. Maybe it’s because I owe a sudden spike in this blog’s popularity to my posts about Camping. Maybe it’s just because he is a fellow, flawed human being whom God loves.

I hope that no one is listening to Harold Camping’s goofy teachings about the Bible and the end of the world anymore. I also hope--no, I pray--for Harold Camping’s recovery.

 A CBS News story about Camping's stroke, and the source of the photograph accompanying this post can be found here.

Contemplating Camping's mortality, and my own, puts me in mind of Psalm 103:14-18, quoted from the New Revised Standard Version:

The Lord knows how we were made;
     he remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
     they flourish like a flower of the field;
     for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
        and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
     on those who fear him,
     and his righteousness to children's children,
      to those who keep his covenant
          and remember to do his commandments.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What The Word "Biblical" Means


It was a conversation with a pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) that convinced me, years ago, that the word “biblical” is not helpful. It does not foster an open exchange of ideas. In fact, the use of  that one word, and its antonym “unbiblical,” shuts down meaningful conversation. As James McGrath put it:

"I’d much prefer that we jettison the term 'Biblical' in its popular usage, since it is at best meaningless and at worst deceitfully misleading."

The LCMS pastor whom I mentioned, repeatedly and insistently referred to “the biblical practice of close Communion.” Close, or “closed” Communion means that a Missouri Synod pastor will not give Communion to someone who is not known to be in doctrinal agreement with their synod. This practice is based largely on the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”

According to the LCMS’s interpretation, “discerning the body” means acknowledging the real presence of Christ in the bread of Communion.  My Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) also teaches the real presence of Christ in the elements of Communion, but we have a much more open Communion practice.
In his explanation to the eighth Commandment in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther taught that Christians should explain their neighbors’ actions “in the kindest way.” Following this instruction, I will say that the LCMS policy shows a genuine concern for the Sacrament and for the eternal fate of those who receive it.

I disagree, however, with the idea that the practice of closed Communion is biblical. In fact, I would argue that the idea of closed Communion is the exact opposite of what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the church at Corinth. As always, context is key.

It is interesting to note that 1 Corinthians provides the only evidence we have that the Apostle Paul’s churches practiced a form of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). The only reason that Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the Eucharist is that there were problems in the way they practiced it.

1 Corinthians is a high context document. Paul and his first readers shared details of knowledge that are not available to us. It seems clear that their practice of Communion was not identical to the practices of twenty-first century American Lutherans. It would appear that the Corinthian Eucharist took place in the context of a full meal in which the entire community partook. Some of the Corinthians were hogging food and getting drunk while others went hungry (1 Cor. 11:21). This may have reflected the common practice in first century Roman society where a host provided the most honorable guests with the best and most plentiful foods, while “B-list” guests were provided with lesser quantities of inferior food and drink. At any rate, Paul objected, saying that the Corinthian meal was not “the Lord’s Supper.”  (1 Cor. 11:20).

In every other context in which Paul speaks of “the body of Christ,” he means the Church, that is, the assembly of believers (See, e.g. 1 Cor. 12:27). In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul makes a connection between the Eucharistic bread, which Christ called “my body,” and the body of believers who partake of it.

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
I am convinced that when Paul talks about “discerning the body” he is referring to the body of believers. That some Corinthians were selfishly disregarding, disrespecting and  ignoring the needs of other believers at their Eucharistic meal meant that they were, in Paul’s terms, eating and drinking “judgment against themselves.”

The issue in Corinth was not about recognizing the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. It was about some believers failing to recognize other believers as fully members of the Body of Christ which is the Church. At least, that is how I see it. I leave it to you, my reader to decide for yourself whether I am right. But if I am right, then the practice of closed Communion is in fact the opposite of what the Apostle Paul advocated, because in closed Communion one part of the Body of Christ denies access to the Lord’s table to another part of that same Body.

Returning to my original point, the use of the word “biblical” is not helpful. By speaking of the “biblical practice of close Communion” my LCMS interlocutor was claiming for his position a high ground that did not exist. The Bible nowhere says “Thou shalt practice close Communion.” As with anyone who uses the word “biblical” to describe their doctrine or practice, what he meant was “the Bible as I interpret it supports what I say or do.”

And that is not helpful.

Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version. I "borrowed" the graphic from the Facebook page of something called the "Closed Communion Underground Supper Club." I can't vouch for the club or its members, but I like the graphic!

Good Quote


David J. Lose is the Marbury E. Anderson Chair for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary. He says succinctly what I believe:

"Claims that the Bible is 'inerrant' or 'infallible' probably say more about the need of the persons making those claims to try to prove their faith than they do about the Bible itself. The Bible, keep in mind, is fundamentally a collection of the confessions of faith of people over the centuries who have experienced God in a particular way and seek to give voice to their faith. But faith, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, is 'the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen' (11:1). You can confess your faith, you can give good reasons for your faith, and you can allow your faith to shape your life. But you cannot prove your faith (or it is no longer faith!). When we try to prove that the Bible is true by ascribing to it a divine status that it doesn’t claim itself, we risk fundamentally misunderstanding the nature and purpose of the Bible."

Read the entire article here.

Marc Chagall's painting of Moses accompanies this post just because I like it. I found the image here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Biblical? Unbiblical?


In my last post, as elsewhere in this blog, I said that "'unbiblical' is not a helpful term." Over at his blog, Exploring Our Matrix, Dr. James McGrath makes the point better than I could hope to. He writes:
"I’d much prefer that we jettison the term 'Biblical' in its popular usage, since it is at best meaningless and at worst deceitfully misleading."
 Please go immediately to Dr. McGrath's blog and read this post. Enjoy the clever cartoons that illustrate it and follow some, if not all, of the links.

The lovely photograph of a 1611 King James Bible was found on this website. You can actually buy it, and any number of other antique Bibles there...if you can afford them!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Osama bin Laden, Mother Teresa and Harold Camping


What we believe about God bears fruit in the way we live our lives and how we treat other people. Take as an extreme example Osama bin Laden and Mother Teresa. Both were passionate believers. They had radically different visions of what God is like. Each lived and acted in ways consistent with their vision of God.

I know that there is something of a chicken-and-egg question here. It might be appropriate to ask whether one’s idea of God is shaped by one’s personality. Do our actions and our theologies arise from a common source? I have no way to answer that. I think it is enough, for now, to recognize that our vision of God generally accords with the way we live and behave. Theology has consequences.

I have read other blogs dealing with Harold Camping’s failed prediction that the “Rapture” would occur on May 21, a date that he has now revised to October 21, 2011. Comments on those blogs sometimes warn against lumping all Rapture believers together with Mr. Camping. Fair enough. Harold Camping has his own kind of kookiness. Most rapture believers distance themselves from his eccentric, numerological interpretations of the Bible. Most rapture believers object to setting a specific date for the Rapture or the end of the ages.  Most rapture believers take Jesus at his word, “no one knows the hour or the day.”

So, let me be clear that I disagree not only with Harold Camping, but with the doctrine of the Rapture in general.

I hesitate to call belief in the Rapture “unbiblical” for two reasons. First, “unbiblical” is not a helpful term. Second, the doctrine of the Rapture is derived (or at least proof-texted) from the Bible. Perhaps it is best to say that the doctrine of the Rapture is not what the writers of Scripture intended, nor is it what their original audience understood. The Rapture is a thoroughly modern doctrine with its origins somewhere around the year 1800 C.E.

My main objection to the doctrine of the Rapture, however, is the fruit that it bears. A few days ago I mentioned A Thief in the Night, a cheesy old Rapture movie from 1972, to a friend. She said, “That movie scared the heck out of me.” The doctrine of the Rapture frightens people. I do not think that a spirituality based in fear is healthy.

The doctrine of the Rapture also leads to divisiveness and triumphalism.   It creates a “we’re going to heaven and you’re not” mentality.

Because the doctrine of the Rapture places all of a believer’s hope in the next life, it leads to a disregard for this life. It paints the world--which God made and which God loves--as an evil place to be escaped. It creates disdain for God’s good creation.

If you have not seen it yet, Kyle Roberts and Adam Rao have an excellent piece in the Washington post about the consequences of Rapture theology. Read it here.