Friday, March 30, 2012

Blogging As Spiritual Discipline


 I find that it works best if I begin a blogpost with the conclusion already in mind.

I have been trying, as a part of this year’s Lenten discipline, to blog more frequently. I’ve also been trying to ride my bicycle more. I’ve done pretty well at both of these things.

Why blog for Lent?

The themes that I explore on this blog are inherently spiritual. I write about God and the Bible and such. Beyond this, the very act of writing is a spiritual exercise. It requires a certain openness, a certain honesty. The truth is, I find blogging to be very satisfying, but also very difficult.

Writing with greater frequency has helped me understand just why I find it so difficult. There are two things I fear: being mistaken and being taken amiss.

Avoiding mistakes involves a level of attention to detail that is not a part of my nature. When I write these essays, I spend more time than I like checking facts. But, if I say something like “Cyrus Scofield was a scoundrel” I want the weight of evidence on my side. I don’t mind if a reader disagrees with my interpretation of facts, but I like to make sure my facts are straight.

 As for being taken amiss, I know that I am responsible for what I write but not for the way someone else reads it. Still, I often wrestle with words, striving to express myself as clearly and unmistakably as possible.

The twin fears of being mistaken and being taken amiss lead me to self-censor a lot. I probably discard as many words as I publish, if not more.  Blogging more often for Lent has been an exercise in trust. It has required me to trust myself to say what I believe clearly and courageously, to trust my readers to understand me, and to trust the Holy Spirit to guide the whole process,

I have published a number of posts in the last few weeks that I would not have published before. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to write a post only to throw it away because I couldn’t bring it to a satisfying end. I find that it works best if I begin a blogpost with the conclusion already in mind.

See what I just did there?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Both Saint and Sinner


 I’m not really a cynic. Oh, I have my moments, but I hope that the people who know me would agree that I tend to have a positive view of others. I generally try to put the best construction on my neighbors’ actions. With me, trust is not something you earn, but something you lose. There are a few people who have proven untrustworthy to me, but only a few.

The title of this blog is mostly just a pun on Martin Luther’s definition of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator, “at the same time saint and sinner.” That’s a pretty good definition, by the way. We are sinners by our human nature. We are saints by God’s grace. I don’t believe that we are perfectible in this life. At least, I’ve never met anyone who had achieved Christian perfection, and the best people I know are usually also the most aware of their own shortcomings.

This does not relieve us of the responsibility to try to be better people. In fact, I think that God’s grace should inspire us to try and live in ways that are more gracious, loving, forgiving, courageous, ethical, and, well, godly.

What I’m saying is that God loves us as we are. Being loved helps us to grow into better people. It is God’s love that takes priority, not our actions.

I started this blog to add my voice to the debate about sexuality that was then current in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I’m afraid that I came late to the conversation and that my voice has been, at times, too timid. Still, I felt the need to speak out, saying that the Bible’s ancient prohibitions of homosexual intercourse do not constitute a universal condemnation of homosexuality, homosexuals, or ethically practiced gay sex.

Tomorrow I plan to attend a lecture by Bishop Gene Robinson. Robinson is the first openly gay, partnered homosexual bishop of the Episcopal Church. The title of his speech is “Being Gay & Religious: Mission Impossible?” I’m not usually very good at prognostication, but I think I may know in advance how Robinson, who is both gay and religious, will answer that question.

I am aware that there are some Christians who would disagree vehemently with Bishop Robinson (and me). It is impossible, they say, to be gay and Christian. Or at least it is impossible to be sexually active, gay and Christian. Of course, I think they’re wrong.

Let me try some of that best construction stuff I mentioned earlier. Perhaps they believe that Christianity is a religion of Law, a set of rules to be obeyed and even imposed on others. Perhaps they believe in Christian perfectibility and that homosexuality is an imperfection. Perhaps they missed the memo saying that, somewhere over the last 2 millennia, we have come to understand matters of sexuality (among other things) differently than our ancient forebears in the faith. Perhaps they believe that God’s love is dependent on our ability to change.

Maybe it is the kindest and least cynical thing would be to say that they mean well but I disagree with them.

Sexual identity is a core component of human personality. To say, “You cannot be gay and Christian” is essentially to say “The God who made you does not love you as you are.” That is no kind of Gospel that I recognize. 

I have a friend who says that some of us find being straight and religious is an impossible mission. I found the picture of Bishop Robinson here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

It's That Time Again


...a fresh new paperback copy of the Common English Bible, with all 66 books of the Protestant canon and a great set of maps by National Geographic. As usual, the first reply to this post gets it. As usual, you need to give me your name and address, so I can tell the publisher where to send your Bible. And as usual, I promise not to publish your personal information!


Cyrus Scofield Was A Scoundrel

 I did some reading about Cyrus Scofield (1843–1921) recently. If that name means nothing to you, then you are probably not a premillennial dispensationalist.

If the words “premillennial dispensationalist” mean nothing to you, well, let me explain...

Premilliennial dispensationalism (hereafter “PD”) is a scheme of biblical interpretation that divides history into a series of time periods called “dispensations.” In each dispensation, God relates to humanity in a different way. Currently, according to PD, we are living in the penultimate dispensation. Soon, Jesus will rapture all true believers out of the world before a period of tribulation culminating in the Battle of Armegeddon, after which Jesus will return to rule on earth for a millennium.

PD is predicated on the idea that the Bible contains detailed, if veiled, predictions of future events. Recent proponents of PD include Hal Lindsey, author of the 1970s bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth, and Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, who wrote the Left Behind books. Arguably the most influential champion of PD was Cyrus I. Scofield.

Scofield was an intelligent, articulate, and charismatic preacher. He produced a correspondence course in Bible study. He served as pastor to the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody and preached at that man's funeral. He was a contributor to The Fundamentals, a series of twelve publications produced between 1910 and 1915 which gave Christian Fundamentalism its name. The Fundamentals was intended to defend an allegedly pure (but actually unhistorical) Christian faith against the inroads of Modernism, Darwinian evolution, and scholarly biblical criticism.

Scofield's most notable achievement was no doubt the Scofield Reference Bible (SRB), published by Oxford University Press (!) in 1909, revised in 1917, and again in 1967. The SRB remains in publication today.

The SRB was a King James Version Bible with introductory essays to its books and sections, extensive footnotes interpreting the text according to a premillennial dispensationalist scheme, and a system of marginal cross references. With the SRB Scofield virtually invented the modern study Bible. The SRB popularized premillennial dispensationalism and probably convinced many readers that PD is the correct and even self-evident way to interpret the Scriptures.

From what I've read, it appears that Cyrus Scofield was something of a scoundrel.

Before his experience of Christian conversion, Scofield had failed as a lawyer, been involved in a political scandal, partook of rather too much strong drink, and been accused of defrauding his fellow citizens of their money. Of course, what happened after his conversion is what matters. In that period of his life, he abandoned a wife and two daughters, misrepresented his war record to his own benefit, and conferred upon himself the unearned title “Doctor of Divinity.”

I have to admit that I took a sort of gossipy pleasure in reading the salacious details of Scofield's life. At the same time, it must be said that calling Scofield a scoundrel does not undermine the ideas he promoted. To claim otherwise would be to employ the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem, that is attacking someone's character rather than engaging their ideas.

So. let the system of interpretation promoted by the SRB stand or fall on its own merits.

Premillenial dispensationalism has infiltrated popular culture in many ways, but it is a recent innovation in biblical interpretation. It has neither history nor tradition on its side. Biblical inerrancy, a foundation of PD, doesn't hold up to an honest reading of Scripture. The Bible simply contains too many evident errors of fact and internal contradictions. Darwinian evolution and modern historical criticism have the weight of fact and reason on their side. In short, the entire dispensationalist and Fundamentalist enterprise, embodied in the apparatus of the SRB, is built upon a foundation of sand.

Whether Cyrus Scofield was a scoundrel or a saint does not really matter. His ideas were mistaken. Because he was bright, articulate, and effective in promoting those ideas, they have now taken deep root in the popular imagination. I think that many people now mistake Scofield's kind of Christianity with historic orthodoxy.

And that's not good for the faith.

The photograph of Cyrus Scofield, c. 1920, came from wiki.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Strange Case of the Baptist Electrician


It was a Wednesday afternoon. The electrician was just finishing up the job I’d hired him to do. I caught him glancing at his watch.

“Do you need to be somewhere?” I asked.

He answered, “I don’t want to miss church tonight.”

With the deductive prowess of a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, I put the facts together: Wednesday. Church. Not Lent.

“You must be a Baptist,” I concluded.

“Yep,” he smiled and told me which congregation he called his church home.

I was familiar with it and I knew that their theology was far from mine. It wasn’t just the believers’ Baptism thing, either. They were King James Bible-thumping, fundamentalistic, straight-and-narrow, sawdust-trail-walking, hell’s-full-of-liberals-abortionists-and-gays, agree-with-us-or-be-damned Christians. Strong on Law and weak on Gospel, in my opinion they represented everything that is wrong with Christianity.

But I didn’t say so.

“That church saved my life,” the electrician said. He meant it literally and it was probably objectively true. A few years earlier he had been on a path of self-destruction. With no internal controls on his behavior, I think he needed the external control that this legalistic church provided.

I think that God may very well have been at work in that church with all of its bad theology.

Sometimes I wish God wouldn't do things like that.


My plans aren’t your plans, 
nor are your ways my ways,
      says the LORD .
Just as the heavens 

are higher than the earth,
      so are my ways
      higher than your ways,
      and my plans than your plans. (Isaiah 55:8-9 CEB)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Critical Editions of the Greek New Testament


We do not have the original copies, the “autographs” as scholars call them, of any of the books of the Bible. They are lost to time and history, probably worn out and discarded long ago. If they exist at all anymore, it is most likely as scraps and fragments which, if they were found today, probably could not be identified as the originals.

What we do have is thousands of manuscripts of New Testament texts, some remarkably complete, many just torn bits of papyrus. They are copies of copies of copies of the originals. And therein lies the problem.

Copyists make errors. Try copying a paragraph or two out of a book sometime and see how you do. Now imagine someone copying your copy. They would probably duplicate your errors--or try to correct them--and add new errors of their own. With each fresh copy, discrepancies multiply and variant readings proliferate.

There are literally more variant readings than there are words in the entire New Testament. How can we possibly know what the originals said?

The situation is not so hopeless as it may sound. For one thing, most of the variants are quite minor and do not affect the meaning of the text. For another, there are scholars called text critics who catalog, collate, and compare all the known New Testament manuscripts to determine the most likely original reading from among the variants.

Text critics base their judgments on several criteria. Among them:

In general, older texts are preferred because they are closer in time to the original and there would have been less opportunity for mistakes to be made and reproduced.

Certain texts are considered more reliable than others because they show signs of being produced by careful, trained scribes.

Difficult readings are more likely to be original as scribes have a tendency to smooth out difficulties.
Shorter readings are also preferred as scribes are more likely to add words deliberately than to omit them.

Text critics have also described all sorts of mistakes that copyists are liable to make, skipping or repeating words or lines, mistaking words that sound alike (think of how often the English words “there,” “they’re” and “their” are interposed), etc.

Using criteria like these, text critics have produced what they believe to be the best possible approximation of the original texts of the New Testament.

From the 16th through the 19th centuries, Erasmus' Textus Receptus was the standard text underlying most translations of the New Testament. In 1881, British scholars Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort published The New Testament in the Original Greek, the first of the modern critical editions. Today the standard critical texts are the 4 th edition of the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament(UBS4) and the Nestle Aland Novum Testamentum Graece. These two have identical texts (and are actually quite close to Westcott and Hort's work) but they each have a different critical apparatus (that is, a set of scholarly notes). The UBS and NA texts are the basis for most modern translations. Some translators will occasionally disagree with the critical editions and choose a variant reading. In such cases, you will usually find a footnote in the translation.

Although I think that the critical texts are the best basis for a translation, not everyone would agree. Orthodox Bibles (which base their Old Testament on the Septuagint) use a majority text—that is, a text that uses the most commonly occuring readings, rather than the most likely variants—that was authorized in 1912 by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Orthodox text is close, but by no means identical to the Textus Receptus. There are also King James Version Onlyists who, in defiance of reason, insist that the Textus Receptus is the only proper basis for a translation of the New Testament (and usually that the King James Version is the only proper translation).

Illustrating this post are an image of P52, the oldest currently known manuscript of a New Testament text, and a picture of Westcott and Hort. Both pictures were found at


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pssst....Hey, Buddy!


It's time to give away another paperback edition of the Common English Bible. If you want it for your very own, be the first person to reply to this thread. Put your name and address in the reply so that I can forward them to the publisher.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Did My Grandma Go to Hell?


He self-identified as  a Fundamentalist Christian. He held to the standard line: Unless you accept Jesus as your personal Savior you will burn in hell for all eternity.

I’m a Lutheran, and I couldn’t help but disagree. Whether I accept Jesus doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether Jesus accepts me. We Lutherans are big on grace. This business of “accepting Jesus” smacks of salvation by works.

I told him about my grandmother, who loved me and whom I loved. She never, to my knowledge, accepted Jesus as her personal Savior. Is she burning in hell?

To his credit, he admitted that he was in no position to judge, but yes, he said, if she had not accepted Jesus, grandma was in hell.

I told him that a God who would condemn my grandma to eternal suffering was neither loving nor just. Such a God is a tyrant, a moral monster, and undeserving of worship. I personally wouldn’t condemn my grandmother to hell and this, I said, makes me better than the God he was proclaiming. Why would I worship a God who is not better than I am?

It’s an old argument and one that has been hashed over many times. We didn’t really get anywhere.

Last summer I presided at the funeral of a woman who had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. She had made some bad choices in her life, choices that led to a downward cycle of abusive relationships, homelessness, and eventually her death. She was trying, once more, to get her life together when she was killed.

I had known her and liked her. She did me a kindness once. Her family loved her and mourned her death.

I’m not sure why, but last night this thought crossed my mind: Is there anyone who is so far gone that no one can love them?

I suspect that there are people who visit the murderer in prison. Even killers have families. I don’t think anyone is beyond love.

And though human love gets messed up sometimes (sin messes everything up), Christians proclaim that there is One who is perfect in love. No one is so far gone that God cannot love them.

I won’t pretend to know the depths of God’s mind. I have too much respect for God’s sovereignty to be a universalist. God may save or condemn whom God chooses. Even me. But I trust in God’s grace for my own salvation. And my grandma’s. And the murdered woman’s.

And I believe that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.

God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths! (Romans 11:33 CEB)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bronze Snakes and Inkblots


Jonathan Dudley wrote an interesting editorial piece titled What the Bible Says Depends on Where You’re From on Huffington Post yesterday. In it, he suggests that the Bible is a sort of Rorschach test, that what we read out of the Scriptures depends upon the ideology that we bring to it.

We could run through the list of controversial issues -- abortion, war, pre-marital sex, slavery -- and find that on both sides each debate, a host of passages can be marshaled both for and against each position, creating mutually contradictory portraits of "what the Bible really says."

It's tempting to conclude that one side of these debates is simply biased while the other side (usually our side) is not.

But it's also wrong.

Dudley’s concern is primarily with the way that the Bible is used in political discourse, and so he concludes:

When a community claims they can't help but oppose homosexuality because the Bible requires them to do so, or that Jesus would support a liberal economic system, or that if you really read the Bible carefully you should end up supporting Party X, they're showing naivete. What the Bible "requires" depends on the beliefs one brings to it.

So as the election season heats up, let's stop pretending our ideology comes straight from what the Bible says. The reality is, "what the Bible says" comes straight from our ideology.

I hope these quotes have whetted your appetite to read the entire article. It’s worth the few minutes that it will take.

There are other possible conclusions to be drawn from Dudley’s contention that we do not and, in fact, cannot read the Bible objectively.

For one, I think this bolsters my contention that “biblical” and “unbiblical” are not helpful terms. They do not foster dialogue or promote understanding. In fact, these words are usually used to end conversation. I might be better to say “I understand the Bible to say....”

For another, it might suggest that using the Bible as a verse mine for proof-texts, or as a kind of divine reference book, is mistaken. Rather than taking the Bible as the direct “Word of God” it might be better to read it as a conversation with and about God by its various writers. What is more, we might see the Bible as an invitation to join in that conversation.

Of course, these conclusions may just reflect the ideology that I bring to the Scriptures.

What do you think? Is Dudley right? What other conclusions might be drawn from his argument that what we read out of the Bible is what we bring to it?

Sometimes the most profitable time I spend in the Bible is wrestling with passages that do not affirm my ideology. As I write these words, I’m still struggling with tomorrow’s sermon text, Numbers 21:4-9, in which we read: “So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.” (v. 6 CEB). I took Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel illustration of the passage from wiki.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What Is Your Theological Trump Card?


Earlier this week, I had a long, deep conversation with a friend who describes himself as a “Lutheran agnostic.” He is a very smart individual, a rigorous skeptic, brought up as a Lutheran and unconvinced concerning the existence of God. Reason is, for him, the deciding factor in matters of theology.

The following day, I was witness to (and participant in) a conversation among my pastoral peers concerning the question “Who is welcome at Holy Communion?” The discussion, as often happens in matters theological, became a little heated. One individual, arguing from tradition, asserted that only the Baptized ought to commune. Another person, leaning on experience, was unwilling to put that restriction on admission to the Sacrament.

John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist movement, was no slouch as a theologian. In his thinking about God, Wesley considered four factors: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In the twentieth century, these four factors came to be called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

It seems to me that different denominations of Christians tend to privilege one aspect of the Quadrilateral over the others. That is, they make one factor their theological trump card. Fundamentalists, for example, make Scripture their highest authority. For Charismatic Christians, their experience of the Holy Spirit takes precedence. This doesn’t mean that Fundamentalists ignore experience or that Charismatics pay no heed to Scripture. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

I think it works the same way among individuals as it does among denominations. My Lutheran agnostic friend makes reason the court of final appeal. In the question of admission to Holy Communion, one of my colleagues relies on the authority of tradition while another leans upon experience. This doesn’t mean that any of them disregards the other factors of the Quadrilateral, only that one factor carries greater weight for them.

I suppose that the different factors might be weighted differently depending on the situation. In questions of admission to Communion, tradition might carry the day for a person, while in ethical reflections reason, or Scripture, might be given place of precedence.

At any rate, it is interesting to me, and perhaps informative, maybe even useful in theological discussion, to consider which of Wesley’s four factors an individual relies upon most heavily. And of course, it’s only fair to be open about my own theological trump card....

My experience of God’s reality is the starting point for my theological reflection. If I had no experience of God, I would probably be an atheist, or at least an agnostic. The Bible is the source and norm of doctrine, and the Church’s tradition is subject to Scripture. But, for me, reason is the trump card. In the end I cannot accept any understanding of experience, tradition, or Scripture that violates reason.

How about you? What is your theological trump card?

I wanted a picture of John Wesley playing cards to illustrate this post, but a Google search turned up nothing useful. That's not surprising, since Wesley was a holiness kind of guy. I settled for George Romney's handsome portrait of Wesley, which I snagged from wiki.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Love and Conversion, Love and Conversion


When I was a college student, Krister Stendahl came to campus as part of a Jewish/Christian dialogue. Stendahl (1921-2008) was a brilliant New Testament scholar and a pioneer of what came to be called the “New Perspective on Paul.” His visit to my school came shortly after his book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles was published. I don’t remember who the Jewish participant in the conversation was. I do know that Stendahl was a regular and enthusiastic participant in inter-faith discussions.

It was later, when he served as (Lutheran) Bishop of Stockholm, that Krister Stendahl expressed his Three Rules for Religious Understanding:

1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.

3. Leave room for “holy envy.” (i.e. recognize the parts of the other’s faith that you might wish were your own.) 

It was a few days before the Dialogue that I heard one of my fellow students say, “We shouldn’t be talking to the Jews. We should be converting them.”

Oh. My.

There are so many things wrong with that statement that I hardly know where to begin. Maybe it’s enough to say that the statement betrays an underlying attitude that is fundamentally unloving. I believe that love is the trump card in all Christian ethics.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10 NRSV) 

I know the counter-argument: converting others to our religion saves them from eternal condemnation. What could be more loving than to save someone from the agony of hell?

The problem is that this is not love. Love values a person as they are. To say “you must convert” means “I do not value you as you are. I will not value you until you become what I want.” Love does not set out to change a person. Loving and being loved may very well cause a person to change, but that is not its goal. Let’s not get that cart before the horse.

These thoughts were inspired, at least in part, by this post from Victoria on her Gaudete Theology blog. She included the video I’ve attached below. You can watch it here, or, better yet, go read Victoria’s post and watch the video on her blog.

I found the illustration of the horse and cart through a Google search that hit on this website geared toward real estate agents. 

Erasmus and Textus Receptus


When Martin Luther set out to reform the Church, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 or 7 - 1536), an influential Dutch priest and brilliant humanist scholar, was initially supportive of the Lutheran enterprise. Luther and Erasmus parted ways over the question of human free will. In a nutshell, Luther said that our human will is bound to sin. Erasmus had a much higher opinion of humankind. Justo Gonzalez, in The Story of Christianity, Volume 2 (pp. 42-43) suggests that the free will debate was a pretext on the part of Erasmus, an amicable way to part with the Lutherans.

Lovers of the New Testament, regardless of denomination, owe Erasmus a debt of gratitude. It was he who, in 1516, first published a Greek New Testament. His work went through many editions, which included numerous corrections. It was in the preface to the 1633 edition published by the Elzevirs of Leiden, that Erasmus’ work was called the “textus receptus” (Latin for “received text), a name that adheres to this day.

Erasmus’ Greek text was the basis for Martin Luther’s German New Testament, and for the 1611 King James Version.

Erasmus had only eight manuscripts to work with, and those were incomplete. For example, the manuscript that he used for Revelation was missing its last six verses. The resourceful scholar overcame this difficulty by back-translating the missing verses from the Latin of Jerome’s Vulgate (c.f. this post) into Greek. He did surprisingly well, all things considered, but at Revelation 22:19 he managed to turn a tree into a book. According to Bruce Metzger, this “reading occurs in no Greek manuscript.” Apparently the scribe who had made Erasmus’ copy of the Vulgate “accidently miscopied the correct [Latin] word ligno (‘tree’) as libro (‘book’).”**

So the King James Version reads:

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Rev. 22:19, bold emphasis added).

Most modern translations, based on modern, critical Greek texts read like the Common English Bible:

If anyone takes away from the words of this scroll of prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and the holy city, which are described in this scroll. (Rev. 22:19, bold emphasis added).

I found Holbein's painting of Erasums at Wiki, of course. Among modern translations only those, like the New King James Version, deliberately based on the texts underlying the KJV have “book of life” in Rev. 22:19. Next in this series, I will take up the matter of modern, critical Greek New Testaments.


*Gonzalez, Justo, L., The Story of Christianity. Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. HarperCollins, New York, 1985, pp. 42-43.

**Metzger, Bruce M., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition. A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition), United Bible Societies, USA, 1994, p. 690.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jesus And Self-Interest


I don’t think that Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, ever acted from self-interest. I’m willing to be proved wrong, but I can’t think of an instance where Jesus did anything to enhance his social status, increase his personal power, or in anyway enrich himself. Arguably, even those moments when Jesus does something to preserve his own life, as when he walks away from the lynch mob in Luke 4:29-30, it is only so that he can go on to Jerusalem and the cross that awaits him there.

“However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:33 CEB)

By the same token, I can’t think of an instance where Jesus told his followers to act in their own self-interest. Instead he taught the disciples that they must take up crosses, that only by losing one’s life does one gain life, that following him meant giving away all that one had. These are words to convict the heart of any Christian.

Much of what is preached as gospel, at least in a North American Protestant context, has to do with avoiding hell and achieving heaven. It’s a pain and pleasure principle writ large into eternity. Self-denial, when it is proclaimed at all, is for the sake of a greater bliss in the next life. Much of what is preached as gospel, at least in our individualistic Western culture, is about “me and Jesus.” It’s about self-interest.

And I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I don’t think Jesus ever acted from self-interest, or told his followers to do so.

Illustrating this post is Hieronymous Bosch's painting of Jesus carrying the cross.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Let God's People Say "Amen"

At the Northern Illinois Synod's annual Congregational Resourcing Event, Saturday, March 10, 2012, keynote speaker Pastor Jeff Marian from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, MN, spoke of the shifts he believes the Church must make. First among them is a shift...

"from a gospel that is all about saving people from hell, to the Gospel which invites people into the present reality of the kingdom of God."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Texts Underlying the Old Testament


The various books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew (a few Old Testament passages in Aramaic) and Greek. Unless you read those languages, you will rely on a translation. I've mentioned before that my friend Matt claims there are more than 500 translations of the Bible into English. I'm not sure where he got that number. It doesn't seem too far-fetched, though.

The preface to the Lexham English Bible, a recent version based on an interlinear Bible, says that there are "approximately one hundred different English translations of the Bible already published." Even this more modest number represents an embarrassment of riches.

One of the things that sets the various versions of the Bible apart from one another is their textual basis: the different original language texts that underlie the translations.

The Jewish Bible is called the Tanakh. Tanakh is an acronym for the Hebrew words Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Kethuvim (Writings), the three major divisions of the Jewish Bible. The content of the Tanakh is identical to the Protestant Old Testament, though the books occur in a different order and are sometimes counted differently.

Hebrew is written from right to left. In ancient times (and to some extent today) Hebrew was written without vowels. Which gives rise to this bit of doggerel by Jessica Shaver:

Th lphbt s hrd t mstr;
Rdng bck t frnt's dsstr.
Nlss h's rd th clssfds,
whr trth, bbrvtd, hds,
th w1d-b rdr f th Bbl,
prsntd wth th txt, s lbl
t trn nd rn wth shrks nd hwls-
th hbrw Scrptrs hv n vwls!

If you made it through that poem, you know vowels are helpful, but not necessary. While the letters PRS might represent "purse," "parse," or "praise," context will usually make the meaning clear. Still, the Hebrew Scriptures printed without vowels present some interpretive difficulties. So in the 7th through the 11th centuries CE, groups of Jewish scholars called the Masoretes devised a system of "points," written above and below the consonantal text to indicate vowels and "cantillation" (chant tones). The resulting Masoretic Text (MT) is the fixed and authoritative form of the Tanakh. The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) is the standard scholarly edition of the MT.

In the 4th through 2nd centuries BCE, long before the Masoretes did their work, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Septuagint was made to meet the needs of Diaspora Jews--Jews who lived away from the Judean homeland. Septuagint means "Seventy" and the title refers to a legend about the making of the translation.

King Ptolemy II of Egypt wanted a translation of the Torah for his great library at Alexandria. He sent to Israel for 72 scholars to prepare the translation. Each of them worked separately from the others, isolated in 72 rooms, for a period of 72 days. At the end of that time, when they compared their manuscripts, miraculously they had all produced identical translations.

The legend is nonsense, of course, but it reflects the esteem with which the Septuagint was regarded. Septuagint is often abbreviated "LXX" ("seventy" in Roman numerals).

When the Septuagint was being compiled, the canon of the Jewish Bible was not set. So the LXX came to include several books, and additions to books, that are not in the Tanakh. Some of these additions were originally written in Hebrew, others in Greek.

The Septuagint was the Bible of the early Church. When the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, the quotes are almost always from some form of the Septuagint text. When Christianity and Judaism went their separate ways, sometime around the 2nd century CE, Jews abandoned the use of the LXX in favor of the Hebrew Bible.

In the 4th century, Pope Damasus I commissioned a brilliant, troubled scholar named Jerome to produce a Latin translation the Bible. Jerome's Bible was called the Vulgate because Latin was the "vulgar"--that is--common language of Western Christendom. Greek was still the lingua franca of the Orthodox East. Jerome designated the books that were found in the LXX but not the Hebrew Bible as "deuterocanonical," that is, belonging to a "second canon." The Vulgate became the standard Bible of the Western church and remained so until the Reformation era. In the East, the LXX has always been the standard text for the Old Testament.

In the 16th century, when the Reformer Martin Luther made his vernacular German translation of the Bible, he put the deuterocanonical books in a separate section of the Bible and commented that they were "good to read" but did not have the same authority as the other Scriptures. The deuterocanonical books are also sometimes called "Apocrypha" which means "doubtful." Following Luther's lead, most modern Protestant Bibles omit the Apocrypha altogether.

Today the content of the Protestant Old Testament conforms to the Hebrew Masoretic Text and is usually translated from the BHS, with emendations from the LXX and other ancient witnesses. Catholic and Anglican editions of the Bible include the deuterocanonical books, giving preference to the MT for the "protocanonical books" and translating the deuterocanonical books from the LXX. Orthodox editions of the Bible include an Old Testament translated from the Septuagint.

The difference in the content between the MT and the LXX accounts for the fact that Protestant Bibles are 66 books long, while Catholic and Anglican Bibles have 73 books. Some Orthodox churches have even longer lists of canonical Scriptures.

This post has been necessarily very brief. I trust that the facts presented are accurate, though they can hardly be considered the "whole story." In my next post in this series, I plan to take up the question of the texts underlying the New Testament. I found Domenico Ghirlandio's painting of St. Jerome in His Study at wiki.

Friday, March 9, 2012

If You Give A Martian A Bible


Dr. Mary Joan Winn Leith wrote the Biblical Views column for the March/April 2012 issue of Biblical Archeology Review. In her essay, titled “The Bible Divide”, she notes that “Many people are unaware that Religious Studies and Theology are not synonymous.” As she defines the difference, “...a Theologian studies her own religion as a believer—as a Jew or a Christian, for example—allied with faith and authority.” Religious Studies, on the other hand, takes a view from the outside. “I tell my students.” Leith writes, “to imagine scholars of Religion as Martians, newly landed on earth with no preconceived notions about religion.”

This led me to ponder: If a Martian—one who is human in temperament, emotional makeup and intelligence, but unfamiliar with Christian culture—were to read the Bible, what conclusions might they draw? For our purposes, the Bible should be a text edition and not a study Bible. It may have text critical footnotes, but no explanatory or interpretive notes, and no introductory essays.

Would such a Martian, on first reading, take chapter one of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of the cosmos? I would think so. Without context to indicate that the story of a 6-day creation is meant to be anything else, it appears to be a factual account. It is unlikely, however, that our Martian would accept this account as accurate. There is too much in it that is contradicted by physical evidence.

On reading the second chapter of Genesis, the Martian would find a second account of creation quite unlike the first. Now, here's a puzzle. How to account for the differences? Should the two stories be reconciled in some way? Is either of them meant to be taken literally? Or do they belong to a literary genre other than factual reportage?

I am confident that, whatever conclusions our imaginary Martian might make, by the time they reached the book of Revelation, they would not think the Bible was inerrant, or that it contained no internal contradictions. I am likewise confident that our extra-terrestrial buddy would not derive a doctrine of premillenial dispensationalism or even (and as a Nicene Christian it chagrins me to say this) a doctrine of the Trinity. Inerrancy is an assumption. The Trinity is an interpretation. Premillenial dispensationalism is a framework imposed on the Scriptures.

Would a Martian, reading the Bible through, be moved to adopt the Christian faith? It's possible, though I don't think it likely. The books that we Christians read as Scripture were written by and for believers. They are intended to shore up faith, not to cause conversions. For our Martian to come to faith, they would probably need someone to interpret the Bible for them, as Philip interpreted Isaiah for the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26 ff.). Faith lives in community, not in a book.

Generation upon generation of believers have found the Word of God in the Bible. Christians don't read their Scriptures as a Martian would. But taking an objective look at the Bible is a valuable exercise. It might keep us from making silly assumptions or drawing untenable conclusions. Reading the Bible like a Martian may not lead an unbeliever to faith, but it can certainly inform the faith of one who believes.

Another article well worth reading in the March/April BAR is Dr. Amy-Jill Levine's piece What Jews (and Christians too) Should Know About the New Testament.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Harold Camping Apologizes


Harold Camping, the doomsday preacher whose prediction that May 21, 2011 would be “Judgment Day,” provided plenty of fodder for this blog. He has now issued a statement admitting that his prediction was “sinful and incorrect.” Would I be churlish if I suggested that this confession is both obvious and belated?

We realize that many people are hoping they will know the date of Christ's return. In fact for a time Family Radio fell into that kind of thinking. But we now realize that those people who were calling our attention to the Bible's statement that "of that day and hour knoweth no man" (Matthew 24:36 & Mark 13:32), were right in their understanding of those verses and Family Radio was wrong. Whether God will ever give us any indication of the date of His return is hidden in God's divine plan. 

Camping got that much right.

The lesson that we should learn from all this is that doomsday theologians do not deserve our attention or our money. They have always been wrong. They will always be wrong. No one knows the hour or the day...

And that includes the ancient Mayans.

If anyone knows the original source for the quote illustrating this post, let me know. I saw it all over FaceBook, but have no idea where it first came from.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More Critiques of Robertson and Piper


Concerning the interpretation of the recent tornadoes in the American Midwest given by John Piper and Pat Robertson, I just posted a substantial reply to my friend StoryGuy in the comments to this post.  I call your attention to it because I think it adds to and clarifies my earlier statements.

Let me also direct your attention to this post on Dr. James McGrath's blog. Dr. McGrath has assembled an interesting collection of critiques, from a variety of commentators, of Piper's and Robertson's statements. There are also a couple of cute meme cartoons. Like this one:

Finally, if you are able and have not yet done so, please make a contribution to a reputable relief agency. A friend of mine who works in the field points out that cash contributions are the most effective way to help those affected by natural disasters. If you don't have a favorite relief agency in mind, you can give to mine: Lutheran Disaster Relief.

Let's Give A Bible Away!


No hoops to jump through. No games to play. First reply to this post wins it.

Give me your name and mailing information (I promise I won't publish your personal info!) so that I can forward it to the publisher. They will then send you a brand spanking new paperback edition of the Common English Bible containing all 66 books of the Protestant canon and a great set of maps.

This is a good translation of the Bible and I'm pleased to be able to give it away as a participant in the CEB's blog tour.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Who Is To Blame?


Last week, after a deadly tornado struck Harrisburg, Illinois, I wrote this post in which I noted that Pat Robertson and John Piper were, to that point, silent about  the hows and whys of this natural disaster. Robertson had previously said that a 2010 earthquake struck Haiti because the Haitians had made “a pact with the devil.” Piper had said that a 2009 tornado in Minneapolis was sent by God as a “warning” to the ELCA about the ordination of partnered gay clergy.  I speculated that the two were silent about the Harrisburg tornado because the people of Harrisburg are too much like their constituencies.

It is easy to demonize those with whom we disagree. It is easy to say “Aha! God sent this disaster to you as a sign of his judgment.” But It is a different matter when disasters strike those who are just like us.

Since my blogpost, more tornadoes have devastated the American Midwest, and today both Piper and Robertson weighed in on the subject. Their responses are almost diametrically opposed and quite revealing.

This time around, Pat Robertson says that God doesn’t send disasters against wrongdoers. Tornadoes are naturally occurring events. Still, Robertson tends to blame the victims. “Why do you build houses,” he asks, “in a place where tornadoes are apt to happen.” He also says “Don’t blame God for doing something foolish.” He also suggests that more prayer might have provoked God to intervene, stilling the cyclonic storms.

Piper takes a very different approach. He raises the question, “Why Henryville, and not Hollywood?” Why were small Midwestern towns destroyed and the urban centers of libertine sinfulness spared? Piper’s answer is a resounding shrug. God sent the tornadoes, but God’s will is inscrutable.

Piper’s reply evidences what I call the Monotheist’s Dilemma. If  there is only one God, then that God is responsible for both weal and woe. Piper’s respect for God’s sovereignty is in perfect keeping with his neo-Calvinist theology. Wrestling with the question of why the righteous sometimes suffer and the evildoers sometimes prosper, Piper’s answer is that we really cannot know. I might wish he had been as circumspect in his remarks about the Minneapolis tornado in 2009.

So, Pat Robertson blames the victims and John Piper blames God. In the end, I think it is safe to say that both Robertson and Piper have taken softer positions than they did previously. Neither of them is quite so ready to pinpoint the reason for these tornados as God’s judgment against specific people for a specific cause.

It’s easy to see God’s wrath in a disaster that strikes those whom we think are not like ourselves. When the victims of a disaster look just like us, it is a different matter.

I'm not ready to blame either God or the victims. This week’s tornadoes provide us once again with an opportunity to care for our neighbors in their need. Please give to a reputable relief agency. If you don’t have another relief agency in mind, I can recommend Lutheran Disaster Response.

The illustration for this blogpost is William Blake’s depiction of God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind. Trying to think of the right descriptor for John Piper’s theology, I noodled around terms like “neo-Calvinist” and “hyper-Calvinist” and “super-Calvinist” until I came up with “Super-neo-Calvinistic-expalidocious.” Now I can’t get it out of my head.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Devil's in the Details


Looking over my blog statistics, I found that the most popular post this week was a piece from last August titled Get Behind Me, Satan.

If you worship in a church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, you may already have guessed why. This morning’s assigned Gospel reading was Mark 8:31-38, in which Jesus tells Simon Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” This week preachers looking for sermon fodder were googling that phrase and apparently some of them found my blog.

There were quite a few hits last night alone. I want to tell you that I’ve never written a “Saturday Night Special” sermon. It would be a lie, but still, I want to tell you that.

The insight I had in my August blogpost came from the Gospel of Matthew, but it applied equally well to Mark. Who knows? Maybe my saintly and cynical blog was of use to a pastor this week. It’s nice to think so.

Right now I’m resisting the temptation to title this post “Zeal for your house will consume me” just to drum up the traffic this week.

Next Sunday’s Gospel reading is John 2:13-22, an account of Jesus chasing the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. It quotes Psalm 69:9. “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Friday, March 2, 2012



There is an Italian proverb that says “Tradutorre, traditore.” That is, “Translator, traitor.” There is no such thing as a perfect translation. Something always gets lost. Sometimes, for instance, the demand for clarity forces a translator to become an interpreter. Translators cannot help but betray the original text.

“Style” is hard to define and even harder to translate. Reading an English version of the Bible, you might not even realize that each of the writers of Scripture has their own unique style.

Luke and Acts, for example, are written in a fussy, florid and deliberately old-fashioned style of Greek. The Lukan author had literary aspirations.

Revelation, on the other hand, was written by a GSL (Greek as Second Language) student. John of Patmos’ grammar is often awkward.

The Gospel of John is written in simple grammar and with a limited vocabulary, yet it frequently achieves poetic effect. I have often said that John wrote Greek the way that Hemingway wrote English.

The writer of Ephesians, on the other hand, wrote Greek the way Faulkner wrote English. Sentences in Ephesians are long, convoluted, and rife with subordinate clauses. In Greek, Ephesians 1:3-6 is a single sentence, 66 words in length. The Greeks of old apparently liked this sort of thing. Most English translations break these verses into several sentences just to make them comprehensible. In the New Century Version, which is rendered into very simple English, I counted 6 sentences.

Translators usually have to subordinate the style of their source text to other concerns. 
So we have a New Century Version style, and a New International Version style, and a New Revised Standard Version style, and a New American Standard Bible style, and a Common English Bible style, and so on and on. It is easier to discern the differences among Bible versions than to discern the differences in the styles of the biblical writers within a version.

Robert Frost said “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” A writer’s style is often lost in translation, too.

I found Hieronymus Bosch's painting of St. John on Patmos on Wiki.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

No Worse Sinners


Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” Luke 13:1-3

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, Pat Robertson was quick to proclaim that it was a sign of God’s wrath because the Haitians had made a “pact with the devil.” This was really no surprise, as Robertson regularly attributes natural disasters to God’s anger over what Robertson perceives as sins. In 2005, he stated that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on “legalized abortion.”

On August 19, 2009, a freak tornado struck Minneapolis during the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly. Celebrity pastor John Piper was quick to say that the storm was a “gentle but firm warning” to the ELCA which voted in that assembly to approve the ordination of pastors in committed same-sex relationships.

Yesterday (February 29, 2012) a powerful tornado ripped through the town of Harrisburg in my home state of Illinois. Six people were killed, hundreds injured. Pat Robertson and John Piper have been oddly silent. Why is that?

It is easy to define those who disagree with us as other. “They are not like us.” From there, it is a short step to demonizing the other. “They are wrong. They are sinners. They are bad people.” Then, when disaster hits, it’s easy to blame the victims. “They deserved it. It is God’s judgment.”

Jesus wouldn’t go there.

“What about those twelve people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” Luke 13:4-5

It’s hard for Piper and Robertson to characterize the 9000 or so people of Harrisburg, Illinois as “other.” They look too much like Robertson’s TV audience. They look too much like Piper’s congregation. “They” are “us.”

I strongly suspect that the population of Harrisburg includes close to the average percentage of homosexuals. And adulterers. And murderers. And drug abusers. get the idea. It is convenient to call a disaster “God’s wrath” when it strikes someone we think is a sinner. It is inconvenient to call it judgment when it hits someone who is just like us.

The fact is, the people of Harrisburg are no worse sinners than you or I. But then, neither were the people of Haiti. The fact is that God does not send earthquakes and tornados to punish sin or warn of judgment. The fact is, natural disasters strike sinners and saints alike.

This does not mean that there are no lessons to be learned from hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados.

I believe that the message of Jesus can be summarized as: Trust God and take care of one another. (The message about Jesus is something else). Jesus used Pilate’s murder of some Galilean pilgrims and the collapse of a tower at Siloam as a call for all people to repent--to “change your hearts and lives.” Natural disasters (and some unnatural ones) are powerful reminders that life is short, precious and fragile. They force us to face our mortality and sinfulness. They call us to repentance and to trust in God.

They also remind us that we need to take care of one another. Pray for the people of Harrisburg, and, if you can spare a few dollars, make a contribution to a reputable relief agency.

I found the photograph of devastation in Harrisburg at this website Lutheran Disaster Response is one reputable relief agency that could use your support. Bible quotes are from the Common English Bible.