A Friendly Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson
on Science, the Bible, & Creationism

Heavily revised Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. Tyson,

First of all, I’m a big fan of your work.  I enjoy watching, listening to, and considering everything I have found where you are speaking.  So I begin with a “thank you” and appreciation.

Along with that, I am not a scientist and will not attempt to speak as though I am one. I am, however, a trained and experienced biblical scholar, and I’m writing to ask you a favor.  It would be helpful if you would show more nuance and awareness when you speak out of your field of expertise about biblical texts.  Frankly, when you speak about the Bible, you don’t sound any different than many conservative Christians who speak about science.  I.e., you sound just as ignorant.

In a previous post (as well as another), I evaluated some features of a popular fundamentalist approach to “The Bible and Science” by many Christians today. My concern was not so much science, but how Christians of all stripes approach, understand, interpret, and present the Bible. Here, I want to sharpen that concern and speak directly to you, Dr. Tyson, a leading scientist who continually makes comments about the Bible as though you have some right to do so.  Certainly, I would like a reply, although I will not hold my breath that you will do so.  Even so, I will still ask a couple of questions as though as though you might.

Context:  Moyers and Tyson

First, for others reading this open letter, I need to provide some context, so I will slip into 3rd person here:  In January (2014), Bill Moyers interviewed the well-spoken and entertaining astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. This popular speaker reprised the Nova series, Cosmos (of Carl Sagan fame), and has appeared on many platforms speaking for the advancement of science in education.

As an advocate of intelligent and responsible handling of the Bible, I want to go on record, first of all, that the interview with Bill Moyers was engaging and worthy of discussion. I would urge every Christian everywhere who is interested in this topic to watch this interview in its entirety, maybe multiple times. You might or might not agree, but that is not the point.  I personally consider this a much better approach than the two previous approaches I evaluated above in the third paragraph. What follows is actually three interviews combined into one, and is 71 minutes long. Here it is in its entirety:

My Questions

Now, Dr. Tyson, having encouraged this with enthusiasm, I’m about to ask you a few questions.  However, I want to state clearly that I long ago (in my late teens) disavowed any association with the “young earth creationist” positions (so, I am not at all defending that position), nor am I defending any other so-called “biblical-scientific explanation” of Genesis chapters 1-2. (I’ve already stated elsewhere that Genesis is not talking about that and also that Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation, which means that not even the original authors/compilers of Genesis were concerned about presenting “the one right scientific view of beginnings”). Furthermore, I did not arrive at my positions about Genesis because of any scientific arguments against fundamentalist views of it.  I arrived where I am because of literary and historical understandings of how ancient texts of all kinds work.

So, I am not challenging your science.  I am asking you, though, why you don’t take the same care in how you characterize ancient biblical texts?  Not as a “believer”;  that is not the point.  But simply as someone who understands and respects the value of reading ancient literature contextually in light of the genres and historical realities they attempt to address. 

So now, to my questions. And to do this, I will highlight only one portion of your comments from the video above (not at all implying that they should be taken out of the context of the larger speech). Here’s a short clip from the above presentation:

Here are my questions.

First, do you think it is just possible that you are doing the very thing with the Bible that you are asking Christians not to do with science?  You later say (after this clip), that the science classroom should deal with scientific issues. That if just fine. But in this clip, you are giving opinions about the nature, purpose, early understanding, and proper interpretation of a biblical story, as though you are a qualified interpreter of these ancient texts.   On the one hand, you forbid others to speak in your classroom, but now you are quite willing to speak in theirs.  I find this hypocritical.

For example, when you say that not until science came along did Christians start reinterpreting the Bible as not being literal on the creation:   that is simply not correct. I’ve commented at length on this before, so I won’t repeat it here. Figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various parts of biblical literature are a part of the very fabric of that literature from its inception. There exist all kinds of figurative and theological applications of earlier biblical material even within the Bible. Even of the creation.  Using your criteria, if you want to speak about biblical texts, don’t you think you should do so with all proper regard for the contextual study of those texts, just as you are asking for the sake of the study of science?  I think this is a fair request.

Second, do you think perhaps you end up forcing a shallow and literalistic reading of the Bible as a straw man?  Whether you intend to or not, you are basically saying:  “Anybody reading this ancient story would say __X__.” I’ve heard biblical literalists say that kind of nonsense all my life, and it always irritates me.  So now, you’re doing the same thing.  Also, when you talk about the stars falling in Revelation you sound a great deal like biblical literalists (which atheistic scientists often do, since they are generally fighting a particular group or particular approach).  Rather than understanding the theological nature of apocalyptic literature, you have just adopted the approach of the literalists.   Actually, apocalyptic literature at its heart is less an attempt to describe the reality of nature than a use of the observable world to find meaning and hope in hopeless situations. You almost speak as if those poor dumb people writing the original material way back then had no deeper theological sensitivities or purpose than a spewing out of a shallow and mere literal view of the world.  The fact is, such texts were not written as scientific statements, and not even all of those readers took them literally  (e.g., Philo and Origen from my previous articles).

Is it possible that, just saying it the way you do shows that you don’t understand these texts and that you are unqualified to tell me how I would or should read them?  If it works that way for science, why not for biblical literature?

What about showing sensitivity and responsibility in handling ancient texts contextually according to their genre and nature—I’m sure you agree with this in principle. Biblical literalists are horribly guilty of this offense against their own literature; why must you fall into to the same trap? It does not serve anyone, let alone the discussion, if both sides of the debate are irresponsible with the “texts” to which they are referring.

I enjoy listening to you as a scientist, but as an interpreter of the Bible, you remind me of the ones you are fighting;  and I have no more interest in listening to you about the Bible that I do to Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Ohio) or any other fundamentalist “creation scientist” about either the Bible or science.  You both end up sounding the same.

Staying Religious

But finally, you make one comment at about the 45.55 mark:

If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to be more to you than just where science has yet to tread.

Frankly, I want to say, with my teenage kids, “Well, duh!”  I’ve also heard a couple other of your speeches where you develop this “God of the gaps” stuff, and I just have to say that I have never believed that kind of nonsense my entire life, that “God is only God of things I can’t explain otherwise?”  Anybody who believes in God as an all powerful force believes in the God of everything, whether you think you can explain it or not.  This idea that God is somehow the God of the gaps, or the God of the ever-receding pocket at the edges of scientific ignorance is just silly.   As an illustration:  when I was growing up, just because I began to uncover the mysteries of how my dad operated, and I came to see him not as a worker of magic or with superhuman strength (which I saw as a child), but as one who loved me, this did not mean that my dad did not really exist or that the principles I was discovering were not reflective of his very character.  It just means that I understood more.

Certainly, I agree that if God is more than the edges of scientific ignorance, then he must truly be more.  In fact, God just might even be more than (and including) the sum total of scientific knowledge, despite its growing pockets of ignorance about God.  But when you or any other scientist starts claiming that “anything that we understand cannot be God,” that is beyond your ability to say.   God just might be more than what scientists are able to test, and more than some are willing to acknowledge.  In that case, one wonders whether such scientists have anything at all to say about God, or why they are even trying to.

I actually do know why:  because you want a more responsible, rational, and intelligent conversation to take place for the benefit of the human race.  Well I, for one, agree.   So why don’t we encourage the elevation of the entire conversation:  responsible science, responsible handling of ancient texts, and a refusal to lump all scientists or all Christians together.

I very much liked the Moyers interview. I enjoy hearing qualified scientists speak on their field of expertise, just like I enjoy hearing qualified biblical scholars in theirs. I just wish it would result in a more responsible handling of biblical texts from both groups.

Respectfully,
Gary D. Collier

Conversational Bible Study–A Personal Journey

Behind Coffee With Paul stands the notion of conversational Bible study.

There is nothing mystical or metaphysical about this.  It is just different from what most people do, and it takes a bit of getting used to.  It is all about good Bible study habits.  However, it is approached in a very personal way.  So, this is not weird or some “new alien system” to be forced on Bible study. It is rather good, solid Bible study practice from a perspective of a “live conversation.”  In this post, I want to explore the origins of this concept just a bit in my own transformation.

I have been trained in (and have taught for years) numerous highly technical biblical studies research and study skills.  And I appreciate all of them.  I am not here to denigrate them on any level or to report that I encountered a bright light that showed me the folly of academic study.  Quite the contrary.  For me, the academic studies were a great source of light and they remain so. In fact, one of my goals is to help all kinds of people to be able to tap into such things, even if they themselves are not scholars and don’t want to be.

And yet, a key for me was when I started viewing even my academic study time as a live conversation with the ancient author (no matter who the author was).  At that point, as far as reading the Bible is concerned, several things started happening. 

  1. The most noticeable thing was that the distance between the Bible and me began to melt away.  Despite that many people think “academic approaches” to the Bible are the great Satan of the church, the problem is not academics.  The problem was mere perspective in the use of such sound study tools.
  2. So, as I came closer, I then began see that I was not having just one conversation (just “my God and I,” you know, of pop-Christian lore);  I was rather in a room where God wanted me to personally meet some people like myself.  They were so important to him, that he wanted me to meet each one of them, one at a time.  But this next thing bowled me over—he also wanted them to meet me!  The idea that God loved me as much as Paul, and that he wanted the two of us to meet, was an exhilarating thing for me.    
  3. And so once I met Paul and Matthew and John and the others (and all that goes with that)—all individually—and once I began to listen to each one on his own, carefully and in private, I could see why they sometimes did not get along so well.  (And they did not!  They did not always see eye to eye, and that does not come out simply in a story where Paul tattles on Peter.)  But then I began to see that the more I depreciated their differences, and the more I closed my eyes to them and stopped up my ears, the more I washed out what distinguished them from each other, the more I felt like I had to “make them all say the same thing” even when they did not, and also the more I treated them as if they did not themselves really do anything, it was only God doing it (and so he could only speak with one voice)—the more I did those things, the more I was not listening to any of them, and the more I was, in actuality, depreciating God himself, robbing him of his ability to say to them:  “well done, you are a good and faithful servant.”  Not listening to the variety of voices means I was not listening to God.  I was, instead, listening to other more contemporary voices.
  4. And then my kids came along.  Nine of them altogether—hers, mine, and ours—and I saw so very clearly that trying to treat them “all the same” was not only a dumb idea but impossible, because they were all so very different.  Actually, if I were to have tried to pass a rule that in every situation every child gets equal say, that I would have diminished every child in untold ways.  Actually what was needed were many private conversations in which one child is allowed to express himself or herself.  Only then are group conversations able to work.
  5. And so I began to see that these multiple conversations I was having with the various biblical authors could not be—must not be—regulated or forced to conform either to what another one said, and especially not to standard church or pop-Christian doctrine—not ever. The authors must always be allowed to speak for themselves, despite what (at least some of not many of) the late-great-planet-preachers were saying every Sunday. 
  6. Now of course, it is true that group conversations can be useful and beneficial.  It can be a good thing to compare what these authors might say to each other.  But never until they have been allowed to fully express themselves first and until we are prepared to respect their individual integrity.  Of course, this is hardly the path most taken.  For what is almost universally taught is to drag them all onto the witness stand and make them speak in language that is foreign to them, answering questions they did not address, and then to add up what we make them say into a new and unnatural conglomeration, and then to force that horrific new hodgepodge onto the whole, so that whatever one says, they all must mean.  This is truly the ultimate disrespect we pay to biblical authors—when we make them all say the same things in the service of what we already believe.
  7. I came to see that conversations had to be real and genuine, and that I had to be willing to allow them to say what was on their minds.  

And in doing all of this, something marvelous happens:  the pressure to make everything “fit” vanishes into thin air. For me, this was transformational, and this is why I wrote Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration:  Faith in Pursuit of Conversation——to say that Christians don’t have to close their eyes when reading the scriptures.

In the end, allowing these authors to say what they say is a show of respect, not only to them, but to God who wants you to meet them, each one individually. 

 

Book Review: Introduction to Biblical Studies (by Steve Moyise)

I was delighted to receive in the mail today the book entitled Introduction to Biblical Studies by Steve Moyise (professor of biblical studies at the University of Chichester, UK).  This is the third edition (2013), but I will simply treat it as a new book for those who have never heard of it before.  This book is written for non-specialists, an introduction for general readers that summarizes the study of the Bible among scholars.  It is a wonderful overview being only 152 pages before about 25 pages of appendices.

This is an excellent introduction to the topic for people who have never before surveyed this area.  There are nine chapters including:

  1. God in the Bible
  2. Historical approaches: the search for sources
  3. Historical approaches: the search for context
  4. Historical approaches the search for intentions
  5. Historical approaches: the text of the Bible
  6. Literary approaches: how do texts affect readers?
  7. The role of readers: gender, ethnicity and social location
  8. The role of readers: reading against the grain
  9. Theological approaches

Moyise writes so that anyone can understand.  Although he could certainly be criticized for leaving vast amounts of material unrehearsed, his intent is to give a survey of Biblical studies among scholars from the vantage point of someone in a U2 spy plane at the height of about 70,000 feet.  In that respect this is an excellent introduction.

The advantage of such a book it is in bringing perspective.  This can help someone, for example, who has been introduced to a number of Biblical scholars (say, through commentaries or the like), but do not understand how they fit into the larger picture of Biblical scholarship.  It can help such readers to make sense out of the lay of the land.  It can also help readers who have never been exposed to this discipline, and who may only have read the Bible through their church traditions or personal habits.  Such a book can help to make people aware of larger issues in reading sacred literature.

On the other hand, reading this book will not give anyone a new skill.  For example, you will read about redaction criticism, or form criticism, or historical criticism, or feminist readings of scripture, but you will not become proficient in any sense in any of these disciplines.  This could of course simply add to the confusion of some readers who may feel overwhelmed by the variety of types of reading found among Biblical scholars, and no doubt some already entrenched readers might simply dismiss such a variety in favor of the simpler approach that they have either been taught or have practiced most of their lives.  However, the purpose of the book is actually to help those people to be able to broaden their understanding and to make sense out of such a variety.  In effect, it should say to them:  “You are not the only one who reads the Bible;  there is a vast community of people doing that, some of whom have spent their lives in doing so.  It will help you if you read in conversation with such people.”  

In each of the chapters, Moyise briefly lays out the parameters of the issues involved, and he talks about those parameters from the standpoint both of conservative scholars and those not so conservative.  He makes an attempt to be as objective as possible in the presentation without showing particular favoritism.  He not only offers summaries of such approaches, but he also gives specific examples to illustrate his points.  Most of the examples he chooses are exceptionally well laid out, and they go a long way for illustrating the point he is trying to make.  He does not hide from controversial issues, nor does he try to force them.

For example on page 57 he states:

The disappointing conclusion is that apart from the early letters of Paul (49-55 CE) and perhaps the Gospels of Mark (65-68 CE) and John (c. 95 CE), there is very little consensus concerning the rest of the New Testament.  In general, scholars tend to be either “early daters” or “late daters”, though some are content to outline the main options without coming down on a particular side.

He then offers a brief summary of the dating of New Testament documents showing the variety side-by-side in a helpful chart.  If nothing else, this should say to readers that we are probably wise in guarding against being too dogmatic about such things.

Moyise deals with both Old Testament and New Testament topics, and he gives illustrations from both.  Although he is certainly interested in showing a variety of scholarship that exists, he is careful to illustrate his points by using specific texts and shows the implications of interpretation rather than simply trying to champion one scholar over another.  In other words, this is more about understanding the Bible that it is making sure you know who’s who in scholarship.

The last several chapters of the book deal specifically with readers and understanding processes.  The chapter titles show the topics, but one example will be given for interpreting the letters of Paul.  I offer this because at the time of this writing in our Coffee with Paul studies we are working through the letter of Galatians.  So this is appropriate to our discussions. 

The question is about the interpretation of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 4:5 (which talk about justification by faith), as contrasted with statements by Paul found in Romans 2:6, 7, and 13 (which connect “righteousness” with “doers of the law”).  About this Moyise states on p 116:

Generally speaking, protestant have taken Galatians 2:16/Romans 4:5 as expressing what Paul “really” means and have attempted to explain (away) passages like Romans 2.  But taking the lead from [E. P.] Sanders, scholars from the so-called “new perspective” have tried to integrate them.  The most important point is that Paul’s “faith and works” contrast is only prominent in Galatians and Romans, where the issue under discussion is whether gentile Christians are obliged to take up the Jewish law.  Paul is not accusing his ancestral faith of legalism.  He is attacking Christians who are trying to force the Gentile converts to take up the law.  Even Peter appears to be implicated in this.

This is not presented as the one true and final answer on the topic, but as how Sanders and others in the “new perspective on Paul” address the topic.  Moyise is very consistent in providing a fair summary of the parameters of such discussions.

I highly recommend this book for all readers who would like to have a better perspective of how their commentaries and Bible translations might fit into the larger discussion of how the Bible is being approached by Biblical scholars.  Even more than that, I recommend this book as a way for readers to expand their own horizons to see Biblical scholars as conversation partners in the quest that we all have for understanding the Bible.  This is not simply an academic verses a practical approach to the Bible.  This is really about how we understand the Bible and how we should go about reading the Bible and applying it to our situations today.  Realizing that Biblical scholars can be used as conversation partners can help all of us to think through issues that affect the way we read and apply the Bibles to our everyday lives. 

The bottom line is, this is a very practical book and I highly recommend it.   

Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

The CWP Inner Circle is a very exciting group of Bible students from around the US and Canada, as well as the rest of the world, that loves serious Bible study. It is an “open” group, meaning that it is possible in this group to have open conversation about a broad range of ideas without fear of getting ostracized for floating the idea.  However, rather than being an “anything goes” group, it is given to the up-close evaluation of ideas against the context of a serious study of the scriptures.

I taught biblical languages and literature in University and Seminary settings for years (from Fuller Seminary in California, to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and to Martin University in Indianapolis), and to be quite honest, this online group (The Inner Circle) of housewives, factory workers, professionals, retired people, lawyers, doctors, and preachers is as capable and engaging as any seminary class I’ve ever had, and at least as energetic, if not more.  It is a marvelous experience, surpassing any Bible class experience I’ve ever found in any church, since most people in a church don’t care about the Bible much anyway. 

For the past several months we have been looking at 1Thessalonians in detail:  English text and Greek text (for those who want that).  And during the last couple of weeks we have been talking about the different ways that many people understand the topics of the Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

Now, if you’ve been around any time at all, you know that Christians are all over the map on these topics.  Not only do they vary widely, they come across as hating each other over these topics.  It is shameful, really how much bickering and controversy exists over such things.  Our group–made up of people from a variety of backgrounds and “persuasions” have taken a very different tack.  We decided to see if we could actually be Christians in the process of the pursuit of such ideas.

The diversity of thought of this group has been superseded only by the the charity of mind. And what I share now in the rest of this article is not only my opinion, it is my evangelistic urging on this topic. 

A Blur of “Right Ways”

There are some things we learn from our ancient and precious scriptures (which have been handed down to us) that are fairly straightforward.  E.g., God is love.  We exist in, with, and by love.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, to treat others as we want to be treated.  And more.

There are other things not quite so straightforward.  Historically, many Christians of many backgrounds want to find all the right answers.  Once found, since they are “right”, we then want to insist on them for all. 

On the study of “The Apocalypse of John” (the book of Revelation), 2000 years of Christian history has given us 4 or 5 major competing ways of approaching the book which end in vastly different results.  Such as . . .

  1. Literal
  2. Spiritual
  3. Past
  4. Futuristic
  5. Bla bla bla

And each of these has been split into multiple and competing groups (and they all argue with each other interminably).

Christians then see this and feel like they need to figure out “which one is right?”  As you know, I’m all for deep and detailed study.  The reason is, you get blessed along the way with many things you did not otherwise expect.  Growth is a marvelous thing!  I urge detailed study!

But on this topic, you don’t have to study this for years to figure out that just maybe there is no “one right” solution to “what exactly did/does/will Revelation mean.”   Once you see that all of these very bright people who love the Lord cannot even agree whether the stuff has already happened or not, or when, or how  . . . I just start laughing about it.  I think we’ve had enough history, now, to show us that we are not going to figure all of this out.  What makes us think that we are going to come up with the “one right answer” when nobody has been able to do that for thousands of years (or, more accurately, when so many competing and contradictory groups already have the one right answer, and they all so markedly disagree with each other)?

A Sharper Focus

I think all of the debate is useful and interesting and worth our time.   I also think that, kept in perspective, it can be useful to us.  But in the end, on the topic of the coming of Jesus, the Day of the Lord, the “end of time”, the real meaning of Revelation, and other such things, we should be asking an additional question that we sometimes just entirely overlook. 

  1. We are trained to ask:  “What is the correct answer here?  What did it really mean? Am I believing correctly?”  That can be Ok.  Absolutely, let’s ask these questions.
  2. But maybe we should ask these more often:  “How did this teaching function in the life of early Christians and churches?  Why was it taught, and what outcome was wanted?” 

I think this is especially helpful on the topic we are talking about for this reason:  Consider any approach to Revelation (etc) above—–Past, Present, Future:  all of them!—–and here is the end result: 

We win! So, live up to it!    

In every case in our ancient scriptures, when these things are discussed, they are always discussed as related to the context needed—to help people live and grow.  They are never discussed as individual pieces of a big puzzle, nor are they intended to be “partial revelations” of a larger whole.  They are discussions of the topic within contexts to encourage people to live lives for God.  And when you strip away the context and cram the various naked things into a single puzzle, they don’t exactly fit and they look a lot different.  Why can’t we be satisfied with leaving them where we found them:  in context!  Why do we need a so-called “big picture”? 

A Christmas tree might look beautiful in my home, but it looks a whole lot different (and much more inviting) on the mountainside next to the blue lake from which I cut it down.

I urge all to adopt an attitude of openness and diligence to the ideas of others–especially on this extremely broad-ranged topic.  But we do not need to get tripped up into thinking that these ideas, in the end, are the point of the texts we have.  Let me state it this way:  if you have believed all your life that the “end of time” means the stars literally must fall from the sky, and you die before that happens, what difference will it make?  And if you believe that the Parousia already happened in 70 AD, and he ends up coming tomorrow—are you going to argue about it?  The main question for every position that anyone is taking should be “what difference is this making for how I live now?” 

These are exciting topics—(I sincerely mean that).  I have my opinions about how to best approach all of the texts on this topic.  But the really exciting part is that we win.  And question I have to answer next is:  Since that is true, how do I live now?

Gary D. Collier
Coffee with Paul Classroom
http://www.coffeewithpaul.com

 

“What Do You Mean By Mission?”

I love it when somebody “calls me” on something I said.  It gives me a chance to say more about it. 

And I was.  Called on my usage of the word “mission.”   I used it in that little video I sent you to describe what we are hoping in and by the power of the Lord at CWP.  That video said something like “Bible study as a mission.”

Now, Tresa was not confrontational at all, but eager in wanting to know:  She wrote simply, responding to the 1 minute video:

Wow! I can’t wait — I do have a question — define ‘mission’.  We at [name of college] Athletics are starting (restarting/improving) on our spiritual emphasis in athletics and our student-athletes – the background for my question — your definition could help me help the student-athlete. Missions is an area we are improving/introducing to the student-athlete – local and abroad.  Sounds like exciting times to come– I look forward to finishing the 40 Things and other plans you are working on.

I gave our friend Tresa (whom I don’t know except through this online Bible study) a short reply, but here is a more thorough one in the form of a focused Bible study. I thought that you might appreciate this as well.

Defined

Missions can be defined in a variety of ways, but for our purposes at CWP, we are focusing on the classical meaning of the Greek word apostolos—-and this will serve many audiences and situations.  Many Christians only see in this term the transliteration “apostle,” and they immediately go to the 12 apostles, or even to some modern day uses among some Christian groups of the word “apostle” as a kind of office or position of respect and rank.

But in ancient classical Greek, OT Greek, and at least Paul, the word “apostle” meant an envoy, an emissary, something or someone sent on behalf of another. 

This is especially seen by Paul in 1 Thessalonians (where the CWP Inner Circle will be focusing for about 30 weeks).  In 2:7, he refers to himself and his party as “chosen envoys, sent out by Christ himself” – or more literally as, Christou apostoloi “apostles of Christ.”  The word “Christ” is placed in emphatic position. 

Sailing ships . . . and Kings!

The word apostolos has been the subject of detailed discussion, both for its origins and usage within and outside the NT (see detailed list in BDAG 122; TDNT I:398-447).  I do not translate merely, “apostles of Christ,” because the word “apostle” is so well-known in English (through the NT), that it carries its own special baggage which may hinder readers from seeing the deeper significance of the word as used by Paul in reference to himself.  At issue, here, is how Paul views himself.  Keeping in mind that 1 Thessalonians is likely the first of all documents written that we now have in the NT, we are better to understand that the word apostolos (“one who has been sent on a mission”) would have been understood on the Gentile frontier, not merely through the oral teaching handed down by and about Jesus’ closest followers, but also (1)  in terms of the common usages of the noun-verb word-group, and (2) also in terms of those usages in reference to prophets in the (OT) Scriptures. 

As to the common usage of the word:  The noun apostolos in early Greek (pre- NT) had reference to a naval expedition, ship, or commission, including a letter of authorization for the purpose of sailing ships.  It was only occasionally used of people dispatched for specific purposes such as an ambassador, messenger, or delegate of the King.  Even so, the verb apostello (“to send”) was widely used in Greek documents related to persons of importance in administration and service.  This verb is also used extensively in the Greek OT (LXX) specifically for prophets, and this was certainly one influence of early Christian usage. 

For example, various forms of the verb apostello were key terms describing the call and work of OT prophets, as the following quotes show:

Of the Prophet Moses:

  • “And now, come, I will send (aposteilo) you to Pharaoh” (Ex 3:10)
  • “And here is the sign that I am sending you out (exapostello) (Ex 3:12) (see also for Moses Ex 3:13, 14, 15; 4:28; 7:16; Deut 34:11)

Of Other Prophets:

  • “Whom shall I send? (aposteilo);  “Send me!” (aposteilon me) (Isa 6:8)
  • “I am sending you out (exapostello) to the house of Israel” (Ezek 2:3)
  • “Behold, I am sending out (exapostello) my messenger” (Mal 3:1)
  • “Behold, I am sending out (exapostello) to you Elijah the Tishbite before the great and glorious day of KURIOS comes.” (Mal 4:5 [3:22 LXX])
  • Moses and other prophets are actually called apostles in later writings (see DPL 763a for discussion and references). 
  • The prophet Jeremiah is particularly significant in this respect.  His call by God (Jer 1:4-12) is very significant for understanding Paul in 1 Thessalonians: 

And the Word of the Lord (logos kuriou) came to me saying
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.
And before you were born, I set you apart (hagiaka – from hagiazo).I destined you as a prophet to the Gentiles (nations)
(propheten eis ethne tetheika se)
And I said, “Oh lord KURIOS (ho despota kurie).  I don’t know how to speak (lalein), I am just a young man.  And KURIOS said to me, “Don’t be saying, ‘I’m just a young man, because to every place that I send you out (exaposteilo), you shall go;  and whatever I command you, you will speak it (laleseis). Do not be afraid to face them because I am with you to rescue you, says KURIOS.

Of Paul as a Prophet:

This call is, of course, reminiscent in several respects of Moses’ call in Exodus (see references above), but also of Paul’s description of his own ministry among the Thessalonians (this will especially be important in Gal 1:15-17).  Whatever the explanation for the adoption of the noun-form, apostolos, Paul now uses this term for his own mandate and mission by God.  He identifies himself as a special envoy of God sent out for a particular purpose of proclaiming the Saving Message of God.  (Now how many applications can you think of for this!) In this respect, he sees himself as no different from the prophets of Scripture who were described using the same terms, having essentially the same kind of call and mission, and facing the same kinds of opponents and struggles.  He will also claim to have the same kinds of abilities and responsibilities in receiving and delivering the Word of the Lord.  (See 1:6-7; 3:3b-4; 4:15-17; 5:19-22)

Of Us:

So, when I speak of “Bible study as mission” I consider us a ship on an expedition, like people with the charge of speaking on behalf of God and helping others do the same.  I realize that “mission” is often used to refer merely to the establishment of churches and the like.  But that is a too narrow usage of the concept.  Helping people to read the Bible responsibly, contextually, and conversationally is a mission worth exuberant embrace in the larger mission of the proclamation of the Gospel. 

So now I ask you . . . what is your mission?

“I Seem to Be Struggling with Bible Study”

Just today I received a public comment about the Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration book that deserves more than a “comment” status.  It is from Lynette—someone I’ve never met.  I have come to know her, though, through this Bible study program.  She has an eagerness that is contagious, and an openness and transparency that is commendable. I’m sharing this because I think some others might identify with her.

Here’s what she wrote (the bold sections were made bold by me):

Let me just say for someone that was raised in the church, I still feel very “new” to all of this. I love the church that I’ve found, my children love it and the pastor and his family are amazing! I however still seem to be struggling with bible study and I have absolutely no idea why. I did read the book, and I got really confused, and scared-no idea why. I gave it to my pastor, he is almost done with it and we will be getting together to discuss and I’m very much looking forward to it. I honestly wouldn’t even stress about those that are being so negative, they are that way only because they don’t know and they are lacking in faith, I don’t know, I don’t understand; however, I have faith and something tells me that what you are saying makes sense! So keep going! I will figure it out I promise, some days I’m just slow out of the gates! As I read the book, at times I did seem to feel like I was understanding, and then the next day I was lost (could be the fibro fog thing honestly) I enjoyed every minute of it, the amount of passion you put into your work does not go unnoticed! I look forward to learning more! I know that I don’t know that Bible as well as I would like, and I crave the knowledge it has to offer and look forward to learning and sharing everything that I can.

I want to thank L. for being so up-front and honest!  Struggling is not a sin;   it is rather a sign of a spirit that wants to know and grow.  It does not mean she will end up agreeing with me.  It means she is thinking.  

L’s admission of being confused and scared will be enough for some to say,”See, look what you are doing to people of faith!”  (I’ve already heard it.)  My reply is simple: Educating people of faith is not something I’m ashamed of.  I would think that being people of faith means that we are also people concerned about truth. And being concerned about truth, we are not afraid to be challenged, or to think seriously about the book we call the most important book in the history of the world.

I am right now having another conversation with a friend about this book:  he is attempting to help me see weaknesses in my argument.   I am grateful for his energy.  I will not quote him directly, but he says (in effect) that the inerrancy of the original autographs is obviously a construct that we have come up with, not specifically stated in the Bible;  but that it is a reasonable construct (he affirms).

When I heard this, I was genuinely nonplussed.  I said in response:

This is almost funny.  Here I am trying to say, ‘Let’s be biblical in our views of the Bible,’  and you are saying that the Bible is not sufficient for that!  Who has the higher view of the Bible?

We are not content with what the Bible does and does not specifically claim.  It is not enough for us.  We have to “fill in the blanks.” We have to sugar-coat it and theologize about it and make up things about it that it does not claim for itself.  Then we teach it to all of our people.  We even require it!  And then we get mad when somebody blows the whistle on us for doing it.

Let us put it this way:  If faith is based on fantasy, or has to be propped up by it, then how is this not another Santa Claus story?

Challenging current theories about the Bible is not the same as attacking the Bible.  Asking people to think about what they believe is not an act of faithlessness.  It is rather not only an act of faith, but an obligation of faith.

I want to thank Lynette for being brave enough to state the truth.  And it is to her, and and any who may feel like her, that I close this piece with what I consider to be a statement of resounding faith and love for the ancient scriptures.  It actually is found in the CWP statement of faith:  it was written before the book was written, and it remains unchanged to this day.  Here is but a piece of it:

This is a faith-based academic effort asserting that the canon of the ancient scriptures is an act of faith in search of a conversation with God. As such, it deserves our very best efforts as we engage both heart (the discipline of faith) and mind (the discipline of academic rigor) in pursuit of a conversation with God.  Not only should the canon be offered words of great respect (as it often is), but it should be pursued with responsibility and integrity (which it often is not). It is not enough that Christians claim a “high view of the scriptures” or “academic excellence,” they must act upon such things or the claims mean nothing. We approach the ancient scriptures energetically.  They are not, however, the object of our worship, but witnesses to the Lord who is. 

Gary D. Collier

 

 

 

Just What Am I Trying to Prove?

If you really want to know the deep dark secret is of “what I’m trying to prove,” I’m gonna tell you.  In this post.  So get your cameras ready.

There is no question about it:  most people who sign up for my “40 Things” Bible class start wondering where in the world I’m going after about lesson 3.  I raise the question of “What is a canon?”  and I eventually get to the question, “Just whose idea is canon?”  People who start out excited, sometimes get scared, or angry, or concerned–and they quit. And they don’t ever get to the really good stuff–which is after lesson 10.  But 1-10 is foundational and must be covered—–up front.  I hide nothing from you.

Nobody wants to be misled.  I don’t, and I know you don’t.  That is why learning to search, to question, to evaluate, and to face tough topics is such an important thing for Christians to do. And that is why I put the controversial stuff right up front.  If you’re willing to think with me, we might just all learn something together.

But when somebody joins this group and writes to me demanding to know the gritty details of just what I’m up to, what church I go to, what I really believe:  I won’t tell them anything. I’ve already been more transparent on my websites about such things than anybody reading the websites.  Some people want to know ahead of time whether I pass inspection.  So let’s answer that:  if you have to ask, then I likely don’t.  So, you can either leave—or you could just listen for a while and evaluate what is being said.

That’s something that many Christians are not very good at:  evaluating ideas on the basis of the worth of the ideas.

I have been asked what new church I’m trying to start?  What crazy cult do I hail from or am I instigating?  One person said “I thought you were a crazy atheist just trying to get attention.”  Well, I hate to disappoint, but I don’t make or drink  Kool Aid—in fact, I don’t even drink coffee!  (which is actually funny).  I have no interest whatsoever in starting a new church.  That would be like having another kid to raise–and after nine of those I’m quite happy not to do that any more.  (I love all my kids!  And I don’t want any more.)

So what is the secret that I’m hiding?  What am I not telling you?

The truth is–and I hope you’re ready for this–the honest truth is . . . I just want to help people study the Bible better.  I’m not so much after what you believe, that is between you and God.  I’m more concerned to challenge you about how you get there (present tense).  Are you going to a church?  Good.  Keep going!  I’m not in competition with any church, any school, any website, or any group that meets anywhere.  I simply want to help people around the world study the Bible better!   That’s my dirty little secret!  (Isn’t that scary?)  As a matter of fact, I’m not only not a threat to anyone, I’m trying to be a “conversation partner” to any serious searcher.

And by the way, if you read my book (Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration) I am NOT attacking the Bible!  If that is what you think, you are not really reading it!  I definitely do challenge what a lot of people think about the Bible, but that is a far cry from attacking the Bible!  As a matter of fact, I am (and my book is) a strong advocate of the inspiration of the ancient scriptures.  Although I refuse to blame God for any particular Christian canon (and I believe that you should refuse to do that too), I strongly advocate that God can work through any of those Christian canons to the glory of Jesus as Lord.  And that (Jesus as KURIOS:  LORD) is the central issue.

Ok, now you know my secret.  I believe that Jesus is LORD.  It once was a mystery, hidden.  But now you know.

Gary

Reading Responsibly

Since I talk a lot about being “responsible readers” of the scriptures, someone recently asked this:

What is it to be a responsible reader of anything? And why is that so important when reading the Bible?

Here is my reply: To be a responsible reader of anything is to read “with respect” (i.e., giving respect to) what I’m reading and not to abuse it. It is possible to abuse anything we read. For example:

  1. When I read my mother’s letters, I don’t read them as I would a newspaper article or a debt collector, even if she is reporting to me about the death of a neighbor or asking me to pay her back the money I borrowed from her. She is my mother, and that weighs heavily on me as I read. But I don’t use her 2 paragraphs of concern for my sister to drive a wedge between my mother and my sister. That would be to use the letter for a purpose it was not intended. That would be irresponsible.
  2. If I am reading poetry, I read it in light of the conventions of poetry, depending on what kind of poetry: English literature? Hebrew Wisdom? But I don’t read poetry as if it were law or history, even if knowing the historical context of the poem or the poet might give me insight.
  3. A Gospel is not the same as a letter; apocalyptic literature (as in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation) is not the same as legal literature, nor allegory, etc. Reading these forms of literature without even noticing the difference often leads to some form of abuse.
  4. Talking about “the Bible” as though it is a single book with a single message often leads to abuse. The Bible is actually made up of collections of material gathered from over a thousand years or so. Also, there are many overlapping messages with many, and sometimes varied, specific nuances.

Does this mean that you have to be a scholar to read the Bible? Heaven forbid!

My mother was not a scholar: but she was a hungry student of the Bible and a searcher. Did all of this searching make a difference in her life: how she acted, what she believed, how she treated people? Uh . . . yes. Was she an arrogant, abusive Bible thumper? Hardly! Did she have any of those people as her teachers? You bet she did, but she knew the difference between what they were and what the texts she was reading were calling for. Can a person without “formal training” in the Bible gain value from reading the Bible not knowing any technicalities? Of course, just like an untrained person — with effort and patience — can replace a bathroom floor, plumbing and all (that would be me!). However, we should not be satisfied to live in ignorance. The more we learn about what it is we’re trying to do, the more it can help. To be unwilling to learn and to be insistent upon reading only through our own unevaluated context is to be irresponsible.

Giving respect to Paul as an ancient author, for example 1 Corinthians, means we will at least try to read by sitting in his chair before we’re willing to jump to our own conclusions. For example, we will read what he says about homosexuality or marriage or spiritual gifts or women against the backdrop of his own times and contexts without frothing at the mouth because we may disagree (from our own perspective). Was Paul a bigot or sexist? By 21st century American standards, yes. But then by his standards, most current-day American Christians are ignorant heathens. And when compared to the ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo (who died about the time Paul started writing), and many other ancient writers on women, Paul can be seen as both moderate and as sowing the seeds for liberation of women.

Now here’s the point: As people, we are not naturally responsible readers. We have to be taught. No matter what the subject. The reason is that reading is a very complicated subject. And whether people like to hear this or not, there’s more to reading the Bible than simply “doing what it says.”

The trouble is, when readers don’t care about any of this — and that is precisely what predominates in churches across the country (even though there are exceptions) — this is irresponsible. It undermines the pursuit and existence of genuine Christianity.

Let’s put it this way: countless biblical texts themselves urge, over and over again, familiarity with the scriptures:

    1. “On God’s law he meditates day and night;”
    2. “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things out of your law;”
    3. “Attach them as frontlets for your eyes, put them on door posts, teach them to your children;”
    4. “Go on to maturity, get past the basics;” and
    5. “Jesus opened their minds to the law, the prophets, and the psalms.”

And on it goes.

I don’t mention these things to point out some kind of “command,” as though we have to read scripture because scripture says so. Instead, the point is that from the beginnings, Christianity was very much rooted in written text. So, in Christian terms, the written texts that form the basis of faith are replete with urging to know scripture.

For Christians to tout the Bible as the most important book in the world and then to be aware of it only in vague, generalized, mushy evangelical terms, or not even to care, is irresponsible! Some one can certainly come to faith in Christ having never read a single word. Certainly there are many experiences outside of the written word that can be had that are both valuable and necessary for a person of faith. However, in ancient Christian terms, followers of Christ will not be satisfied living a life apart from scripture. They’ll naturally seek to become “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Scribes. Readers of written texts. A genuine life of faith and a life in the Holy Spirit will always lead into a life in scripture. Stated another way, the Holy Spirit of God will never lead one away from the Word of God.