A verse I am drawn to in Isaiah 45 is verse 9. The overall idea seems to be clear: the clay should not try to tell the potter his job or sit in judgment about what he has produced. (Anybody with kids understands this point.) The context of Isaiah 40-54 helps here, where there is a constant refrain
“For I, I am God, and there is no other! I am with you! I have made all things, and I am doing a new thing! I will help you!
In chapter 45, maybe I like the fact that there is a kind of translation problem with verse 9c, not with the words, but that it is possibly an idiom, and so what does it mean?
The Hebrew is straightforward: “What are you making? It [or he] has no hands.”
The Greek Isaiah adds a phrase, and changes everything to “you”, but is no clearer: ““What are you doing, since you are not working, nor do you have hands”?
The KJV and ASV are fairly literal:
KJV Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?
ASV Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?
The NIV has the pot asking a question:
NIV Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?
The NET translates the idiom to “skill” and it makes perfect sense in context:
NET Isaiah 45:9 One who argues with his creator is in grave danger, one who is like a mere shard among the other shards on the ground! The clay should not say to the potter, “What in the world are you doing? Your work lacks skill!”
I like the NET Bible on this. However, for personal reasons, I also like the RSV, which I did not list above.
RSV Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, `What are you making’? or `Your work has no handles’?
These are several different kinds of translations, and all are legitimate. Slightly different, yet we get the point.
So why do I like the RSV? Because it can be understood not only as criticism of God (“you did this wrong”), but a criticism of the self (“you made me wrong, and so your work is bad”). “It has no handles.” Here you are looking in the mirror and you know where all the flaws are: Your bent nose, your lips too thick or thin, your teeth are not what they used to be, your receding hairline, midriff is too . . . well, you get it. But worse, have you ever noticed how you can look in a mirror and see all of your internal flaws as well? You are not this or that, not good enough, smart enough, focused enough, devoted enough. You look in the mirror and you say: “It has no handles.” (Ok, “love handles” maybe, but don’t ruin this; stay with me here.)
Most of the time when we look at ourselves and say “It has no handles” we think we mean, “Look how I have let God (or others or both) down.” But deep down we are criticizing God for not doing “enough” in my case to make me like I should be.
I think it is possible to get the point that “him” (45:9-10), the “rebels” (46:8), and “stubborn-hearted” (46:12) are God’s own people who are not looking in the right places. But it is harder to see that in not looking in the right places, in not honoring God for his work in you, in looking down on yourself . . . it is like you spending a long time with great effort trying to prepare a great meal, or paint a special picture, or make a special item to give to someone, and when you do, the first thing the person says is, “Well . . . it has no handles, does it!”
“I am God, and there is no other” is what you should see when you look in a mirror. God has given you life and opportunity. And God is at work, right now, in you. Handles and all.
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:
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.
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.
I don’t know Ken Ham personally and would not make personal comments in any case. My response, here, is purely about the position taken and the way it was presented. And I couldn’t decide whether to speak softly, using the back door, or more directly. So here goes.
The quote above, including the entire letter that was sent, is just embarrassing nonsense. (I kinda decided against the back door). What he believes about aliens, or what you believe, is a personal issue. But look at the law that just got passed for all “Bible-believing Christians.”
. . . Christians don’t (or can’t) accept . . .
It is ludicrous and has nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible. Actually, all of the existing “Christian” Bibles (Protestant, Catholic, and more) are collections of ancient documents which speak to an ancient faith: a faith that is still valid and viable. It contains wisdom and direction and story and many other things. But it is not a science book and Bible-believing Christians are free to think for themselves despite such narrow-minded pontifications. Even on the off chance he meant that “some Christians feel compelled/are not personally able to accept,” it is horribly stated.
Believe in aliens, don’t believe. Who cares! But leave the Bible out of this conversation. The Bible does not address this issue on any level. This approach has skeptics howling. And I don’t blame them. It is nothing but farcical ignorance.
It sounds exactly like the end of the 19th century when preachers and some Greek teachers were claiming that NT Greek was “Holy Spirit” Greek, a special language made by God for writing the NT. Uhh . . . oh yes, well . . . then somebody found the Greek papyri proving conclusively that NT Greek was written in Koine (common) Greek, a form of Hellenistic Greek. Imagine that. Ancient Christian documents written in common, everyday language.
Truth is, I really like the following commercial. It is not only a class act, it is far more truthful and appealing than anything (so far) that I’ve seen from the would-be spokesman for all of Christianity:
There is not one thing about this video that requires atheism (which is not mentioned until the final 2 seconds). One could debate whether “knowledge” and “the power of logic” are the pristine power for the salvation of the world that is rather naively presented. Somehow, I think maybe love, and respect, and honor, and ethics, and morality, and guarded ambition, and intelligent conversation somehow belong in this mix: but it is a 1 minute video and does a great job of stating itself.
As for me, I go one God further than either atheism or Hamite Christianity (which are curiously mirror images of each other). I don’t rely on magic or mysticism or think that once we all get logical that our problems will all melt away. And I sure don’t think that bending the Bible around to my beliefs is any more helpful than bending science, or logic, or knowledge around. I don’t hide behind a made-up view of the Bible to protect me, and I absolutely don’t worry that some (Christians or Atheists) doubt me: I just let ’em. I think for myself while respecting the visions and strivings of many, many others in many, many disciplines.
All of this said, when the above video commercial is contrasted with the Ken Ham approach (which is then labeled “Bible-believing Christianity”), I’ll choose the video in a cold minute.
I’m a thinker, set free by Jesus Christ; never was nor will be a descendant of Ham.
Gary D. Collier
[I repeat: this is not a personal comment. This is, however, a clear, focused, and intended rejection of the position that was offered.]
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming 400 page book: Engaging Paul: Shades of Conversation in 1Thessalonians. Publication of this book is currently scheduled for sometime this fall (2014). The book is a focused effort on whether it is possible to engage the apostle Paul (an author no longer living) in lively, personal conversation. Much of academic literary criticism today denies that it is. This book will challenge that notion. The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 4: “Text and Conversation.”
Heart-Prints and Texts
More than any other kinds of texts, ancient letters like 1Thessalonians are written by real authors to real people, and they are trying to re-present the heart of the author. In this sense, authors are alive in these kinds of texts—texts that are technically separate from them in a physically separate space, but nevertheless encoded with their own particular DNA. This is actually more than can be explained by a sign or a gap in a text or by any formula. It is not only the manner in which such basic things are strung together, it is also about tone of voice and tone of thought, where what academics call the “syntagmatic relations” of the elements are of such a manner, in connection with other things, that they form a fingerprint—or more rather a heart-print—of the author.
This is a crucial concept for decoding any type of personal message or conversation.
So for example, several hours ago, my wife called our home phone and left a voice message for me, which she spoke into a phone. The voice message was immediately transcribed into a written text and emailed to me. Here is the written message I received:
Hi Gary it is nine o’clock. I just left Walmart and I am on my way to Kroger’s to put some fuel in the car. Once I’m done doing that. I am headed home and I will need you to unload the car for me. So I love you and I just wanted to let you know where I’m at and what I’m doing. I love you sweetheart. Looking forward to seeing you. Bye.
A lengthy commentary on this personal note is quite possible, but the point here is about what happens in such a text as this.
Because readers have the freedom to do whatever they like, they could see the note through the eyes of oppression, as another woman who is required by her ogre husband to “report in” her every move. Or through oppressiveness, she could be seen as a bossy or manipulative person (“need you to unload the car—oh, and by the way, I love you!”). It could be read with an angry tone or a detached tone or through the eyes of suspicion over any particular thing. In any of these ways of reading, her expressions of love would be washed out, seen as either obligatory, or self-serving, or perhaps merely habitual (i.e., it is common to say such things, and so it doesn’t really carry any emotional force.)
Or here is another possibility. This is a note of pure love that contains numerous codes which reveal that the real issue on her mind is that she is intentionally trying to say “I love you, and I am safe, and I will be home soon to see you.”
It is just possible that this is not an isolated note, but actually is “nested” within a much larger continuing conversation. As such, this text uses the codes of the larger conversation as a way of encoding this particular text.
So then, the comment about “need you to unload the car” arises from a desire (on my part, actually) that I always unload the car for her (not that she can’t or that I must, but that we help each other). The comment about “knowing where I’m at” has to do with safety and nothing more, and actually grows out of the result of past accidents and current unsafe snow-laden driving conditions. And as to whether her expressions of love are “common” or not, there is nothing common about these words which come from her. Actually, to read them apartfrom emotional fervor is to misread them. I know this by experience, and because I am a participant of the larger conversation. This note is a snapshot in time of that conversation, and there are numerous encoded items that point in that direction. I could go on with this for nearly every phrase in the text.
Here is something else I know. The intention of my wife in sending this note is far more important and far more powerful than the bald signs in the note. In fact, no code or sign of any kind can fully capture this—the note a pale sign of the real heart that is the essence of the real message. So the intentions of my wife’s heart encode the note (and are encoded in the note). These become the urgent necessity in reading it. Not vice versa. This is the spirit or soul of a person; it cannot be fully captured or measured or encoded, only pointed to, hinted at, or reflected. Numerous codes in the text point to that soul, to what she was trying to communicate. My job in reading the note is to decode those intentions, not just the signs. In that sense, she—the real author—is alive in this text.
In these types of writings, instead of killing off the author, or separating her from the text, the real job of the reader is exactly the opposite: to (as much as possible) get out of the way and to allow the author to speak with her intentions intact.
Now the fact that she is empirically living and breathing means that I could confirm with her that she was indeed intentionally trying to put those feelings in her text—i.e., to have me feel those emotions from her. But there is no need for me to “confirm” that, it is so abundantly clear throughout the larger conversation, and even in this one note. Besides, in a very real sense, to seek confirmation might actually subvert the conversation, sending a possible message that her intentions are questioned or doubted. The fact is, while it is always possible to question someone’s motives or intentions, the very act of doing so can break or derail the conversation.
So whether this text is read today or a thousand years from now, this text will still have encoded within it all kinds of things about her and her intentions. The signs are snapshots of her ideas and wishes. The fact that it can be misread in all kinds of ways does not imply that her intentions are not encoded into the text, or that they do not matter, or even that they are unreachable. It is the pursuit of this intention that is all important: to hear what she was trying to say.
Here is a second example. When I read personal letters from my mother, who is no longer alive, but still in my memory, I can hear her voice. Unquestionably, this is greatly due to my reading the letter through my knowledge of her (my encyclopedia of information that I use when I read). But this is actually triggered by the way in which she has encoded the text: her manner of expressions, the selection of vocabulary, the way she approaches topics, the way in which she quotes, alludes to, or otherwise taps into things we have experienced together, and how she refers to any number of things. They might even include things that only she and I experienced together. These are all unique to her, a part of her that survives in her texts. These unique encodings allow me to decode the message properly—not just the message, but the author who actually wrote the message. And that is part of the intent that gets put into this kind of text—that I will be able to experience her heart.
When writing these kinds of texts, authors encode them with signs where the syntagmatic relations of those signs are representations of the ones doing the encoding. They are the fingerprints or heart-prints of intent, whether consciously or not. Whether these end up getting called a “model author or implied author” or something different altogether is frankly immaterial and immediately moves the attention away from where it belongs—it is still an encoding from a real author who has desire, will, ego, intentionality, and motive. And that is what gets burnt into the text.
Talking a bit autobiographically, here . . . I want to comment on how Christians read OT law and how this relates to contextual understanding when reading the ancient scriptures.
So, I’ll begin with an illustration: how I have tended to view the innumerable laws of the United States. (This is not a political statement or anything like a sophisticated view of American law. It is simpy an illustration.)
Throughout my life, I have seen both major and minor parts of federal, state, and local laws applied for both good and ill, and unfortunately as instruments of force and suppression. I have been both grateful for “the rule of law” and deeply disappointed and disillusioned by the farce of a good deal of it. But whatever I have seen of such laws, and however annoyed I have been by the “practice of law,” and whatever else I have thought about them, I have tended to see the ideal of American law through the lens of statements like this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-– etc.
And: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . . We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. . . . But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. . . . It is rather for us to . . . resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The point of this is that laws exist within larger contexts within which those laws are intended to be understood and applied. (Whether they actually are or not is another matter.) And those contexts can affect the way the laws are evaluated, implemented, applied, and even discussed. Naturally, this is much more involved than I have presented it.
So that is my illustration. Now to the OT:
As I was growing up, I was taught (not lightly) how the OT was legalism, death, and rigidity. The OT was law, the NT was grace. The OT was mainly do’s and don’ts. But in the NT, Jesus “did away with the law.” I was taught that people under the law were “checklist” people, ticking off their daily responsibilities without concern for things like faith, grace, love, justice, and the like. I was also taught that their sins were not really forgiven, but rolled forward to Christ. We needed to read the OT because the NT said so, but it was in essence a dead book.
As I grew older, and as I started actually reading the OT for its own sake, I began to see that the people who had taught me such trivial nonsense about the OT and such absolute rubbish about it, were not evil people, but they were, nonetheless, seriously wrong, to the point of delusion. They themselves had been taught this garbage and they were only trying to pass it along to me, dutifully and in love. Which they did.
As I continued reading for myself, I began to see how the wonder of God’s love and grace permeates the OT, and that the law its very “do and don’t” self is wrapped in that love, and grace, and care, and “tender mercy” (which I later would discover meant “covenant loyalty, love, and faithfulness”). Certainly, the style of writing or the manner of presentation did not always sound like the warm caresses of my mom’s hand, but sometimes more like the footsteps of my angry dad—yet through it all, it became clear to me that (just as I knew that both my mom and dad loved me dearly) there was one underlying message from every part of every OT text if I actually would read them within their own contexts:
Yahweh loves me, this I know, For the scriptures tell me so Ten commandments, hand of God, Desert water, budding rod, Land of promise, stumbling stone, Yahweh is our God alone! (gdc)
I also began to see (more than I wanted) behind the curtain of the “wizards” of Sunday madness, that despite all of the hallowed talk to the contrary, that there are just as many do’s and don’ts in historic Christianity as there ever were in the OT. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, all we did was trade one law system for another, and we blamed it on the cross, and we called it “grace.”
In our CWP weekly “live” online Bible study classes, we are just coming to the end of a summer-long study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And in that letter, Paul uses the ancient scriptures themselves to show that righteousness is not joined at the hip to the law, not dependent on it—that even the ancient scriptures show this; that faith always was what God wanted, whether under the law or before it, and that while righteous living could describe people under the law, it was not because of that law, or any other law, that they or anyone else could ever be righteous.
It is easier to focus on the “do’s and don’ts” than the promises that attend them.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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?
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.
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)
“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)
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.
Just today I received a public comment about the Scripture, Canon, & Inspirationbook 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 signof 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 actof faith, but an obligationof 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 beforethe book was written, and it remainsunchanged 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.
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.