Theological Tartar

This is more of a personal posting.  This morning I received an email from someone I’ve never met in reply to my recent post on aliens.  However, this letter then turns to a question of a more personal search for truth.  So, I want to share this letter verbatim without the name of the person who wrote it.  If he or she wishes to “own” the letter, that is up to that person.  The idea of “theological tartar” to describe traditional religious baggage will show up at the very end of my reply.

The Letter

—–Original Message—–
From:
Sent: Monday, August 4, 2014 10:01 AM
To: garydcollier@coffeewithpaul.com
Subject: RE: Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

Good morning Gary,

Thanks so much for sharing this article. I have not seen the complete email from Mr. Ham. But I would venture to say that it possibly falls into the same category as many other so called Christian viewpoints (i.e. does more harm than good). It is very frustrating when someone tries to speak for all “Bible believing Christians”. Unfortunately it tends only to give more ammo against what I believe is the very logical argument for the truth of the Bible and the case for God & Jesus specifically. Once again, I appreciate you passing your thoughts along.

On a separate subject… I am curious where your thinking falls, with respect to many of the opinions of men such as Edward Fudge and Al Maxey? The more I read of their published writings (emails, etc..), the more I tend to lean towards their understanding and opinions on several subjects just as Hell, Grace, Diversity of the believers, etc…Unfortunately, the Independent Christian church where we attend, does not seem to have the same opinions on some of these subjects (Hell specifically). I was raised conservative church of Christ, and my spouse was raised southern Baptist. So we come from a very “works based”, law keeping, background. But once I started reading many of the writings of men such as Carl Ketcherside and Cecil Hook, I started questioning my stance on many topics.

All that said… I guess my main questions are… Do you have an opinion on these men and their writings? And, where do you worship (collectively) at on a regular basis?

Thanks so much for your time and help.

My reply:

Hi, I appreciate your email very much.

My background is also fairly conservative Church of Christ. My first college was Freed Hardeman, which was much more conservative then (late 60’s) than now. I’m actually very grateful for my conservative grounding even though my attitude, demeanor, and focus have changed quite a bit over the years. I am currently attending a local small community church (I live in a small town 50 miles west of Indianapolis), and the only Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are either hard line conservative and don’t want me there or too far for me to drive to economically. The funny thing is, the preacher of the church I attend is a young earther (!), but insists that I teach the Sunday school class and has me preach whenever he is away, and he never tries to put stipulations on anything I would say. I think he appreciates my focus on the scriptures, and certainly he is a good friend. Like any church this one has many good people of various backgrounds and leanings.

I consider Edward Fudge a personal friend, and also appreciate the work of such men as those you mention. I would not say I am a student of any of them (I’m simply not an avid reader of any of them, not that I’m opposed to them), but that is not due to any dissatisfaction so much as my attentions are simply in other places. I agree with Edward that traditional views of hell (prominent everywhere in evangelical circles) is overdone and problematic. I have actually never stated my own views on this topic anywhere, and will not do so here. But I will say that they (my views) are friendly to the efforts of Edward and others, even if they differ on some points as well.

What I love to this day about my upbringing is the emphasis I received on the love and respect for biblical text and about taking it above and beyond any attitude or teaching or tradition I have available to me. If I have a central “heartbeat,” this is it: the love and respect for the ancient scriptures above other forms of Christian focus. (Certainly, not in any Pharisaical sense.)  That is why in every single one of our Coffee With Paul activities (online or “live” or in writing) we emphasize responsible, contextual, and conversational readings of the scriptures. Now this sounds nice and friendly, but the truth is, when we actually do this, that kind of reading of the scriptures itself exposes all of the hardened tartar on our theological teeth.

Again, I thank you for your letter, and I hope I have addressed your questions.

Many blessings,

Gary

______________________

Gary D. Collier
CWP Classroom
http://CoffeeWithPaul.com

PROBE—–Conversation with the Bible

There are many ways or “systems” to help you read the Bible.  All can be useful if you actually use them.  Too often, Bible readers just skim the top and do what they’ve always done.

If you want to read through the Bible in a year or six months or three weeks, you can find schedules to do that. Far too often these have you jumping hopscotch style all over the place.  Frankly, this is madness.  In the long run, it destroys any contextual awareness of the documents being read.   There is nothing wrong with reading the Bible in a year;  but if that’s what you want to do, respect the documents as you read:  read them contextually, beginning to end, without jumping around.

A More Excellent Way

To be a good Bible reader, you don’t have to read the whole Bible every year. In fact, most of the time, it is better to slow down and focus on particular documents for that year—–to read deeply, carefully, and closely.

PROBE is an excellent way to do this.  It takes the best of the Bible reading concerns and puts them into an easy to remember, step-by-step (5 steps) approach so that you don’t forget anything.  It simply encourages good reading habits.  PROBE is an acronym (see below).

I’ll use an example to illustrate.  Jude is an excellent letter to practice PROBE.  Each day you read with a different agenda in mind:

Step 1: Monday:  Pre-read and Preview the text, surveying it.

You skim through it, trying to pick up some highlights.  You take a few notes.  And you pray about it all, of course (as with every reading).

Step 2: Tuesday:  Read and Recap the text in your own words:  just you and this text.

a. You read the whole text through, beginning to end.  As much as possible, in one sitting.  (For Jude, this is easy.)  This is where you read the text multiple times and in multiple translations.  At this point, you ALWAYS stay within this one document, not allowing your reading of it to be contaminated by other texts or ideas.

b. When you finish reading, you recap.  By recap I mean you actually try to provide a “summary” in your own words of what this text says.

Step 3: Wednesday:  Observe the text:  Turn your reading into a conversation with the author.

a. Taking notes, Asking questions, Challenging the Author, Going back and re-reading the text to find answers.

b. You might do word studies here, using resources like Young’s Analytical Concordance, or better, Bible Software (like BibleWorks, Logos, or Lumina) to help you examine the text. (Just stay away from commentaries.  That’s next step.)

c. Also, how is this text related to other texts outside of this one?  If it quotes other texts, read those too.  Not just single verses, but whole contexts.

Step 4:  Thursday:  Brainstorm:  Now, and only now, you’re ready to talk to others.

This is where you invite others to the table: Bible commentators, encyclopedias, and dictionaries;  or friends, or a preacher or teacher.  Just don’t start here! (That is one of the biggest mistakes Bible readers make, starting here.)   Now that you’ve done your own reading work, you can converse with others.   Only now, you invite them as conversation partners.

Step 5:  Friday:  Engage:  Here you focus on “what difference all of this makes for my life!”

What can I do today that will put into practice what I have learned from this document.

This might take hours, days, or weeks to do this.  And Jude is a very good document to practice this with because it is so short.  Even so, this is appropriate for every document (book, letter, Psalm, etc.) of the Bible.

Not New

This PROBE idea is not a new thing:  it is actually the best of Bible reading practices brought into one place—an easy, step-by-step approach that helps you cover all the bases in the most helpful order.  It is reading with a goal in mind:  to put into practice what you read in conversation.

Here is again. . .PROBE_2014_07-30

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. 

 

Stress, Horoscopes, and the Evils of Bible Reading

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a young woman about the fact that she was a Gemini, and she was explaining to me what all of that meant for how she dealt with the stresses of  life day to day.  This was a not a “die-hard” astrologer, or someone that anyone would consider to be avid about such things, it was just a low-key conversation.  And it caught my attention because I noticed that the way she described using a horoscope was strangely like the way people often read the Bible.   

Now I’m not concerned, here, about the evils of horoscopes.  I’m talking, instead, about the evils of Bible reading. 

In the CWP Inner Circle Bible study program, we are today nearly half-way through our study of 123John and I have a number of things swimming around in my head about life, stress, frustration, time, Bible study, and the “who cares” of it all. 

We all know that stress is nothing new.  However, when we are in the middle of increasingly stressful jobs or family situations or eerie economic times or upsetting social and political unrest or personal burnout or failing personal health (or all of it at once), all we really want to do is find a solution for it all, a way through it or out of it.  Over time, not a whole lot else matters. 

 So, in the face of such things, what difference does focused Bible study make?  Who cares about “contextual” anything?  Who has time for extended jaunts into the black forest of overdone detail?  I mean, what difference does it make whether 1John was written to people being influenced by Gnostic-like thinking?  Who cares if some of them were buying into a philosophy that said Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh, or that he didn’t really die, or that sin is nothing to be concerned about;  a teaching that focused, instead, on highly spiritual principles like “the more we know of the secret mysteries of God, the more we live in the light, and the less all the physical or religious stuff matters”?  So what?

Hmm.  You know, come to think of it, this might even appeal to us!  If we are so overwhelmed at work or by health or with family that we can’t see our a way out of the current mess (or dilemma or whatever we call it), we might be subtly, if not incredibly, open to a mysterious secret of God rushing in from out of nowhere to “get us out of this mess.”  Of course, we don’t call this “salvation” or “forgiveness” or any other overly religious sounding word—we already know we’ve “been saved,” so that’s not the issue;  what we need is real here-and-now deliverance from what is right in front of us.  We want out!

So, with that very real concern weighing over us, pushing our heads down so that we can’t see two feet in front of us, when we as harried bearers of the name of Christ do read a Bible text, we read it eagerly, selfishly, demandingly, having no time for any original intent or contextual consideration, but requiring instead an immediate pay off—“How will this help me now?”  And if we can’t see it immediately, if we don’t feel the weight lessen right now, then we just don’t have time for it.

I don’t intend to say this gently.  This kind of mindless, spineless reading of the Bible is its own proof of why contextual, responsible Bible study is needed, especially by the people who just don’t have time for it.  This in no way de-contextualizes your own pain or horrid circumstances;  it does not deny the reality of suffering or frustration or anger or even abuse by others.  In fact, it does just the opposite.  It honors and respects your pain and it says this:

If you want to deal with the realities of the things overwhelming you, if you really want a way out, you must face it contextually in your own life (i.e., directly, squarely, completely), and not just hurriedly, demandingly, and selfishly, with wishful thinking.  When you read the Bible only for fast, unconsidered answers, you are not looking for God or for what he has to say;  you are looking for a favorable horoscope—–or perhaps for a genie.

If you really want help from the Bible, you should understand this point:  just as your life has a context with many ebbs and flows and complexities, so does the Bible.  Don’t expect cheap, off the top, “magical” approaches to the Bible to offer lasting aid for your real-life situations.  Instead, engaging in sustained, careful, contextual readings of the Bible will help to arm you for all kinds of situations you might face.  

If you want your daily horoscope, read the newspaper—–and don’t expect much.  But when you pick up your Bible, come ready for a real conversation.

Happiness

Today (September 24, 2013) is the 37th anniversary of the death of my daughter, Stacie Michelle.  And in memory of her (this will not be so much about her as in memory of her), I want to write a few words, in general, about happiness.  Some of this will be personal.

At the time of this writing, CWP Classroom is in the 2nd session of a class on “The Pursuit of Happiness” led by Oscar Miles. Like many others, I think about this topic from time to time (or just maybe every day) not because I am feeling “lost”, but because in addition to dealing with my own struggles, I also deal (like you do) with many people who wrestle with all kinds of stuff: family, friends, work, relationships, money, loss, hardship, and on and on.  So, it is a topic never far from the surface.

Now it is often the case that when Christian teachers speak of this topic, it gets so overlaid with biblistic syrup and ridicule for any human feelings that it just makes me sick. It almost comes out that to be truly happy, you can’t have any human feelings or longings at all. I’m proud to say that Oscar is not taking this approach in his class. (I also emphasize that in what I say now, these are my opinions and may not represent the feelings of anyone else.)

The Bible

The biblical documents we have were not written for this reason—-to show us the route to happiness. Certainly, various ones talk about love, joy, peace, etc., but these are by-products (results, outcomes) of life in the spirit. Blessed are the people who follow Jesus, and numerous other important things, but again, the issue is not “how to attain happiness”; the topic is nearly always discipleship, service, or some other lofty goal. Now in the Hebrew scriptures, we do find the ideal of every Jewish male: “every man under his vine and under his fig tree—-and drinking water from his own well” (texts like these talk about this on one level or another 1 Ki. 4:25; 2 Ki. 18:31; Isa. 34:4; Isa. 36:16; Jer. 8:13; Joel 1:7, 12; Joel 2:22; Mic. 4:4; Hag. 2:19; Zech. 3:10), but nearly all of these are wrapped up in obedience to God and keeping the covenant. Ecclesiastes uses the topic of “purpose” to talk about fearing God. The proverbs say that true wisdom is the fear of God. And on this goes.

The Bible is not about how to attain happiness. Actually, sometimes it is a call to what appears to be the opposite: suffering, sacrifice, hardship, and more. Happiness is not the immediate goal. People like C. S. Lewis have long pointed out that maybe God is not particularly focused on human happiness:

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ( C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)

What It Feels Like

Ok, if I take the above seriously, then it is just fine to ask, “What does it feel like: ‘Under your vine, under your fig tree, and drinking water from your own well?'” They all knew what that meant; and they all wanted it.

I can tell you what it doesn’t feel like: nails through your feet. Jesus knew this and he said, “I don’t want to do this!” I know this too, because as a kid I rammed two prongs of a pitchfork through my foot—-all the way through. That is not happiness. Learning obedience through what we suffer (for the Lord) is fine; it may lead to ultimate happiness, that is wonderful. We might count it all joy to suffer for the name of Christ. But we know this: suffering and happiness are two different things. Otherwise, they would not be juxtaposed the way they are.

So what does “it” feel like, happiness? (So I’m getting to the personal part.) This is what happiness feels like to me. It is not just one thing, it is many things on many levels, and at many, many different times. And they are not all of the same kind. They are also not that untypical of others.

Happiness is the memory I have of getting off the elevator and hearing (with 5 other people) a high pitched screech of a newborn child that made all of us laugh and say “pity the parents of THAT child.” And then I held little Julie Carol in my arms.

And my son, Craig. Just knowing that he was healthy and safe, when just a year before, in the same hospital, we held little Stacie knowing she would not live.

And later my grandchildren.

It is also (on a very different kind of level) when I am walking neck-deep in a Greek text of the NT or OT. Some people scoff at this. What it tells me is, they just don’t get it. They have no idea what is going on down there and so they laugh at what they don’t understand. But for me, I can get lost there, surrounded by a beauty that cannot be described, only experienced. It is many other things, too, unspoken here.

Sharing Myself

But I will go one more step, this one off the deep end. For the truth, you see, is that I have been divorced twice and married three times, and I have wonderful memories from all three marriages.  I also have very sad memories.  So there is a very deep and rubbed-raw part of me that not only wants to believe happiness is possible, but even more deeply than before to experience it. (Divorce is not just some “thing” you go through, it can rip your insides out and lay you out like raw meat.) Now although many people will say “divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me,” nobody courts, loves, and marries with the idea, “Hey one day we get to learn how to hate each other and tear each other apart—-including our kids, families, and friends—-in divorce court!! It’ll be the best thing that ever happens to ya! So, let’s get married, what do you say?”

Ok, there are crazy people in the world, but most sane people do not want to go through that kind of hell. What they want is a peaceful, supportive, loving, exciting, and fulfilling relationship—-where they can bless someone else, and be blessed; fill and be filled; love and be loved. In the spirit and in the flesh, on shallow and deep levels. And all by a real, live, human being, right now and right here. We might experience that, we might not, but there is nothing at all wrong with wanting it.

“What does happiness feel like?” Well, I DO know. For me.  I have felt it in all three of my marriages, and for the past 14 years have been blessed to live in a nearly continual state of it.  This is not “Pollyanna talk” and I am not bragging about anything, since I have no room to brag about anything.  I am praising God for blessings.

And so, I’m going to share something with you that you’ll either understand, or you will think is silly or foolish. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. I’m not trying to please, impress, or convert you. I’m trying to share just a little bit of something with you. Here it is.

In 1985, a movie came out with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood (her last movie, she drowned before it was completed). This PG-rated science-fiction love story, Brainstorm, is about a scientific breakthrough in which something like a small headset can be worn that will record your thoughts and feelings. In this story, these two are married, but barely, and are headed for a divorce; they’ve sold the house already, won’t talk much, are “seeing” other people already, and so on. When I watched the movie the first time, I knew what was going to happen: like always, the movie was going to show why divorce was just fine and natural, and that free love was also a cool thing.

But I was wrong about that. Because through an unexpected event with that neural recording device, the husband was jolted when he not only got to see, but to feel what she felt about him. This is what most husbands and wives don’t do: listen, see, feel. They just expect. So, having seen up close what his wife thought of him, the husband makes a tape of himself—-who he really is, what he really feels—-and he shares the tape with his wife. What happens next is one of my all-time favorite scenes from any movie.  Because it shows what can happen when two people get inside of each others’ heads and feel what the other feels.

So here is that scene. For me, this is a tiny sliver of what happiness feels like. Is it more than this? Of course it is. But there is nothing wrong with feeling even a sliver of happiness.  It begins as all seems lost, and the wife is at home alone, starting to pack things up.  When it shows her later playing the piano, she is recording her “self” for him.

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I love you Stacie Michelle.  And we all still remember.

b. September 17, 1976

d. September 24, 1976

 

YHWH Loves Me This I Know

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.

Gary

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

 

“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