Monday, December 31, 2007

Religion Classes at Amarillo College

And now for a shameless plug. Here's our Course Schedule for Spring 2008 at Amarillo Bible Chair:

Day Classes

RELG 2302 Life of Paul 1:30-2:45 T & Th

PHIL 1304 World Religions 1:30-2:45 T & Th

PHIL 1304 World Religions 10:30-11:45 M & W

Evening Class

RELG 1302 New Testament 7:00-9:45 pm Monday

Did you know? . . . .

Any of these classes may be taken for Humanities credit, and will apply toward any degree program.

All course work is guaranteed to transfer to any college or university in the State of Texas.

Classes may be taken for “Leisure Studies” credit, and anyone is welcome to simply audit a course free of charge.

Students at Amarillo College may choose to major in Religion.

Pre-registration is underway, and classes begin January, 2008. To enroll, visit the the Amarillo College website at . . . www.actx.edu/enroll

For more information, you may call and speak with Becky Hugg or Frank Bellizzi at (806)372-5747, or visit our website at www.amarillobiblechair.homestead.com/

Friday, December 28, 2007

Health-and-Wealth "Gospel" Gets Questioned

Ever since this story first came out, I've been intrigued. I haven't followed it closely, but it seems as though the Senate is probing the financial records and procedures of "ministries" headed up by folks like Creflo Dollar. (Could Dickens himself have come up with a better name?)

Is this simply a Senate attempt at expose? The Senate can't declare that folks like Dollar are guilty of theological malpractice. Since any tax or financial investigations could have been conducted by the IRS, it seems like this is an attempt on the part of Congress to shame what they think people should be ashamed of.

People, like me, who don't respect Dollar and his cohort might feel good about the spotlight being pointed at them. But where does the probing of religious groups and leaders end? And doesn't the Senate have bigger fish to fry?

What do you think about this?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Trials of a Teacher

One of the many things I've learned during these two years of college teaching: Survey courses are tough. Why? Mainly because a survey requires you to figure out how to summarize material that really deserves to be studied in depth. In a survey class, I feel like I'm riding a motorcycle through a museum.

For example, every semester I teach a class called "The New Testament." It's a basic first-year, content-survey course. Of course, anyone who's spent much time with the New Testament knows that several of its books provide enough content, questions, etc. for a semester’s worth of exploration. One of the Gospels? Luke-and-Acts? But in a survey, the New Testament books average less than one per class session. So the teacher has to decide which parts receive attention and which parts get more less neglected. That’s the challenge. An even bigger challenge is to set up the course and teach in a way that gets students learning on their own, reading outside of class, etc.

One thing I've tried to do is to establish a few anchor points, basic observations about the New Testament that can be applied to various parts of it. For example, near the beginning of the course we explore the idea that a good understanding of the New Testament includes an awareness that Jesus himself and all of the earliest Christians were Jews. At the same time, the first believers were not merely Jews. Of course, we then turn the spotlight on the pre-eminent first-century Jewish Christian, Paul. And what do we see? Even after his Damascus Road experience, Paul is perfectly content to think of himself as a Jew.
  • He continues, for example, to reckon time in the Jewish way: "But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost" (1 Corinthians 16:8).
  • He speaks of himself and every other descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as "we who are Jews by birth" (Galatians 2:15).
  • And when it’s necessary—as in his debate with the "super apostles" at Corinth--he puts his Jewish identity front and center: "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I." (2 Corinthians 11:22).
From examples like these, we gather that what was different about the Christian Paul was not that he had rejected his Jewish identity. So what exactly was different about Paul the Jew following his confrontation with the resurrected Christ? In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, he gives us a clue. Speaking in some detail about his work as a Christian missionary, Paul writes:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Without any knowledge of the Book of Acts, one can gather from this passage that Paul is not only an apostle to the Gentiles, but that he also deals with fellow Jews. What he's discovered is that the most-effective approach is to play the part of a "cultural chameleon." Around Jews, says Paul, he is like a Jew. Around Gentiles, "those not having the law," he is like a Gentile.

Here, two telling disclaimers stand out. First, the Christian Paul no longer considers himself to be "under the law." Although he can be like one under the law of the Jewish Scriptures, he himself is not under such law. Which is not to say that Paul the Christian is somehow lawless. Knowing that his first disclaimer might be misunderstood, he adds that he certainly is under divine rule. Indeed he is "under Christ’s law."

It must have come as a shock when Paul’s fellow Jews understood that he no longer considered himself subject to Mosaic law. When asked why, he no doubt would have used the language of Philippians 3. Although Paul could easily confide in his adherence to Mosaic law—"as for legalistic righteousness, faultless"—he was eager to renounce all of that for "the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ" (see Philippians 3:1-11). Not that there was anything wrong with keeping the law. But there was something wrong with assuming that the mark of circumcision, and the observance of sabbath ordinances and dietary laws were not only important but even essential for the people of God in Christ.

Such a radical and unexpected break required Paul to employ in his explanations language that was equally radical and unexpected. This explains passages like Galatians 6:15. There Paul insists that what ultimately matters is that the perfect work of God in Jesus the Messiah had ushered in "a new creation," a time when and reality where the difference between circumcision and uncircumcision means nothing.

The work of God in Christ had so changed the way things are, the language of "a new creation" wasn't a stretch. An altered reality. A radically changed world. That's what was different.

[A good bit of this reflection was generated as I read Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest, pp. 53-69].

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Very Merry Christmas to You

I don't think I'll make it back here much until the end of the year. I hope that you and yours have safe travels and good times during the holidays.

Favorite songs of mine come in and then go out of my life. This year my favorite Christmas song goes like this:

Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem
Shining afar through shadows dim
Giving the light for those who long have gone
Guiding the wise men on their way
Unto the place where Jesus lay
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem shine on.


Oh Beautiful Star the hope of light
Guiding the pilgrims through the night
Over the mountains till the break of dawn
Into the light of perfect day
It will give out a lovely ray
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem shine on

Oh Beautiful Star the hope of rest
For the redeemed, the good, and blessed
Yonder in glory when the crown is won
Jesus is now the star divine
Brighter and brighter he will shine
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem shine on

Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns.
Give us a light to guide the way
Unto the land of perfect day
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, shine on


Friday, December 21, 2007

A Class on the Gospel of John

Last year I was asked to teach the Wednesday-night auditorium class. We spent six months getting acquainted with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. During the last quarter of this year, one of our elders has been teaching the class, a survey of the Minor Prophets.

When he asked me to teach during the first quarter of 2008, we agreed that a New Testament book would give some balance. I decided on the Gospel of John. We'll start in a couple of weeks.

I have to confess that I have a thousand ideas but no settled agenda for the class. Naturally, I want John's intent to be satisfied; that the signs of Jesus would lead us to belief, which leads to life (20:30-31). Just saying that, though, sounds a little trite. On average, the people in the class are in their seventies. Most of them have been Christians longer than I've been alive. I understand that John can work as more than an evangelistic tract, that people who've heard the gospel always need to hear it again, etc. But how should that go? What are some good ways for a teacher to draw people into familiar material and help them to hear it afresh?

Anyway, I can teach the Gospel of John as I've taught it before. There's no lack of resources. But I want to improve my presentation and the experience of the class. Any suggestions? I know that some of you (Matt) have taken up this challenge, and I especially want to hear from you. What have been your experiences? What really worked?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Problem of the OT: John Bright's Solution

A quick review will bring us up to speed. John Bright, in his book The Authority of the Old Testament, begins by stating the issue he wants to explore and resolve:

Even he who affirms that the Old Testament is in each of its texts inspired of God and affords in all its parts a revelation of his character, purpose, and will, . . . must still face the question: How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings, and expressions of an ancient piety, actually to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed as such in the church? (p. 18).

Next, Bright describes and critiques what he calls three classical solutions to this question. In turn, the three misguided solutions attempted to
  1. reject the Old Testament, either completely or, at least, practically (e.g., Marcion)
  2. Christianize the the Old Testament, mainly by reading it as though it were a Christian allegory (e.g., Origen)
  3. correct the Old Testament, using the standard of the New Testament (e.g., nineteenth century liberals)

Bright correctly notes that one thing all three have in common is that each one takes the New Testament as its point of orientation. As he says it, In each case, the true text is the New Testament. The Old Testament text must conform to it, be made to conform--or get out! In no case is the Old Testament it's own witness, in its plain sense and in its entirely, taken seriously as having validity in the church (111).

So what is the solution that Bright has been waiting to announce? In his third chapter--the heart of the book--he states and explains it. A few of his statements mixed in with my own commentary:

But it is here submitted that the key to the solution of the problem is to be found in the theological structure of both Testaments in their mutual relationship--that is to say, through the study of biblical theology (112).

Bright goes to great lengths to defend the idea of a unified biblical theology. Despite the real differences between the two testaments, and the real diversity within each, he says, a genuine unity exists. The differences between the two are mainly because they are written on either side of the cross:

Characteristic of the Old Testament faith is its forward look, its straining ahead toward God's future, the triumph of his kingly rule in the earth (136).

The Old Testament was incomplete theologically. What it hoped for was not yet. But what it hoped for now is in Christ. Consequently, the New Testament announces and refers to the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. Thus Bright's thesis is:

The normative element in the Old Testament, and it's abiding authority as the Word of God, rests not in its laws and customs, its institutions and ancient patterns of thinking, nor yet in the characters and events of which its history tells, but in that structure of theology which undergirds each of its texts and which is caught up in the New Testament and announced as fulfilled in Jesus Christ (155-56).

So, what do you think? Is Bright's a good response to the question of what he calls preaching an A.D. message from a B.C. book?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

3 "Solutions" to the Problem of the Old Testament

"The church can never part with the Old Testament. But it is not enough to say that. After all, what responsible person would question that the Old Testament has abiding values or that some knowledge of it is necessary for the proper understanding of the gospel? Even those who would deny the Old Testament canonical status would admit as much. So we must go step further and say that not only will we have to retain the Old Testament, we will have in some way to use it as a part of normative Scripture." --John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, p. 77.
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But how? That is to say, how should the church use the Old Testament Scriptures in this New Testament Age? That's the question that Bright attempts to answer in his book. But before he does, he puts the spotlight on what he calls three classical responses to the question he has raised. Using my own headings--and throwing in my two cents from time to time--here are the three classical solutions to the problem of the Old Testament:

1. Toss It

This approach says that the best way for Christians to deal with the Old Testament is to reject it. The position is named after its first strong advocate: "The attempt to get rid of the O.T. was encountered by the church as far back as the second century in the first great heresy with which it had to deal, that of Marcion" (Bright, 60).

Bobby Valentine has recently written about the man named Marcion and his movement. He talks about how, ironically, Marcion's rejection of the Old Testament and his adoption of alternative scripture led the orthodox Christians of the second century to start settling on the question of which books should be regarded as authoritative for the church.

As Bright and Valentine both point out, Marcionism never completely died. No, not many people have argued so radically against the OT as Marcion did. But the tradition lives on. Bright includes in his list of Marcionite scholars the following well-known people:

Adolf von Harnack, a prominent historian of Christianity who believed that the church should reject the canonical rank of the OT and place it at the beginning of the Apocrypha.

Friedrich Delitzsch, the son of Franz Delitzsch, who wrote a two-volume attack on the OT called "The Great Deception." Bright says Friedrich was a Marcionist "in the fullest sense, even to the point of denying that Yahweh, God of the Israel, is to be identified with the Christian's God" (p. 66).

Rudolf Bultmann, famous and infamous NT scholar. According to Bright, his negative attitude towards the Old Testament was much more subtle and understated, but nonetheless real.

Having grown up among the Churches of Christ, with our strong Marcionite tendencies, I was kind of relieved to find out that mine was not the only tradition that took a low view of the OT.
Christianity has always been right to reject the Marcionite solution. But because it keeps hanging around, the church should remain vigilant.

2. Christianize It

That is to say, save the Old Testament by reading a Christian message from it. This was simple in the early church. That's because reading a book allegorically was popular in the Greco-Roman world.
Bright explains how the church bought into this approach and used it in biblical interpretation: "It was generally believed that Scripture had various levels of meaning. Origen popularized a threefold sense corresponding to the supposed trichotomy of man's nature: body, soul, spirit" (p. 80).

By reading the Bible in this way, passages like the so-called "cursing psalms" and stories that relate the complete destruction of the enemies of Israel can be "prettied up." Those parts of the Bible, it is thought, teach a message that is much more consistent with the loving, forgiving spirit of Jesus. By the same token, by reading the OT allegorically, people could think of the Song of Songs as a love story where Christ is the husband and the church is his bride.

Of course, the problem with this solution is that it insists that we overlook, and sometimes even deny, the literal sense of the text. This approach ultimately divorces the biblical text from any sort of discernible, agreed-upon meaning. Five people can come up with five very different allegorical readings of the same text. So who's to say which one is correct? Thus, the allegorizing approach fails to measure up to what Bright calls "sound exegetcal principles."

Here I have to add a tentative counterpoint. I am undecided about the legitimacy of going beyond the literal sense of the biblical text. When it comes to interpretive method, why do we assume that people like Origen were wrong and that people like us are right? If we conclude the reason is because we're children of the Enlightenment and he wasn't, then we've admitted that we might be more tied to the Age of Reason than the Rock of Ages. And aren't we even going so far as to say that the New Testament writers used a bad method in order to tell us the good news?

In response to this question, most Protestants have said things like, "Well, people like Matthew, with his strange way of reading the Old Testament, were writing by inspiration. We're not. Therefore, Matthew gets to do anything he wants, while we have to stick with only historical-critical readings." Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like a dodge? Does the New Testament teach us all things except how to interpret the Bible?

3. Correct It

This alternative to the problem of the Old Testament formed a value judgment from the New--especially the teaching of Christ, easily found in those red letters--and imposed that standard on the Old. This, Bright tells us, was the position of nineteenth century liberalism with it's evolutionary and progressive view. An assumed development over time was the reason that statements and assumptions found in the Old Testament could be corrected by what is found in the New.

Here Bright points to the words of F. W. Farrar: "Is it not an absolutely plain and simple rule that anything in the Bible which teaches or seems to teach anything which is not in accordance with the love, the gentleness, the truthfulness, the purity of Christ's gospel, is not God's word to us, however clearly it stands on the Bible page?"
____________________________________

So, I'm curious to hear your responses. What experiences have you had with variations of these three "solutions" to the question of the Old Testament? Which ones are still hanging around in the Christian circles you know?

Bright has his own answer and alternative. I'll talk about it next time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christian Use of the Old Testament

In the previous two posts, I've

(1) talked about the inspiration of the Old Testament and its authority in the life of the Christian

(2) raised the question of how the Old Testament can and should be used as Scripture by the church. I've gotten a few responses, all positive, and I appreciate your encouragement.

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An aside: I want to emphasize, again, that attitudes toward the OT will improve, and its reading and use in the church will increase, only when Christian people are taught well and when good examples are given at church. As my teacher Phil Slate used to say, "The cutting edge of the kingdom is the local congregation."

Although it's been many years since I last read it, He Loves Forever by Thom Olbricht, is the one of those good examples I'm thinking of. In this book, a mature scholar from the Churches of Christ gives us what amounts to an Old Testament theology in an easy-to-read format. With a Bible in the other hand, that wouldn't be a bad place to start. I also appreciate and have used the OT booklets by John Willis who has taught at Abilene Christian for many, many years. His love for God and his deep study of the biblical text show up on every page. Who are some writers who have opened up to you the meaning of the Old Testament?

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Most of the responses to my earlier posts reinforce ideas like the material dependence of the New Testament on the Old (Jesus once said, "Remember Lot's wife"), the incompleteness of the New Testament's witness without the Old (Knowing about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ requires reading about him in the Old), etc. This is important stuff, no doubt.

But, again, what I want to explore is the question of how the Old Testament can and should be used by Christians as Scripture. Again, in the words of John Bright, "How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings and expressions . . . to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed in the church?"

For example, like today's Jews, Christians do not literally implement the instructions found in the Book of Leviticus. Yet Christians rightly believe that the Old Testament, including Leviticus, is the church's book. So how, in what way(s), can Leviticus serve as Scripture for the body of Christ?

Any thoughts?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

How Should Christians Use the Old Testament?

When he delivered the Gray Lectures at Duke Divinity School in November 1959, the unassuming John Bright never imagined that his speeches would become a book that would remain popular for several decades to come. But they did, and with good reason.

Perhaps better than anyone else, Bright proposed and explained a Christian approach to the Old Testament that honors both the OT's position as one of the two parts of the Christian Bible and the biblical mandate to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). That's not an easy task. As Bright explains in the Preface to the book The Authority of the Old Testament, the question he takes up is one that had plagued him for many years:

"I suppose that it is inevitable that it should have: it is a problem that no teacher of Old Testament studies can forever evade. Certainly I was unable to do so. I had long found myself troubled by the fact that so few preachers--myself included, I fear--really seemed to know how to proceed with the Old Testament, or were guided in their preaching from it, if they preached from it at all, by any conscious hermeneutical principles...It early became clear to me that the place of Old Testament studies in the theological curriculum was not something that could be taken for granted. I was driven to the realization that if I could not present my students with some positive position with regard to the place of the Old Testament in the Bible, and provide them with some guidance in their use of it in the pulpit, they might justifiably regard all that I was trying to teach them, however interesting it might be historically, as of questionable theological and practical importance."

What exactly is the question regarding the place and authority of the Old Testament? Bright sums it up as follows:

People who affirm "that the Old Testament is in each of its texts inspired of God and affords in all its parts a revelation of his character, purpose and will . . . . must still face the question: How are these ancient laws, institutions, and concepts, these ancient narratives, sayings and expressions . . . to be taken as authoritative over the faith and life of the Christian, and how proclaimed in the church?" (p. 18).

At some point in the course I teach on the Old Testament, I ask my students some version of Bright's question. After all, it doesn't do much good for a person to know the content of the OT if she doesn't have a good idea of how it should be used by the church (I teach students from the Bible Belt who are, almost to a one, religiously engaged).

So what would you include in a response to Bright's question?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Rehabilitation of the Old Testament

In the comments on my last post, Matt was wondering if I had run away. . . .

Still here.

So why haven't I been posting anything lately? I started to say that what I'm doing nowadays just isn't that blogable. But then I realized how lame that sounded.

The best I can come up with is that I've been wrestling around with some beastly questions, and I just didn't want to share the confusion or display my cluelessness in public. Maybe I'll get up the nerve to do more of that some day. In the meantime, here's something I've been thinking about a lot:

"[The Old Testament] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

"I still believe that all I am required to believe and do is contained in the New Testament, and that there is no command or ordinance in the Old Testament binding on a Christian, unless it is in the New Testament, any more than though it had never been commanded." --Elias Smith, The Age of Enquiry: The Christian's Pocket Companion and Daily Assistant (Portsmouth, NH, 1810), p. 23.

rehabilitate -- "to restore to good repute, reestablish the good name of"

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Does the Old Testament have the kind of reputation and regard (and use) that it should have among the Churches of Christ? Let me tell you some of my experience.

Over the past twenty years, I've been seriously asked whether the Old Testament was inspired (in spite of the fact that in 2 Timothy 3:16 the language of inspired scripture refers precisely to the Old Testament).

I've also been asked why Christians should even bother with the Old Testament. "Why do even have it in our Bibles?" a deacon of the church wanted to know.

And, I've been told that the Old Testament was nailed to the cross, something I regard as an unfortunate misunderstanding of Colossians 2:14.

Churches of Christ have a problem. Even in congregations where leaders regard the Old Testament as they should, you might guess that they don't. In the last three months, I have visited four congregations of the Church of Christ. The classes I attended were on Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews. Sound familiar? The sermon texts were all from the New as well.

We have a problem. And it will be corrected only when preachers and elders and other teachers, not only in schools, at ministers' meetings, and on blogs, but especially in churches, begin to speak and plan their ministries of the Word as though the Old Testament is not only inspired but is, therefore, "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

But what if preaching from the Old Testament doesn't turn out to reveal Christ? It's obviously not directly, immediately about Him, right?

My preacher friends, try something. And if this seems too iffy, then do it in the safety zone of Sunday night, or small groups or whatever. Preach through, say, the Book of Judges. See if it doesn't, in every lesson, have you hoping for and reaching forward to Jesus. See if you can end any of those sermons without Christ as the epilogue and exclamation point. (I know, some of you have already done something like this. I'd appreciate hearing about your experiences).

Esau sealed his fate and received an inferior blessing because he disregarded something he should have treasured. We should keep in mind that those things written aforetime were written for our learning, so that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (Romans 15:4). It's time for us to rehabilitate the Old Testament.

What do you think?